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A Christmas tree's magic

Her Alzheimer's had been getting worse and many of the holiday treats had little effect. Then she saw the small, techno tree.


Kathleen Brown

is a writer dividing her time between Buena Vista, Colo., and Richardson, Texas

The techno tree stood on a table in front of the windows in the den. An unlikely hero, it was less than two feet tall, counting the motorized revolving base.

Forest-green branches stuck out from the tree's black metal trunk, short and spiky at the top and longer toward the bottom, giving it the approximate shape of a fir tree. At the flip of a switch, fiber-optic lights glowed in changing colors from the tip of each branch.

My sister gave the tree to my parents in hopes that it would brighten a holiday dimmed by Alzheimer's. But my father had little faith that anything could penetrate my mother's darkness. As I made daily trips from my home to theirs to help him care for her, I saw no sign that this year would be better than the last.

A year ago, my father and I made cookies, wrapped gifts, lit lights. I draped a white sheet over a small table and, on 250-thread-count snow, arranged the old figures around the shaggy manger.

But my mother had forgotten about the manger and the baby. Though she ate most of the cookies, she professed to like "those regular ones" better. And the brightly wrapped gifts evoked so many questions - repeated hour after hour, day after day - that I finally put them out of sight.

So this year, until the gift of the funky little tree, we made no Christmas preparations. Twelve months had stolen so much more from my mother, filling the vacuum with new fears and confusion. Good days had become rarer.

Almost forgotten, the tree sat dark until the late evening of a difficult day. My mother sat at the kitchen table with my father and me, her face still showing vestiges of the anger that propelled her through the hours. She perched crooked and stiff on the edge of her chair. Her feet shuffled like restless children.

Our spirits were brittle with fatigue, the house chill with despair. Perhaps it was desperation that turned my father's gaze away from the heaviness that shrouded the table. Then his feet followed his eyes into the den.

"Where are you going?" my mother growled as he walked toward the tree. "What are you doing?"

He said nothing, only reaching down to flip the switch. From the fiber-optic branches, tiny beams of color, delicate as starlight, ventured out across the room. Green, blue, violet - like snowflakes floating into the gray air and across the brown carpet, dancing on the furniture.

With a tiny hum, the tree turned ever so slowly. And, ever so slowly, my mother relaxed. Her feet rested. Her shoulders sagged into the back of the chair.

"It's a Christmas tree, honey," my father almost whispered, afraid to break the sudden calm. "Do you like it? It's a Christmas tree." As softly, I began singing, "O, Christmas tree, O, Christmas tree . . . "

The old German carol was my mother's favorite. When I was a child, I waited with great anticipation each year for my mother to hear "her" carol on the radio. When she did, she would stop what she was doing and sing along, while my sister and I watched the change in her face. Every feature would soften as she lifted her chin and raised her eyes to a long-ago past. And she would always end with, "We learned that song in school."

It was like a story told on her face and in her voice: love for the fair fir tree, peace, happiness.

Apparently, not even Alzheimer's could steal that memory from my mother. Somehow, the techno tree, with its hypnotic light, evoked the old melody. It had survived the disease, like a gift still wrapped in bright hope.

"O, fir tree dark, O, fir tree fair . . . " I sang on. At the end, I said, "You learned that song in school, right?"

The anxious lines of my mother's face opened into softness, and her eyes flickered in recognition of . . . what? A tree, a gift, an old carol, and peace: the heart of the Christmas story.