Last Christmas Eve, after a long day of holiday festivities at Abe’s Garden, I put Glen’s Christmas album, That Christmas Feeling, on the stereo in his room and began putting my husband of 34 years to bed. As I pulled his covers up, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” began to play. I wept softly as I told him I loved him and kissed him goodnight. I had been struggling with depression since Glen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2011, so by 2016, I was unfortunately used to that Christmas feeling. I got in my car feeling sad and lonely, but confident that I had done all I could to give him the best care and the best quality of life possible, even if we had to spend the night apart. Little did I know that I would lose Glen to Alzheimer’s the following August.
A year later, I found myself facing my first Christmas without Glen. For weeks I tried my best to get into the Christmas spirit… to no avail. I decorated the house but my heart wasn’t in it. I listened to music but it made me sad – and parties just made me feel lonely.
One night the kids invited me out for the evening but I had no interest in Christmas cheer. “Bah Humbug,” I said as they drove away. I grabbed a bar of chocolate, poured myself a mug of eggnog and nestled in to a big chair by the fireplace. Eventually, my eyes grew as heavy as my heart and I fell into a deep sleep.
Suddenly I was woken by a great gust of wind! I opened my eyes only to see what looked like a a ghost walking towards me from across the room.
“Who are YOU?” I asked. (… and how did you get past Vader?)
The ghost began to speak with a German accent: “I’m Alois Alzheimer.”
I knew that name! He was the doctor who first diagnosed the disease after performing an autopsy on the brain of a 55-year-old woman who died after experiencing years of memory loss and delusions!
“I know things are tough and that the world could use some hope about the future right now,” he said. “I’ve come to tell you that you will be visited by three spirits tonight. They each have something important to teach you – pay attention!”
With another gust of wind, he was gone! I’d obviously had too much eggnog and needed to get some sleep.
“Bah Humbug!” I said again. “There’s no such thing as ghosts. There is no cure – there is no treatment – so there is no hope!”
I tried to forget my strange visitor as I stumbled to my room and crawled into bed. Loneliness and grief covered me like a blanket. Regardless of how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get back to sleep.
Then I noticed a tiny light flickering in the corner of the room. I watched as the flicker grew into the form of person who was somehow like a child yet like an old man at the same time. I couldn’t help but think how much he reminded me of Glen in his final years, with his snow white hair and boyish smile.
“Who are YOU?” I asked for the second time this evening, while trembling under the sheets.
“I am the Spirit of Christmas Past. Come with me.”
And like that, the spirit transported me to our family living room in Arizona, where I saw our three children tearing open the wrapping on their presents and jumping up and down with glee. It was 1990! I saw Glen pick me up, twirl me around and kiss me underneath the mistletoe.
“What happy memories! Oh, thank you, spirit! Where are we going next?” I asked with excitement.
The spirit then took me to 2013 – and things were much different. I watched as my husband struggled to find his way through our own home. I saw him become confused when he looked at his guitar. I felt his frustration when he couldn’t remember my name any more.
The pain was unbearable. “Take me back!” I pleaded. “I can’t watch this any longer!”
Seconds later, I found myself back in my bed, only to be joined by another spirit. This spirit had dark brown curls, a wreath on his head, and was carrying a large torch. He looked like a “jolly giant!”
“Who are YOU?” I asked once again.
“I am the Spirit of Christmas Present,” he said, as he whisked me down the road to Abe’s Garden, where a chef was busy preparing a Christmas feast of of turkey and dressing, sweet potato fluff, green-bean casserole, and every pie, cake, and cookie you could imagine.
I watched the care partners make sure the residents were comfortable as everyone settled in to watch a Christmas pageant. This would be the third year in a row that Vicki’s 14 grandchildren dressed up as shepherds and kings to sing carols and tell the story of the birth of Jesus to the memory community. Her husband, Sam, had been one of the first people to move into Abe’s Garden along with Glen two and a half years ago. As the pageant began, I saw the proud look on Sam’s face as Vicki held his hand.
Vicki and I had prayed together, laughed together and wept together over the last few years. It meant so much to me to know that I was not alone in what I was feeling and dealing with and that the tradition of the pageant was continuing.
I thought about how much Glen loved seeing her grandchildren and how he always tried his best to sing along with their merry “Fa la la la las.” Even though Glen was missing from the festivities this year, it was comforting to see that our friends were keeping the spirit and music alive through the holidays. A wave of comfort and joy warmed my heart as I found myself back in bed.
Then a third spirit appeared, this one draped in a deep black garment that concealed its face and every other part of its form except for an outstretched hand.
“Who are YOU?”
The spirit remained silent, and suddenly I knew.
“You’re the spirit of Christmas yet to come, aren’t you?”
The spirit simply pointed towards the window and away we went. Over the Batman Building, over the Country Music Hall of Fame and Ryman Auditorium.
“Where are you taking me, spirit!?” I cried. I must admit, the thought of the future terrified me!
These last six years since Glen’s diagnosis have been hard on me. I know the toll that the fatigue, heartache, and stress of being a caregiver can take. Would I become sick? Would I develop Alzheimer’s myself? Would my children? Would the spirit lead me to my own grave?
I found myself in a brightly lit room, watching a group of scientists gather at a large table to hold a press conference. In the center was a nerdy looking guy wearing a Microsoft t-shirt. His name-tag said … Bill.. something. The air was thick with anticipation!
“The results of our clinical trial are in. Our drug is effective in preventing Alzheimer’s in people who have the ApoE4 gene. Not only does it prevent the disease, but it actually improves brain function and memory retention in people who don’t have the gene,” said one of the scientists. Shouts of joy filled the room!
The next minute we were back at Abe’s Garden, but this time there were no people with dementia wandering the grounds. Abe’s had been converted into a senior living multigenerational learning center for preschool children. I saw elders who had just as much energy and spark as the children they were sitting with, painting, playing, reading, and teaching each other to use technology. I also noticed these elders had great muscle tone, no wrinkles and no gray hair. (Hey it’s my dream, let me enjoy it!) This is a truly a future filled with hope!
In the blink of an eye, it was morning back home in Nashville. As I jumped up out of bed, I looked at our family photos on the wall and my heart swelled with joy! I thanked God for all the memories our family had made together throughout the years and the opportunities that lay ahead of us.
I ran to Ashley’s room and threw open her door. I knew it wasn’t Christmas morning yet but I couldn’t resist. “Merry Christmas!” I shouted. “Merry Christmas!” she replied. The twinkle in her eye was the same twinkle I had seen in Glen’s every Christmas morning since we had gotten married. I hurried into the kitchen where Cal and Shannon were making pancakes for breakfast. I hugged them both and kissed their cheeks, “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!” I shouted again. There was Glen in Shannon’s cleft chin. There was Glen in Cal’s smile. I felt his presence all around me.
My ghostly visitors had filled me with hope and optimism for the future and made me more determined than ever to continue Glen’s fight to raise awareness and find a cure so that no family would ever have to lose a loved one to dementia again!
I vowed on that very day to cherish my memories of the past, enjoy each moment of the present, and honor Christmas in my heart for all the years yet to come!
I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”
― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol