Swing for the Heart

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Nobody wanted to work during the Christmas holiday. Those who were stuck with those shifts felt a sense of camaraderie. The weather warmed up, snow melted, and so the sensation of warmth and peace also spread into people’s hearts. Both the caregivers and residents. Since the spring, when Alice began working at the nursing home, many people died, while others arrived. Some were kind, quiet, others confused and perpetually lost, and still others were aggressive. Maybe because of their feeling of hopelessness and sadness in the blind corridor of life.

David and Alice agreed that they would spend Christmas exactly the way they wanted to. Nobody would judge or evaluate them. At Mrs. James’ house they will have a modest Christmas Eve according to their vision, even though they’ll have to prepare for it a little bit. It will be a European-style Christmas, with presents opened in the evening, right under the tree. Or underneath a decorated spruce branch, it doesn’t really matter. Kačenka easily accepted Rosita – their next-room neighbor – as an occasional baby-sitter. She liked her and didn’t think today should be in any way different, even though it was Christmas.

On Christmas Eve Alice had to work, along with Tien, Cristine and Marie, in the northern wing Layosh Feher, the older gentleman, and Stefie. The number of residents in the home had diminished; those who were lucky got to visit with their sons, daughters, and children-in-law. Alice found it comforting and familiar when she noticed a faint smell of an after-shave, and overheard a calm deep voice. She thought to herself that every work-place should have some men. They bring an atmosphere of safety and fun. All her female co-workers felt it too, it seemed. They were smiling and chit-chatting light-heartedly and it wasn’t only because of the festive and sacred Christmas ambiance.

“We can’t miss it when the comet flies by!” urged Cristine.

“You’re talking about the head-nurse? She’ll fly in in the morning!” returned Layosh.

“For sure. She’ll be sniffing around to see what we missed,” continued Cristine. Layosh already had a response.

“Don’t worry. If we miss a poop here and there, we can blame Santa’s reindeer. It’s expected of them.”

“If she’ll believe it,” laughed Stefie, together with the others. Layosh clarified further.

“Or we’ll tell her that we thought our paychecks came early. That we got bonuses this year!” The mood was great, Layosh was fun and the shift was passing by quickly.

Some residents expressed their wish to watch Christmas programming on the communal television in the main hall. Others wanted to stay in their rooms and sleep. Alice was paired up with Tien.

The corridor walls were decorated with holiday motives and images of icicles and snowy landscapes, similarly to some rooms. On the door-knob of room number six hung a very old wooden figurine of a snowman. It must have remembered the forties, based on its style, technique and especially the degree to which it was battered. When Tien open the door, Mrs. Bretter strained to sit up. As soon as she saw their work cart in the doorway, she cheerfully waved them in, as much as her post-stroke condition allowed her to. Her one arm was immobile but she had a genuine smile on her face, even if damaged by her serious neurological impairment. She was hard to understand as she tried to say: “I have…something…for…you.” With difficulty, Mrs. Bretter shuffled on her bed to reach her night-stand. Her physical effort was accompanied by another attempted commentary, but all that was evident was that she was happy.

“What do you need? I will get it for you,” offered Alice.

“No…no…I have to…myself.” Feeling a little awkward, Tien and Alice waited for Mrs. Bretter to overpower her disobedient body and roll over close enough to her night-stand, to be able to reach it. She was mumbling, they didn’t understand her, but she was undoubtedly excited. Mrs. Bretter was nodding and now they understood.

“…this…is…for…you.” She reached for the top of her night-stand, knocking over her alarm clock as and her palm tightened around two small cylinders wrapped in napkins. Her arm outstretched, she nodded at her two caregivers. The entire side of Mrs. Bretter’s face was floppy like a rag, with her eye-lid lifeless as a bat’s wing, but the other side was smiling. Alice took the presents. She gave one of the packages to Tien, and carefully and gently unwrapped hers. Mrs. Bretter was sitting on her bed, glowing with joy. She’d been waiting for this moment. Nobody other than Tien and Alice felt as close to her. No one else came to wish her Merry Christmas. Her world had become limited to the window overlooking a small garden and a rhythm of life revolving around food, bath and changing of clothes, month after month, one day same as the next.

A small glass vial rolled into Alice’s palm, a perfume sample from the shopping mall. The kind that is usually added as a bonus with purchased perfume gift sets. But that wasn’t the case. Alice now recalled that room number six had gone on a culturally recreational trip to the mall during the second week of November, with caregiver Sandra. Mrs. Bretter didn’t have any money, cash, or an account. She must have thought of it ahead of time. She couldn’t buy anything – she could only look. She had only one option. Simply ask the sales associate for two samples. That’s how it must’ve happened. Tien and Alice imagined Mrs. Bretter, in her wheelchair, leaning over the bright glass counter, attempting to express her wish. She managed to obtain gifts for Tien and Alice!

“Mrs. Bretter…you…how did you know that this is my favorite scent and that I wanted it? How’d you know?” Alice had a hard time keeping herself together, overcome with emotion and the holiday atmosphere generally.

“But we have something for you too,” cried out Tien with excitement and quickly ran out of the room. Alice wasn’t sure what would follow. Mrs. Bretter’s face lit up with joy, “…but…you…didn’t have…to.” But Tien was already out the door.

She came back in a moment. In her hand Tien was holding a wrapped CD.

“This is from us, we thought that since you like music and there’s a CD player right here in the hallway, that you might like to listen to it.” Mrs. Bretter placed one of her hands on her chest, indicating she wasn’t expecting a present at all. Tien unwrapped the disc and laid it next to her on the blanket. Alice saw immediately that this was an album Tien had bought for herself yesterday. She gave Mrs. Bretter her own CD!

“…I like ‘Thanh Lam’ a lot, so that’s from us for you,” said Tien. Mrs. Bretter took the album and was deeply moved, carefully examining the text and image on the cover.

Tien and Alice walked out of the room and didn’t need to say anything. Later that day Mrs. Bretter asked them to take her into the corridor and let her listen to her new album, Tieng Hat Thanh Lam. She played it over and over.

“I think they still have it,” Tien later told Alice, “they had three altogether.”

Alice called David, catching him just as he was insulating the side-door with a blanket. She was glad he could prepare their Christmas with her. They’ve got each other, and that’s all they need. They’ll make a nice Christmas for Kačenka, even if it is modest with only a decorated branch in Mrs. James’ rented room.

That particular Christmas Eve struck Alice with the majesty of peace, of the simple joy that comes from human love and kingship, and a sense of reconciliation. It brought with it a touch of time outside of time, when one can hear the beautifully haunting solo for the heart.

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