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Remembering the true nature of the holidays

Published Sep. 28, 2005

We've just celebrated the season that is supposed to be about giving _ not so much the material kind, but giving of the self, the soul, the heart. Giving at any time is supposed to be about that, but it's easy to forget, particularly at Christmas. The concept gets buried beneath Neiman Marcus catalogs, lists, bills.

My grandmother understood the essence of giving and never forgot it. In the '40s and '50s, Nelle Reagan regularly visited tuberculosis patients at Olive View Medical Center in Sylmar, Calif. She had little money, but believed that giving to others is a vital part of life. She always brought the patients something, even if it was just a card or a pencil.

But when people close to you are ill, especially if death is whispering in their ears, you want to give them impossible things _ more time, less pain, an escape from long nights of fear. A friend of mine recently found out that cancer has conquered vast regions of his body. His chemo treatments are a race against time. Many of his nights are spent sitting in a chair, fighting pain.

"It's so quiet then," he said. "When it gets so late and everyone's asleep." Alone with his pain and his fear, the hours crawl.

Although my father is not in pain, he loses more of himself each month to Alzheimer's. For him, as for anyone who has this disease, time is the enemy. It becomes jumbled, confused, compressed and emptier all the time _ hollowed out.

My brother Michael and I meet at our father's office with gifts for him _ ours and our brother Ron's. Ron wasn't sure when he'd be down from Seattle, and we wanted to give our gifts all at once. My sister, Maureen, had made other arrangements for hers.

We have all thought along the same lines: What will he like to look at, what will hold his attention or, even better, tug at his imagination? We've brought picture books, mostly of nature scenes, and chocolates _ a forbidden treat.

And a snow globe. When I saw it, I remembered that when I was a child my father would describe white, snowy Christmases, transporting me from the brilliant sunshine of a California winter. It seemed perfect to give him a miniature replica of Christmas, a fantasy encased in glass.

My father's office is high above Los Angeles. Blue sky and rooftops are the view from his windows. He still goes there for a couple of hours on weekday mornings. There isn't much for him to do, but that isn't the point. It's a routine, and with Alzheimer's, routines are important. They structure time, fill the hours.

There is something comforting about cluttering up his desk with gifts and cards. These days, it's mostly empty. A yellow pad that's never written on is always in the same place and has been for months. I watch his hands as he tries to be careful, peeling tape from the wrappings. Then he just tears it, giving in to impatience, perhaps. His eyes light up at the chocolates; for a moment, we're co-conspirators, bringing him a delicacy he rarely gets.

"Those are all for you, Dad," Michael tells him. "You don't have to share them with anyone."

"Oh, good," he says playfully, pulling them toward him.

He becomes engrossed in the books, the photographs of lakes and meadows and mountains. He turns the snow globe and smiles at the tiny winter wonderland. I tell him that when he tires of the sunshine outside the window, he can just look into the snow globe and change the season.

He looks straight into my eyes and says flatly, "Okay."

And I wonder, as I often do, if he knows that sometimes I search for amusing things to say to him.

I'm not sure if my father still understands Christmas, but I'm certain he understands giving. And for the time we are there, so do Michael and I. We are removed from the madness of shopping malls and parking problems. When my brother and I leave, I ask him who was given the greater gift, our father or us. He doesn't need to answer me; we both know.

The next day, I give my friend who has cancer a round piece of polished rose quartz that fits neatly into the palm of the hand and feels cool and soothing. I thought he could hold it during the long nights when he sits in a chair trying to bargain with his pain.

It shouldn't take illness or tragedy to remind us what giving is supposed to be about. Yet, sadly, it usually does. Recently, I went hiking in the hills and stopped at a waterfall and a pool, shaded by tall trees. I sat on a rock and listened to the water, the breeze shivering the leaves, a bird's wings overhead.

I wished I could give that to my father and my friend, who always believed he would live much longer than he will live. I wished I could give them both the peace of those few moments, the sweetness of those sounds, the serenity of that spot. I can't.

But I can remember the true nature of giving, at Christmas and at every other time. That might be almost as good.