Creative Nonfiction by Lina Lau
This Christmas, Mom is bedridden. Bundled in blankets, propped up by pillows. Railings keep her contained. Dad bought a hospital bed after her most recent fall, knowing once her broken ankle healed, she would no longer be able to support herself. The hospital bed and a single bed for him nestled in corners of the emptied dining room form their makeshift bedroom. When my husband and I walk in with our daughters, ages four and seven, Mom’s unfocused eyes gaze in our direction. Today, she knows who we all are. The kids are used to their grandmother’s unresponsiveness, her drooped eyelids, the way her mouth pulls down at the corners, her mumbled words. They parade through the house with toys from Santa, pink fluffy creatures that flash rainbow lights from forehead crystals and giggle when you tickle them. Mom’s head rolls in the direction of their voices, following. She’ll keep herself awake in their presence, but she needs to rest. I shush them, wave them out of the room. Dad has given Aileen, the personal support worker, the day off. We tend to Mom, puree her dinner, add thickener to her coffee for easier swallowing, hold the mug to her lips, wipe dribbles off her chin. Rub her back during coughing fits. I hold her turned to her side. Grip her hand. She squeezes back, surprisingly strong.
This Christmas, Mom spends the day, like all days, in her electric armchair. My daughters take turns pressing the button that raises her to a stand. She strokes their hair. “My little sweeties,” she coos, patient with the jerky ride. I steady her, lower her to the seated walker and wheel her to the table, keeping my head turned to hide my tearing eyes. My husband has cooked his first turkey and apple pie, the meat tender, the crust crisp. Dad cuts her food into quarter-sized pieces as directed by the swallowing specialist. Mom eats with a shaky hand, every forkful a deliberate effort. After dinner, she and the kids watch chocolate balls melt in warmed milk, releasing marshmallows that pop to the surface. Mom pushes the bag of colored mini-marshmallows close to them and they toss in extras until their mugs overflow. Bursts of laughter muffle the oldies Christmas carols Mom taps her feet to. She won’t remember this, and my kids may be too young. This memory will be mine alone.
This Christmas, the city is in lockdown. Vaccines have just been approved. Fear of Covid keeps us from getting together. Dad can’t get sick; who will take care of Mom? What if I sent her to the hospital, forcing her alone because of safety precautions? We celebrate separately, my parents eating leftovers, us making French fries for the kids. Over Zoom, my daughters squirm and wrestle in my lap to shove their faces close to the camera. Annoyed, I hold the iPad above their heads but they manage to reach and press the home button for screenshots. Later I will save the photos of Mom’s shining eyes, her big grin. Still hear her soft calming voice, “I miss you girls. I want to hug and squeeze you!”
This Christmas, we know. Mom’s diagnosis isn’t Alzheimer’s as we suspected, but a rare neurodegenerative disease. An abnormal amount of protein in the nerve cells will deteriorate her brain. Dad has hired Gloria, a retired nurse, a few hours a day. She asks Mom: What year is it? What are your grandchildren’s names? Flaps her arms like wings for Mom to copy. Mom asks when will she get better, and I don’t know if it’s because she doesn’t understand the diagnosis, or if she forgets. Gloria and her husband and adult daughter join us for Christmas dinner, a potluck meal cobbled together last minute, spring rolls and spare ribs. Mom apologizes for not cooking, for not hosting. She watches me chop cucumbers and tomatoes for a salad, add garlic salt, sprinkle it with feta, the way she taught me growing up. When I search for olive oil and vinegar, she directs me to the correct cupboard, beside the stove.
This Christmas, my infant naps in a carrier swaddled to my chest, while Mom and my three-year-old decorate the same artificial tree as when I was a kid, now tilting slightly. My daughter teeters on a step stool in Little Mermaid pajamas while Mom hands her the decorations, stuffed snowmen and bells she made with me on sick days home from school. I remind her of this, her memories already dissolving. I make Mom chamomile tea and bring my daughter Koulourakia, bought from the Greek bakery this year instead of homemade. I promise myself to make the cookies with her next year, to teach her to braid the dough. The two of them decorate the whole tree together, throwing handfuls of sparkling tinsel at the end.
This Christmas, Mom recovers from her first serious fall with a fractured spine. Two months out of rehab, she relies on a cane. My sister and her five-month-old daughter visit from Montana, the first time I’ve met my niece. My toddler blows raspberries on her baby cousin’s belly, her gurgles contagious. I am six months pregnant. We order Chinese food so we can spend time together and no one keeps busy with cooking. Mom perches on an ornate armchair like a queen on a throne, while we lounge on the floor around her surrounded by blocks and books. She delights in her daughters and her daughter’s daughters. And we don’t yet know to wonder if this Christmas will be her last.
Lina Lau is a green tea drinker, mother and writer from Toronto, Canada. Her work has appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Emerge Literary Journal, carte blanche, The Citron Review, X-Ray Literary Magazine and others. She owns too many notebooks and writes during the in-between moments of parenthood. Lina can be found on Twitter/X: @LinaLau_, on Instagram: @_linalau_ and Bluesky: @linalau.bsky.social.