The Old Man Who Sang

by Kathryn Wouden

Print Share

    I rushed to the time clock, found my card, and quickly punched it in. The time, 4:01, blared out at me in red. One minute late! After all that hurrying, I was still late. I had a class at the university that ended at 3:30, and it was always a hectic rush to make it to work on time. I worked as an evening receptionist at one of the larger convalescent centers for the elderly in Salt Lake City, Utah.

    As I walked to my desk, I heard a voice singing “There’s Sunshine in My Soul Today.” The voice was bellowing the song out at the top of its lungs. Curious, I followed the sound of the voice. At the end of one of the corridors, I found a husky old man sitting up in his bed. The cords on his neck stood out with the strain of singing.

    “Hello!” he called out to me cheerfully. He didn’t seem surprised to see me standing there. He just grinned brightly at me. The windows were wide open. The air and sunshine poured in. It seemed to be one of the most cheerful rooms that I had ever been in, yet it was similar to all of the other rooms in the building.

    “I heard you singing,” I remarked to him.

    “Good!” He nodded his head courteously at me. “I sing because it makes me happy!”

    As duties awaited me at my desk, I said good-bye to him. As I went down the hall, I heard him singing “High on the Mountain Top” as if he were yodeling it from the hilltops. For the rest of the evening I found myself humming, “High on the mountain top …”

    The next day I managed to arrive a few minutes early. Again I heard the cheerful voice singing. Irresistibly pulled, I went down to his room.

    “Well, hello, young lady!” His eyes and toothless smile welcomed me as if I were a queen.

    I greeted him and asked if I could listen to him sing.

    “Sure!” He invited me to sit down on the only chair in the room. He sang through all the verses of “How Firm a Foundation.” His off-key voice charmed me.

    I asked him if he knew “The World Has Need of Willing Men.” This was a favorite song of mine. I had taught it to my youngest brother when he was just four.

    Not only did he sing it for me, but he sang it with such force that I couldn’t help but join him and sing too. I caught his enthusiasm and sang much louder than I normally would. A nurse passed by and glanced at us curiously.

    As I left, I asked him when he had taken time to memorize all of the hymns.

    “Oh, that’s easy!” He clapped his hands together. “I memorized them as I sang them in church. Once I knew them, I never opened the hymn book again!”

    I made an inward resolve to do the same.

    It became regular routine to stop in at his room before I went down to my desk. He always greeted me brightly. I found myself humming Church hymns between my classes at the university.

    Christmastime came and my classes were over for three weeks. As I had made arrangements with someone to take my place at work during that time, I was free to go home and visit my family in Ephraim, Utah.

    Before I left, however, I stopped in to see the old man. We sang through countless Christmas carols together. I was more in the Christmas spirit than I had ever been before. I left him singing a rousing version of “Silent Night.”

    As I walked back down the corridor, I passed a nurse who frowned at me. I didn’t recall seeing her before. I puzzled about it for a minute and then shrugged it off. I was too happy to let a frown bother me. Later, I found out that she had just recently been hired as the head nurse.

    Christmas vacation, as always, flew by too fast for me. Soon it was time for me to reluctantly go back to my studies. I said good-bye to my parents and houseful of brothers and sisters.

    When I stepped through the doors at the convalescent center to go back to work, I expected to hear a cheerful voice booming out some song down the hall. As I punched in my time card at the time clock, I cocked my ear for his voice. All I could hear was the confusion of a few televisions tuned to different stations and the conversation of a few patients who were sitting near me in the hallway.

    “He’s probably asleep,” I said to myself. But, to reassure myself, I walked down to his room.

    I peeked in the door, expecting to see him curled up in bed sound asleep. However, he was sitting up with his back supported by a few pillows. The windows were half shut and the curtains pulled. He sat listlessly in the half gloom.

    Hearing my step, he slowly turned his head and saw me. He grinned the ghost of a smile.

    I was shocked. His wrinkled skin hung in loose pouches around his face as if he had lost a great amount of weight.

    “I … I thought you’d be singing,” I stammered out.

    He shook his head and tears slid down his cheeks. “Can’t sing anymore. Nurse said it bothered too many people.” He looked at me earnestly. “I don’t want to bother anyone. Singing just made me happy.” There was a long pause as he thought. “No, I don’t want to bother anyone,” he repeated.

    I blinked back tears as I walked over and took his hand. “Why don’t we sing together right now?”

    He looked at me anxiously, “Oh no, please don’t. I don’t think she would like it.”

    “Well, then,” I said softly, “I’ll sing. I’ll sing so quietly that no one will hear me but you.”

    I softly sang the first song that came to me. I sang all the verses of “I Am a Child of God” for him. His wrinkled lips mouthed most of the words with me.

    After singing, I talked softly with him for a while and rubbed his brow. As I needed to get to my desk, I told him I would be back tomorrow. He called me when I had reached the door. I turned to look at him questioningly. His leathery cheeks wrinkled deeply as he gave me a smile. His eyes had a hint of their old sparkle.

    As soon as I got out into the hall, I was fighting mad. I couldn’t wait to find the nurse who had done this. Angry words were close to the surface of my thoughts.

    I didn’t have to search long. The new head nurse was waiting for me at the end of the hall. Before I could even say a word, she demanded, “Young lady, what were you doing there?” I explained that I worked at the center as a receptionist and that the old man was a friend of mine. I tried to go on and explain about his singing, but she cut me off.

    “Well, if you’re the receptionist here, then go do your work. You have no right to be back here with the patients.” She planted her feet in front of me and folded her chin firmly into her neck.

    “I just wanted to tell you that you’re making the old man sick by not letting him sing! It makes him happy to sing!” I said this in a rush before she could stop me.

    She thrust her face in front of mine. “The old man is dying from an incurable disease. Not from the reason you state.” She checked her watch. “Now, if you’re the evening receptionist, you’re already 15 minutes late. If you still want your job, I advise you to go immediately to your desk and leave this part of the building to me.”

    I walked through the building to my desk. I made a resolve to see the old man tomorrow regardless of the nurse. Even if I had to crawl through the window, I would go to him and sing for him until he was well enough to sing like he used to.

    The next afternoon I arrived at work early so I could spend more time with the old man. I stepped cautiously into the center watching for the head nurse. There was no sign of her. I reached his room without having an encounter with her. Relieved, I turned to go into his room. The drapes and windows were wide open and sunshine spread through the room. The bed was tightly made and the floor appeared to be newly waxed. There was no sign of the old man or his personal possessions. I was filled with dread at the sight of the well-cleaned room. My footsteps dragged as I walked down to the nurse’s station to inquire about him.

    “Room 67?” she repeated after me. I nodded. The nurse aide then turned to a chart and examined it for a minute. She looked up at me. “He died last night about 2:00 A.M.

    Tears blinded my vision as I stumbled down the hall to my desk. I wished with all my heart that I had done more for him. All I could think of was the smile he had given me before I left him yesterday. It had been a grateful smile.

    When I reached my desk, I laid my head down and cried helpless tears for the old man. The telephone rang. As I composed myself to answer it, I thought I could hear the faint echo of “There’s Sunshine in My Soul Today.” Suddenly I felt strongly that the old man would be singing at the top of his lungs today. Maybe I was hearing the faint echo of his voice from heaven. I smiled through my tears and started to softly hum the tune.

    Illustrated by Dale Kilbourn