In December, 1977, I came home from college to work as an orderly in a nursing home. It was a summer job that I loved. I worked two summers in a row, and this would be the first Christmas I was hired back.
Maryhaven Nursing Center housed those older adults that have been lost. Life had stolen their points of reference. Their joy has escaped them, their memories clouded with time. The persons they were was no longer. Gone was their youth, their hopes and, sadly, in most cases, their friends and family.
Stricken with the advanced stages of dementia, they sat daily in their wheelchairs with very little expression, focus, or affect. They are placed in this facility to be cared for. But the staff knows better.
The residents are here to wait.
On any given day, orderlies bring the residents to the center of the facility. They are wheeled into the “social room.” One TV, a lone piano, a record player, and four walls. Some paintings, some light, and a window.
I arrived for my first day to return to work that winter, I was greeted by the great Ocelia “Osie” Eugenia Davis, a woman six feet tall with skin as dark as coal and outstretched hands like catchers mitts.
“Well, sweet heavenly glory, look at what the cat dragged on to my floor today! My child, my child, welcome home, Sugar!” That was, and has been, the greatest reception I’ve ever received from anyone, at any time, in my whole life.
Osie Davis, if you weren’t too sure from that greeting, was a Thunderstorm of Love.
About two weeks in, the head nurse asked if I could work Christmas Eve and stay into the evening, around 8, so the regular staff could get home early for Christmas. I stayed, and most of the staff I was familiar with left around 5.
Everyone, except Osie.
Halfway through my shift, Osie waved me over. “Sugar, it’s a good thing that you’re here and I’m glad you’re staying late tonight. Been doing this for nearly twenty years, but I keep it to myself. Just me and the residents. Only do it at Christmas. I usually do this when the daytime staff goes home.” I hadn’t a clue what she was up to. “Meet me at 6pm and we’ll get things started.”
As she was walking away, Osie stopped, turned her head back at me and said, “Do you sing?”
I told her I did. Five years in St. Gertrude’s Boys Choir. Hit the notes cleanly and precisely, if I do say so. And through high school I learned how to play the guitar and sound like James Taylor and Cat Stevens.
“Good. I’ll need your help with that.”
OK, cool, I’m thinking Osie and I are going to sing Christmas Carols with the residents.
Which we did. But not in the way I was expecting.
Osie and I got about twenty of the residents, from the hallways and put them in the social room in a large circle. The wheelchairs of twenty people, all now dressed in their pajamas, heads down staring into their laps, are rolled into this room.
Moving to the last resident and arranging them in a circle, she moved toward the record player and said, “I’m going to put the record on. It’s a record of Christmas carols. Don’t get startled by what you see.”
“Startled?” I’m thinking something bad is about to happen.
Osie went over to the record player, took a record out of its sleeve, and put it down on the record player. “Sugar, I’ve been doing something every Christmas. Only a few of the staff know about it. And they aren’t here.”
“Now watch and listen, and if I ask you to sing, just join in. You’re about to witness proof that the Almighty exists, and he’s about to put Christmas back into the hearts of every one of these residents.”
You’ve seen the Youtube videos. Adults with dementia awaken to the songs of their youth. A consciousness that was collecting dust in the attic of their life jumps into the light of musical reality.
They awaken. The remember. And they sing.
And here this was, right in front of me, twenty people raising their heads in unison, singing “Jingle Bells,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and favorite of the day, “Baby, it’s cold outside.”
It was hard to sing when my jaw was bouncing against my chest. And while I was gaping with shock at what I was witnessing, Osie gave me a look and mouthed the word, “Sing.”
A miracle happened. I know why it happened now, I know what happens in the brain. I know what the gray matter does when it retrieves a memory of the past, particularly in song.
But I didn’t know that then.
Osie picked up the needle on the record, put the record in the sleeve, and we wheeled the residents back to their room. As we put them to bed, we continued to sing “Silver Bells” “Oh Holy Night” and ‘Away in a Manger.”
And each resident mouthed the words, sang along, and when they were taken back to their rooms, went easily to sleep.
Osie Davis has been gone a long time. She was my first witness of the power within the Spirit of Christmas. She and the residents have been in heaven for years. I hope, today of all days, that they’re all singing carols together.
And I hope, when St. Peter saw her coming, he said, “Sweet heavenly glory, looked what the cat dragged in” and broke out in “Hark the Herald Angels sing.”