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A Tale of Two Thanksgivings

Celebrating the holiday with a parent who has Alzheimer's, you never know if it will be the best or worst of times

I didn't appreciate the expectation I'd had for a Normal Rockwell Thanksgiving until it had been so fully not realized less than an hour in to it.

A little over a month ago, I moved my mother from New York City to Los Angeles, where I live with my husband and two young sons. It was a decision years in the making after her Alzheimer's diagnosis four years ago. My sister and I had managed to keep her well cared for in her home with a rotating staff of five, but as the disease progressed, and our stress levels increased exponentially, we finally decided it was time for her to live closer to one of us.

I found a place near me for our mother. It's a lively place, given the circumstances, that caters exclusively to the needs of people with Alzheimer's. There is no wing that people pass by quickly whispering, "That's the memory care unit," like it's a car crash too bloody and terrifying to even crane your head toward.

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Her adjustment to the place had been remarkably uneventful, given what we were all anticipating. A true New Yorker in the sense of being a person who was never satisfied, within two weeks there—when I visited her almost daily—she smiled often, waving at people and telling me the food was "delicious" and the place was "like a very fancy hotel."

But as I learned on Thanksgiving, Alzheimer's is one tricky beast, rendering her sparkly eyed and alert one minute, then ferociously angry and violent the next—for no discernable reason. Despite my best efforts of reserving a private room, bringing in cartons of turkey, stuffing and pie, and bringing the whole family to celebrate with her (including my father-in-law and the dog), the raging part of the disease had its way with her that day.

Not that I gave up easily. My mother still loves to read, even simple messages like on T-shirts and name tags. She'll interrupt a sentence to read what is written on your chest. I had my sons write signs to hold up for her of the things we were thankful for this year: "Ice cream," "Thanksgiving," "Grandma." Waiting for my husband and his father to arrive, we started showing them to her sitting on the couches in the front room.

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"Those are awful! Terrible!" she yelled as we each took turns trying to please her. "This is all very bad," she added, as I shoved the pieces of construction paper back in my bag.

Maybe a change of scenery will help, I thought next. The room where we were to have dinner had been decorated with balloons, flowers and linen, all benchmarks of entertaining she taught me, surely she will appreciate that, I thought. Pepe, our dog, licked my bare ankles as I wheeled my mother down the hallway. I had put on some strappy shoes to go with my festive blue lace dress and pearls for the occasion. Yes, I wore a cocktail dress and pearls to Thanksgiving dinner at the Alzheimer's home, that's how determined—one could say naïve—I was about making this Thanksgiving a happy one.

"This is not right," she said as I wheeled her up to the table, "you'll see, this is bad." Normally I have a sense of humor about her craziness, but my wits were not about me. I was worried for the children; I was concerned that my father-in-law, never one for big displays of emotion, was going to be very put off by the whole scene; and, most challenging of all, I simply was not able, for the first time, to get through to her. To calm her down.

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That's when my father-in-law stood up and started to sing.

"It had to be you, it had to be you, I wandered around and finally found the somebody who ..."

My mother put down the roll she was picking apart and raised her eyes to his. "That's right! That's right!" she screamed, smiling for the first time.

"Could make me be true," he continued, "could make me be blue. And even be glad, just to be sad, thinking of you …"

My mother stared at him in wonder. My eyes welled up before I had a chance to stop them. Grandpa sat down again, a little embarrassed. I kissed him on the cheek and whispered, "Thank you." He picked up his fork. "Alright then," he said, "Heck of a good stuffing you have here."

"That was beautiful, Mom, wasn't it?"

"Yes, yes, it was. That's right, that's right!" she said, as if every single thing before then had been wrong, She picked some turkey and stuffing up off the plate I'd made for her. My husband had slipped the fork out of her hand earlier while I was bringing in the food and she was waving it around dangerously close to my 9-year-old's head.

"Do you like it, Mom?" I asked, "The stuffing is good, right?"

"It's terrible," she said, putting a big clump of it in her mouth and swallowing it.

"OK," I said, sinking my body lower in the chair, childishly taking her response personally, like I'd screwed up by trying my best to make the holiday nice for her. My father-in-law seized the opportunity to finish up the song,

"For nobody else, gave me a thrill, " he crooned, rising to his feet, "with all your faults, I love you still. It had to be you, wonderful you." He paused, extending his hand out to her,

"It had to be you," he held the note like the professional singer he was trained to be. My mother reached her long, thin arm out to him and yelled, "It did have to be me! ME ME ME ME ME!" which my husband and the boys couldn't help but laugh about. The moment passed, a brussels sprout on the table caught her attention.

"Thank you," I said again to Grandpa.

"Mom, wasn't that so beautiful?" I asked again. One of the only unchallenging aspects of being with an Alzheimer's person: No need to tax yourself coming up with new ways of saying the same thing.

"Yes, yes, it was," she said, and then kept going, "It was. It was awful. Terrible. This is terrible, it's terrible, it's terrible." Her agitation escalated, and she was starting to spin out of control. I gently took her face in both my hands.

"Do you want to go watch a movie with your friends, Mom?"

"Yes, yes, I do," she said.

I stuck a napkin in a glass of water and wiped the stuffing and sweet potatoes off her fingers.

"Good night, Grandma," the boys said, as I wheeled her out of the party room and into the room on the other side of the wall, to take her now familiar place in the line of wheelchairs facing the TV. I leaned down and kissed her cheek.

"Is this good, Mom?" I asked.

"Yes," she said, looking at the screen.

"OK, Mom, I love you. Happy Thanksgiving." She stared ahead.

I returned to the room and collapsed into a chair next to my son.

"Tough stuff," he said.

"Yes," I said.

"'It's not your fault, Mom. You did great."

"Yeah, Mom," my little one added, hugging me. My husband came over and kissed the top of my head. We all took a deep breath. Then my father-in-law added his two cents, "I'll tell you what, that is some kind of key lime pie you got there!" tossing a piece of it under the table to Pepe, who gulped it down and then licked my ankle again.

I smiled and thought of Dickens: It was the best of Thanksgivings, it was the worst of Thanksgivings.

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