(First published in the December 21 issue of The Oxford Journal)
My father loved Rita MacNeil so when I found out the date for her annual televised Christmas special, I made plans to watch it with him. When I arrived just before 8 o’clock, he wasn’t alone; the 21 other residents of the secure unit of the nursing home were sitting with him, in their pajamas, in the main TV room.
“It seemed like a good idea to have them all here together,” a personal support worker explained. “We can give them their meds and their snacks while they watch the show.”
As I sat on a vinyl love-seat next to my father and looked around, I thought, ‘These are my people now.’ And it was with those people, 22 of them in various stages of Alzheimer’s, with whom I’d spend Christmas 2005. My mother was spending two weeks with her grandchildren, a much-needed respite after months of struggling with the decision to move Dad into the nursing home.
It was the first time in my life that I had been alone on Christmas Day. Until then, I’d always thought it was horrible and sad to be alone at Christmas but I got up in the morning and took my dog for a walk as usual, ate breakfast then opened a few gifts from my mother. Shortly before noon, I headed up to the nursing home where the staff had set up a special table for my father and me in the lounge at which to eat Christmas dinner; it appeared I was the only family member visiting with someone in the unit. Dad couldn’t open his three wrapped gifts and he didn’t seem to understand what day it was. After only a couple of weeks in the nursing home, his rapid decline was heartbreakingly obvious.
After spending the afternoon with him, and the rest of my people, I headed to the home of good friends who had invited me to become part of their family for that evening. They’d even filled a stocking for me. An unforgettable kindness.
I also won’t forget the lesson of that Christmas: Life doesn’t stop for the holidays. Illness, disease, even death, do not take a break because it is Christmas. Surgeries will continue, diagnoses will be made, bad news will be delivered. Families will split up, family members will be missing, family members still will not be speaking. All around us, people are hurting, people are hoping, people are yearning. Christmas, as with life, isn’t always happy or anticipated.
When you’re cutting up your father’s mass-produced turkey and feeding it to him, the true meaning of Christmas becomes clear. So, too, the reason we can still celebrate it despite worries and sorrow. So if this is the year when your Christmas isn’t going to be merry and bright, may I wish you instead peace of mind, hope in your heart, and the joy of good memories, past and future.
-- by Sara Mattinson
-- by Sara Mattinson