By Ann Hedreen
I drape a towel over Nick’s head and strap it in place with a bandana. I squeeze Claire’s arms into her bent-hanger angel wings. It is the morning of the Christmas pageant, and my shepherd and my angel are ready to go.
The question is: Am I? Because on this pageant morning, I don’t get to walk in to church with my scrappy, adorable children. Instead, I’ll be making an entrance at the last minute, with my mom and her ever-unpredictable companion: Alzheimer’s disease.
I wish I didn’t have to. Bring her. I hate myself for having that thought. Because I love my mom. But how I loathe Alzheimer’s and what it is doing to her. And how I hate it for bringing out the worst, not in Mom, but in me.
Nine-thirty on the dot: Time to get in the car and focus on the challenge at hand: precision timing. The Seattle weather is cooperating, December-style: wet but not a downpour, cold but not freezing. The kids and I race up the road to our old brick church. Nick’s towel and Claire’s wings flap as I shoo them out. I remind myself that it’s okay if scuffed-up sneakers and jeans peek out from under their costumes. What matters is that they know the carols. They each know their one line. They’re ready to walk right up to that manger, as they are. Unlike me.
“I’ll be back in half an hour,” I call after them. “Good luck with the rehearsal. Remember: Belt out those lines!”
I peel out in a U-turn to go fetch Mom. When I get to her retirement apartment, it is dark. She is in bed.
“Mom, it’s Sunday. The kids’ pageant, remember? We gotta go!”
She mumbles sleepily. I turn on a light and start looking for clothes for her to wear. Her closet is a disaster: nothing on the shelves, mounds of laundry on the floor, dirty mixed with clean. Yet I know my sister was there the day before, sorting, washing, and folding.
And speaking of dirty, I have never in my life seen Mom’s hair—her gorgeous, swingy silver hair, of which she is so proud—looking so greasy.
How slowly she moves, as if the air itself is as oily as her unwashed scalp. She gets caught in a sleeve. She fumbles with her buttons. I so badly do not want to miss the pageant. But in this moment, Alzheimer’s disease is in control, not me, and we are in the tricky middle stage of it. No way will she let me dress her. I can hand her a sock. I can pace while she puts it on. I can silently thank the part of my brain that had thought to grab a banana and a granola bar before I left the house.
“I’ve got breakfast for you in the car,” I say, as I herd her toward the door, telling myself to breathe.
We make it to the church just as the bells are ringing out “Joy to the world!” It’s crowded, so we have to squeeze into a pew right up front. In the bright lights, Mom’s hair looks even stringier than it did in her apartment. I silently chide myself: Stop thinking about her HAIR! No one here cares!
But I care. And as I look around at all the other demurely coiffed grandmothers, I am ashamed that I care. No one’s looking at Mom, I scold myself. They’re looking for the children, and you should be too. Jesus was born in a barn to an unmarried teen mother. Would he have cared about Mom’s hair?
“O come, o come, Emmanuel,” the choir sings out, and we all pivot in our seats and smile as the ragtag band of children walks shyly forward. I study my mom’s face. I can’t tell if any of it makes any sense to her. But she chimes right in: “Rejoice! Rejoice!”
We sit down and watch as the kids belt out their verses. My children have clear, strong voices and a knack for memorization: genetic gifts from their grandmother.
“Be not afraid,” says Claire, the angel, “for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people.”
“Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened!” says Nick, the shepherd.
I watch Mom nervously, noting coffee stains on her coat. I wish I could hold up a sign: “My mother has Alzheimer’s disease. Please cut her some slack.”
Now we are all joining in on “Away in a Manger.” Mom sings with gusto. “But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.”
I think of my mother at her best: with a baby in her arms. Six children, fourteen grandchildren. She has taken such joy in each and every baby. And when I was a young, bleary-eyed mom, she never judged me, or my children, for our lack of grooming. Through her sixties, as Alzheimer’s disease crept up on her, it was as if the concentration it took to keep up her own appearance precluded worrying about anyone else’s.
This, I realize, is why her hair bothers me so much: It is a sign. Alzheimer’s is gaining the upper hand.
The next morning, I will write in my journal: “She’s so brave. It’s got to be so exhausting being her.”
To be roused from a deep sleep and ferried off to see her grandchildren play dress-up and sing carols while her brain struggles to stay above the quicksand of Alzheimer’s—my mother is indeed brave on this pageant morning.
And this is what I need to remember. Like the shepherds, like her own grandchildren, she came to the manger as she is. Like the angels, she is singing. Surely I can sing with her for as long as we both possibly can.
Ann Hedreen is a writer, producer, director, teacher and voice of the KBCS radio commentary and blog, the Restless Nest. Her memoir, Her Beautiful Brain, is now available from the bookseller of your choice. Ann has won many Emmys and other awards, including a recent first place in science and health reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists for her 2012 Seattle Metropolitan Magazine story, “Laughter and Forgetting.” Her film, Quick Brown Fox, won a Nell Shipman award for Best Documentary, has been broadcast internationally, is distributed by Women Make Movies and is now available on digital sites including Amazon.