My mother’s birthday is on Christmas Eve. Or maybe it’s December 22nd. The way she tells it, her own mother insists she was born on the 22nd, but in 1922, New York City’s only Japanese doctor was busy attending patients in all five boroughs, and he wasn’t the best at keeping up with his paperwork. Her legal birth certificate reads December 24, 1922. We’re always confused about when we should celebrate, so we end up alternating year to year. We do know one thing though — she is turning 85 soon.
It has to involve chocolate cake, lots of it, and presents. A new red sweater is always on her wish list, and this year we also bought her a persimmon tree, which we’re hiding on the neighbor’s back steps (it has one lone leaf still clinging to it, doubtful it will hold on), a box of chocolate, a fake dog-in-a-basket that looks like it’s breathing, and a gift card to McDonald’s. It’s already tough finding gifts for a grandmother, but combining Christmas with birthday gifts is extra daunting.
“What do you want for your birthday, Nana?” my daughters ask her, and before she can answer, they both leap on her. “Kisses! Lips on your face!” She pushes them away laughing, wiping her cheeks like Peanuts’ Lucy after Snoopy slobbers on her. Then she says, “I want to go out to dinner. Pork chops and Key lime pie.” She turns to me, “They had the best pie in Miami, didn’t they?” Her eyes get misty.
I recently came across an article about gift suggestions for people with Alzheimer’s disease. It inspired me, reassured me, and broke my heart. Suggestions for people with “Early Alzheimer’s” included old family photographs, games, tickets to a musical or concert, or sporting events (check: basketball tickets for 2008!). I was relieved that she fits easily into the “early” category.
People who are “Moderately Impaired,” the article went on, could appreciate easily manageable clothing like tube socks and shoes and clothing with Velcro. (Thank God, I say to myself, my mother can still button and zipper!) Sorting items, because “sorting is an activity that people with Alzheimer’s enjoy: pennies, a bag of buttons, or large beads. Music from the old times.” I took a deep breath.
I had to swallow hard when I got to the “Severely Impaired” section, but it moved me to think of them — perhaps one day my own mother — still being able to enjoy gifts of any kind. Photo albums, pet visits (“most people with late dementia still enjoy the visits of dogs, cats or other small animals”), cuddle animals or a lifelike cuddly baby doll. Videotapes with pleasant sights such as a garden, fish tanks or ocean sounds. I consider her ability to still read the daily newspaper, to go to a professional basketball game twice a week, and I am grateful. Still, the house gets chillier as I read this article.
It’s lonely growing old, even surrounded by loving family. At Thanksgiving, she was weepy because the holidays were passing and here she was, “all alone.” We looked at her as if to say, What are we, chopped liver? “I’ve got no mother, no father, no husband. I’m all alone,” she sniffled. This called for a group hug until she broke away, laughing, wiping away her tears.
She used to be at the center of our family, running things, shopping, driving around, hosting large holiday parties with dozens of relatives. Those days are now the Ghost of Christmas Past. The Christmas dinners with all of my cousins. The New Year’s Day open house parties with all the neighbors, when my father would break open a bottle of Scotch with Mr. Kiesselbach from next door, and he’d turn bright red after one sip. Then he’d take over the deep fryer and cook tempura for the whole neighborhood. My grandmother would haul out the traditional Japanese New Year’s foods — mochi in two forms (in broth with spinach, and toasted in the toaster oven, with sugar and soy sauce), good luck black beans, yams and vegetables I couldn’t name and didn’t like the smell of.
But over time, a series of miscommunications between relatives turned to fighting turned to my mother’s estrangement from our extended family, and the crowded Christmas dinners stopped. It became easier for my parents to visit me in California than to be reminded that everyone else was celebrating the holidays without them.
Christmas is bittersweet; it makes Mom sad, but also makes her happy. Several years ago, she saw a television commercial for a stuffed singing Hallmark snowman. “Oh, I want that!” she exclaimed, and the next time we went to the card store, my daughters and I brought it home as a surprise. It has a tinny, tacky singing voice, and it lights up and dances. The snowman’s sidekicks, a dog and a penguin, also wiggle and make noises (barking and jingle bells, respectively). The next year, a new singing snowman was featured, this one playing a piano. Now we have four of these uber-tacky snowmen, and she likes nothing better than to push the “press here!” button on their fat snowy paws. Often when I am upstairs I will hear them all in their singing cacophony, and a faint sound of clapping.
I know she’s dreading the coming year, when her beloved granddaughter will be moving far away. We talked about how our younger girl will have to hang the daily ornaments on the Christmas-tree advent calendar all on her own next year. “I won’t be here next year either,” my mother says darkly. I cringe inside, knowing what’s coming. “Where are you going to be, Nana?” “Six feet under.” I don’t know if she’s joking, threatening, or hoping, but I have to turn away, my hands clenching. Please don’t talk like that. Please.
She has a cold this week, a headache, and a cough, and she’s tired. “I sound nasal,” she says. “What’s nasal?” asks my daughter. “It’s when it sounds like you’re talking out of your nose.” Pause. “Well, it’s better than talking out of your butt!” my daughter tastefully replies. My mother collapses in helpless laughter. I really do think they’re keeping her alive, on so many levels.
We all wonder how many birthdays she has left. I hope that like her own mother, she’ll live well into her nineties and be strong and healthy for a really long time. For now, it’s time for chocolate cake and singing snowmen, and being together while we can.