December 18, 2010
Mom had been incoherent for a long time. Alzheimer’s turned her into a completely different person for the last eight years of her life.
I sat next to her in the assisted living cafeteria. Dad was at the piano playing Christmas carols for the room filled with other residents, staff, and family. It was their annual Christmas dinner and celebration but it happened to also be my mother’s birthday. Dad was being Dad – entertaining the troops, so to speak. Scott found a box of rubber gloves, had blown them up, and was making obscene gestures with them under the table. Mom sat motionless through the whole event. I was awkwardly trying to bridge both worlds.
People yelled out requests as Dad played along. Grandmas getting run over by reindeer and Old Saint Nick tunes cheered up the space. But when he started playing Away in the Manger, Mom immediately sang along. She didn’t sing the melody, but rather the alto line. Her beautiful alto voice carried the tune as perfectly as she’d done all my life. Her brain knew the part. Her mouth knew the words. Her heart knew the meaning.
She died one month later.
When I hear this song now, I usually rearrange the punctuation. Mom is not here, she’s Away. At the manger. She’s the little southern lady in the alto section, strong, perfectly on tune, and filled with joy.
Meanwhile, jokes are still being told behind the scenes, the piano sing-a-longs are still at the ready, and Anna-Margaret and I are attempting to further the song to each generation that follows.
Happy birthday, Mom. Thank you for a deeply southern heritage filled with kindness, faith, and the perfect cookie tier combination.