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.