This year Christmas at my home came and went without my having festive plans or even a tree. As we moved past Christmas towards the beginning of a new year, I found myself reflecting upon the Grinch and Whoville. I wondered if this year I might find my own little Cindy Lou Who — someone who reminded me of the meaning of the season?
I had started the season filled with anticipation and goodwill. I had enjoyed shopping for my gifts for the Giving Trees. But then, early December, my dad was rushed to the ER. That initiated a chain of events that led to his emergency placement in a nursing home.
As a nurse let me into the ER wing, my father and his girlfriend were screaming vile things at my brother. My hand on the curtain, I was reminded of Jesus’ words, “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go” (Jn 21:18). With a forced smile, I opened the curtain and gently inquired what was up. My father said that instead of a nursing home he would rather die.
Both my father and his partner have dementia. The open wound on my father’s head, inability to explain how or when my dad fell, and the X-ray that confirmed pneumonia each belied their screams that they knew they were fine without us. After a very, very long time of trying to assist them despite their no, we decided as a family that placement was the road our father must walk. Unsure if he would ever accept it, my brothers and I painfully did what needed to be done. By the time my father was admitted to the nursing home, his pneumonia was gone and my brother and I were far enough into the course of antibiotics against our own cases of pneumonia that we were considered not contagious.
As the nurse led my father off for the mandatory skin check, my brother and I exchanged weary glances. At the hospital, my father had reacted very negatively the very first time someone had asked him to wait for something they needed to do. I thanked God that my father handled the screening peacefully. Maybe on some level my dad could grow to accept others deciding for him as caring for him?
Being a caregiver and not knowing what comes next is a horribly lonely place to be. My father’s acceptance isn’t an object like a shirt that one can provide for him. Without reason, argumentation and persuasion are useless tools. One knows one is that lost sheep on Jesus’ shoulders wondering where we are going. Leaning in, watching the world, and content someone else has a plan. By the end of that first day, one resident had shared the TV remote with my dad and a few family members visiting other residents had reached out to offer comfort and support. At bedtime we reassured our dad this was his bed.
I was conscious of my first Cindy Lou Who in the optician who was selling me a new glasses cord. I was smiling as I told him even with the Alzheimer’s, my dad’s glasses were getting washed today. The man gave me the cord and wished me a Merry Christmas with my dad. I felt God’s love.
Another Cindy Lou Who was the man who walked me through printing digital photos for my dad’s memory poster. I was explaining the image of my Christmas cross-stitch. Suddenly conscious of probably being his grandmother’s age, I paused. He asked me to continue the story. I felt God’s love.
I arrived at the nursing home prepared to face the worst. As I walked down the hall, a number of activities people were letting me know my dad was fitting in and was a hot sketch. I breathed a sigh of relief. A line from a Psalm ran through my mind: “You changed my mourning into dancing” (Ps 30:12).
Finally, I found my dad. There, I was invited to join the group using flotation tubers to hit around a beach ball. All the dementia residents seemed so sad when I said no. So, I laughed and straddled that alternative dimension for a while. Today my dad was safe and happy. Thank You, Lord.
Though it will continue to have ups and downs, I am leaving off, at this transition, the story of my dad’s journey. Each person, mentioned or not, who in their own way reminded me of Cindy Lou Who sharing God’s love is deeply appreciated. Each also reminded me to remember to watch for times when I might be the one called to share God’s love with others.
Anchor columnist Dr. Helen J. Flavin, Ph.D., is a Catholic scientist, educator and writer.