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Christmas Comes But Once …

Christmas has come to my Mother’s residence. It doesn’t take much to evoke the beauty of the holidays here because this place is stunning all by itself. It could easily be mistaken for a Grand Hyatt or a Ritz-Carlton. Decorated as it is for the season with a designer’s eye in gold, silver, bronze and turquoise, every detail enhances the architectural style and sophisticated ambiance of this newly-opened facility. The place is gorgeous.

The opulence is a bit at odds with, if not the season, then certainly the situations of the residents, most of whom would probably much prefer to be spending Christmas in their own homes, however humble. But, as is so often the case, health and circumstances dictate and so residents find themselves on  “permanent holiday” here, with no worries, no chores — and few choices.

Traditional Christmas music is piped in throughout, subtly, but perceptibly; back in my Mother’s separate memory care wing, the big TV in the great room shows an endless stream of vintage Christmas movies: White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, Holiday Inn. Volunteers from churches and community — choral groups, pet therapies, musicians and children — come to share the yuletide spirit with the elderly and the infirmed. The activities director organizes holiday arts and crafts projects — stringing bells, making cards, fashioning paper decorations — to keep everyone busy and tuned in to the season. These activities seem juvenile to me, and calls to mind that sad canard about the elderly: “Once an adult, twice a child.”

I myself am invited do a dramatic reading of Christmas poems this week, hoping to evoke memories of old school days and Christmases past. I bring little gifts, notebooks and pens, in case anyone cares to write their own poems, or perhaps a Christmas list. (Every speaker knows that, regardless of the audience, you always bring some “take-away” to leave behind.) Choosing the poems for recitation has not been easy for me, a writer and English professor; poems by T.S. Eliot or Longfellow won’t quite do. Too academic. I researched my selections carefully, settling on mostly light verse and well-known lyrics, and have practiced my readings all week. I hope to offer a little more “adult” entertainment for those who might appreciate it.

Everyone is already gathered in the great room when I arrive and they are all wearing Santa hats, except for those who are asleep. My Mother smiles and makes a face as I point to her hat. She is weak and infirmed, and has difficulty speaking, hearing, seeing, and even eating, but she is not mentally impaired.  As always, she is proud of me and appreciates the fact that I will come here so often and try to support her in this community among her new-found friends, most of whom do not seem to have regular visitors or regular support themselves. It is an odd world, this — a world in suspension between reality and memory, or lack thereof. It is not easy to move into and out of this world. I do it every other day or so, but it takes an emotional toll.

As the week ensues, we plan for Christmas itself.  Unfortunately, I am unable to bring my Mother to my home (can’t navigate the transport, the wheelchair, the movement within my house). It makes me sad, though actually, she would probably be disappointed by the reduced decorations in my house and the absence of some of her favorites. I have cut back considerably this year, not even baking all the cookies and goodies I usually make, and certainly not buying all the gifts. There are no parties, no visitors, no reasons for a big production with just my husband, our son and me to celebrate; the requisite mood this year is quiet, the requisite need is rest. With the ready-made excuse of these last difficult months, I’ve given myself permission NOT to be Martha Stewart and, surprisingly, I have found myself to be calmer, more collected and, yes, perhaps even a bit more attuned to the true spirit of Christmas than I have been in a long while. This is a gift of welcome relief that I needed to give to myself, and it may become the gift that I “keep on giving” myself in years to come.

The only one with presents to open this year is my Mother, and we will take them out to her on Christmas Eve before we head downtown to Mass at the Cathedral and dinner on the Riverwalk, which has become our usual San Antonio tradition. I will roast a Thanksgiving turkey for  Christmas, since I wasn’t here to make it in November, and we will make the showy English trifle my Mother established as a must-have tradition years ago and take it out for her to share with everyone at lunch on Christmas Day.

I explain the plans for the week in advance, so that Mother knows what to expect and will not be disappointed. “I know,” she says. “I understand.”

And then, while looking at her little tree with all the dolls on it, she adds, “Whatever. I still love Christmas.”

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