Like most kids, I assumed that the “magic of the holidays” was just part of the package: Christmas tree, stockings, Christmas lights and, of course, magic.
However, after a few rounds of holidays adulting-style, I was quick to realize the holiday season is in no way, shape or form, magical.
This sentiment was shared among myself and my peers for those first few years out of college. Sitting at long tables, sporting ugly sweaters, we’d exchange snarky comments like, “This holiday nonsense is really going to keep repeating itself? Like every year?” punctuated by grinch-worthy comments like, “Is there a way to opt out?”
But then our life paths diverged in opposite directions. My friends had kids. And my dad got sick. And everything went wonky.
For my friends, parenting young children rekindled the magic of the holidays, brightening their views toward the season and all its Hallmark trimmings.
My change in circumstances, however, did the opposite: My dad’s dementia diagnosis distilled my semi-jovial holiday cynicism into a putrid puddle of pity. In my newfound world of caregiving, it wasn’t the grinch who stole Christmas, it was dementia.
In my newfound world of caregiving, it wasn’t the grinch who stole Christmas, it was dementia.
My childhood Christmases were magical, even taking on a celestial feel at times. The holidays, Christmas in particular, had always been my dad’s favorite time of year. But he’d never let you know it; he’d grumble about materialism and wasted money just as much as the other grown-ups.
And every year, without fail, he would tell me and my brothers that he and mom were going “to keep things really simple this year.” Less presents, skinnier stockings, etc. My mom would just roll her eyes to heaven; she knew better. He’d always break from his solemn oath to limit the amount of gifts. He always caved.
His generosity would win out, and I’d dissolve into giggling glee when he’d walk in the door laden with shopping bags, stopping to make me pinky swear I wouldn’t tell mom. But his magnificent mess of wrapping paper, ribbon, tape and toys always made it impossible to hide the evidence of a blown budget.
Looking back now, I realized it wasn’t the Christmas holiday itself that was magical. It was my dad. He had a true joy of giving. Although Dad’s gifts were always meaningful, it was the experiences and traditions he created that stay warm in my memory to this day.
His joy of giving was pure, childlike—magical.
So, imagine my disenchantment, when for the first time, Dad was unable to do his own Christmas shopping. The disease has stolen so much—so damn much. But this is the cruelest blow yet.
As I numbly picked out Dad’s gifts to my mom, I attempted to will the magical elixir of his excitement, creativity and love into each gift. Wrecked with exhaustion and grief, I was convinced that I failed miserably at the task, and my outlook for the upcoming Christmas Day was equally dismal.
What was the point of a gift exchange if my dad didn’t even pick out the presents? I braced myself for heartache on Christmas Day.
But, then something, well, magical, happened.
My mom exclaimed with delight as she opened each present. I had expected the moment to, at best, lack the luster of past years. But I looked to my dad and saw a look of triumph on his face, as if he’d just played a winning hand at poker. When Mom asked where he’d gotten the gift, his response surprised me: “I don’t remember, actually, but I just knew you’d love it.”
In that moment I knew that not all was lost. Dementia may have stolen many things from my dad, but it was clear to me he still had his love of giving. I saw it burning brightly, lighting his dear face. No amyloid plaques or Lewy bodies will ever dim a light that strong and true.
Even in the ebbing tides of his dementia, his joy of giving was strong enough to buoy my spirits from the dismal depths to which they’d sunk.
Dad – with his generous heart, childlike excitement for the season and overflowing love for his family – created magic during a Christmas when I thought all was lost.
And now I know better than to doubt the resilience of the human spirit.