Christmas with(out) the Family
For a long as I can remember, Christmas Eve has always been “the” night to celebrate with family. Oh, sure, Christmas Day was always pretty terrific, especially when I was a child, but Christmas Eve was magical.
When I was young, we spent Christmas Eve at my maternal grandma’s house with my aunts. Cousins were added to the mix when my favorite aunt got married, and that just made things better.
We created so many terrific memories during those decades of laughter, gifts, and hilarious mishaps. When I married, I was thrilled to learn that my new in-laws also celebrated Christmas Eve as their “big” day together so that on Christmas Day, each family could sleep late and stay in their pjs with no other obligations.
Growing up doesn’t mean losing the magic
Far from losing its Christmas Eve magic as I got older, the night grew into something we all looked forward to as one of the favorite family get-togethers of the year. We had a blast with the adults, the kids had a great time with their cousins, and there was always good food, lots of laughter, and game playing late into the night.
Each year produced a fresh batch of inside jokes, nicknames (have you ever wondered what your fat gangster name would be? I know mine), and stories we’d tell again from year to year.
Everything changes when Alzheimer’s joins the family
The last few years have shown a little strain, however, as we’ve all dealt with my father-in-law and his progression through Alzheimer’s. As everyone has grown into adulthood (the youngest grandchild started college this fall) and with the two great-grandchildren small enough that they can be put to bed anywhere, Christmas Eve with the family had just hit its stride, with only one hitch.
My father-in-law no longer knows any of us, and he certainly doesn’t want all these strangers in his house.
Last year, Pop made it clear, nice and early in the evening, that he was ready for everyone to clear out. Now. Half the family hadn’t even arrived yet, and since the evening has always been about seeing family we don’t get to see very often, nobody leaves early.
In this particular case, we were all waiting for one cousin to arrive from out of town, and we knew she wouldn’t get in until around 9 p.m. Quite the balancing act for the rest of us, who’d been there for hours already when Pop pretty much told everyone to go home before 6:00.
My mother-in-law, who needs this family connection now more than ever, of course encouraged everyone to stick around, and at one point, my father-in-law angrily went to bed and then came back downstairs about an hour later, surprised that there were people in the house and in a much more tolerant frame of mind. My husband observed that he probably thought he was at a completely new event, perhaps with no recollection of the one he’d left.
The night was still fun, but with a sad veil over it as the grandkids tried to enjoy what was far from normal, with the realization that it may be the last of the Best Christmas Eve Ever™ get-togethers, and maybe the last one with Pop.
The caregiver has it worst
This year has been a rough one for everyone, but especially for my mother-in-law. Pop’s condition has declined to the point where he almost never speaks in real words, or in words that can be understood. His anger is instant, and he rarely has moments of clarity anymore.
My mother-in-law has suffered frequent and recurrent health issues due to stress, and was hospitalized for two days last month while the doctors ran a handful of tests to make sure she wasn’t having a cardiac event . . . only to conclude that all her symptoms were stress and nothing more physical.
Her hospital stay led to turning in the paperwork to place Pop in a care facility, finally taking the next step on something that had actually been decided a full year ago before she felt guilty enough to back out. Of course, COVID cases are on the rise right now in my area, and the facility isn’t accepting anyone at the moment. And when they do, Pop will be seventh in line on the waiting list.
Even so, it’s a step in the right direction. A hard one, but a right one.
2020 has not been the year for maintaining the status quo
This past week, the governor in my state shut everything down for the next three weeks in an effort to slow the spread of the COVID virus. One of the measures taken is to limit gatherings of more than ten people. Of course, this affects several families during a season when we’re accustomed to spending extended time together. Whether anyone agrees with these severe measures or not, the fact remains that Christmas, for many, will not be what it has been in previous years.
For our family, it may mean that our last Christmas Eve with Pop has already happened, and we won’t get a “final” holiday with him. The best of his years have passed, and though we’ve adapted to his decline, I think we all still expected to have one final year with him at home for the Christmas holiday, even if we had to stagger our visits so as not to overwhelm him.
Loss is loss, whether I whine about it or face it
I want to whine and throw a tantrum, even while recognizing the need for us to exercise caution right now. None of us wants to put Mom and Pop, now 87 and 89, at risk for the sake of tradition. But recognizing the sense of it doesn’t erase the feeling of loss.
It’s always hard to experience a loss, but when that loss is due to a degenerative disease like Alzheimer’s, it feels more like a theft than a natural loss. The disease has taken Pop from us. And now another disease has taken our final holiday with him.
I have to keep reminding myself that we’re blessed in many ways. We’ve not lost any family members to COVID, and we’ve managed to take the proper precautions consistently enough that none of our immediate family has gotten sick. In fact, our grown children have been extra considerate in this regard because my husband is at higher risk than the rest of us.
Focus on the positive
As this Christmas approaches, I grieve the present while celebrating the future. This year is hard. But it’s a blip on the radar. Even as I grieve 2020’s change in traditions, I look forward to starting new ones and looking back on this as one of those “Remember the year we . . .?” stories to be told on a different Christmas Eve, years from now.
Alzheimer’s Disease from a Caregiver’s Perspective
The next step is here and we’re not ready