Sharing Christmas With Billy

I bought my father a couple of books for Christmas 2020: one about engineering feats and failures (he taught engineering for decades), another about inventions and innovation (he is known for MacGyvering nearly anything with a leftover hunk of aluminum and a couple of sheet metal screws).

When I bought the books, Dad was still reading quite often, and enjoying it. With all that’s changed since then, I’m afraid my father’s books may go unread.


Dad has been told he needs to get exercise, so he ambles around the condo with his walker, sometimes remembering to lift his feet when he steps, instead of shuffling. This morning, he had company on his travels.

“I’m following my imaginary dog – Billy, a setter.”

He had first seen the dog sitting on the placemat in front of him this morning at breakfast. 

“I don’t need a real dog,” he said after he spotted the imaginary one. 

The imagined objects – visual hallucinations – are not new, but neither are they a constant presence. Several weeks ago, he sat in his recliner and described in detail the imaginary harbor that stretched out on the carpet to the right of his feet, down to the types of boats, the people piloting them, and a sense of urgency those people displayed.

I called his doctor then with my concerns, and they guided us toward the emergency room. Dad and I are familiar with the place, given his two falls in the past year (broke a shoulder, broke a hip), and several suspected TIAs over the past few years.

But COVID has changed everything – even emergency rooms – and once I had accompanied him through the basic triage, security kicked me out. Dad was made to wait, all by himself and still confused, for several hours before they managed to get him into an exam room. 

Twenty-four hours and many tests later, they sent him home. Over the next day or two, his mind cleared to what I know as his most recent baseline: clear-headed and energetic. 

I exhaled.

A couple of weeks later, though, the fog has rolled back in.


“There’s snow coming in the chimney,” he said, looking at the hutch across the table from his breakfast seat. We do have a chimney for the furnace, but we have no fireplace, and it isn’t snowing.

His doctors and his weekly home aide insist this confusion is to be expected as a consequence of his age and various health issues. The body misbehaves. To be honest, I expected something like this eventually, after he and my mother and I all moved in together, sharing the condo until Mom died the next year. But still.


Dad and I will be celebrating on our own this year, as we and others in our family all try to avoid exposure to the vicious virus that has made so many sick and taken so many lives. Our plans for coping with our isolation include a three-foot-tall tabletop tree surrounded by gifts delivered by various masked daughters, and what promises to be a raucous Zoom gathering on Christmas Day, with family from both coasts taking part, aged 2 to 94.

That’s what we expect, anyway, although this is still 2020 – the wickedest and least predictable of recent years. Who knows what is actually in store for us.

Nonetheless, Dad and I will stubbornly persevere through these peculiar holidays. However Christmas Day arrives, it will be a festival. I will be happy to share another Christmas with my father. And I would even welcome an imaginary dog – or whatever Dad may conjure up for us this year.

In the end, it’s all a gift.

4 Replies to “Sharing Christmas With Billy”

  1. John, This is so beautiful and poignant. I lost my Dad to Alzheimers in 2006. But before I did, I ramped up my courage and brought my guitar to the Alzheimers facility and played my originals. Backstory: I adored, even revered my Dad and we we’re close, yet couldn’t play in front of him. Always a shy performer but especially for him. So glad I finally shared this love with him, sad it took me so long to do it. Carpe diem.

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