The shops of Clerkenwell came alive at Christmas.  A civic culture that went back centuries had developed traditions and practices geared towards bringing citizens together through song, eating, celebrating, and, naturally, shopping.  A timely Christmas Eve falling of fresh snow introduced an even more heightened collective sentimentality.

Sandy and Alberta had always maintained his family’s tradition of opening presents on Christmas Eve, exactly at midnight.  These had been some of the happiest moments of life for Jennifer and Robin and almost always led to nights of no sleep.

This occasion was obviously going to be different, as everyone understood that it would likely be Alberta’s last.  That knowledge created a poignant sense of joy and tragedy that permeated everything the family did.  The routine was always the same – a fashionable dinner, church candlelight service, late-evening drink, and, at last, the giving and opening of presents. As with other celebrations, they all decided to ask Elizabeth Fairborough to join them and spend the night.

The physician brought the dinner – a well arranged set of servings – roast goose and some turkey, brussels sprouts, roast potatoes, cranberry sauce, a rich nutty pudding, English sausages wrapped in bacon, and, as an ending, hot rice pudding topped with a thin crust of baked milk.

Alberta’s condition had deteriorated enough that they all took turns helping to feed her after she pointed to whichever item she craved.  Mobility had become a concern, but her voice was as clear as a bell and never developed the slurring sounds they were told to expect – a condition Elizabeth found somewhat miraculous.

At St. James, Robin had been able to secure seats for them at a handicapped area near the front of the apse and on the edge of the lengthy nave reaching from back to front. Battery operated candles were handed to everyone and, as the sanctuary was placed in darkness, the effects of the lights and songs were magical.  The choir had certain set pieces, but the majority of the evening was spent with the congregation’s favourite seasonal carols.  Her companions all lowered their voices and listened to Alberta sing with clarity and an appealing tone.  The ironies of Alzheimer’s made themselves felt when she lost her way reading the carol sheet but remembered every word when she put the sheets away and just sang from memory.

The homily for the celebration wasn’t about death but life and the birth of new hope in a manger in Bethlehem.  When it was over, Alberta remained in prayer, causing the others to wonder if she had nodded off.  Something was going on, and they sensed their mother and friend arriving on more intimate terms with her Creator.

As the congregation filed out, a large cohort of members came up to Alberta, wishing her a merry Christmas.  Everyone understood this would be her last.  Yet Jenny found herself in a state of deep admiration as she saw grace and respect shown through hugs and kisses, but without the overt emotionialism.  This was the English spirit that her mother had exemplified and loved.  It was a fitting end to a beautiful service.

Alberta was clearly fatigued and chose to lie down for a short time upon returning home.  It gave the three remaining the opportunity to talk openly of her condition.

“After watching her this evening, I think she’s moving into the final stages of the disease, and I think she knows it.”  The others listened to the physician’s prognosis without comment.  “There is something unusual about the stages of her Alzheimer’s,” she continued.  

“What do you mean?” Jenny inquired.

“You say she is experiencing incontinence, and that she’s increasingly having trouble with the names of those around her – even you, at times.  She has trouble counting backwards from 10, and forgets birthdays. All that is normal and will not be reversed.  But most have trouble with remembering aspects of their earlier lives and show clear signs of personality change.  Your remarkable mother hasn’t exhibited those traits, you say?”

“Not at all,” answered Robin, shaking his head from side to side.  “She never spoke with us very much about her childhood years, but now she is delighting us with stories and anecdotes that are full of detail and description.  It’s remarkable, really.”

“And can’t you see it?” Jenny asked of the physician.  “Mom seems the same as she has always been.  Oh, she’ll get frustrated when she can’t button her sweater or properly brush her hair, but that is rare.  Her disposition is still gracious and patient.”

The physician sighed before saying, “Every case is different and often defies easy classification, but your mother has been truly exceptional when it comes to her speech and mellow nature.  It’s confounding.”

“I think that, in ways we don’t really understand, Mom has disciplined herself, both mentally and emotionally, to retain whatever sense of personal dignity she can.  It’s what we talked about in your office a few weeks ago. I know you disagreed with Mom’s approach, or my handling of her going back in time in Edinburgh, but do you think that, perhaps, she was right?”

