Before I begin, I have a confession to make: it’s currently 10:19PM on Sunday night, and I am only just beginning to write the blog post that will go live tomorrow morning. It’s not that I’ve been procrastinating- in fact, I’ve had so much studying and work to do over the past week that I didn’t even have time for my favorite means of procrastination, blogging. For the past week, my life has been occupied completely by work and school. From Thanksgiving break until this past Wednesday, I did not get more than six hours of sleep a night (and some nights it was closer to four or five), did not engage in any type of exercise, and opted for foods that could be prepared and eaten without stopping my work. The amount of work was overwhelming, but I am so glad to say that I am done.
As of Wednesday, December 10th at 9:30AM, I was officially on Christmas break. I was done with finals, and the semester was over. In college, that would have meant that I would have gone home for an entire month of Christmas vacation, but now that I have a real job, taking an entire month off isn’t exactly possible. Hence, even when school was over, I still had work to do. When I wasn’t sleeping, eating proper meals, or exercising, I was hard at work. After a week and a half of stress with classes and finals, I had four days to finish everything that needed to be done for our last day of CCD before Christmas break. Two prayer services, hundreds of cookies, and one Christmas caroling excursion later, it’s over, and there is officially nothing stress-causing between me and going home for Christmas. It feels good to be able to breathe easy again.
In addition to parties for my CCD students and Confirmation candidates, I also organized a Christmas caroling event. It was a wonderful experience, though it did not seem that it should be particularly memorable at the time. We drove from house to house, sang a few songs, wished the residents a merry Christmas, and then moved onto our next destination. I didn’t realize that something significant had happened until hours later. I didn’t realize that I have been a part of a Christmas miracle until hours after it had happened. Which only makes it more incredible.
Most of our destinations were private houses, but we also stopped at two nursing homes to carol for parishioners. The nursing homes were probably the destinations that the students were most apprehensive about, though they all kept smiling and singing despite their possible discomfort. Nursing homes can be intimidating, especially for a child who has never been in one, which was the case for some of my students. The smell of sickness, and sometimes even death, seems to linger in the air, and nurses often approach you with either a frown or a forced smile that can’t quite mask the unhappiness and despair they feel in their hearts. Even at this joy-filled time of year, the nursing homes were noticeably melancholy. Several students commented about the sadness of the situation- all of these poor men and women, away from their homes for the holidays in such an miserable-feeling place. They were excited to bring some joy to these people, even if they were also a little nervous. My brave students weren’t about to let some nerves get the better of them.
My students were not the only ones who were slightly distressed about the prospect of caroling for the elderly at nursing homes. So was I, though for a different reason. Earlier that week, I had called ahead to make sure that the elderly and home-bound that we wanted to visit would be home when we came to carol. When we rang their doorbells this afternoon, I was confident that someone would be home, and that this person was the parishioner that I had spoken to earlier in the week. The nursing homes were not so easy.
Like the other locations, I called ahead to make sure that the residents would be in their rooms when we arrived, and they assured me that they would be. When our group arrived at the nursing homes, I introduced myself to the nurse at the front desk, and she directed us to the resident’s room. The assumption was that the parishioner would be there, but the nurses never came with us, which left me in a rather uncomfortable predicament. For one, I couldn’t be sure that the room would even be occupied when we arrived, since the nurses hadn’t come with us to check. In addition to this, we were also visiting parishioners that I had never met, so even if their room was occupied, I couldn’t have been absolutely sure that the occupant was the woman that we were seeking. In one instance, our experience was simple- we arrived, were pointed in the right direction, sang to the parishioner, and headed out. In the other instance we were not so lucky.
I should preface this part of the story by saying that the parishioners that had been selected for us to visit had been specifically chosen as good options for eighth graders. They were all coherent people who were generally just not very mobile. Some of them were deaf. Some of them were just older. But they were all able to hold a conversation and were able to understand what was happening. Until we arrived at the other nursing home.
This was actually the first nursing home that we visited on our excursion though the second one was significantly easier. They both began the same way- I introduced myself, was given directions to the resident’s room, and I brought my group to the designated room. But that’s where the similarities end. In this instance, we walked into a room where a single elderly woman sat in a chair watching the television. She wore a bib to catch the liquid meals that escaped her mouth, since she seemed to have very little control over her facial muscles. She seemed to stare without always fully understanding what she was seeing, and she was unable to speak. As we walked into the room, I’m pretty sure everyone was shocked by the sight. No one has expected it, least of all me.
But no one let their true feelings show, though several expressed surprise and pain after we had left the nursing home. The sight had been a devastating one for many of these young people who had never been exposed to people who suffered as this woman did. They were shocked, frightened, and appalled at the condition that this woman had been left in. But they didn’t show it. Instead they just sang.
We sang for that woman, even if we weren’t certain that she could hear us. We left her cookies, though we knew that she wouldn’t be able to eat them herself. We all crowded into the tiny room, huddled around a tiny woman who stared at each of us in turn as we sang to her. On several occasions, I noticed her staring at people’s lips, as if she was trying to read what we were singing to her. Her face could give no sign whether she understood, but we sang for her anyway.
And then when we were finished, the most amazing thing happened. She reached a hand out to me, letting it hang in the air in front of me. The movement had taken some time, and might have required a bit of effort, but it definitely seemed important to her. I took her hand, held it for a moment, and then released it when I felt her grip loosen. She then did the same thing with several other people before we left.
The experience was shocking. I had not been prepared to carol to someone in her condition, and I had been under the impression that we wouldn’t. I was surprised that no one had explained her condition to me beforehand, since I had already known who was deaf, who was in a wheelchair, and who had just lost her husband. And yet despite all these details, somehow no one had told me that one of the parishioners would be as incapacitated as this woman was. As I walked down the hallway, I racked my brain to see if somehow I had forgotten this detail. It seemed incredibly unlikely.
As we left, I stopped at the nurses’ desk to let someone know that the woman needed to be cleaned up a bit because of the liquid she had spilled on herself before our arrival. When I told the nurse where I had come from, she looked at me oddly, but told me that she was check in on the woman. I walked out, hoping that someone would take care of her.
For the next few hours, I found myself thinking about this experience, wondering if I was missing something. Finally, the truth dawned on me. We had caroled to the wrong woman. Our parishioner had a roommate, so it was possible that we had met the roommate rather than the parishioner. The door hadn’t been labeled, and I had no idea what our parishioner looked like. Apparently, our parishioner hadn’t been there at all, and instead we had carolled to her roommate instead. As soon as the thought occurred to me, I knew that it was the truth.
At first, I felt bad that we had missed the parishioner that we had actually come to see, though I actually doubt if she had even known that we were coming. As I thought about it, I began to realize that it had all happened for a reason. This woman, who was so happy to have company and was so desperate for human contact, needed my Confirmation students. She might have needed to know that people loved her. She might have needed some joy in her life. She might have just needed the company. Whatever she needed, I sincerely think that God worked so that she would receive it. Looking back, His handiwork is clear. Our parishioner brought us to that particular nursing home, but there was someone else we needed to meet. There was someone else who needed us. And maybe she needed us almost as much as we needed her. We were able to give her some human contact and joy, but she gave us much more. As one of my Confirmation candidates remarked later, when we were talking about it again, “She got a Christmas miracle.” She got a Christmas miracle, it’s true, but so did we.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!