When I woke on Christmas morning, the wintry sun was slicing through the blinds and onto my cheeks. I was hot. And hungover.
It was nearly dawn when I'd flung myself, fully clothed, into my old bed at my parents' home. Our annual Christmas Eve party had been a raging success.
Friends had stayed long into the night, laughing and toasting each other around my parents' well-worn bar. It was 5 a.m. when the last reveller tottered out into the still, cold night.
Christmas morning arrived far too soon. Time to have breakfast with my parents and sister, exchange gifts and pile into the car to visit extended family.
Blistering headache aside, I wasn't looking forward to this. Dear Gramps - with his plaid bow tie and twinkling blue eyes - had passed away a month ago. Instead of having turkey at the home he'd shared with Gram, we'd be visiting her in the nursing home where she'd moved two years earlier.
Heading down the highway, I tried not to think about the place. All the little old ladies in various states of forgetfulness and undress, wandering the halls. The moaning. The smell.
What bothered me most was my grandmother. It had been a steady decline since her Alzheimer's diagnosis, the disease knocking loose her memories and putting them back in all the wrong places. At first, she'd been mildly annoyed with her forgetfulness. You'd catch her scratching her soft, white hair, eyes darting around the room in search of something.
For a time she was still the Gram we knew and loved. Unassuming and gentle. A top-notch euchre partner. Polished, smelling ever so slightly of flowers.
The years had torn her apart. It had been four since she'd known my sister or me by name. At least three since she'd recognized my mother, her youngest daughter. Two years since we'd heard her speak a single word. Her decline was painful to watch.
But the visit wasn't about me. My mother wanted to hold Gram's hand in Gramps' absence and wish her a Merry Christmas. Give her a gift and open it for her, too, because Gram's fingers could only fidget these days.
When we saw her, her face was wan and her hair smelled stale. There was no recognition in her eyes. Someone had gone to the trouble of dressing her but leftovers were dribbled down her shirt. She was slumped in her wheelchair.
I perched on the edge of a table and looked out the window, avoiding the emotionally charged room. I hoped this wouldn't take long.
Mom had brought a few things for Gram: pyjamas, some sweets and a poem she'd found that was written from the perspective of someone who died and wanted to comfort their loved ones. For my mother, it was a way to connect her parents. Even if Gram didn't know Gramps was gone. The disease had robbed her of that, too.
After the gifts, mom sat beside Gram's wheelchair and unfolded the poem. She began to read:
"I see the countless Christmas trees around the world below
"With tiny lights like heaven's stars reflecting on the snow.
"The sight is so spectacular, please wipe away that tear
"For I am spending Christmas with Jesus Christ this year."
Her voice cracked as she read. She wiped her eyes. Gram remained expressionless.
I offered to finish the reading, feeling embarrassed at the intimacy of the moment, yet wanting to do this for my mother.
As I read, my mom took my grandmother's hand. She huddled close to her, crying softly. I felt my throat waver. My sister shifted beside me. A resident murmured in the hallway.
Something caught my eye and I glanced up from the poem. Gram had moved in her wheelchair to cradle my mother. She stroked her hair.
What shocked me most were Gram's eyes. Warm and bright, they were alive for the first time in years. As they gazed at my mother, there was love, gratitude and understanding.
Open-mouthed, I glanced at my dad and sister. Did they see this? They watched, astonished. I finished the poem:
"Please let your hearts be joyful and let your spirit sing
"For I am spending Christmas in heaven and I'm walking with the King."
My grandmother was gently wiping tears from my mother's eyes, and looking directly at her. I felt like I was watching a movie I'd seen before.
My mom looked into her mother's eyes. "I love you, mom," she said.
The words hung in the room, unanswered for years. "I love you, too," my grandmother said in a clear, steady voice.
Inside me, something softened. My sister put her arm around me. We hugged my dad. The three of us crowded around Gram and Mom, laughing and choking back tears.
It wasn't long before we left Gram at her frost-covered window and quietly hurried through the chilly parking lot. Nobody complained about the temperature. Nobody muttered that we were late for turkey dinner. There were no jokes about the silver-haired, would-be runaway who had tried to escape when we left. Not a word was spoken about my grandmother's fleeting moment of clarity, which had gone just as swiftly as it came. We all internalized the moment in silent acknowledgment.
In the back seat, my sister took my hand. A soulful Christmas carol played on the radio. We looked at each other and smiled. In the distance, red and green lights glowed from the nursing home eaves. They faded as the SUV crunched over the snow-covered road and eventually disappeared.
April Kemick lives in Toronto.
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