When I was a teenager I was part of a youth group at a Presbyterian church. I started going there because a girl had asked me to go several times and I got tired of her doing so. Then, once I went, I started going for a girl (no, not the one who invited me, but she wasn’t all that into me in the first place, but that’s another story). I became friends with the other youth in the group, and though I felt out of place for the longest time, eventually I came to realize they accepted me, an outsider, as one of their own.
I would stay there throughout my teen years. Eventually I left, but for the sake of this blog, just remember I was still there.
It was around this time of year, when there is a chill in the air and Christmas trees were in most houses, lights on the eaves and gutters and stockings hung with care wherever they could be hung. Presents would soon be exchanged and many Christmas carols would be sung. One of them by me.
One night our youth group, which consisted of more girls than boys, went to what we referred to as an old folk’s home back then. Now, I believe they are called assisted living facilities. We split into groups of twos and threes. I was in a group of two. Beth was the name of the girl with me. She was a couple of years younger than me. She was really cute with gorgeous blue eyes and blond hair. She also had a beautiful singing voice.
Beth and I went into a couple of rooms and talked to several older folk who were on the tail end of life. They were frail and many of them were alone, their relatives not caring all that much about them, just that they were out of their hair. It was sad being there. Then we reached this one room where a woman lay in the bed, her white hair like a vale that had fell away and now lay beneath her head. Her cheeks and eye sockets were sunken in and her skin was shiny and looked too tight. A sheet was pulled up to her chest and tucked under her arm pits. Her eyes were closed. I thought she was asleep and started to back out of the room as quietly as I could.
Then her eyes opened and she looked right at me. She asked who we were. We told her our names and that we were there visiting. The woman smiled—a small smile that held very little happiness in them. We talked for another minute and then said our goodbyes. Before we could leave, she stopped us.
“Can you sing me a song?”
Beth, the one with the beautiful voice, spoke up and said, yes. I looked at her like she had lost her mind. I wasn’t a singer. My voice and carrying tunes were not compatible. She looked back at me, her big blue eyes dancing.
“What song would you like us to sing?” she asked.
“Silent Night. It’s my favorite.”
“We can do that,” she said.
“I can’t sing,” I whispered to Beth.
“It’s okay. I’ll help you.”
“Seriously, I can’t sing, Beth.”
She smiled. This one had joy in it. I was hooked. If I am honest with myself, at that moment I would have ran through a wall for her. I think, if I would have let myself, I might have fell for her right then.
“Just follow me. It will be okay.”
“Okay,” I said with an unsure nod.
Then she started singing and I sang with her. Her voice was angelic, mine not so much. But we sang the song together—just the first verse, which is the only part most people know.
And the woman smiled as she closed her eyes. When we were finished, she opened them and clapped twice with weak hands that held the knobby knuckles of arthritis. “That was beautiful,” she said, and then added, “Thank you.”
We whispered a “you’re welcome,” and “Merry Christmas,” and then exited. Beth took my arm after we left the room and gave me something similar to a hug. Though we had nailed the song and made the woman smile, part of me (the not so tough part) wanted to cry because I knew that this was probably her last Christmas on Earth. I was certain she would pass before the next Christmas would arise.
I was quiet for a while—a few days, I guess—as I thought about that five or six minutes of my life and what we had done for a dying older lady who had no family there to love her. I was sad during that time.
All these years later I think about that night around this time of year. But this year, I finally understood why Beth wanted to sing the song, and why she didn’t let me back out. We had given that woman something she wanted, something she needed, something that lifted her spirit. It was something so small to us, but so significant to her. It was the difference between her going to sleep sad and alone or going to sleep with the joy of hearing her favorite song one last time. It was a little thing, but it was such a huge thing.
It’s one of my fondest memories of Christmas and it reminds me, now, that it is not always the big things that mean the most, but the little things that can make a world of difference to someone else.
Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.