We could hear the man playing piano from down the hall. They’d redone one of the lodges last year, so the smell of medicine and wheelchairs was tempered with the smell of wet, beige paint. We walked into the room where the service would be, and my sister and I started opening our violins next to the man playing Vaudeville-style Christmas carols on the piano.
I doubt he could remember much more than his own name, which I thought was probably Gabe—he seemed like a Gabe—but his white spout of hair bounced as he played a jolly rendition of "Frosty the Snowman" followed by "I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas." My mom thought he must be using sheet music, but I peered around at him and realized that all of the jazzy inversions and chunky chord changes must be in his head somewhere or his heart. He started into "Rudolph," but two minutes later, as I sang along with the chorus, "I’ll be back again someday …", I realized he’d switched back into "Frosty." His hair bounced, oblivious to the song change.
Every year, on the Wednesday before Christmas, my family goes to two nursing homes to perform 30-minute services. We’ve been going for 14 years—since I was seven and my sister was five—and we always make our parents buy us Slurpees afterward, even now. There are carols and a "special musical interlude" and some scripture readings by some of the residents.
Even the people with Alzheimer’s find the place in their fading memory where the words to old carols live, and they sing, loudly, the third verse of "The First Noel."
After the second service last year, I caught the eye of a lady sitting alone by the window. Her eyes shifted a bit, almost into a smile, and so I went over to introduce myself. She was sitting there, quietly plucking petals from a daffodil head. She told me her name was Julie, and when I told her mine, she said, "OH! Almost the same eh?" And I held her limp, soft hand and nodded. Because I realized that even though I was on my way out of the lodge with my family and even though she might never leave this home, she and I were the same in that moment. In those carols and in that scripture about the Great Mystery of the Incarnation and in the great mystery of bodies and age and life and death, she and I are the same, just in different places, that’s all.
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.