A Mother with Alzheimer's Gives Her Family a Christmas to Remember

She gave her loved ones one last glimpse of who she was. 

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Posted in , Oct 12, 2021

Estelle Grinnan, Edward Grinnans mother

No holiday mines the memory like Christmas. The holiday spirit rides on a tide of memories. Memories of faith, memories of family and, yes, memories of food. What happens, then, when a disease steals our memories? What happens to Christmas?

During the course of my mother’s Alzheimer’s, I often asked myself what becomes of us when our memories are gone. It’s as if our memories are like a mirror that reflects who we are, and slowly our image fades in that mirror until we find no one there at all. Alzheimer’s is a disease that breaks hearts as well as minds. Whether or not I am susceptible to the same disease that took my mother, I hope I never forget her last Christmas.

That year we had decided it had become too taxing on my mom to take her from her Alzheimer’s unit to Christmas dinner with us. Osteoporosis and heart problems had set in, and she was growing weaker. December 25 was very cold, the way it should be in Michigan. My brother Joe, my sister, Mary Lou, my sister-in-law Toni and I—along with my nieces Clare and Rachel, my cousin Carol, and my wife, Julee—piled into our cars and headed to Clausen Manor to see Mom. “Does she even know it’s Christmas?” I asked Julee on the way.

Clare and Rachel brought chocolates. Julee and I had a plant, which I knew Mom would water to death before the new year. Carol put an elaborate Twelve Days of Christmas pop-up book in Mom’s lap. It was this last gift that captured Mom’s attention as she sat silently in her wheelchair. We were all chatting when out of nowhere, Mom began to read aloud: “On the…first…day of…Christmas, my true love gave…to me….”

We stared in astonishment. Mom had long since lost the ability to read. Yet she forged on: “On the…second day of….” Turtledoves changed into turtle dolls, hens into hills, maids into moms. By the tenth day, Mom was clearly tiring. I started to help her with a passage when she suddenly shot me a look I hadn’t seen for some time and snapped, “Are you going to let me do it myself?”

An instant of stunned silence gave way to laughter, save for Mom, who cast us a strangely knowing look. Then she let the book close, apparently having forgotten she’d been reading it.

Did Mom know it was Christmas? For that one bright shining moment, we all knew it.

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