Friday, December 13, 2013

The Most Wonderful Time

Last night, I had the privilege of participating in one of my favorite parts of the Advent season.

For the third year, our Girl Scout troop gathered at the local hospice house on a Thursday evening and sang Christmas carols for half an hour. The girls made adorable snowman ornaments to decorate each of the residents’ rooms.

And those short sentences describe my favorite event before Christmas.

I couldn’t help asking myself why I look forward to this so much—because I do. Each year I’ve loved this night!

A small part is simply the ease of it. The girls practice a few songs while crafting and then the next week, instead of our regular troop meeting, we go to hospice. The girls wear their uniforms and Christmas hats, and we're ready. This time of year, anything easy is truly a blessing to me and to our whole family.

And that leads to another part I love—the spontaneity of it. We start with a plan, but we never know exactly who will make it there, due to extra commitments and seasonal ills. And, since Big A. always seems to be out of town, Little A. tags along, as do almost all the parents and many siblings. The whole projects takes on a family feeling, very accepting and appreciative of whatever the girls end up doing, which always ends up being beautiful.

Most of all, though, I love the connection I feel to people—to our amazing girls, to the staff and volunteers, to the family members who step out for a minute to listen, and to the unseen, but very much felt, presence of the residents in their rooms.

The folks at our hospice are wonderful. Our troop has offered them service projects for four years now. Four or five times a year we bring crafts for the rooms, we’ve baked for them, we’ve donated Girl Scout cookies, and we carol at Christmas. It’s nothing much when you add it up, but the staff and volunteers always makes us feel welcome. And, every time, the staff sends a sweet note of thanks to the girls, which really makes them feel good about giving.

Last night, we saw one wonderful volunteer, Ms. Joan, for the third year in a row. She recognized some of the girls and commented on how much they’ve grown, but mostly she couldn’t get over that she’d been there for the caroling three years in a row. We explained that, since we meet on Thursdays, we always carol on Thursdays. She said, “Well, that explains it! Thursdays are my night.” And then she went back to making sure each child—scout or sibling—had a candy cane.

I didn’t have time to digest it then—I could only marvel at her wholehearted delight in seeing the girls—but later I realized what she’d said. Thursdays are her nights—as in, all of them. She volunteers on Thursday nights, from five o’clock on. What a gift of love!

Normally, we sing around the piano in the family waiting room. None of the residents’ rooms are far away, so we know the sound carries. That way, families have the option to make contact with us or not. Well, the girls did their usual beautiful job singing this year. Our oldest scout, who is seventeen, partnered up with our youngest scout, a kindergartner. The middle schoolers lined up behind the elementary girls, who belted out each song with gusto from the front row.

This year, a friend of the troop, a gifted music teacher, offered to practice the songs with the girls. So I felt confident that they could bring their songs home. I let my attention wander a bit as we sang.

The family waiting room has been quiet on our previous visits, but this year, by some coincidence, two mothers brought toddlers through the waiting room. These little ones, who must have been two or less, simply lit up when they saw the girls singing. Their sense of magic took me back to my children’s faces on Christmas morning and my own magic childhood moments.

And it happened so easily for them—what causes instant happiness when you’re two? Bright faces, silly hats, and Christmas songs.

At one point, I waited out by the door for a late arrival. While I waited, a sweet older gentleman with a bright white beard began pushing a cart up the walk. As he approached the door, one of our parents held the door for him and one scout’s teenage brother, without prompting, helped him with his rolling suitcase. He gratefully thanked everyone and pushed the cart full of belongings back toward the rooms.

As he walked past, I couldn’t help noticing the things on his cart—deflating balloons, four or five bouquets, a tray of half-finished milkshakes, some shopping bags full of odds and ends. I couldn’t help reading a story in those items, the story of so many things interrupted by this final journey for someone he loves, taken two weeks before Christmas.

And, as he walked past, I couldn’t help hearing how he was humming “Angels We Have Heard On High” along with the girls.

When he reached their room, directly opposite the piano, he left the door open. As we sang, I could see him in a chair, leaning back comfortably, resting his hands on his belly—the perfect image of Santa Claus, off-duty. Or maybe on duty.

When the girls finished singing, the glow in their hearts adding a little extra sparkle to their eyes, the parents exchanged hugs and holiday good wishes as Ms. Joan brought out the candy canes. Then the scouts and siblings ran outside to wriggle out of their good manners and open their candy canes. After a bit, we rounded up the stragglers and piled into our cars.

And I drove the kids home with a Christmas song in my heart.

I can’t tie up my thoughts on this night into a neat package. I don’t seem to have any thoughts as such. And maybe that’s the point.

Maybe caroling at hospice with our girls means so much to me because it’s a brief space of time to simply be, to hold a heart full of feelings, to experience life through senses and emotions, to let the beauty of our loving, growing, giving children guide us into the Christmas spirit and beyond, to share love with all the other travelers passing through this world.

It strikes me that my writing may seem…self-centered for someone entering a place where so much living and dying, grief and joy occur. But I am, in fact, peripheral to that. I wouldn’t presume to know hospice care from any view point but the periphery. I am an outsider, sharing my observations.

The staff and volunteers have told us, and related anecdotes about, how much the girls’ gifts and presence mean to the residents and their families. I’m privileged to be there to support the girls in sharing their love.  

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