The Christmas Eve Ride
“OK dad, let’s see if we can get you in the car now. Mom has a lot of things for us to do before Christmas Day. We’ll have a fun ride. ”
His look was blank. It had been several years since dad had really comprehended conversation, let alone participated. At times he responded to “hello” and “how are you?”, or even reverted back to his first language, French. He had long forgotten my name, but somewhere deep within my heart I wanted to believe he still knew me, his first born child. My father was bravely walking through this season of affliction. Alzheimers had snatched away his memories , including sending me that fuzzy German teddy bear from Ansbach for my very first Christmas. And my first car…a red one at that, in honor of the season.
“Whew! We made it!” Dad laughed as I settled him in the car and put his seat belt on.
“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…Jack Frost nipping at your nose…”
blared from the radio as dad and I journeyed southward or “down the bayou” on a Christmas Eve run to pick up freshly baked French bread and tart de bouille for Christmas day dinner. I turned the radio down a little so I could hear his trademark whistling. “Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow…will find it hard to sleep tonight…” I sang along and he whistled even louder.
Though most of my father’s communication skills had been lost, his whistling was the music of his heart. And I didn’t want to miss a minute of his beautiful perfectly-on-pitch tune. He added a little tympani, tapping his fingers on the dashboard to the beat. He turned and smiled at me. His was a happy heart. I wish he could remember this Christmas memory we were making. I will keep it safe for us both.
So we journeyed further south along Highway 1 , following the curving bayou waterway, singing, whistling, relishing the moments, until we arrived at our destination, the Cajun Pecan House.
“I’ll be back in a minute, dad. Gotta pick up some Christmas goodies.”
“OK.” A rare moment of connection. I squeezed his hand as he smiled, mumbling something unintelligible. His deep blue eyes sparkled. I snapped a mental picture to take back home when the holiday season was over.
“Hey coach, how ya doing?” A long-ago basketball protégé of his had followed me back to the car. So many in this small community had good and noble memories of Coach Rene, who had mentored myriads of high school kids for nearly three decades.
Dad looked up at the middle-aged man rather quizzically.
“Coach, hope you’re doing good,” he added, trying to elicit a response.
“Good.” Dad mimicked the last word of his sentence as he often did these days, then shook the hand offered to him.
On the trip home, a jazzy version of Jingle Bells perked dad up and he was soon snapping his fingers to the tune. I almost didn’t want our Christmas Eve ride to end. This was our time. I couldn’t remember a better Christmas Eve day.
“Hey, I bet mama has finished making her pecan pralines and they will taste so good with café au lait. Let’s get inside and have some,” I said turning the ignition off.
“Ready to go inside ?” No response.
“Hey, Rene!” I said energetically.
“Yes!” His head snapped to attention and turned in my direction. I can’t seem to get used to the idea of calling my father by his first name, Rene, but that is the title he responded to without fail.
“OK, Rene, put your arms around my neck, we’re going to get in the wheelchair now,” I said, guiding his arms in my direction.
He looked up at me and smiled, then the tight grasp of his hands around my neck loosened and moved down to my face, cupping it in his hands. In his eyes there was a glint of recognition…could it be? I’ll never know, but that moment in time became the purest expression of love I have ever known, a Christmas gift from my father’s heart, no words needed.
“I love you, daddy. Merry Christmas.”
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