Ghosts of Christmases Past
Having a parent with Alzheimers is dispiriting for children -- no matter what their age. My Dad has been gone for several years now, but I find solace in remembering the decades before his Alzheimers, rather than the few years he suffered with it.
Every child of a parent with Alzheimers worries that one day their parent will forget them. I felt this way, but I was reassured, because although Dad couldn't remember my name, or that I was his daughter, he seemed to sense that I was someone important to him.
It was funny...sometimes he'd ask me my name and I'd say: "It's me Dad, Linnie!" and he'd usually reply... "I have a daughter named Linnie."
Alzheimers is a cruel disease, and my heart goes out to all affected by it. It is expected to increase greatly the next decade as the boomers age.
I would advise anyone who is going through it with a loved one to get help through a support group, or by talking to others with similar challenges.
How much of my Dad was left after the disease completely ravaged his body? ALL OF HIM...we are more than our thoughts and our memories. We are the essence of the love we have given others.
As my Dad neared death, he kept trying to get up from the hospital bed. "I've got to get to work," he'd say. "I've got a family to take care of!"
I tried to reassure him...by this point he was referring to me as "that woman" but in an endearing way. If I would disappear from his sight he would say, "Where is she?" "Where is that woman?"
I would soothe him and remind him that he did take care of us. I would say, "You did well by us, Dad." And, I meant it. This man had married my mom when I was nine-years-old and accepted me as his child from day-one.
I wrote the following article about him and Alzheimers in 2003. Dad passed in 2005.
Ghosts of Christmases Past
"So Dad, did you boil the chicken first, or bake it with the pasta?"
I am trying to pick my Dad's brain for his infamous Chicken-Spaghetti recipe.
"Did you use tomato sauce, tomato paste, or both, Dad?"
He just smiles at me. He doesn't remember the recipe. He probably doesn't remember me.
Dad was a great cook and Chicken-Spaghetti was his signature dish. Unfortunately, I never took the time to ask him for the recipe and now it may be too late. Dad is in the latter stages of Alzheimers and doesn't remember much. But, I remember and I'm haunted by memories of years gone by. Especially during the Christmas season.
I look back on happy memories of family, friendships, and good times. It is a bittersweet journey because so much has changed over the years.
In some cases, all I'm left with are remembrances of people who were once a part of my life -- like my Aunt Rosa and her husband Will. As we got older, my brother and I started to resent our annual family Thanksgiving trek to their home in Oxnard. When I started UCLA, I stopped going altogether. There were too many more 'important' things to do like parties, football games, and hanging out with friends.
At the time, I did not know that my aunt and uncle would not reach old age, and that today I'd give my right arm for just one more holiday dinner with them.
We think things will stay the same, but they don't. All we can do is enjoy the time that we have and try to keep alive our family traditions. So, during the holidays I serve dinner on Aunt Rosa's good china, just like she used to do. I use her husband's carving knife on the turkey. And, I may not have Dad's exact Chicken-Spaghetti recipe, but I do have his Nat King Cole Christmas album, and his well worn recording of "Merry Christmas Baby." (Yes, I have to wipe the dust off of the turntable and reconnect it every year.)
When I play them I don't even mind the scratches on the records. They remind me of the record players of my youth, when we'd pile on a stack of 45's to listen to while wrapping presents or decorating the tree.
Looking back, I now realize that the adults of my childhood faced a lot of the same issues at Christmastime that we face today - loss, grief, disappointment, stress, financial difficulties, health problems, you name it. However, no matter what was going on, they all came together to celebrate Christmas. It was the time of year when problems were put aside and everyone focused on remembrances of better days and hope for the future.
Every year, I try to continue my family's legacy of gathering together for good food, good music, and a true celebration of the season. It's not always easy. Christmas today can be overwhelming at times. Still, I celebrate the traditions of the holidays with my own family to honor all the people of my past who gave their all to give me a merry Christmas. I celebrate a little extra for those who aren't with me anymore. I say 'Merry Christmas' to everyone who crosses my path, and I mean it!
And maybe, just maybe, if I think back to my times in the kitchen with Dad, I might remember the way he used to do things and the spices and ingredients he liked to use. Who knows? I might be able to make a decent Chicken-Spaghetti myself!
I don't bother Dad about the recipe anymore. I'm just glad he's still here with me.
"Dad, we sure used to have some good times, didn't we?" I remind him.
He looks at me and I see a flicker of recognition. "Yes we did," he says. "Yes we did."