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The Christmas Eve Surprise: Silent Night, Silent Tears

Christmas Eve Service at my church was beautiful. I am the organist and played my heart out, a mixture of organ and piano. It was a service rich with meaning, pageantry, hymns and gospel readings. I dearly hope that my part in the service contributed positively to the congregation’s meaningful experience. The service started with a loud and celebratory Joy to the World! We went through seven more hymns interspersed with readings that took us on the journey of the birth of Christ. As is a tradition in this church, we ended with a quiet, prayerful Silent Night. Boy, did they sing it beautifully.

At this point, while playing Silent Night on the piano, I was able to look out towards the congregation was slowly candles were lit row by row, and the electric lights were put out. Finally, the entire sanctuary was dark with only the twinkle of the Christmas lights on the tree and the warm glow of the individual candles thrown on their faces was all I could see. Timing was perfect; as they sang the verses of Silent Night mostly by heart! At that moment, a warm rush came over me, and I felt love and a sense of community, and a moment of awe. Wow—the strength of this experience almost bowled me over. As a church musician and events professional, I am focused on creating the best experience for the congregation/participants, and mostly don’t get to ‘experience’ the experience myself, which is fine, I take great joy and satisfaction from creating these experiences for others. Closing the service was a prayer and benediction, candle’s blown out and lights come on up. For me, next up was the postlude, a long medley (mash-up) of several traditional hymn tunes for everyone’s enjoyment while they were hugging, saying Merry Christmas, and leaving the church.

As I drove home through the rural streets of Monroe, carefully looking ahead to avoid deer sprinting across the road, unexpectedly warm tears just started flowing down my cheeks. I wasn’t crying, I was weeping. I was completely surprised that this was happening with no warning. I believe that the experience of the service was happening to me now. I felt the love of God and the church family. I am so thankful and blessed to be in this church family right now. I have been bringing my Dad to church for the last year or so, whenever he is up for it and able. The church family has welcomed Dad with open arms. He has an opportunity to interact socially with the kindest and caring people who accepts him as he is, to be a part of the service to hear the readings and prayers, to say the Lord’s Prayer and sing the Doxology. He sings loudly and enthusiastically, often in harmony to the older traditional hymns. He enjoys listening to me warm-up, sometimes sings along if he knows it, and often claps. He also sings along with the choir as they rehearse before service, but has refused invitations to stand with them as a choir member. He loves the time at coffee hour afterwards too, spending time chatting with many different people and smiling and takes special enjoyment from seeing all the little children. At this time of his life, there are very few experiences that he can completely participate, enjoy, contribute to and receive blessings from, and this is one of the treasured ones.

I was weeping as I processed the experience of being in this wonderful church and appreciating what experiences I was able to have with my Dad at this church. At the end of the Christmas Eve Candlelight service, and the hymn Silent Night – the feelings washed over me and a feeling of time running away, that it is ‘too late’. I hear the clock of time ticking loudly and relentlessly, as this dementia disease slowly kills off brain cells one by one in some mysterious pattern, and we lose a little bit of Dad each day. I was weeping at losing the Dad I knew for over five decades. Dad’s short-term memory is gone. It is very disconcerting to have to answer a single question 10 or 15 times in a row -as much as I ‘understand’ he has no short-term memory, it is still beyond belief that if he asks “What is today?” and I answer “Today is Monday” –that I have to roll through this conversation again and again until we move onto another question that he will focus on for hours. Now his long-term memory is starting to get mixed up: the old favorite stories are missing some of the pertinent details and also parts of one story gets mixed up with parts of another. Some of his personality is exacerbated, some of it is changed, most of it is presenting itself as ‘prickly’ (uncomfortable, angry, discontented, dissatisfied…). He is no longer my strong intelligent Dad, able to care, share, make me laugh, and do projects with. I am powerless to stop this disease; I am frustrated at the situation. It is hard to wrap my mind around what is going on. I am trying to understand, but as much as I research and try to understand, when I look into those eyes where my dad always lived, and I don’t see him much anymore; I feel like I lost him already. It is devastating, and physically and emotionally draining.

On Christmas Eve, I had my 20 minutes of grief and reflections in the dark privacy of my car. I processed it and rested. Christmas Morning, I kept these thoughts away and faced the day with joy and anticipation. Living life in the ‘present’, one day at a time. I made sure to create positive experiences for Dad and the family, and had my daughter take a lot of pictures so we can look back at the day with a smile.

I’m the kind of person who always looks for the ‘silver lining’, the positive part of any experience –and it has been a struggle for these circumstances. I’m sure I will find some blessings, but it’s limited at the moment. I’m thankful Dad still knows who I am to him and that he does express appreciation when I care for him. I’m thankful we share a love for music and Dad still enjoys singing in church and listening to music on the radio or me playing for him. I know this will last long beyond the moment when other capabilities fall away. I’m thankful for the church family that embraces Dad, just as he is, and having many people there experiencing similar journeys. I’m thankful for the fact that my brothers and I are closer because of this increased communication needed at this time. I hold these silver linings dear to me for now, to help me continue to care and escort him on this terrible journey.

Related Articles:

Book: The Theft of Memory: Losing My Father, One Day at a Time By Jonathan Kozol

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