What to do at the holidays when there’s an empty place at your table.
It was the opening statement in a letter offering coping advice when you’re grieving the absence of someone you love. A list of practical strategies meant to give relief to the ache of facing that empty chair and missing the person who’s supposed to sit in it. Who used to be there at all the holidays.
Thing was, I didn’t need the advice. Not this year at least – I needed it ten years ago when my dad died and left me with the responsibility of caring for my mom. When I found she was not in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, but well enmeshed in the illness that was destroying her brain. When I had to have her declared mentally incompetent to make lucid decisions and remove her from her home for her safety. When I had to delve into her finances, her medical needs, her social obligations, and supervise every aspect of her life, all while hiding out in the guise of her little girl because she was – the Mom.
That first year after my dad died was the Year of No Celebrations. I missed every single holiday – federal, religious, personal, greeting-card-nonsense event. I got sick – pneumonia, bouts of cold, flu, bronchitis – as well as being the default contact for crises and emergencies. I slept with two phones next to me, frequently jolted awake by a call from the nurses at the residence where Mom lived. Every holiday was a calamity to endure, leaving not a flick of a second to celebrate. Leaving me tense and exhausted, afraid to see the dawn, fearful of the night. Nine years of dealing with the effects of Alzheimer’s, but I am no hero. Millions of other family members live this way, trying to find a safe route through a maze with only one outcome for the ill person they love.
My mom died nine months ago, in an assisted living residence devoted to caring for people with progressive and unrecoverable memory lapses. After my dad’s death, I frequently took her to our home for the usual holidays, and she participated in the family gatherings. She read to her great-grandchildren, laughed at the stories and jokes, ate momentous amounts of food because that’s what we do at family gatherings. But the changes were obvious and painful to watch. She could answer questions, sometimes just to acknowledge that she couldn’t remember a detail, but she could no longer initiate conversation. She could react but not act.
Over those years, Mom’s memory fractured and fizzled as we knew it would. Bringing her to family celebrations at my home became more and more difficult. To discuss why would betray Mom’s privacy, and I’d vowed not to do that. Four or five years ago, the situation declined into impossible. I couldn’t watch her every second as she turned my house into tumultuous residue from her condition. She didn’t act with malice but with mindless energy. This is what Alzheimer’s does.
After dad’s death I felt like a battleship trying to barge through a pinhole. More accurately, a sob soaked wad of tissues attempting to dry up the desert. For the first three years, driving up and down the California freeways to the residence where Mom lived, to her attorney’s or accountant’s offices, to the mall to shop for her clothes, I cried and raged at the injustice of so much to do and no past experience from which I could draw. Every encounter was a new one, every crisis unpredictable, every visit with Mom another failure to communicate.
Friday evenings at our temple I said the Mourner’s Kaddish for my dad, tears streaming. Synagogue was a safe place to cry – the other congregants understood. They surrounded me with their arms and their comfort. Kaddish is an ancient, exquisite prayer in the Jewish tradition. It’s recited while remembering those we’ve lost in the past year, but not one word has anything to do with death or human beings. It’s a prayer that extols God’s virtues and greatness, reminding us that after life, there is the World to Come.
Crying, screaming, driving, reciting Kaddish. This was how I spent my three years of grieving.
I didn’t have time to indulge in a grief support group though I participated erratically in an Alzheimer’s support group. Erratic not because the dissolution of keeping to a schedule is my nature but because it’s the nature of the disease to flummox every situation. Don’t plan ahead except for the advent of chaos, the world shaken like an abused child – and with the same ultimate effect of unimaginable damage.
Our table has been reduced these last ten months and the ten years previous. My parents are missing. But our home is surrounded by photos of those we love. It is saturated with their presence. My sorrow ebbs day by day, but capriciously – a reminder here of how my mom cooked spaghetti that was better than mine, there of how my dad spoke wisely about how to better parent my sons . The lacy blouse I nearly bought Mom a month after her death, the scent of a flower recalling the rose garden Dad lovingly tended. The dream when they stood by my side and we watched the sun set over the Pacific, all of us at peace, seeing future.
I won’t refer to the coping advice generously offered by the grief support group when my family celebrates the seventh night of Chanukah this coming Saturday. As I look at the chairs where my parents used to sit, I will not mourn the vacancy. Their places are filled with my memories of them and always will be.
Note: I’ve written a novel, Where Did Mama Go? about the devastation Alzheimer’s disease inflicts on families. It’s in the process of being edited, and then I’ll start querying for an agent to represent my work. My credentials for writing this story are eighteen years of assisting my mom through the labyrinth of this illness.
Photo courtesy Bonin-Pratt family archives: Sharon at 3 with both of her parents.