There’s one Thanksgiving that is forever etched in my mind for all the wrong reasons. Although it occurred eight years ago, in many ways, it feels like yesterday. When I think of the November holiday that I once looked so forward to, the first image that comes to mind is from 2010.
As I thought about writing this post and what tips I might offer to help you make the most of your holiday, I found myself overwhelmed. It took several days of contemplation for me to come to the realization that it really all boils down to one simple – yet extremely difficult – concept.
Weeks before that fateful Thanksgiving in 2010, I had unwittingly crafted an idyllic vision of how it would go. This wasn’t deliberate, but my subconscious went to work on how the day would unfold, what the preparation would look like, how the meal would come together, and most importantly, how my mom would be that day – her mood, frame of mind, level of agitation, ability and desire to participate, and all the other things that go along with Alzheimer’s.
Of course, at some point, my subconscious went off the rails – thus the dreaded idyllic vision. I’m sure memories of beautiful holidays complete with cherished traditions, found their way into the mix. Without even realizing it, I had set myself up for disappointment, profound sadness, anger, grief, and a dozen other emotions. Naturally, there was no way this Thanksgiving could be compared to or measured against those blissful memories.
In this particular case, our reality bore no resemblance to idyllic. Mom was having a bad day. A very bad day.
That evening, I, along with Mom’s two caregivers and my daughter sat down to Thanksgiving dinner. By then, the food was cold, and my stomach was in a million knots. My dear mother was pacing and screaming as she had been all day. She was utterly inconsolable. Severe aphasia had long ago robbed her of the ability to communicate verbally, leaving her unable to express what was bothering her – or anything else, for that matter.
To Mom, that Thursday was just another day. It wasn’t her fault; it wasn’t anyone’s fault. It was this damn disease, all part of the unexpected hand we’d been dealt. Simply put, the picture-perfect holiday I had envisioned dissolved into a pool of tears and when it was over, I swore off all future Thanksgivings.
I could close by listing my top 10 tips for a successful holiday celebration, but instead, I’ll gently remind you to be careful of your expectations. Keep them reasonable. Check yourself along the way and make sure your subconscious isn’t taking over and creating an expectation that the day can’t possibly meet.
Rather than working to create a holiday just like those of years gone by, focus on the current reality. Remember that too many people, a lot of noise and commotion, and sudden changes to routines can really throw your loved one for a loop. Plan accordingly. Spending quality time together and making cherished memories – when it’s all said and done, those things are much more important than setting an impeccable table or serving a perfectly plump juicy bird at 4pm sharp. Flexibility is your friend and goes hand in hand with maintaining reasonable expectations.
It sounds cliché, but the past is in the past, and today is all we have. Try to go with the flow, relax, and create moments of joy wherever you can. Treasure the simple things – an unexpected smile, warm hug, or the expression on his face when he tastes a favorite dish that just might trigger a moment of clarity.
Here’s wishing you a blessed Thanksgiving with the people who mean the most to you. And, don’t forget to be gentle with yourself…
Five years ago, today, my mom became whole again. She found peace after a long, valiant battle against Alzheimer’s. She gained her angel wings. December 15, 2012.
I try to take this day off every year. I prefer to spend it quietly, alone or with my daughter, allowing my mind to go where it will. If tears come, let them come; I really don’t want to be distracted by the minutia of the outside world, nor do I want to hide my emotions whatever they may be.
I started the day with a cup of hot coffee enhanced with a generous pour of Bailey’s – one of my mom’s favorite things! I planned to spend the day baking as I often have on this day over the past five years. Some of my best, happiest (and earliest) memories are of December days spent baking Christmas cookies.
Mom loved to bake and when I was a child, the variety of beautiful cookies on her holiday trays was something to behold. Her cookies were part of the magic of Christmas. My love of baking is no doubt a result of those fond memories and of course, her influence. For years I’ve enjoyed recreating many of the recipes that have been handed down for generations, as well as adding some new ones.
I didn’t rush today. I didn’t get as much done as I had planned, but I really enjoyed the day. I listened to Christmas music, wrapped some presents, had lunch with Jess (sharing some laughs as we always do), and spent a good bit of time simply sitting with my thoughts. I cried and I smiled, thinking of years gone by, and tonight, I poured a glass of wine in her memory.
Another year has passed, and this year, I lost my dad as well. This will be my sixth Christmas without Mom and first without Dad. I’m sad, but there are also moments of peace in knowing they are with their beloved parents and others who have gone before them – the ones they loved so much. Most importantly, they are free of pain. And today, I felt both of them with me…