The heat slapped us in the face as we enter, shaking off the drizzle from our sweaters. The air, not as unpleasant as I expected, had that institutional smell, a mixture of leftover lunch, sickness and aging. I smiled at my son as he awkwardly drifted to the chair in the back of the waiting room, festive green Christmas tree glasses perched crookedly on his nose. We’re a motley crew, come together as strangers and friends to bring a little joy to the world today.
“Remember, keep it upbeat. Keep it lively. We’ll skip any scary verses or references to Satan. Most people only know the first two verses anyways. Some of those carols can be scary, you know,” Cathy deftly commands. “I’ll lead us. The goal is not just singing – it’s connection. That’s why we’re here.”
I grab Cameron’s hand as the group breaks into a disjointed “Frosty the Snowman”, feeling his hesitancy. As we shuffle down the hall, a grizzled man in a cream-colored, patched down jacket smiles. “‘Joy To The World,’he shouts out. “Sing that one. That’s the only one I know.”
Cathy doesn’t hear, and rolls right into “Rudolph”. The beige walls glare at me as I walk by, darkened rooms with open doors and closed curtains beg for me to peer in. Feeling intrusive, I focus on the next song. “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” rolls out, and I notice the man behind me. His down coat covers a hospital gown, and his right hand clutches a urine bag. “I just got here yesterday,” he tells me. “And look what I get today.”
I smile through my uneasiness, wondering if he’s ok to shuffle along with the group. No one seems to be watching him. I’m trying to concentrate on the song, but my mind wanders. Why is he here? Is he dying? Does anyone know that he’s spending Christmas alone?
“Silent night, Holy night/Son of God, love’s pure light/Radiant beams from thy holy face/With the dawn of redeeming grace…”
I find myself paused next to another man, his dark brown hair barely tinged with grey, yet his face shows his experience. Dark eyes gaze straight ahead, unwavering. I smile, and he stares.
“Silent night, Holy night/Shepherds quake, at the sight…”
Who does he belong to? Who loves him? My mind searches for his story, for some clue of who he was before, but I get nothing.
Across the hall I catch eyes with a brown haired woman sitting up in her bed. Her youthfulness surprises me; her hands come together in joy as she sees me sing to her, her eyes reaching out as her arms wish they could. I consider walking in, but pause at the sign barring my entry to her room.
Scanning the hall for Cam, I notice he’s disappeared into the crowd. We enter what looks like a common, room. “Keep it jazzy – think Perry Como,” Cathy reminds us.
“Have yourself a merry little Christmas/ Let your heart be light/ From now on, our troubles will be out of sight”
We struggle with the tempo; maybe the lyrics are getting to us. The man in front of me grips the dark green tablecloth, bunching it in his fists. His head is dipped slightly; I stare, straining to see if his hands match the rhythm.
“Mom, I was out in the hallway with this lady. I think she was crying.” Cam whispers in my ear. He’s quietly come in behind me, and puts his hand on my shoulder. I’m afraid to turn, for him to see the tears in my own eyes. I know which lady he’s talking about. I feel her eyes reach me through the wall.
The man in the cream coat, still with us, sits down next to a mute woman in a wheelchair. He smiles at her. “I just got here yesterday,” he says, “and look what I got today.” Her closely cropped silver hair is neatly styled, her head bobbing as we sing. The woman next to her rocks gently, as if remembering days gone by. She must be someone’s mother, I think.
“He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness
And wonders of His love
And wonders of His love
And wonders and wonders of His love”
Cameron’s voice is deeper than I remember. Time passes quickly, these moments together so fleeting. “Sometimes when I’m in places like this, son, I try to remember that they could be yours – your great grandparents, your grandparents, your people. You would hope someone would sing to them, bring a little joy to their world,” I whisper to him, and to myself.