Over the holidays, three of my brothers and their families and I celebrated Christmas Day together. We spent the afternoon at the nursing care facility where my dad, 87 years young, is in memory care, and my mom, who would be horrified if I shared her age publicly, lives in an assisted living apartment. Weeks beforehand my siblings and I had agreed to forgo giving each other Christmas presents. What we really wanted was each other’s presence. The past year had been difficult on our entire family. My dad’s dementia had worsened dramatically after a severe blood infection required surgery. He then had to be moved into a separate unit from my mom. After 65 years of marriage, this was extremely sad for them and us. Six months later, we were told Dad needed a higher level of care, and he was moved into another facility that had all the components of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Thankfully, this lasted for only a month until we were able to find their present residence in a nearby city. Since then my parents have been well cared for in a facility that has allowed them to see each other at least once every day. My brothers and I live near enough to make frequent visits.
On this Christmas Day, we enjoyed each other’s cooking, caught up on our daily lives and laughed at each other’s jokes. Mom, wearing her mink stole and Santa hat, retold the story from our childhood about my brother Mike getting stuck in a muddy field until he was rescued by a policeman who returned him home wearing only one boot. There were poignant moments: my brother Terry feeding Dad his lunch; posing for photos with Mom and Dad; singing a carol and hearing Dad harmonize with the music; reading out loud the verses from the Advent calendar; and my parents sitting side by side in their wheelchairs holding each other’s hand. Every so often Mom would say to Dad, “I love you, Tim.” He would raise his head slightly and respond, “I love you, Peggy.”
The unspoken reality of that day is that my dad’s dementia will continue to worsen. As the days go by, he will speak fewer and fewer words. He will open his eyes less and less to see his children and his wife. He may eventually forget who we are. And one day he will stop harmonizing with the music. This is the reality of his illness. This is the reality of life. But the ultimate reality is this:
The greatest gift we can give one another is simply our presence.