Not So Happy Holidays

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

Unless someone in your family is living with dementia, in which case, can I pour you a drink?

Or perhaps chocolate is your drug of choice. Then let’s belly up to the chocolate bar and drown our sorrows in cocoa and whipped cream. Either way, we need to admit that this is hard.

I’ve been absent from this blog for a while, partly from an abundance of wonderful creative work, and partly from uncertainty about what to share. Mom’s dementia is advancing, and I don’t know which stories to tell, especially at Christmas.

I can write about the things that are working, which is basically a form of cheerleading combined with self-congratulation: “Look! There are things you can do with your loved ones to keep them happy! It’s not so bad after all! You don’t have to despair! See, I’m not despairing!! Aren’t I wonderful?!”

Or I can acknowledge the grief, the dull persistent ache, of realizing that she’s getting more confused, that the disease is gradually taking her in the same direction it took my grandmother — to a place of paranoia and isolation. That route saddens me so much that I quietly avoid it. I work around it. I find ways to redirect her attention to things that make us both happy: songs, games, friends, church, simple sewing projects, nature. And I ask myself, am I really handling her dementia well, or just pretending it isn’t there?

As always, I suppose the truth is somewhere in the middle. It’s true that this is the hardest time of year for her, and by extension, for me. She genuinely believes that her gifts have been stolen. She needs to be reassured, over and over, that they’re all at my house, safely wrapped and ready for Christmas day. (Leaving them at her place just confuses her.) Next week she’ll say that all the gifts she received have been stolen, and take bitter, self-righteous comfort in the belief that at least, like a good little girl, she wrote her thank-you notes.

That’s how it goes, every year now. I hate it.

Yet somehow this year, I’m doing okay. I’ve learned not to draw too much attention to Christmas. We don’t decorate her apartment anymore, because the ornaments trigger her paranoia. We do a little shopping with her and take care of the rest on our own. We visit thrift stores all year round; her favorite thing to do is to buy me “something pretty,” and she never remembers what we’ve bought. This means I can pull out a sweater she bought me weeks ago, and put it under the tree as her gift to me. She won’t know the difference. That’s sad, but somehow freeing. One more step on the path to letting go.

And it’s true that, in this season of high expectations, this season of “Joy to the World,” I sometimes lose sight of the beauty in my little corner. But it’s there.

Last Sunday we took Mom out to lunch after church. She tasted her vegetables and immediately reached for the salt shaker. She took a few bites, reached for the shaker, and salted again. And again. And again. It’s a dementia thing; her sense of taste is changing. The fourth or fifth time, I gently but firmly urged Mom not to salt her food. I told her I was sorry to be bossy, but she’d already done it twice (no need to mention the other three times), and we needed to watch her sodium.

I noticed a woman at the next table looking at me with a concerned expression. I wondered if she thought I was being cruel; why shouldn’t my mother salt her food as much as she wanted? I wondered if I was being judged.

As we were leaving the restaurant, the woman caught my eye and whispered, “Bless you.” I stopped to make sure I’d heard her right.

“Excuse me?”

“Bless you,” she said. “I’ve been there.”

And there it was. The beauty. The sense of connection. The surprising knowledge that even when I feel most alone, a stranger understands.

I’d like to wish you a Merry Christmas or a Happy Holiday, a joyous celebration of whatever brings your family around the table this time of year. But I am letting go of the need, and the obligation, to be merry and happy all the time. Instead, I’ll just offer the secular salutation of my 1960’s childhood:

Greetings of the Season. Season’s Greetings.

In this season of beauty and loss, joy and heartache, I greet you, as the woman in the restaurant greeted me. “Bless you. I’ve been there.”

You are not alone.

img_0765-copy

Baggage

I have such a good relationship with Mom right now, I have to remind myself that as close as we’ve always been, we have had our share of issues.

A good relationship?  In the midst of dementia?  Well, in an odd way, yes.

Dealing with her dementia isn’t always easy or pleasant, but it has forced me to let go of a lot of baggage, and that’s good for both of us.

I’m talking about emotional baggage — the issues that inevitably crop up between parents and children, married couples, siblings. Issues like unrealistic expectations, or personality conflicts, or bad parenting, or (in my case) an almost too-perfect parent who never intended to make me feel inadequate, but who was, by her very nature, so good at everything that I sometimes felt I’d never measure up.  Poor Mom couldn’t say anything about my housekeeping or my parenting without pushing my buttons:  What did she mean by that?  Was it a veiled criticism?  Why do I care??

Very few of us get through mid-life without some baggage, so if you’re like me, when a family member shows signs of dementia you are already carrying some weight. You get on the dementia train hauling trunks and suitcases of tired old resentments, fully expecting to use them all.  Who knows when you might need to reach in and pull out a pet argument or a sensitive point?

But eventually, dementia renders all of that baggage useless.  Sure, the person with dementia may argue, but she can’t engage in the subtle tug-of-war you packed in your train case. She can’t play your little power games, at least not verbally. She can’t remember what you said five minutes ago.  She can’t even remember what she said five minutes ago.

Cognitively, she is traveling light.

At first this is infuriating.  Just when you’re old and wise enough to prove to your parents that you know exactly what you’re doing, they can’t hold onto a thought.  I remember realizing that I finally had my house the way I wanted it, the way I knew my mother would love to see it, and she had stopped caring.  Her need to feel that she had succeeded in teaching me the domestic arts was completely overrun by her need to feel safe and loved.

This is when, paradoxically, dementia becomes a gift.  After a struggle — I won’t lie, this takes time — you begin to see that all the baggage you’ve been lugging around at great expense has stopped serving you.  It’s just a burden now:  your pride, your need for approval, your righteous indignation; all are worthless in the face of pure, vulnerable human need.  You begin to unpack, to shed, to leave things behind in baggage claim. You settle in with your traveling companion. For the first time on your dementia journey, you notice the scenery, and to your surprise, some of it is lovely.

I was visiting a friend in the mountains last summer, and she told me about her father’s last years.  “I was not close to my dad,” she said, “and I had a lot of anger.  It was hard to be around him sometimes.  But once he was really deep in the dementia, I let go of all that.  He was so obviously in a different place, and there was no point in digging up the old arguments.  I just let him be who he was.”

She just let him be who he was.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could do that for everyone with dementia?  For everyone, period?

Sometimes I think Mom’s dementia is my teacher, helping me learn to be present, to let go of expectations, to release.  By practicing with her, maybe I can learn to travel more lightly with all my fellow humans.

I hope so.  Baggage is heavy.

IMG_0851