It was the kind of snowfall that wisped and flitted, not as much a fall as a frolic, white flecks dancing sideways and disappearing as they hit the pavement. She grasped the fur of her collar stiffly and tugged it to her ears, then turned to check the lock, before heading out the door.
It wasn’t cold, not really, and this dusting of snow actually brought a welcome relief from the doleful rain that was November. But she did not have time now to enjoy the change of scenery. She turned the engine, put it in drive, and quickly sped off. Visiting hours began at nine, and she had promised to be there. And truth be told, it was the promise that drove her there on this morning, and not the desire of her heart.
Convalescent homes are not happy places. There are smells there, fetid and clinical, smells that made her want to hold her nose and wash her hands. And the sounds too were unnerving, a cacophony of random yells and murmurs and daytime television. The sounds bounced around on the tile floor, the hardwood walls, the long, white, antiseptic hallways. She braced herself as she reached for the entrance door, her briefcase of music clutched under her arm.
Sue was already there. Smiling, laughing, chatting with all the residents. She floated from wheelchair to wheelchair—touching each person on the shoulder, hugging some, encouraging others with a joke or a personal pleasantry. Her straight red hair fell lazily upon the white-haired residents, a red punctuation mark on a white page. Her presence was like a breath of spring thawing the long hard winter.
Sue caught a glimpse of her, and smiling warmly, she motioned her to the front. “Katie!” she exclaimed. “Over here. You’re right on time.” Returning the smile, Katie maneuvered her way to the front of the room, trying to not make eye contact with any of the residents. Attendants were gathering these seniors now, parking them in semi-circles around the makeshift stage, like a wagon train under attack. And subconsciously, Katie felt as if under attack from all of these people. Though she could not understand the feeling, she felt the need to be guarded and impersonal. ‘This is just a gig,’ she thought to herself. ‘Just another way to pay the bills this Christmas.’
“Hi Sue,” Katie said, not quite sure what to think of the situation. “So this is what you do with your Sunday mornings?”
“A couple of times a month,” Sue replied. And sensing her hesitancy, she added, “Don’t worry. They don’t bite. Some of them don’t even have teeth.”
Her comment was disarming, but Katie thought it better to focus on the business at hand. “Look,” she said setting her briefcase on the piano. “I brought some Christmas music, mostly just standards, but I also can do some Christmas carols. You know, ‘Jingle Bells,’ ‘White Christmas.’ Will they sing along?”
Sue laughed out loud. “Oh, they’ll sing all right. The question is, will they be singing the same song.”
After the residents were gathered, Sue cheerily welcomed everyone and shared a humorous story about her week’s Christmas shopping. A sea of heads drifted left to right and up to the ceiling, some glaze-eyed, some distracted, some drifting off. Others seemed to be having quiet conversations with themselves. It was obvious that most of the residents were in various states of lucidity. One resident in particular, a blind woman with white, thinning hair and an equally thinning housecoat, caught her eye. Cora licked her lips occasionally, but otherwise sat straight away, apparently oblivious to Sue’s story, oblivious to the world.
Katie sat at the piano, silently becoming more and more querulous at the idea of having to play at this event. After all, she had a degree in music performance. She had played some major concerts. She had been somebody. And to think that she had actually practiced for this event. And now she sat behind this out-of-tune spinet, about to play a selection of music that probably wouldn’t even be heard.
‘Just like Grams,’ she thought to herself. Her mind spiraled back to a distant recollection—a young teenage girl playing Chopin in a convalescent home over a decade ago. Her mother had brought her there to play for her Grandma. There were the same smells and the same sounds then too. And the same glaze in her Grandma’s eyes. But when she had played for her, Grams smiled broadly.
Sue’s introduction was warm and generous, but was met with only a smattering of forced applause. With a deep breath, Katie began her concert, first with a selection from the Nutcracker Suite, then a classical rendition of “Carol of the Bells.” Both pieces received only modest response, mostly from the convalescent staff. Katie’s annoyed attitude quickly turned into panicked performance anxiety. She reached quickly for her stack of popular songs, and pulled “White Christmas,” hoping for any response, but expecting none.
And suddenly, half way into the second chorus, Cora began to sing.
It was off-key to be sure, but her voice was certain and sure. “Amazing Grace,” she began, “How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…”
“Shut up Cora,” yelled a voice from the back. “For crying out loud!”
But Cora continued softly, surely. “…I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind but now I see.”
Katie tried to regain her composure, but remained transfixed, dumbfounded. The voice of the mute, the voice of an angel. She only now noticed that her hands still lay on the keyboard. She took her hands off the keys, lifted her foot off the damper pedal. And still Cora continued.
“Twas grace that brought my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved…”
There was something in her voice that captured Katie. Something deep within. A conviction, a certitude. She was not just singing, she was declaring.
“…How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.”
Other voices joined her now, two or three at first, but eventually the entire room. It was as if the song resided deep within each person’s psyche, and Cora had awakened it from its corporate slumber.
“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we first begun.”
Through the main windows, Katie could see the snow fall gently, slowly outside. It hushed the room in peaceful stillness. Like her heart, which beat now in quiet accord. Katie no longer smelled the smells nor heard the sounds that burdened her this morning. Instead, as she stared into the eyes of this sightless woman, she felt the smile of her Grandma upon her. She lifted her hands now, wiped the tears from her eyes, taking in the stillness of the moment.
Sue moved slowly toward Cora who still sat stiffly in her wheelchair, eyes still dead ahead. She put her arms around her, swept the white bangs from her forehead, and kissed her there. You know Cora,” she offered. “That’s my favorite Christmas song too.”