Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Our lives cycle through family routines. One of our routines during the festive season, is to sing before bedtime. At 7:30 every night Nonna announces to all present that she is going to bed.
“You can’t! It’s only 7:30,” he bellows at his mother pointing to the clock above her head as he tilts her by the shoulders. The whereabouts of the clock is always a mystery.
“Gawd! Only 7:30? But it’s dark!”
“Anyway, you can’t go to bed yet, we’re going to sing.”
“Sing? Can you sing?”
“Yes. We sing every night remember?”
“Wot you sing den?”
“The 12 days of Christmas.”
“It is Christmas?”
“No, not yet, not until Thursday.”
“Wot number it is today?”
“Can’t you sing anything else?”
“No. That’s the only one I know,” he lies. She chuckles as he herds her into the family room, each night, every evening. I always have the same mis-givings: do we stick to the familiar script to avoid confusion or should we freshen the communication with a new version that reflects the respect we should have for everyone? It seams clear to me that on the 19th day of December, this routine has not been adopted by anyone. It still requires Herculean effort to persuade everyone to join in.

On the 19th day of December I phone my father. My father sits in his wing backed chair by the afternoon coal fire. His elbows rest on the arms with his fingers interlocked under his chin as his eyes rest. When the telephone rings at full volume, his right hand drops to the receiver and he delivers his script. I am careful to ensure that my first words hit the mark, “Happy Birthday dad!”
“Oh it’s you dear. Thank you. Would you like to talk to your mother?” The same, always the same. I can see every nuance from a distance of over 5000 miles in a different time zone. I chat to my mother about her frustrations. All over the world people cope with what used to be merely elderly but what is now labeled Alzheimer’s. I have no answers nor guidance merely a willing ear. “Did he thank you for your present? I bet he didn’t, did he.”

My dad, the politest man to ever grace the planet, or so I liked to think. Not the politeness of etiquette, but the real politeness. The ability to put other people at their ease, the skill of noting the details with the precision of gentle appreciation.
“I’ll put him back on the line, I’ll make him thank you. It’s ridiculous that he can just get away with it!” I wince at her desperation, clinging to a man that no longer exists in the same form. I weep silent tears for my dad who doesn’t need them.

It’s a solo performance as he belts out the lyrics. I herd children and persuade people to follow my finger along the lines of words. One of my sons adds a noise to the end of each ditty, another places soft puffed icon on the accompanying banner. Someone has the habit of running off with the ‘five gold rings’ for nefarious purposes of his own.

Nonna taps her ears either to tune in to the song, or possibly to tune out. I snap the book shut with the crescendo of the finale, a visual and aural cue for them to scarper, a flock of birds in flight. Four adults sigh a deep breath. “Are you finished den?” she asks, her head tilted, expectant.
“I can go to bed now?” she asks her son, pulling her cardi in tight to her chest, an innocent? Maybe mischievous? I cannot tell. I prefer not to know.


farmwifetwo said...

We were lucky, that when my Grandmother died (diabetes, not the dementia) she still remembered the Grandchildren... until we left her sight... then she totally forgot we'd been to visit.


maryt/theteach said...

Oh Maddy, my Dad, spoke on the phone a few minutes too before handing it over to my Mom. He died early before Alzheimer's could get him. My mother on the other hand... It's very nice that you sing the 12 Days of Christmas. "...and a partridge in a pear tree." :)

Niksmom said...

The holidays are so often fraught with "significance" and the meaning of memories, the clinging to things no longer relevant (or accurate) and just plain old loaded with emotional pitfalls. (Sorry for the grotesque run-on!)

I'm sorry about your father. I watched my own dad's father in his decline from alzheimer's; it was brutal and depressing as he became disoriented and belligerant. I think I understand it so much better now, though, from dealing with Nik weh he gets confounded and unable to make himself understood.

Maybe it's time to create some new traditions with your kids?