Bring a gift. Go to that tiny store with the vintage decorations that you always pass on your way to work. Tell the salesperson there that you’re looking for the shiniest ornaments that you can find. Explain that they’re for someone who’s hospitalized and can’t see well, even though that’s not completely true.
Get a pair of beautiful, luminous bulbs, and be proud of yourself for finding an appropriate gift for someone who’s completely incapacitated.
Instead of viewing Christmas as a month-long obligation to meet the expectations of others, try looking at it as a time to spend time with your family. It helps to have the good fortune of being part of a coherent family unit, preferably one that isn’t fighting.
Join your mom on her regular visit to the facility. Be ready for the familiar scent of disinfectant and institutional soap, which you really don’t like, and the tinny versions of classic carols playing over the PA system, which you also really don’t like. Make a mental note, as you watch your mom bring a present — which is probably chocolates — to the nurse’s station: maybe next year get a fruit and nut basket, in case the staff might like some healthier gifts along with all the chocolate piling up there.
If you sense some degree of judgment, since the staff sees you only around the holidays, just smile and nod politely as each stranger comments to your mom: “Oh, this is your other one?” “They look so much alike!” Remember that no one there knows your story. You also don’t know theirs.
Don’t be alarmed at how people look when they’re sick.
If the first thing you notice about your sister is how her gums look weird, assume that this must be what happens when someone hasn’t eaten solid food in awhile. If her face is flushed, with pimples and peach fuzz, but everyone goes about their business, it’s probably nothing to be concerned about. Check with your mom, but believe her if she says it’s ok, and the doctors are doing the best they can.
When your mom leaves to talk to the nurses, and take care of business matters, go to your sister’s bedside and do your best to talk to her. Show her the beautiful ornaments that now feel sad in your hands, and tell her that you hope she can see them. She might stare into space; don’t read into that. Leave the bulbs on the table for the staff to hang. Look out the window, and describe what you see, if you don’t know what else to say. Maybe sing, if she’d like that. You’ll want to be helpful, even though you probably also can’t wait to leave, because the situation is sad and scary, and you feel stupid since there’s nothing else you can do. Accept that strangers take better care of your family than you ever could, or will.
Forgive yourself. How the hell should you know what to do? Try to be nice to people. Don’t forget to take care of yourself.
When your mom returns, take the opportunity to go to the restroom. You can kill some time by reading the flyers on the bulletin boards lining the hallways. You’ll likely notice that most of the activities at the place are geared toward the senior residents. If your sister could tell what’s going on, she’d be bored out of her mind. Some of the seniors probably are, too.
Don’t be startled if someone moans loudly in a room across the hallway. Continue to ignore the tinny Christmas carols.
Go back to your sister’s room, and try to think of something to say, as your mom writes furiously in a notebook for the therapists to check. Be patient as she finishes, kisses her oldest child on her forehead, and tells her “We love you.” Help her check around the room one last time before you leave.
Then leave. Accept any feelings of guilt for heading out so soon, and/or relief to be going. Look forward to tomorrow, when you’ll have a big meal, and then open presents with your mom, brother, and dad. Leave your parents’ house a day or two after that, to get back to your apartment two and a half hours away. Accept that you might feel both relieved to be going, and a little guilty for heading out so soon, always wondering if there really is nothing else you can do.