Found myself thinking today of one of my more memorable Christmases several years back when I was working at a nursing home with Alzheimer’s patients. At the time I was an activity director for the people in the home, meaning it was my job, in a nutshell, to keep the troops entertained. At the time I was making 9 bucks an hour, living alone in a small apartment, and not quite sure where my life was going.
I hadn’t been home for Christmas personally in a long time, and over the years had really just kind of lost the spirit of the season altogether. This year however was different, as I had been tasked with putting the Christmas party for the unit together, and as the season went on I found myself becoming begrudgingly interested in Christmas again. Every Saturday I would put White Christmas, or It’s a Wonderful Life or some other Christmas classic on for the residents, and I really came to enjoy their nostalgic reminiscences of Christmases from years gone by.
One woman in particular stood out in my mind that winter, a little lonely woman originally from Poland named Anna, who was one of the quieter residents on the unit. She often ate her meals by herself, and although she wasn’t unfriendly, she always seemed to speak softly and she offered up very little information unless she was asked something directly.
While making the list of people who were going to attend the party, I noticed that the nurses had left Anna’s name off the list, as her health had been deteriorating recently, and the nurses felt it may be too much activity for her to handle given her recent decline. Knowing she wasn’t a particularly social person, I was therefore surprised when I walked by her room one morning and found her in her room crying softly to herself.
“What’s the matter Anna?” I asked as I came in and noticed she had taken out all kinds of Christmas cards from years past and put them on her night stand.
“I don’t get to go the party,” she explained, as she looked up at me with sad eyes.
This presented a dilemma for me, as the nurses ruled with an iron first around the unit, and didn’t take kindly to people questioning their decisions. Still, I wanted to hear more.
“Tell me why it’s so important to you Anna?”
Picking up one of her Christmas cards off the nightstand, she turned it over and over in her little hands and looked up at me again.
“My husband and I moved to America right after war, and at the time neither of us spoke any English at all. We didn’t know anyone at all in this country except for some cousins, but still, we had each other, and it was enough. Things finally changed when we went to our first Christmas party here in America at the Polish-American center by my husband’s work. We learned some of the Christmas songs that year and we used to laugh about how we learned to speak English from Bing Crosby and some of the other singers from the era. I have so many memories of my husband, but the memories of Christmas were the happiest. I know I don’t have too many Christmases left, but I was hoping this year I could go back to your party, hear some of the old songs, and think back on some of my early days with my husband.
And then I knew I had to see about getting her to the party. After much pleading and a promise that I would personally watch Anna closely to make sure she didn’t eat anything with sugar, the head nurse agreed, and Anna was delighted to hear the news. She spent the rest of the afternoon getting herself ready with the help of the CNA’s, who dressed her up in a little green dress and a red Santa’s hat to complete the outfit.
At the party, Anna was utterly transformed. She clapped her hands along with every song, and sang every word of the Christmas Carols that were led by me and the rest of the staff. During “White Christmas” she waved me over and asked if I could wheel her up to sing with the rest of the gang. I took her in as I was singing, watching her annunciate every word with such precision, and thinking of her learning to speak the language from this song so many years ago.
Sadly the party started coming to an end, and one by one we started loading the wheelchairs into the elevator to take people back to their various floors. Several people had already nodded off in their chairs, but Anna was still going strong until the last song had been sung. Wheeling her towards the door she grabbed firmly on both of her wheels and stopped.
“Do you mind if I just take one last look around?” she asked quietly, turning as she did to take one last look at the last remnants of the party. Eventually she tapped my hand and said, “ok honey,” and we continued rolling slowly towards the elevator. As I handed her off to my assistant, the elevator door began to close, and I took one last look at her and saw that she was smiling.
As the elevator door closed, I couldn't help but think the last chapter of Anna's life was also coming to a close.
Anna passed away a couple of months after that, but every Christmas I think about her and our one and only Christmas together. It reminds me of the fleeting and fragile nature of time, and how we shouldn’t take a second of the time we have with the people we love for granted.
I am reminded when I think about this of a movie I went to see as a kid with my mother called Avalon, which showed a large group of families sharing the holidays together, and then follows them through the years as the party gets smaller and smaller, until finally we are left with a single elderly man eating his holiday dinner alone. It was sad and oddly touching, and reminded me that all of us will also get old, lose loved ones, and withstand a number of changes to our own holiday traditions as people get married, start their own families, and begin to create their own new traditions over the years. And maybe one day we too may be like Anna, old and sick and lonely and longing desperately for one last chance to experience the memories of Christmas and all that entails. It reminds to not take a single thing for granted, as we truly may never pass this way again when it comes to time and fun and memories of friends and families. It was a lesson from a little old lady that I hope I’ll never forget.