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This short story, by Patricia W. Hunter, was the winner of our “Show Off” Writing Competition. Patricia is a freelance writer, a blogger at Pollywog Creek, and a photographer. She lives in the country outside of Fort Meyers, Florida. Follow Patricia on Twitter.

Patricia W Hunter Pollywog Creek

Patricia W Hunter

When Daddy grabbed the miniature Christmas tree off the table where I’d placed it by his wheelchair and crushed it with both hands, I was stunned.

The little tree had been the centerpiece on my parents’ kitchen table for years. Crafted from dozens of tiny green and gold foil-wrapped boxes glued to an 18-inch Styrofoam cone, I couldn’t remember a Christmas where it didn’t stand on the kitchen table while Daddy worked his crossword puzzles. I’d hoped it would bring him a little joy and brighten his room in the nursing home. That he would destroy it was beyond my imagination, but then nothing about the day had unfolded as I’d expected.

Earlier, my eight-year-old daughter, Emily, and I stopped by mother’s room to leave the boxes of Christmas decorations. We’d known for years that Daddy had Alzheimer’s, but mother’s rapidly declining health remained a mystery. She was sitting in a wheelchair with her untouched lunch tray on the table before her—obviously needing more help than the staff had provided. I removed the cover from the dinner plate, spread a paper napkin across her lap and seasoned the food so she could eat. “I’ll be back after we check on Daddy,” I assured her.

We found Daddy asleep, slumped to one side of his wheelchair in the hall outside his room. He was a mess. In desperate need of a haircut and shave, his rumpled clothes hung loosely on his tall, bony frame. Both arms were covered with bruises and a bandage was wrapped around his right forearm. He’d bitten into one of his medications and the reddish-brown remains mixed with drool and ran down the creases of his chin.

Waking him gently, I wheeled him back to his room, washed his face and showed him the bag of Christmas decorations we brought to decorate his side of the room. I removed the decorations from the bag and placed them on Daddy’s bed. His bed, a bedside table, a small closet of drab, baggy clothes, and his wheelchair were all he had to show for the years he had worked—long past retirement age—to provide for his family.

I’d never known Daddy to be anything but gentle except for the time he punched mother’s roommate when she wouldn’t let him through the door to see his wife. It was totally out of character for him to destroy the Christmas tree I put it on the table next to him.

“Daddy! Why did you do that?” I cried, prying his fingers off the now ruined centerpiece, but he only groaned and stared over my shoulder.

I called for the nurses. Though they didn’t want to, I convinced them to put Daddy back in bed. “Maybe he just needs to rest,” I told them as they removed his shoes and tucked the covers around his frail, lanky frame.

There was a hint of embarrassment in mother’s smile when I walked back into her room— like a little girl caught skipping through mud puddles, she knew she’d made a mess. Tomato sauce was smeared all around her lips and down her chin from the food she had managed to get to her mouth. The rest of her lasagna and green beans were either in her lap or on the floor.

I chuckled, trying to pretend nothing was wrong. I’d never seen my mother like this.

“How was your father?” she asked when I returned from the bathroom with warm water and a washcloth to clean her face. On most days, someone from the rehab center would take mother to Daddy’s room, or bring Daddy to her. Today would not be one of those days.

“I don’t think he’s feeling well today.” I told her, praying she couldn’t see the tears that threatened to spill or detect the lump in my throat.

We stayed with mother as long as we could. Emily held her grandmother’s hand and told her what she was learning in school and what she wanted for Christmas. With tinsel garland, we framed the bulletin board on the wall by her bed and placed other decorations around her side of the room. After reading her Christmas cards and tacking them to the newly decorated bulletin board, we kissed my mother goodbye.

It was the worst Christmas ever. Without waking up again, Daddy died two days after we left him that day, and mother forgot how to brush her teeth. She forgot Daddy died, how to feed herself, or that we had moved her out of the rehab center two days before Christmas and into our home. On Christmas Eve, when it was time to leave for church, my family left without me.  Mother could not be left alone. It was the first time in twenty years I was not at church with my family on Christmas Eve.

I recently asked Emily if she remembers visiting Daddy that day. She does not. Is it because she had only known Daddy with dementia? I wondered.  That last Christmas with Daddy is one I will never forget.

Before we left that day, I crept back into Daddy’s room, relieved to see him soundly asleep. I leaned over the bedrail, kissed his forehead and whispered, “I love you, Daddy.”  Grabbing the bag with the crushed Christmas tree, I left without disturbing him.

Thank you, Patricia. What memories or stories does Patricia’s story stir up in you? Share them in the comments.

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Joe Bunting
Joe Bunting
Joe Bunting is an author and the founder of The Write Practice. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! You can follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).