Tis The Season: A Daughter’s Journal

by Beth Whitman

So much can happen in a year. The pace of Mom’s decline with Alzheimer’s has been striking when I look back to last Christmas. Last Christmas, Mom put on her signature London Fog coat and walked to the front door, heading to church even though it wasn’t Sunday. So we went for a drive past the church instead and looked up at the steeple.

Last Christmas, Mom was walking, even though, when we went to church, she sat in the wheelchair because it was that much easier to leave when the crowds suddenly became too much for her.

Last Christmas, Mom sang all the verses of the old familiar Christmas carols with her beautiful soprano voice, even though it was only in song that she could say more than a very simple sentence.

Last Christmas, Mom was laughing and smiling and offering food, always offering food, to anyone around her.

And although the past year seemed slow, it was also very fast. And every couple of weeks I would notice some new subtle shift in Mom’s behavior. The first time she used her cane upside down. The first time she was entranced by the red lights across the field outside her window, without recognizing them as the taillights of passing cars. The first time she carefully ripped a page out of her favorite book.

And then there were the lasts. The last time she was able to use a knife to cut up the vegetables in the kitchen as my sous-chef. (After that, when she wandered into the kitchen and wanted to help, I would give her a loaf of bread to tear apart into little pieces and put in a bowl.) The last time she washed the dishes, and washed the same dish over and over again, so that it took forever to finish. The last time she actually did go to church. Though after that, she would often ask when church was, and she would put her coat on, but then collapse in the chair by the door, exhausted by the effort.

“I can’t,” she would say, “I can’t.”

The last time she combed and put up her hair.

The last time she picked up a pen and tried to write her own name.

Each of these moments, a little marker.

And now, this Christmas in the nursing home, I wheel her over to the piano, and with such focus she presses the keys, and the hammer hits, and a note rings out, and then another one, and another. Christmas music plays in the background and somewhere in her brain a note of recognition is struck and she starts to sing. One word, not more than one word, but she is humming the tune.

And then, as always, a kiss.


Beth Whitman lives in Maine and is a member of Belfast Cohousing and Ecovillage, a developing community on the coast of Maine focused on multigenerational living and sustainability.


10 Responses to “Tis The Season: A Daughter’s Journal”

  1. Gregory Blanton says:

    This brings tears to my eyes! Tears of love, hope, fear, compassion and happiness. My mother also suffers from Alzheimer and this past year has brought on many changes. She has become so less functional and you can see it tearing her apart piece by piece. There are only a few things that still bring back that beautiful smile. i will try to get her to help put up Christmas things this week and hope for the best SMILE I have seen in some time.

  2. Julie B says:

    So very dear, Beth. So very dear. Love to you all.

  3. Coleen O'Connell says:

    It is like we mark the baby’s first year… the first time she smiled, the first time she rolled over. Now you are marking the end of life Beth. No less important and you do it with such love and grace. No shame, no repungence, just carefully taking stock of her decline and marking it in your blog. Sadness for sure but such acceptance as well. Thank you for sharing your journey. You give us all a huge and wonderful gift.

  4. There really are a lot of subtle things they stop doing, and each one still surprises me. Sometimes she is able to remember what she’s forgotten, or do something she couldn’t do a few days or weeks ago. It’s a job to manage the ins and outs of what she can do, let alone remain patient with the endless repetitions. These loops of memory makes me realize what is really important, and whether being aggravated is the worst thing in the world that it sometimes seems like it is! I am an only child too, and not married so I am doing this alone. I left my job a year ago to care for her, after she lived with me for a year and could manage the alone time less and less. We’re on year three now. cShe is starting to forget names of my animals but whatever she calls them, they are good for her. I really have to watch her because she likes to feed them treats and can’t remember that she’s already fed them. Keeping their weight under control is a job, too. LIke you, I am writing a book about my experiences with her. I can really appreciate what you are going through.