aging in place, Caring for a parent, Dementia, Mental health, mother daughter relationship, Self-care

Trifecta: Anticipation, Change, Risk

As a child, my favorite day of the year was Christmas. I’m sure I’m not the only one who claims that. As an adult, though, I fell in love with Christmas Eve. It was when I realized that while reality can be disappointing, anticipation holds promise. I have lived with one—and am living with another—whose refusal to look forward to things for fear of disappointment baffled me. Different strokes, I suppose.

Each year I recall the first Christmas with my first child. As I stood in the church of my childhood—home for Christmas with my parents—singing Silent Night in the candlelight, my heart swelled with love for the baby we honored that night who could not possibly have been more special than this sleeping one I held in my arms. In later years, my partner and I—while the children slept with dancing visions of sugar plums—sat in the firelight assembling toys, wrapping gifts, drinking mulled wine and snacking on bread and cheese; anticipating the excitement of the morning to come. It was magical.

It is the night I most miss. The family came apart, the children grew up, the night was left behind. For more than 20 years, I have dreaded Christmas and the weeks leading up to it. January 2 became my favorite day of the year. Until this year.

This year Elliot will be with me. This year his mothers will be here anticipating his Christmas morning. I have never spent a Christmas morning with a grandchild, though this will be the 10th Christmas since my first one was born. I’m happy! Christmas Eve won’t be the same as the long ago ones, nor will the morning. It’s not a re-creation. But I anticipate the child wonder, and the joy of watching pure delight. Maybe I will be disappointed; maybe he’s not old enough yet for wonder. It’s okay. It’s about the anticipation.


And it’s about the fact that, for this year anyway, I reclaimed Christmas. I wanted the house—the one that is my home, but not really my house—to look beautiful. A tall order. I did my best. And I thrilled in the preparing of the way for coming family. I paid dearly for it. (As did the wisepeople of old, now that I think about it.) Mama—or should I say Herod—held it in as long as she could, as I merrily de-cluttered and created beauty, while discarding almost nothing. “You will love it!” I told her. She doesn’t love it, or she claims not to. The proverbial shit hit the fan the night before my first solstice gathering in four years, in the room I repurposed. There was crying, raging, disappointment in me; she even qualified her love for me.

I didn’t let it crush me, though it came close. “She’ll be mad and then she’ll be glad,” one who has been there told me. (Thank you, Cathy.) That I thought it would make her happy to have a beautiful place for guests is only testament to my lack of acceptance of the myriad ways we are different, especially unaccepting when it interferes with who I am. I would say it is because she is an old-old, and partially it is. But it’s also who she has always been. I messed with her house without her (and she did, strongly, remind me that it is her house).

It was a chance I took, knowing it was risky, and I both won and lost—as is the way with all of life. I got a room that I not only can bear to be in—incidentally, not a space my mother uses anymore—but love being in. I paid attention to details in clearing of surfaces throughout the house, dusting, decorating; and I am proud to have my family arriving to spend time here. It was a change I needed—and I also love change.

Love of change is not embraced by the old-old; quite the contrary. Mama fights it with all her might, even as her betraying body and her betraying child march in and take what they will.


And so, I have struggled to find space in my life for anticipation and change, dying a little as I let it go, in deference to my mother’s needs. But in anticipation of Christmas and family, I took a risk. Oh, risk. I embrace that risk is what makes life worth living—and it’s probably an integral part of anticipation and change—but I do not love that word.

On Sunday, I went to a meditative yoga practice in anticipation of the coming solstice. We were encouraged at the beginning of the practice to put intentions on our yoga-block-electric-candle altar. “Risk” popped unbidden into my head. I groaned inwardly. Is that my word for the new year? I have probably milked the risk I took in moving here as long as I can, but really?

As we stood in tree pose, I—more steady than usual—realized balance is what I am lacking. An email connection this week with a friend across the country—also living in the basement of her parents’ home as she cares for them, and both of us not wanting that to be a metaphor for our lives—has me thinking about balance. Maybe that is my word for 2016. Trees are planted, even as they sway. Can I stay rooted and still find balance? Or do I need to move on?


When should I stand in mountain pose, quietly taking the lashing storm that was my mother on Sunday; and when to be in tree, swaying in the storm, protecting my branches from breaking and subsequently dying.

Arguing with dementia is not the best thing for old-olds. And it does seem counter-productive. But as the days and months and years pass, maybe it can’t all be about keeping my mother happy—especially when she seems determined not to be happy anyway. As George Hodgman wrote in “Bettyville,” and I paraphrase, “Do you want me to treat you like some old woman, not responsible for your words and actions?” My mother is not so far gone that she can’t go to her room and think about her unfair and unkind words. Should she always get away with them? At what expense to my soul and psyche should I be the mountain at all times?

I thought this time with my mother would be a hiatus, and I have allowed myself to become lazy with my life. It’s time to get moving again.

But first, it’s Christmas, and Elliot is coming tomorrow. I’ll think about it next year.

This is the night
 when you can trust
 that any direction
 you go,
 you will be walking 
toward the dawn. —Jan Richardson


Thank you each and every one for walking with me on this strange journey and inviting me to walk with you in yours. You are a blessing to me beyond compare. I invite you to read the full text of Jan Richardson’s “Blessing for the Longest Night.





5 thoughts on “Trifecta: Anticipation, Change, Risk”

  1. Gretchen – Thank you once again for sharing your journey to reclaim and redefine yourself and your home as you walk this journey with your mother. I hope your time with young Elliott and his precious moms will lighten up your heart for the holidays. Enjoy and be well. Jude


  2. Take pleasure in the things you can. Enjoy your daughters and Elliot. Take a walk in the woods in the rain. Don’t dwell on your mother’s harsh words. You are, after all, not really a self-centered person that it is a wonder anyone could love (paraphrasing the sort of thing I expect your mother may have said). The house is your mother’s anchor. Every time you change it you take a little of that anchor away. Also, in my experience, upset and anger in the elderly tend to be short lived. Put it behind you and revel in Elliot’s joy as he opens his gifts.


    1. Thank you, Todd. I am definitely intending to walk in the woods going forward, regardless of the weather. Yes, the house is my mother’s anchor. But my house has always been my anchor, too. And church my rudder. I am without a ship now. And it was short-lived, as I knew it would be. She needed to vent, I suppose.


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