Christmas Dinner for Six
By: Lynne Phillips
Her mind addled with Alzheimer's disease, Grandma sits, her face blank, her hands plucking at the blanket covering her knees. The Christmas tree and decorations give our living room a festive air. Grandma smiles at me as I adjust the blanket and hand her a mug of chocolate; only warm, in case she spills it.
"Thank you, Carrie," she murmurs, her voice soft and loving.
I'm not Carrie. Her daughter. Carrie, my mother, lost her battle with cancer two years ago. My grandparents helped raise me after my father died in a car accident. I was only two, so I have no memory of him, only many photos of a handsome, dark-haired man smiling at the camera, his arm wrapped protectively around my mother with me sitting on his knee.
It's Christmas Eve. When I was growing up, my mother and grandparents forced me to watch hours of Christmas carols on television. Today I watch them willingly, keeping up the tradition, hoping it will stir some memory for my grandma.
The last carol fills the room. I sing along softly, surprised when Gran joins in singing Silent Night, her voice wavering, but the words clear and sweet.
"You have a beautiful voice, Grandma," I say and clap my hands.
She smiles. "Don't forget we have visitors coming tomorrow for Christmas dinner," she says, before her face goes blank. She looks bewildered, as if she has forgotten to tell me something important. Lost in her own world, she watches me dampen the fire and waits patiently for me to turn off the lights and put her to bed.
Snow has fallen during the night, presenting the perfect wintery Christmas scene. I am up early to prepare the turkey. Leaning on her walking stick, Grandma helps me stuff the turkey. There is almost as much stuffing on the table and floor as in the turkey before it's in the oven. The satisfied smile on her face is worth the time it takes for me to clean up the mess.
We sit sharing a cup of tea at the kitchen table. She is more lucid than usual.
"Merry Christmas, Rosie," she says. It's the first time in two years she has called me by my correct name.
"Merry Christmas, Gran," I say, handing her a small parcel. It is my mother's bracelet. Each charm a present from Gran to celebrate the important milestones in my mother's life; a horseshoe on her wedding day, a cradle when I was born, a car, a house, and many more, each one special.
"Carrie will be pleased to see me wearing this today," she says, smiling. Her face goes blank, lost, trying to remember what the charms signify as she fingers the tiny shapes. She looks at me, distressed. I hug her and lead her to her favorite chair beside the fire. Her face relaxes, and she drifts off to sleep while I continue cooking the dinner.
When Gran wakes, she is lost in the past again, calling me Carrie.
"Don't forget to set four extra places for the visitors," she says.
"Who are they, Gran?" I ask. Her bewildered face tells me she can't remember, but she insists I set six places at the table. I leave Gran sitting near the fire as I race upstairs and change into clean clothes. When I descend the stairs a few minutes later, a babble of voices fills the dining room.
Gran is sitting at the head of the table, smiling. "Look, Rosie, our visitors have arrived."
My mother sits beside Gran. "Hello, Rosie," she says and blows me a kiss. She looks twenty years younger. Her skin is glowing and has the same beautiful smile I remember. Tears blur my eyes as I try to understand what is happening.
"Rosie, this is your father, Frank," she says, introducing the handsome man to her left.
He has dark curly hair like in the photo and his smile mirrors mine; slightly turned up more on one side I wonder why I never noticed that before.
"It's lovely to see you grown up, Rosie. Thank you for inviting us."
My eyes move to the other side of the table. Gran's sister, Gwen, gives me a little wave. She looks the same as she did the last time I saw her, just before she passed away tightly curled hair, pearls, and a sweet smile.
There is only one more visitor. He sits at the head of the table as he always did, the carving knife and fork clasped in his hands. My eyes fill with tears it is my beloved Grandpa the man who filled the role of father to me, after mine died.
"Well, what are we waiting for, Rosie? Shall I carve?"
Dinner is joyous, filled with memories of past Christmases.
"Do you remember the time I dressed as Santa?" Grandpa chortles. "It didn't fool you one bit pulled off my beard."
"Remember Christmas in Australia when we went to visit you, Gwen? It was so hot I thought we would melt, but you still insisted on a full hot Christmas dinner, and the flies!" my mother says.
The conversation is lively and full of memories. My eyes stray to Grandma. She looks happy as we eat Christmas dinner. Her eyes dance between the visitors as she joins in the stories and laughs at the jokes.
The laughter dies, the talk quietens. Gran's face changes and I see she is staring into space, her hands tearing the paper napkin to shreds. I glance around the table to see the reaction of the others, and I realize there is just Gran and me sitting at the table.
I think I must have imagined it all, but I see the scraps of turkey left on six dirty plates, crumpled napkins and discarded party hats.
It takes an hour to get Gran to bed. She is in a daze as I brush her teeth, comb her hair, put on her nightgown, and help her into bed.
When I kiss her goodnight, she grabs my arm. "Wasn't that a special treat, Rosie?" she says. Her eyes twinkle for a few seconds before they go blank.
"It was wonderful Grandma," I say as I tip-toe away, leaving a night-light shining on her wrinkled face, her hands plucking at the covers.
The snow is still falling as I pull back the curtains in Gran's room on Boxing Day. The snow glistens and a rabbit looks up from munching on the last of the cabbages, before scurrying away.
"Morning, Gran," I say. She lies unmoving, her eyes closed, her face smooth. Death has stolen her wrinkles. Her mouth is slightly agape, as if she has one more thing to say, but has forgotten what it was. I sit and stroke her hand. A single tear runs down my cheek.
"Goodbye, Grandma," I whisper. Gran wouldn't want me to be sad. I close my eyes to prevent further tears. When I open them, a soft glow fills the room. The visitors from Christmas dinner are standing at the foot of the bed. Smiling, they hold out their hands. Gran lifts off the bed and floats towards them, her face radiant. They grasp her hands. I blink away tears. When my eyes clear, they have gone, and I am left alone with Gran's body, lying still and empty on the bed.
Her doctor responds to my phone call. "I'll come straight away," he says. "Merry was one of my favorite patients."
The funeral director informs me kindly, "You don't have to worry about a thing. Your Grandma rang us last week with very explicit instructions about her funeral."
I watch the hearse disappear. Lost in thought, I wander back into the dining room and sit in the chair at the head of the table, trying to make sense of Christmas day. Something sparkles on the floor. It is the charm bracelet. I touch each charm, remembering its significance. There is one extra charm, shining new. It is a tiny angel.