The Little Way of Christmas

Don’t miss the moments of enchantment at family gatherings

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Dr. Michel Therrien, STL, STD is the  President of the Preambula Group.

For families at Christmas time, the Church’s celebration of the birth of Jesus offers three moments of sublime enchantment in this life — that is, if we are paying close enough attention. The first is when we are little children and starstruck by the romantic wonder of Christmas Eve and morning. Assuming your family celebrated Christmas when you were a child, you probably recall the deep sense of marvel that bordered on the edge of mysticism. The lights, the presents, the special foods, the music and the gathering of family all came together to leave a deep impression on the soul.

On the surface, if I may speak on my own behalf, I was definitely excited about the presents, but the deeper significance of the celebration was not lost on me. My eyes were wide open and the apparent magic of it all stirred deep within my soul, leaving lasting impressions and memories I have not forgotten to this day. As soon as the weather turned, it was impossible not to look forward to Christmas from the first weeks of November. When it was over, it was difficult not to be let down.

Photo: Lightstock

The second great moment of enchantment is when, if we are so blessed, we get to create the same experience for our own children. Part of the draw is recreating for them the conditions we remember from Christmases past when we were little; except in the role of parent, one begins to discover the many little acts of love that were behind those childhood memories. All the work! Christmas is quite the production for parents but the key is for parents to recollect themselves enough during Advent to remember what it was like to be a child at Christmas.

Even more, to rise above the laboriousness of the Advent season, parents have to become children (as it were) and maintain the enthusiasm and joy that the run up to the celebration warrants. My mother always became very sick after Christmas — not a good thing. Yet now I know why; she expended a lot of energy to make Christmas wonderful and special for the family. When it was over, she was exhausted and worn down. It is a kind of birthing experience actually, to bear one’s children once again into the mystery and meaning of life. It is essential to a good life as an adult to see Christmas with the eyes of a child — full of wonder and promise.

The third moment is when grandparents get to watch their children replicate the wonder of Christmas for the grandchildren. Christmas joy is not only about the blessing a child receives in the presence of grandparents, but for the grandparents to watch their own children carry on the family traditions and allow childhood to reign continuously across generations. The joy children bring to grandparents is the free and joyful spirit of “littleness.” Children are unpretentious and free to love and express joy and excitement at the simple blessings of life. Somewhat less encumbered by the burden of the Christmas production, grandparents are relieved to hand it over to their children and once again experience through their grandchildren a kind of freedom to relish in the moment of spiritual childhood.

Photo: Lightstock

Christmas is thus all about the child and spiritual childhood. It is about being able to see life through the eyes of a child, to allow God to fill us with wonder and joy at the simple gifts he places under the tree of our life. Every morning we can awake to these gifts, open them up and find the true joy of our existence. Yet we have to have the disposition of a child to experience wonderment at those gifts and not take them for granted. St. Thérèse of Lisieux called spiritual childhood “the little way.”

The little way is the way of love, which we discover in the little acts of goodness we give or receive from others. Joy is not complicated, but so often we miss this profound truth, especially during advent and at Christmas time. Joy is simple. It arises when we have the open eyes and heart of a child to appreciate the little gifts of God that surround us — and just rejoice at them. Children have to show us — or remind us as adults — that spiritual childhood is the Way of Christian discipleship. As adults, we often have to resist the temptation to grumbling and self-martyrdom in the service of family. The call is always to build up family life with a generous and joy-filled attitude, especially during the holidays, which are meant to be “holy” days.

Photo: Lightstock

Christmas teaches us one of the most important lessons of life. To grow up and get “big,” we have to learn how to remain childlike and little. We have to cultivate the sense of life’s wonderment and mystery. No better way exists for doing this than to contemplate the gift of the child born to us in Bethlehem. We have to contemplate the mystery of God’s own infancy. The God of the universe came to us by the little way of childhood. Yet as adults, we tend to make life so complicated and too sophisticated; or we give up on child-like-ness altogether. Jesus entered the world as a little one and grew up in a family. In many other ways, God could have made his entrance into history. He chose this way of human childhood. As a baby, he reveals the deepest mystery of God’s love.

The divine love for humanity is completely free, uninhibited, generous, wide open and full of wonderment. It is enchanted, romantic and ecstatic. As a culture, we hang onto to these elements of the Christmas season and continue to celebrate them year after year because they speak to the deepest longings of the human heart. To love as a child and to be loved as a child of God — this is the mystery of human existence and the salvation we celebrate at Christmas. The Christ child is a revelation of our path to God. We have to be children of our Heavenly Father, that is, we have to be childlike in our relationship with our Father. This is the little way of Christmas and the meaning of following Jesus in our lives.

