Cleaning Up Christmas

There is something about dismantling the Christmas tree, no matter when it happens — something that makes me feel simultaneously nostalgic and impatient. The pre-Christmas process of choosing, setting up and then decorating the tree is communal in our family. One of the great pleasures is hearing the kids recognize various ornaments as long-lost friends as they shake off the tissue paper and then choose the perfect place to hang each one.

But taking the ornaments off the tree is almost always my job as The Mother, and it’s the decoration process in reverse: as each ornament is wrapped up again, instead of that little throb of joyful recognition it’s something more wistful. It makes me deeply aware of time passing and my children growing up, and of all the changes coming our way now that even the youngest is about to head off to college. The impatience is there in the wake of it, a kind of stiff-upper-lip salvation that says, Okay then, since we’re done with this Christmas and all the sweet reconnections it’s brought us, let’s just get on with it! Pack it up already and let’s usher in January! For God’s sake, where’s the new calendar?

I’m not sure how Christmas clean-up ended up as my job, but I suspect it’s out of the same semi-masochistic tendencies that drive other mildly neurotic mothering habits that lead us to take on the hidden, rather onerous tasks that make a house a home (such as changing sheets or cleaning out the nasty detritus in the kitchen drain). No one likes to pack up Christmas. And every mother wants to make the holiday as pure and lovely as possible for her kids. So we gladly engage them in the anticipatory fun of preparation and the sated relaxation of the holiday… and then the Christmas tree and whatever other decorations announce the season become a bit invisible. No one is much motivated to turn on the tree lights on December 26th, and though everyone does a part of the post-presents clean-up, the scene itself just kind of fades into the background, though all the trappings are still there. 

And then here it is January and a new year already. We help our kids get ready to plunge back into school, or we pack up a box of lovely new stuff there isn’t room for in the suitcase and ship it out to them in Chicago or wherever it is they’ve landed for this phase of their lives. And after they’re out of sight we finally set to work to pack it all away for another year, like the stage hands who take down the elaborate set after the show is over, sparing the audience.

I don’t really mind. Every once in a while I do feel like announcing, in a slightly passive-aggressive way: Hey folks! This stuff doesn’t happen by itself! And then I remember all the years of my own growing up, how after Christmas there would be a day when I’d come home from school and suddenly realize that everything was back to normal — just a winter day, post-Christmas. My mother never announced that she had put away the decorations and gotten the tree out of the house. But I’m pretty sure she never had any elves helping out.


Once and For All

As I mentioned in my last post, my father-in-law died last month. This is an essay I wrote about him more than two years ago, as part of my coping with his Lewy Body Dementia.

My father-in-law, Dan Nyhart, is a man of bright wit and tender heart. He is only seventy-five years old, but for five years he has been fading away from us into dementia. It’s like watching someone we love sailing off in a little boat on a very still lake, slowly gliding away and away, alone, while we stand on the shore and wave farewell. The movement toward the horizon is relentless but incremental, the waving and the ache of saying goodbye seem endless.

With considerable effort last August we were able to bring both my parents-in-law to Maine with us, but by then Dan had declined so much in his mental state that he couldn’t be left alone. One afternoon I took my turn sitting with him in front of the cabin where he could look out at the inlet and islands he has known for so many years.

The precise spot where we sat is the gravitational center of the family camp. Five generations of Nyharts have hauled their rickety chairs off the porch and into the afternoon sun, to rub bare toes in the low-growing cranberries that invade the spotty lawn and watch the blue water flow in or out of the tidal marsh. From this place we see the terns in their acrobatic dives, or the gulls as they drop mussel shells to crack on the rocks. We hear the high ospreys as they whistle to each other and teach their fledglings to fly, and sometimes a bald eagle soars massively right over our heads. This is where we always sit as the sunlight begins to tilt and shift to gold and orange. We linger over a congenial cocktail and easily count our blessings.

On this particular August afternoon with Dan, I was immune to the blessings and saturated with sadness. So much has been lost, and there is so much to grieve in the losing. I long for the old personality, the days of repartee and humor, the many threads of exchange that have shaped our relationship over time. Now even a simple thought grows tangled for him as he tries to put it into words, and the words themselves seem to flutter away like bright birds, just out of reach.

I turned to look at Dan sitting next to me, tremors jiggling his arms. He falls asleep easily and often, and then his mouth goes slack and pulls his beloved features into the dreaded blankness we have seen so often in nursing homes. But just then he was awake, looking out at the inlet with a little half-smile.

Dan’s particular illness is dementia with Lewy bodies, which brings with it not only memory loss but hallucinations. The twilight shadows are the worst, sometimes giving rise to terrifying glimpses of men skulking in the trees with machine guns, but there are fanciful dream images he sees in broad daylight as well: a dancing elephant, a new Volkswagen skimming along on the waves, acrobats balancing on the telephone wires. So there was no telling what exactly he was “seeing” as we sat there: the wash of light and wind on waves, or something completely different.

“Dan, where are you when we’re just sitting here like this, not talking?” The question sounded a little desperate to my own ears: what in the world could the poor man make of it? But I had nothing more to say or to ask, and yielded without warning to an almost childish need to have him back, to hear some whisper of soul still retrievable among the fragments this illness has made of his mind. I wanted the existential answer to my question: Where are you now? Where have you gone?

