Who Needs the Grinch? Alzheimer's Stole My Christmas!

You can create new traditions when old ones get damaged.

Posted Dec 12, 2018

Carrie Knowles
It's not always healthy to hold onto holiday traditions.
Source: Carrie Knowles

It didn’t start in 1985, but that was the Christmas that made us stop and acknowledge that our mother’s memory loss, her changed personality and her growing irrational behavior were too pronounced for us to continue to pretend that she was just having another bad day.
She was confused. Wasn’t sure who was showing up for dinner or exactly why we were all there. Then, after we opened presents and made dinner, she pushed her artificial tree into the corner of the basement and covered it with a sheet. When I offered to help her take off the ornaments and put everything away, she said she was too tired to deal with it. When I pushed, she got annoyed and told me that she never took down the tree, but instead, just kept it covered and stored in the corner for the next year.
It was a strange wake-up call. The tree and all its trappings were a special ritual in our family. When we were children, putting up the tree meant drinking eggnog that we stirred with peppermint sticks while we strung lights and delighted with each unwrapped bauble we were allowed to hang on the tree: plastic ones when we were little, the delicate blown glass ones as we grew and could reach the higher branches. Our mother, of course, always settled the angel in place at the top of the tree.
Like a wrecking ball, Alzheimer’s swung high and mighty through the next fifteen years of Christmas, and we continued, year after year, to visit her and do our best to connect and create a celebration.
One year, as we were preparing to book plane tickets, our children staged a small revolt. They didn’t want to fly. As our oldest protested and the two others backed him: “It’s too hard to go so fast from here to there.”

I understood: they loved her, but found it jolting to go from their lives to hers in one swift hop.
That’s when we started taking the 11-hour train ride from Raleigh to the Alzheimer’s wing at the Chelsea Methodist Home in Michigan. It was the best way to comfortably travel from here to there, sitting in the observation car watching the holiday lights pass by as the train wound its way through small towns and backyards to Christmas.

Five years later, when we moved Mom into the Alzheimer’s wing, my sister and I took down her Christmas tree, dividing the ornaments into various boxes to share with our two brothers. My box is in our storage room. And although I continue to love buying gifts and making a special dinner for friends and family, I long ago quit putting up a tree because as Alzheimer’s took over and our mother declined, Christmas, and all its glitter, got sideswiped.

Which brings me to a very satisfying moment when I decided to go for it and burn down Christmas.
A couple of years ago, my husband, who loves a party, offered our home for our condominium’s holiday open house. While he merrily baked goodies, I went to a second hand store looking for someone else’s Christmas memories to adorn our home. That’s when I found an entire village of fancy candles: churches, schools, snow covered shops, pine trees, a Santa Claus and a snowman. All too precious and pretty to burn.

I bought all of them, put aluminum foil over our buffet, sprayed it with fake snow and planted my village. I even assembled a Lego fire truck complete with fireman and set him up by one of the houses.
When the first guest came through the door, I poured myself a glass of wine and lit the candles one by one.

It was a cathartic moment. Our guests loved it!
At the end of the evening when the candles burned out, I let go of all those dark Christmases and made a promise to go forward building new memories for myself and my family, ones that will last, I hope, beyond my lifetime.