COMING UP: Lessons on proper elder care after my mother’s death

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We buried my Mom last month. 

In the summer of last year, I first drove her to her new memory care facility. My heart was breaking. She was so scared and vulnerable but was trying so hard to be brave. My brother said it was like taking your kid to pre-school for the first time. And never going back to pick her up. 

But we had to do it. She was far too confused for our 97-year-old Dad to take care of her. She didn’t recognize him. She would lock herself in her room, afraid of the “strange man” in their apartment. She wasn’t eating well, and with COVID restrictions we couldn’t get into her independent living facility to monitor her diet or her health. Worst of all, she would wander. Unable to recognize “home” and unable to convince anybody to come get her, she would set off by herself. Dad would realize she was missing and frantically try to find her. Fortunately for us, she always attempted her escapes when the night security guard was at his desk. But we were terrified that some evening she would get out while he was away, and she would roam out into the winter night. 

We knew that, without round the clock support, we couldn’t keep her safe in any of our homes either. So, we concluded that she needed to be placed in a secure memory care facility. I think it was one of the hardest decisions my family has ever faced. We researched. We consulted experts. We hired a placement agency. We came close to placing her in one home, then chickened out because we felt like the owner was pressuring us.  

Finally, we landed on what looked like the best facility for our needs. They specialized in memory care, and we were assured that the staff had been trained to care for people with dementia. They took notes about her diet, health, likes and dislikes. Most important, it was a secured facility. They knew that Mom wandered, and their secured doors and round the clock caregiver oversight seemed like the best way to keep her safe. It was the most expensive facility we had seen. But we figured her safety and well-being were worth it. 

On Jan. 12, Mom was found in that facility’s back yard. Frozen to death.  

She had let herself out through an unsecured exterior door, unnoticed and unimpeded, on a cold winter evening. No one realized she was missing until the next morning.  A health department investigator told me that she had been out there at least 12 hours. Which means caregivers over three shifts failed to recognize her absence. I’m told she was wearing thin pants, a short-sleeved shirt and socks. The overnight low was 20 degrees. 

We are devastated. Beyond devastated. Frankly, I don’t know that it has completely sunk in yet. I think the brain only lets in a little horror at a time. I re-read what I just wrote, and think “Wow, that would be a really horrible thing to happen to a loved one.” 

I debated what my first column after Mom’s death would look like. I have felt compelled, in social media, to celebrate the person my Mom was and the way she lived. To keep the memory alive of the truly amazing person she was. But I think I did it mostly to distract my mind from the horror of how she died. 

But I am feeling more compelled, in this moment, to tell the story of how she died. Because I think it needs to be told. Because others are struggling with the agonizing decision to place a parent in memory care. Because when we were doing our research, we would have wanted to know that these kind of things happen. 

I am not naming the facility here. It will be public knowledge when the Colorado Department of Health and Environment report is completed. From what I am told, they are horrified at what happened and are working very hard to make sure it never happens again.

My point here is much bigger. I am discovering the enormous problems we face in senior care, particularly in the era of COVID. I was told by someone in the industry that, since the facilities are locked down and families can’t get in to check on their loved ones, standards are slipping in many places. With no oversight, caregivers and managers are getting lazy. I was in regular communication with Mom’s house manager, and I raised flags every time I suspected a problem. But you can only ascertain so much in phone conversations with a dementia patient. 

Now, since her death, we have discovered that her nightly 2 a.m. bed check — a state mandated protocol — had only been done once in the ten days before her death. She could have disappeared on any of those nights, and no one would have realized it. 

I have wracked my brain, to figure out what we could have done differently. The facility had no previous infractions. Their reputation was stellar. Their people seemed very caring. Their web site would make you want to move in yourself. 

Knowing what I know now, I would have asked some very specific questions. How are the doors secured? Are they alarmed? Is the back yard accessible at night? Are bed checks actually done every night? Who checks the logs to confirm? 

I would check for infractions at the CDPHE web site. Then I would find out who owns the facility, and do some online stalking. Is this a person with a history of caring for the elderly, or just someone who has jumped into the very trendy, very profitable business of elder care? I am very concerned that, for many, this “business model” is built on maximizing profits by minimizing compensation for front line workers — the people actually caring for our loved ones. 

Dad is living with me now. We are not inclined to trust any facilities with his care. Watching him grieve has been heartbreaking. If you talk to him, do me a favor and don’t mention how she died. It’s hard enough to say good-bye to his wife of nearly 60 years, without having to grapple with this, too. 

I am, frankly, still in disbelief. I don’t know exactly where I am going from here. But I do know one thing. I want my Mom’s death to spur a closer look at the way we care for our vulnerable elderly. 

Because I don’t want what happened to my Mom to happen to another vulnerable elderly person again. Ever.