Going to the rest home was not the thing my children were most interested in doing last Christmas Eve, but they had enough of the spirit of the season not to object when I suggested we go.
For about four years, every month or so, we had gone to visit Lillian and Geneva, two elderly women we had found while visiting a nearby rest home looking for people who needed friends. Geneva had been recently transferred to a rest home closer to her daughter, so it was only Lillian we set out to see on Christmas Eve. We took with us a plate of Christmas cookies we had made—stars and trees and a Santa Claus, heavily iced with red and green frosting and not too artistically decorated with gold and silver sprinkles.
Seeing Lillian was always a poignant experience. She used to own a shop in Washington, D.C., and had met four presidents of the United States. She had also been in the musical theatre and liked to tell stories of singing in the chorus in The Music Box, a show with Fanny Bryce.
She was in her eighties now and had suffered a stroke that left her practically bedridden. All she had left were memories. A son on the East Coast called her every Sunday afternoon. A daughter just a few miles away came rarely, saying she could not bear to see her mother in that condition. I knew that we would probably be the only visitors Lillian had that Christmas.
However, it was not Lillian who provided the most poignant moment of the visit. It was the woman in the bed next to her. I had seen her on two previous visits, a small, frightened-looking woman who moaned constantly and asked for help. A nurse had assured me that she was well cared for, that her moans were just a habit. Still, it was distressing to hear her.
As we arrived on Christmas Eve, I was grateful to see that the woman was asleep. Lillian greeted us as enthusiastically as her condition would allow. We told her about our recent news, helped her to eat part of a red Christmas cookie, and then asked her if she would like to hear some Christmas carols. Of course she would. My children had performed several years in a local production of A Christmas Carol, so they had a whole repertory of well-prepared songs. Lillian and her roommate last year hardly let us go.
A radio on the table of the woman in the next bed was playing rather loud rock music. I went close to her and said quietly, “May I turn down the radio? We’d like to sing for you.” She did not respond. I reached over and turned the radio down a little. Instantly her eyes flew open and she looked at me in terror.
“Nurse!” she called out. “Help!”
“I turned it down for a few minutes so we can sing to you,” I said.
“Nurse!” she cried, sitting up. “Nurse!”
Quickly I pulled my children over near me and we began to sing. “Dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh …”
She stared at us with innocent brown eyes, trying to make sense out of what was happening. In a moment she lay back down, the terror gone. We finished the song.
“Lovely,” said Lillian, clapping with the one hand she could still move.
“Beautiful,” said the woman in the next bed. “Sing again.”
We sang for about twenty minutes, all the Christmas songs that we knew. And the two old women exclaimed after each number and tried to sing along with us when we came to words that sounded familiar to them, words that took them back to years when they had sung to others like we were singing to them.
We ended with “Silent Night.” That was their favorite and we sang it for them twice. We said goodbye to Lillian, each of the children dutifully kissing her white cheek. Then we went over to the next bed. I took the woman’s hand and told her we hoped she would have a happy Christmas. I began to leave, but she wouldn’t let go of my hand.
“No,” she said, her eyes wide and determined. “Don’t go. I want you to stay here. Stay here all the time.”
I smiled and told her that we had to leave, but that we would come back.
“No,” she said, her face becoming almost fierce. “Stay here all the time!”
I sent the older three children out to the car, telling them I would be out soon. I sat on the bed, pulled Katy, the youngest, up on my lap and said to the woman, “Would you like to hear ‘Silent Night’ again?”
She nodded. And Katy and I sang for the third time that night all the verses. “Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.” The woman’s unblinking eyes stared at the ceiling. What was she seeing, I wondered. What was she remembering, feeling?
I squeezed her hand and rose again to go. “Merry Christmas,” I said.
“No!” Her eyes were wild and her hand tightened its grip around mine. “I want you to stay here all the time!”
Katy and I looked at each other. She was not going to let us go. Maybe if—
“Would you like me to sing you a lullaby?” I asked. “It’s time for you to go to sleep.”
She nodded, not relaxing her grip on my hand. “Stay here all the time.”
“Sing with me, Katy,” I whispered. And we began together to sing the lullaby that I had sung to Katy maybe a hundred times. “Baby’s boat’s a silver moon, sailing in the sky. Sailing o’er the sea of sleep while the clouds roll by.” It was an old pioneer lullaby. My mother’s mother had sung it to her, and my mother had sung it to me. She must have sung it often, because I had remembered every word.
In a few moments the woman’s eyes softened, then closed. We sang the lullaby through twice before her hand fell onto the sheet and I was free to stand up. I gently kissed her on the forehead and we kept on singing. We sang quietly until we were out the door and down the hall.
The next time we went to see Lillian, someone else was in the bed next to hers. I do not know what became of the woman we had sung to. I do not know her story at all. All I know is that on that lonely Christmas Eve she cried out the need that all of us feel for someone to be there all the time.
I have thought of that woman many times since then. I thought of her as I spoke at the funeral of my Aunt Mamie, who had lived ninety-six years and who was one of the fortunate among us who had someone there all the time. From the pulpit I looked across the casket to see the faces of my three cousins, bright, strong women, who, along with other family members and friends, had been there all the time.
Aunt Mamie had generally been in good health, but still, for at least the last two decades of her life, she had needed extra care. She and her husband were settled in an apartment next door to Helen, where they could be constantly cared for. Then, when Uncle Wesley died, Aunt Mamie went to live with the girls—part of the time with Helen, part with Hazel Dawn, and part, usually the winters, with Mary Ida in Arizona.
Every time I would see Aunt Mamie, she was lovingly cared for, beautifully groomed and dressed, and always made a part of whatever was going on. She was made to feel needed—appreciated for her jobs of doing the breakfast dishes and making the beds and doing a little mending and crocheting hundreds of covers for coat hangers. I looked at her in envy. Could I possibly hope to have such a lovely old age? What would the world be like if every old person were given the tender concern shown to Aunt Mamie?
She was in Arizona when she fell and broke her hip. Within hours all three daughters were at her bedside in the hospital, and for the last eight days of her life at least one of them was there around the clock, holding her hand. It would not have occurred to Aunt Mamie to tell them to stay. They had always been there. And they would always be there. All the time.
As I looked across the casket at the faces of my three cousins, who had carefully dressed the body in life and in death and fixed the white, white hair, I felt a celebration. The final loveliness of a lovely life was evidenced in the care given Aunt Mamie by those she had produced. Not just in the last hours or days or months, but through the years.
My Aunt Mamie is not unique. Many children give to their aging parents that kind of devotion. But neither is Lillian unique, whose daughter stays away because she can’t bear to see her mother in decline. And certainly not unique is the woman I know only as the one in the bed next to Lillian, the woman who had no one, and whose desperate eyes I will not forget.
Rest homes are useful. Relationships change. People move on. Independence is a virtue. But every person of every age needs someone—someone, at least, who is there all the time. Someone who is physically there often and emotionally there constantly.
At Christmas, or at any other time, presence, much more than presents, can make the miracle star shine in the skies, can make real the centuries-old message of love, and can let at least one heart “sleep in heavenly peace.”