“What do you mean?” Elizabeth asked, not feeling slighted.

“I’m just wondering if someone’s personality changes because they are no longer in control of their lives. People, loved ones even, tell them what to do, how to go to the bathroom, help them eat, tell them what to wear, brush their teeth, and put them to bed.  Is that why people with dementia change, or does it, at least, contribute to it? – they are fighting back for their dignity, usually against the ones they have been closest to for years.”

“I see what you’re saying, Jen.  And you think Alberta is remaining her genial self because she is being permitted to, even as her mind goes through all these contortions.”

“It’s just a theory, Elizabeth, but she has done well in some of these areas.”

They were interrupted by Alberta’s hunched form shuffling in from the bedroom.  “When do we get ready for church?” she inquired, prompting a knowing silence from the others.

“We were just there, dear friend,” answered Elizabeth.  “Don’t you remember singing OHoly Nightwith the choir?”  The blank stare she received in response revealed that Alberta couldn’t place it in her mind.

“It’s time for some Christmas Nog,” Robin said, with feigned excitement.

“Egg Nog – the real thing?” Alberta’s eyes were those of a child – entranced, eager, and full of glee.

They sat by the mantle place heater and let the warm milk, spiked with nutmeg, vanilla bean, cinnamon sticks, and the essential rum, flow easily down their throats.  Alberta, though still slightly confused about whether she actually went to church or not, had no trouble entering into the spirit of it all.

It was decided among the others that they would forego the gift exchanges this year for the simple reason that Alberta had forgotten to acquire presents, and there was no desire to embarrass her on an evening when she was already having trouble.  Looking at her on occasion, Jenny caught the sense that her mother was more aware than she was letting on, but she could never be sure.

Thirty minutes later, they were cleaning up when Elizabeth noticed Alberta attempting to get through the side door and onto the patio.  She appeared somewhat disoriented.

“Bertie, it’s pretty chilly out there, and it’s late.  Maybe it’s time to get settled in to bed, and then we’ll have a fine Christmas breakfast in the morning.”

“I want to see Sandy,” was her friend’s simple reply.

“Sandy?” the physician replied.

Jennifer appeared at her mother’s side almost immediately.  “There’s something special out there that Mom should show you Elizabeth. Mom, let’s put your warmer slippers on, grab your coat, and then we can go out.”

Elizabeth didn’t understand any of what was going on but dutifully followed them out the side door, down the one step, and to the spot in front of Alberta’s stones.  Robin appeared with two heavy blankets – one for them to sit on and the other to wrap around them in the chilly air.  Then he brought out a fresh round of eggnog and sat with the three women on the ground.  The light from the kitchen illuminated the area around them.

Jennifer asked questions about the stones, and her mother answered each one specifically. Elizabeth got a better idea of what it was all about and listened in, entranced.  The story of each stone was told, and a compelling narrative of two people deeply in love emerged – from their honeymoon to the time of Sandy’s death.  Jennifer explained how the lock from Sandy’s large steamer trunk was buried somewhere beneath the stones.

“I’m coming, darling … I’m coming.”  The frankness of the words left the others stunned and speechless.  And the sureness of the tone in which they were uttered! It was transparently clear that this woman before them was not only empowered by her religious faith but confident in its ultimate outcome.

“Mom, can you show Elizabeth your key?  It’s such a beautiful thing.”  Jenny’s question prompted Alberta to smile.  She plunged her hand down the front of her coat and produced the key she had treasured for her entire adult life.

It was an old-fashioned looking skeleton key, deep brass in colour, with what appeared to be a crown at its top.  It appeared refined, though not ornate.  “I buried the lock after he passed,” said Alberta.  “I kept the key because we were meant to be together.”  She raised it to her lips, and then placed it once again close to her heart, where it had always been.

Then, quietly, Alberta began singing, Away in a Mangerin soft, but mellow tone. By the second verse the others had joined in.  The moon emerged from behind the clouds, the church bells chimed, and, for all of them, it was magic.