“This will be very difficult for some of you,” said Mr. Boothe, our choir director. “But I promise, those of you who take my challenge will have an experience you’ll never forget.” I didn’t see what could be so hard about singing Christmas songs in a rest home.
Our coats, scarves, hats, and gloves soon formed a small mountain in a corner of the cafeteria, and I took my place with the basses as we began to sing “Joy to the World.”
As if on cue, we heard the click-click of doors opening one by one. Down each corridor came a shuffling procession of elderly men and women leaning on crutches and canes, or pushing their metal walkers before them. I began to fidget with impatience at their slow progress, worried that our whole program would be over before they even got seated.
“Pick one out.” I could see Mr. Boothe mouthing the words, and I remembered his challenge to us earlier. He did not want us removed from this widening sea of ancient faces. He wanted us to choose someone in particular, to think of them as our friend, and go sing and talk to them, person-to-person.
I didn’t see anyone I wanted to think of as a friend. I pictured my two grandmothers, their faces animated and alive as they dipped into their endless reserves of family stories. These people were nothing like that. I saw only dull, expressionless faces, and those few who did smile worried me by smiling too much.
As our choir began spreading out I saw a tiny woman in a blue-flowered nightgown. She perched in her wheelchair like a baby bird in an oversized nest. Her gaze never left the floor. Something told me this was “my” lady.
As we finished “The First Noel,” Mr. Boothe raised his eyebrows, questioning. He was obviously not pleased with the few remaining holdouts. I took a deep breath and found myself standing next to the woman in the wheelchair. Up close I could see that her hair was fine and white as angel hair. I leaned down close to her ear and sang confidently with the choir, “Chestnuts roasting …”
In a single burst, she sat bolt upright, popped her eyes and mouth wide open, threw her hands in the air, and screamed as loud as she could! Everyone, including the director, fell silent, craning their necks to see what I had done to this woman who was still screaming. Mr. Boothe was right; this was becoming more unforgettable by the moment!
“Lady,” I said, “what did I do? Please stop!”
And she did. She went pale as she clutched her heart, taking only quick shallow breaths. Fortunately a nurse came charging down the aisle to save this poor soul from her special new friend. Shoving me aside, she patted the lady’s hand and said, “Breathe deep, Stella, breathe deep.”
This sounded like good advice, so I joined in, “Breathe, Stella, breathe!”
The nurse shot me a withering glance. “Young man,” she said, “don’t you think you’ve been helpful enough?”
Our director tried to rally the astonished group. “Silent Night!” he ordered quickly.
I retreated and tried to be inconspicuous, but it was no use. Wherever I looked, newly attentive men and women reached fearfully for canes, crutches, whatever might be needed to ward off this strange boy whose voice could cause pain.
At the end of the program, a nurse corralled several of us to take people in wheelchairs back to their rooms. Grabbing the handles of one of the last wheelchairs, I leaned over to introduce myself to its owner. It was Stella!
“Ma’am,” I hurried, “please remain calm. I’ll take you to your room, and then you will never have to see me again. I promise.”
When we arrived in the ladies’ wing, I asked, with my best smile, “Which room is yours?”
“I’m not telling,” she said grumpily. “You have to guess.”
I suppose I deserved it, but everyone else was saying good-bye to their charges and heading for the bus. I sped up, asking in every room, “Is this where Stella lives?” She seemed to be enjoying my discomfort. At last, I found her room.
“Here we are, Stella, home sweet home.” I stood there awkwardly, looking around the room for something to make small talk about. There it was! A neat row of eight Christmas cards taped to the wall above her night stand. “Well, it looks like a lot of people are thinking of you this year.”
She paused and heaved a sigh. A shadow seemed to darken her face. After a moment she spoke, “You can look at my cards if you’d like.”
I opened the first one. “Merry Christmas, Stella, 1983.” The next was similar, “Merry Christmas, 1982.” Then ’81, ’80, and on down the line. They were all from the same person—all in perfect condition like prized possessions. When I turned around I had an odd feeling in my stomach. It was no longer time for small talk.
Stella began quietly, “I don’t have family or friends who come visit anymore.” Then, sounding very tired, “I don’t think the other people in this place like me very much.”
The fine, white angel hair circled her tiny, expectant face. She seemed so vulnerable as her dark eyes met mine, awaiting a response. Why was she telling me this? What could I do? I had no answer to her heartbreaking revelation, but I remembered all at once the one thing that had never failed to make my grandmothers’ faces glow.
“Stella,” I swallowed hard, “would you please tell me about your favorite Christmas?”
I sat on her bed and waited. There was a moment’s hesitation as she searched for the memory. Then a smile lit her face as she found it. It didn’t take long to warm to her subject, and she sparkled like an ornament as she shared each detail.
I closed her door quickly when I left. I wanted all the glowing warmth of that remembered Christmas to stay and fill her room for as long as possible. As the bus pulled away, I stared out the window, trying for the second time that day to see which room was hers.
“Merry Christmas,” I whispered. “Merry Christmas, Stella.”