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"William," my mother-in-law, Elizabeth, commanded, "please be a gentleman and open the door for Mrs. Higgins. Do you remember when she lived next door to us on 24th Avenue in Lachine?"
With courteous smiles, my husband, Peter, and I both turned to greet Mrs. Higgins, but as we suspected, there was no one there. We were long accustomed to the imaginary meet-and-greet of phantom visitors that appeared at Elizabeth's door and so with no hesitation or confusion we stood and replied in unison, "Hello, Mrs. Higgins."
At the age of 103, suffering with dementia and macular degeneration, Elizabeth imagined people who weren't there and no longer recognized those who were. She frequently confused her son, Peter, with her oldest brother, William, who had passed away more than 15 years ago. Memory was a casualty of time in this room, but what mattered most was that we honoured Elizabeth in the time zones of both the present and the past.
They were old friends, and they were especially comforting on Christmas Day in 2013, our first family Christmas at Le Centre Bayview in Pointe-Claire, Que. Le Centre Bayview is a long-term care facility where the locked-down third floor is reserved for cognitively impaired patients. Sadness and silence settled like dust on this floor. The staff tried to inject happiness into the Christmas season but even a "Ho ho ho" from a caregiver dressed as Santa could not distract families from the human struggles and grief that took place here.
In Elizabeth’s room, decorated in the cheerful colour scheme of Christmas, we sat quietly around her wheelchair, as the lights on the miniature glass tree twinkled on and off. The felt bird that had once sung from its lofty position at the top of the tree still tweeted, but now it rested on the bedside table next to the adult briefs that thankfully were never called diapers by a sensitive staff. Yes, we were at the Bayview, where the accoutrements of old age replaced more traditional coffee table books, but the ghost of Christmas Past was present, too.
It reminded us that for 25 years, my husband and I had spent Christmas Day with my in-laws, the chirping bird and the glass tree in Beaurepaire, Que. Bordering Lac Saint-Louis, Beaurepaire, now a part of Beaconsfield, was a small village where “Bonjour, hi” was as common as small stores known as dépanneurs and eating bûche de Noël Yule logs and tourtière at the traditional Christmas Eve dinner. If I had taken a photograph of those long ago days, it would have revealed a small town blanketed in white drifts of snow, a bungalow draped in crystal Christmas lights and my in-laws framed in the doorway, a welcoming committee of two for their only son and daughter-in-law.
But the house and Beaurepaire were gone and Christmas now was celebrated in a small room masquerading as a home, a home dominated by an electric medical bed and invalid lift apparatus. In a corner of the room sat an unlikely fixture for a centenarian – a large teddy bear won in a bingo game that Elizabeth sometimes cuddled like an infant. Matching the festive decor of the room, the bear now wore a red sweater and a bright green scarf.
“Would you like some more turkey, Mom?” Peter asked as he gently fed her small bites of turkey that he had carefully cut, the same miniature morsels that his mother had undoubtedly cut for him when he was a toddler. “How about some more cranberry sauce or turkey stuffing? It’s definitely not as good as your homemade cornbread stuffing or your fresh cranberry sauce, but it still looks appetizing. Nothing, though, could ever, ever compare to your hard sauce and steamed plum pudding. Do you remember how good it was, Mom?”
Elizabeth did not answer. She had escaped into her childhood past, as patients with dementia often did. Unlike the cloudy present, her childhood was a documentary, tight sequences of history strung together with a beginning, middle and end, all resonating with minute, clear details. Elizabeth was a master storyteller and her shackles of fatigue, memory loss and confusion vanished when her narratives began. “William, do you remember when we used to tiptoe downstairs before the rest of the family on Christmas morning to put brown sugar in our porridge because father didn’t permit us to have any sugar, even on Christmas?
“I remember our treasured radio and how Grandma always insisted on listening to the King’s Christmas broadcast to the Commonwealth on Christmas Day,” she said. “The very first Christmas broadcast was in 1932, his 22nd year as monarch. Oh how I hated sitting still for so long and having to wait to open our Christmas gifts. It was such drudgery listening to that Christmas message!”
Although Christmas at Le Centre Bayview was no fairy-tale Christmas, it was not drudgery for Elizabeth as we made sure to keep any replays of the Queen’s Christmas broadcast on mute. With Elizabeth walking in her childhood footsteps, we could still believe in the magic of Christmas and family. The sepia snapshots of memory from Elizabeth’s family album comforted us, and it was easy to believe that the bleak voice of Dickens’s Christmas Yet to Come was far away and not to be feared just yet.
Freda Lewkowicz lives in Côte Saint-Luc, Que.