I usually try to write something positive about my mom’s journey with Alzheimer’s disease, but today I am reflecting on something that has been bothering me recently.
Like many families, mine celebrates holidays and milestones together. My grandmother always planned a wonderful gathering for every occasion, and the food was oh so good. I have many happy memories of these get-togethers.
After Grandma passed, my mom and aunt continued these traditions. Mom was there for the holidays and cherished every one of her children’s and grandchildren’s accomplishments, from graduations to baby showers. She was so supportive of and excited for each of us. Even minor events and little things, like cheerleading awards, got their own celebrations. No matter the occasion, you could always see her beaming with pride each and every time.
Then Alzheimer’s disease entered our world and everything changed. Eventually, she bravely and selflessly requested placement in a nursing home. Now, we celebrate with Mom in small groups at the facility. Later, we all gather to carry on our traditions, but there is always an empty chair there that she should be sitting in.
Ever since Mom’s move to long-term care, I think about our gatherings a little differently. Instead of enjoying the moment and reflecting on memories of sharing these special times with our big family, I started to remember the “lasts” with a heavy heart—Mom’s last birthday celebration, last Christmas and last Easter that took place outside of the nursing home. While she is still here with us on earth, I can’t help but feel that I am slowly losing her bit by bit as her condition progresses. This anticipatory grief is common in dementia caregivers but still difficult to contend with and explain to others.
The last big milestone she was able to attend was her granddaughter’s engagement party years ago. Since then, there has been another engagement, two weddings, the birth of a great-granddaughter, and countless other occasions big and small. At each of these, my sister and I were together with the family celebrating, but next to us was the empty chair where Mom should have been.
I could see the pain in my sister’s eyes as we watched each of her daughters walk down the aisle without our mother there to share in our joy. The day Mom’s first great-granddaughter was born, my sister held her grandchild with me by her side. Again, the empty chair was impossible to ignore.
On my daughter’s 21st birthday, we followed a family tradition of celebrating in Atlantic City together. A big group of us watched as my daughter played her first slot machine with a drink in hand. We were all laughing and reminiscing about past celebrations at the casino with all the other “kids.” We were having such a wonderful time.
All of a sudden, my niece said, “I remember this spot. This is where Nanny Jean liked to play.”
Again, there was silence and the empty chair was there, staring at us.
This and many other traditions are being passed down to our children and grandchildren. We will continue to gather and enjoy our beautiful family. We will celebrate holidays, our love for one another, treasured memories and all the milestones we achieve. But through it all, the empty chair will always be there—a bittersweet reminder of how Alzheimer’s deprived us of our Mom and Nanny Jean all too soon.