There was a long pause as the question wound down into his mind and the response struggled up, intrepid messengers traversing a shadowed and winding trail. Finally he raised both hands up and said, “Well, it’s caught up in all of this”, waving at the sun, the water, the wind.

“You mean just sitting here and enjoying it?”

Very emphatically he corrected me: “Not enjoying: being in it. Being in it.” I was surprised and impressed by what seemed a burst of theological clarity.

“Dan, that’s very Zen of you!”.

“Hmmph. I never have understood Zen.”

We both laughed, and though I found myself crying at the same time, as I so often do these days, there was a shift in my load of sorrow. I felt myself cracked open at last to that sliver of a moment, and came home to the landscape, the afternoon light, the wind on the water.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So we could be blessed if we lived in the present always, and [received] every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it.” Lovely words of wisdom, Henry, but it is so much more easily said than done. To receive every accident that befalls us is a tall and terrible order. Yet what else can we do, when what happens to us lies outside all our powers to change it? This is the way we move through our fragile lives: we receive what befalls us, which includes, after all, the accidents of sun and sweetness, joy and love, the lucky accidents of people we cherish and receive so truly into ourselves that like the grass soaking up the rain, we are made something else because of them.

We can’t go back to what was before. Once those we love have gone from us we don’t get to touch a cheek or say what we meant to say, or hear that laughter rippling out again in the way that so delighted us. And yet it isn’t just metaphor to say that we carry them with us and remain bound to them, and they to us. Because we are more like the waters of the earth than we know: rain and snow and mist, ocean, lake and river, seep and puddle, falling and rising and falling and rising again in so many different forms. And nothing is ever lost.

Published in the Fall 2007 issue of the UU World.

The Long Farewell

My father-in-law, Dan Nyhart, died three weeks ago. It was sudden in a sense: we got a call on Thursday that he was running a fever, then were told Friday that it was looking serious, and by early Saturday morning he was gone. But he had been leaving us for at least seven years already, fading away piece by piece into one of the world’s cruel exit strategies, dementia with Lewy bodies.

There are many painful things about loving someone who is being lost to the fog of dementia, but one of the hardest is that there is no single, particular moment to say goodby. Instead, the losses begin subtly and pile up for months and for years. When a diagnosis is finally made and everyone feels the dread settle in, it’s already impossible to remember the first sign, the beginning of the unraveling. And by then, the one you love is already foggy around the edges. He’s still there of course, but he isn’t all there, and when do you get to grieve the part of him that’s already gone? Instead, you cling to what’s still there, knowing that what you have of him now will seem a miracle a year from now, or in two years, when he is that much more lost to the fog.

Nearly three years ago, the  summer before  Dan finally had to enter a nursing home, I sat with him in front of the cove in Maine at the family camp he loved so well.  He was already a long distance down his dim path of dementia, and it had been years since he had truly been himself. The sharp mind — a law professor at MIT most of his working life — had been so dulled by disease that it was hard for him to follow even a simple conversation. And sitting there with him, taking my turn babysitting really, I thought about  how much I needed and wanted a chance to say goodbye.

I’m pretty sure he didn’t understand much of what I said, but I held his hand and told him all I could remember about first meeting him, about how grateful I was for the way he welcomed me into the family, and how much I loved his kindness, his humor, his generous spirit.  I asked him to try to remember, in the times to come, that even if he felt afraid, we would not leave him to walk alone — that he would be accompanied through the illness. I told him I loved him, and he got teary and said he loved me too. I felt a little better after that; a sense that I had chosen for myself a random moment of farewell.

And then he went on living, and slipping away, for two and a half more years, the last two in a nursing home. How well did I keep my promise to walk with him through this? Not well, I think. We live just two hours drive away, but probably visited no more often than once every six or eight weeks. There were others to share it of course, my mother-in-law, my husbands siblings, family friends. But I always thought we’d go more often than we did. We’re all so busy, aren’t we? Three kids and two jobs and all the details that fill in the standard American life. But the rest of the truth is that  it was hard to want to go to the nursing home, hard to see him there and to not know, each time, how clear or foggy he would be.

So I feel lucky that in his last month of life I had two visits with him by myself, a couple of weeks apart; and I was especially blessed by the last one, the week before Thanksgiving. He wasn’t having a good day. He didn’t recognize me at first, and after fifteen minutes of trying to visit it was clear that he could hardly put two words together. He kept yawning hugely, so I finally suggested he just lie down on the bed and let me massage his hands. I pulled out some lotion and rubbed each hand for ten minutes, slowing myself down, willing my mind to be still and to just see the hand, hold the fingers, touch the skin. He gave little murmurs of pleasure, and that seemed to be enough.

When it was time to go I bent down over his slack face and said, “Dan, I’ll give your love to Nick and Sam and the girls”, and suddenly there was a momentary break in the fog and the sun came through. He opened his eyes and whispered, “Well, how can you give it if you don’t get it first?”, and raised his head up to give me a big kiss. That was the only full sentence he spoke in our whole visit, and that was the last time I saw him on this earth.

With his death, we are all free now to grieve him at last, to grieve all the small losses that litter the path of dementia and together add up to the huge loss of this beloved human being.  I have felt deeply blessed by that final goodbye, and the surprise of that little window of lucidity where I had no reason to expect one at all. There are so many mysteries in our dying, as in our birth, as in our living. Sometimes it’s enough to let the heart bow to it all: the great gift of loving, the great grief of letting go. It’s all tangled up together. And it is enough.