Christmas was always my mother’s favorite time of year. Every December she and my father would cover every pine tree on our farm with lights and every crack and crevice of their tiny farmhouse was filled with some kind of motorized holiday ornament.
All the effort was in preparation for the annual family Christmas party, the purpose of which was to collect food and gifts for some family who was less fortunate. But over the last several years, our family holidays have served as reminders of how fragile life can be.
In 2005, mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, a relentless shredding of the brain’s synapses that strips the connections between memory and cognition and, eventually, between the brain and the body’s vital functions. It’s a slow, torturous and merciless disease that rips someone away from you a little at a time.
The onset of the mind-scrambling disease was relatively swift, as if the cerebral functions in her head were an elaborate Etch-A-Sketch drawing and someone just came along and shook it for no good reason.
In addition to the stereotypical lapses in memory, one of the symptoms of the dementia was an uninterruptable compulsion to walk. Constantly she circled in and out of their small farm house and up and down the long driveway – for hours on end. Since my father was alone with her most of the time, we eventually even put warning bells on all of the doors so we could tell if her confusion sent her wandering outside unnoticed.
It was during one of these marathon-like walking sessions that mom took a bad step on the basement stairway and broke her hip. Fractured in four places, the injury required extensive surgery and what we were told would be a difficult rehabilitation.
Over the last few years, as the dementia worsened, my mother became unable to follow simple instructions or even understand the purpose or application of common objects. The deterioration of her cognitive ability served to seriously inhibit the next stage of her recovery.
Following surgery, she was sent to a nursing home for physical therapy – an activity that can often greatly depend on the motivation and reasoning skills of the patient. The hope was that we would at least get her to stand and support her weight so she could move from bed to wheelchair without too much trouble. Anything else would simply be a bonus.
As her reasoning skills and sense of time abandoned her, her language skills also deteriorated, making her unable to speak in complete thoughts. Because of her inability to understand what the therapists wanted her to do, she recovered only limited mobility.
After three months in the nursing facility and multiple bouts with infection, we decided to care for her at home. Within a couple of days, we had my father’s living room transformed into a homey version of a hospital facility, complete with a hospital bed and built-in oxygen supply.
We have cared for her ourselves now for over a year, most recently with the help of in-home hospice services. At 77, she still doesn’t speak much and must be hand fed, bathed and changed, just as if she were a small child. It can be difficult at times, particularly on my father. But everyone in my family does whatever they can to help keep her as healthy and comfortable as possible – and she will still have her party this year, as usual.
As mom’s disease progresses, though, and I see others around me going through similar situations, Christmas holds a different meaning for me now than it did before my mother fell ill. For me it is a time now for appreciation for what we have in life.
Life really does pass by in an instant. It seemed to me like one minute mom was feeding me, the next I was feeding her. It was a hard lesson to learn, and one I wish I had learned earlier.
So, this holiday season I urge everyone to take the time to appreciate those you care about before it is too late. Take it from me; it only takes an instant for everything to change. Have a happy and safe holiday season.
Gery L. Deer is an independent writer based in Jamestown . Read more at www.gerydeer.com