At Christmastime, my house becomes a multiroom memorial to some of my favorite Soldiers Home residents—none of whom is with us any longer: From the living-room mantel dangle three colorful star ornaments handwoven by Jim Merz. Upstairs in my bathroom sits a ceramic Christmas mouse painted by Ann Lawson. My son’s Christmas cactus wilts on his windowsill next to a wooden planter carved and assembled by Gary Walling. And on our front door hangs my favorite wreath ever, a glittery gift from one of my best friends ever, Mike Marquie.
Like anyone who’s loved and lost, I feel both gratitude and grief in their memories—and at the holidays, especially, a vague melancholia that makes me want to connect with more residents, more deeply, and to protect myself from more pain.
But protection is not really the point, is it?
So this year, before Christmas Bingo (which actually was after Christmas), I called my dear friend Ray McDade, who turned 90 (!) on Dec. 26. I wanted to wish him a happy birthday, and I wanted to make sure he’d be at Bingo today, because I was bringing with me two things he’d especially enjoy: birthday gifts, and my friend Don.
Ray promised he’d be there, and as Don and I pulled in to the Soldiers Home, I mentioned that I’d like to walk down to the pond briefly after Bingo and think of Mike in “our” spot.
In the Bingo room, I sneaked up behind Ray and rubbed his neck. “There she is!” Ray exclaimed. He hugged me and warmly shook Don’s hand, and opened his card and gifts (all food—a mix of salty and sweet treats). I had chosen a “friendship” card to express my gratitude to Ray, and he said, "You don't know how much this means." But I might have an idea.
Don sat next to Ray while I made the “happy holidays” rounds. On my way to Dorothy’s table, Doris walked toward me with her attendance sheet. She checks off every resident who comes to every Bingo. “Do you know who that man is next to Ray?” she asked. I laughed out loud. “That’s my friend, Don,” I said. “Just a visitor.” (I find this much funnier than Don does.)
I passed Doug, and he grabbed my hand and kissed it. “Nice to see you,” I told him. “And vice versa,” he said.
I asked Dorothy how her Christmas was. “Worst one ever,” she said. “They’ve been calling off Bingos, and we haven’t had anything to do.” Ray had mentioned that a lot of Bingo sessions had fallen through around Christmas. “That’s really too bad, especially this time of year,” I told Dorothy. She seemed rather inconsolable.
All the regulars were in place—the Friday after Christmas, and so many people alone at Bingo. But at least there was Bingo.
Bill Crowell came in late and settled in next to Doug. Robert Kincaid came in late, too, and I told him how much I was enjoying the crafts I’d bought from him at the Christmas bazaar. He showed me the progress he’d made on the lanyard he had begun that day, and I made a point of pointing him out to Don (one of Don’s gifts was Robert’s colored-pencil drawing of an eagle at the pond).
At one point Billy won and selected a prize jar filled with candy—and 200 million confetti-looking twirled ribbons. While I was pushing the prize cart around, he apparently dumped the entire jar, because there were 200 million confetti-looking twirled ribbons on his clothes, in the workings of his wheelchair and all over the floor. “Was there an explosion?” I asked Billy. It was like one of those nut cans filled with a springing snake. Every time I walked by, I found more ribbons.
Bill picked a jar of pickles as a prize. “Pickles for the picklehead,” Doug said. Which also made me laugh out loud. At some point Bill dislodged the lid, and pickle juice oozed all over the table. “Want those?” Bill asked Doug. He did.
At the end of Bingo, I told Bill to come say hi to Don (they had met and talked for quite a while at Thanksgiving). Bill didn’t remember meeting Don. Bill didn’t seem so well. I thought I’d mention our impending Valentine’s Day dinner date to cheer him, but it only threw him into a tailspin of anxiety.
I hugged him and wished him a happy new year, and Bill said, “You know what I want for the New Year?” I leaned in, hoping it was something happy about Valentine’s Day. It was not. “I want to die,” Bill said. I hugged him again. And I told him I’m very happy he’s still around. It was the best I could do.
Don and I left. I didn’t feel as if I’d spread—or witnessed—much Christmas cheer at all.
“Do you still want to walk down to the pond?” Don asked. I had completely forgotten about that. But he hadn’t.
No one was there, of course; it was post-Christmas cold and dreary. I showed Don where Mike and I usually perched, and then Don and I walked to the end of the dock, where Mike and I had fished and searched for eagles and breathed deeply and talked and talked and talked. And I cried.
Don spotted an eagle. I smiled and took a deep breath--and felt very grateful for my friends.