This is what conflicted looks like.
A blotchy mess but a very real one none the less. One minute I’m fine and the next minute I look like this and I’m not fine. Holiday blues comin’ in hot this year. This conflict is only a few years old, but seems to be getting worse every year. As my mom’s journey with Alzheimer’s continues to spiral downward, my stomach, my heart, my mind…and my soul do somersaults during this time of year. Well it’s year-round really, but particularly during this time of year. Celebrating the holidays takes on a new poignancy when someone is sick. As hard as you try, it’s impossible to push away the persistent voices in your head murmuring, “This will probably be your last [insert holiday here] together in this house,” or “This could be the last [insert holiday here] where she remembers who you are,” or “Soon she’ll be gone and the last bit of glue that held your family together will be gone.”
I can’t help it.
I hate it.
And it’s particularly heart-wrenching because I LOVE the holidays! From the smell of the Christmas tress, to the lights, carols, gift wrapping presents (with BOWS!)..you name it, I used to be here for it. All of it. Hell, I used to be one of those people who turned on holiday music the moment it turned December 1. I couldn’t get enough. Growing up I had heard stories about how my dad used to hide the presents in our house and “Santa” would leave riddles for us on where to find them. An Xmas morning treasure hunt?! I mean HELLO?! As if we need another reason to prove my dad’s awesomeness. After his death, my mom felt it was important to still fill the house with cheer during the holidays so for several years after his passing we would host a Bos House Tree Trimming party with our neighbors every year. They too didn’t want us to be alone during the holidays. Our house was always so full. Constant chatter and laughter…it was everything. Almost every year my brothers and I would engage in the ultimate Xmas lights competition with our neighbors to see who could put up the most lights and decorations on the outside and inside of our houses. We always tried to take it to the next level. My favorite year was the year that not only could you see our house from space with how many lights we put up, but we also strung lights in our huge tree that used to stand in our front yard. We blew a fuse about every other day. My mom was thoroughly annoyed. We thought it was amazing (and claimed victory every year of course)!
Then there were the wacky gifts over the years: my mom always giving my brother Scotch tape (you know…the 12-pack from Costco) in his stocking so he would stop stealing all of hers! I can’t remember now why he always needed an over-abundance of tape, but she always felt it made a great stocking ‘stuffer.’ Or the year my Aunt sent my other brother a fish in a box. Yup. The Fish in a box (it’s a Dutch thing…) would go down as one of the legendary ‘WTF’ gifts in Bos family history. Or one of my own ‘WTF’ gifts to my brother: a plastic hockey stick. Did my brother play hockey? Nope. Why I would choose to get him a weapon with which he could use on me seems stupid now, but at the time I thought it was a solid choice. And always…always there were the Sees holiday candy boxes in our stockings. It was a Bos family staple. I used to go to the Sees store with my mom every year and pick them out. One for each stocking…there were stockings for my mom, my brothers, and myself of course, but then there was also one for my sister Remy, and for our dog, Phoenix, and of course the most important stocking was always present: My dad’s stocking always hung next to ours. It was the longest one. Green with a red cuff. Never far away from us.
Almost all the ornaments on our tree have a story. And I know all of them. Even if they’re not my stories. I learned them all over the years. And I’m now more grateful than ever for that because I can tell my mom what each means when we hang them up together. Each family heirloom, each childhood toy turned to ornament, each school project…all of them. With each one I tell her the story. Paint a picture in her mind and in mine…and remember a different time. A more peaceful and cheerful time. And even though sometimes she doesn’t have the memories anymore, I think it still evokes a sense of joy to hear those stories about our family.
My brothers are estranged now and at first they both kept their distance so my mom and I came up with new traditions just for us. Decorating the tree together is a big one. The rule is that the tree can go up and lights can be put on it, but no decorations are to go on the tree until I get home and my mom and I do it together. It’s our thing. I put on classic holiday music (her fav!) and we make an evening of it. We hang the ornaments on the tree, we put up the stockings and all the other Christmas tchotchkes and holiday cards throughout the house. We then sit and marvel at our work. I turn down the rest of the lights and we just watch the tree in wonder. I did that as a little girl too. I always joke that we make it look like “Santa’s village” just as it always looked every year, but the house is so quiet now. No more tree trimming parties, no more coming together as a full family (we do come together separately thankfully), and my mom…well the Alzheimer’s journey has sent her mind through a tumble dryer and it just isn’t the same anymore.
The holidays do still invoke a sense of wonder and cheer, but also bring with it the reminders that so much is different now. It hurts. Much like touching your hand to a hot pan. It kind of makes me wince almost, or like hearing a song you used to used to listen to with an ex-partner, but now you can’t because it’s tainted. That’s what it is. The holidays are now tainted.
So how do we still find joy and meaning through this cloud of grief? Well…we did it before, at least in some ways. We had many happy holidays after my dad passed. We were frail humans when he passed. Shell and shadows of who we once were. But it didn’t kill us. We felt broken, but we did not break. We still managed to fill our home with joy, which is exactly what he would have wanted. Our sadness was universal. And it is now again with my mom. We are all feeling this in one way or another. I would have preferred with grieve together, but as the Rolling Stones song says, “you can’t always get what you want.” And it goes onto to say, “but you find you get what you need.” That song was played at my dad’s memorial service. Huh…go figure. So…my plan is build up my strength, get on that plane in a few weeks, get home, and put my arms around my mom as I’ve done almost every year since I left home when I was 18. And continue to carry out the traditions, new and old, that we’ve created together. But above all – I vow to make her smile. This is of the utmost importance to me. I will help her to find some sliver of joy in this holiday fog.
But I want to also give myself the permission to look like a blotchy mess: to cry, to grieve, to turn off holiday music if I have to, to not be jolly ALL the time, and not beat myself up for it. The loss is great. Massive. Maybe that’s difficult to comprehend. I get that. It’s not something I can put into words. A dull ache maybe? Only right now, it’s not so dull. I feel it all over me.
I am continually reminding myself that even if she doesn’t remember who I am, that her heart will always know me. The eyes and the mind may play its tricks, but the heart will always know. I came from her and that means I can’t be erased. That will never change whether she remembers it or not. Maybe her heart won’t always know me as her daughter, but she will always love me in one capacity or another.
“You have lost so much but your heart is still so full. Infinite and endless.”
Originally published at thelonghelloblog.wordpress.com