A light in the dark

Published December 1, 2011

To see the goodness in our Junior Anglican Young People’s Association leader, Dave, you have to overlook his stained ties, rumpled sports jackets and tobacco-yellowed fingers. It’s 1960 and he’s only seven years older than his 13-year-old charges.

“For Christmas this year, we’re doing a carol sing at a nursing home in West Hill,” he says.

Disappointed girls eye-roll. There’s no fun showing off party dresses to a bunch of geezers. Boys groan.

“Calm down,” says Dave. “Bring these carol sheets with you. Get back to me if your parents can drive, or I’ll drive you.”

I vow to get my sister Elaine to drive before I’ll step foot inside Dave’s car again. The old heap looks like Dave’s clothes—rumpled. Last winter he drove us to Minesing for Evensong. Coming home, the motor belched smoke. Beside a snowbank on a dark highway, Dave tinkered under the hood, spitting out cigarettes. With frozen fingers, he appealed heavenward. Worried parents, waiting in our church’s parking lot, rebuffed Dave’s explanations, hustling kids into cars, mumbling words like “dangerous.” Elaine drives to the nursing home and parks beside an old house with low eaves pressing down on a building made ugly by add-ons and ramps. Eight of us slip across the icy driveway to a dark front door.

“Come in, come in,” chirps a stout woman, ushering our flock into a dimly lit hallway.

We change from rubber boots to party shoes and smooth over our hair, prettily flouncing our skirts. Fake holly corsages with gold bells decorate our dresses. We follow Dave and the woman into a parlour.

Discomfort pricks at me inside the dingy room. A sickening odour pervades the space, slightly medicinal and likely personal. The room is crowded by contraptions that might be wheelchairs, or commodes, or devices for propping up heads and legs. Our youth sparkles like diamonds on a threadbare rug.

“Oooh, ‘ello, dearie. Ain’t ya pretty in yer dress.”

“Come to sing, ‘ave ya?”

I pass a frozen smile back to a roomful of gummy grins.

“Hello. Hello,” I say, nodding and smiling, nodding and smiling.

“OK, ladies and gentlemen. The youngsters are going to sing for you. Sing along if you like.”

Croaks and wrong-worded verses compete with our choir. I focus on Dave’s tobacco-stained hand cutting up and down like a metronome, keeping time and mostly ahead of the chorus around us. Encouragement smiles through his crooked teeth.

I fear being touched by one of them, as if something awful will rub off on me, like germs, or a smell, or cooties. A woman as transparent as parchment presses up against me. Her distorted fingers grapple with the plaid blanket on her lap. Constrictions in my throat whittle away my voice, which struggles for the alleluias in, “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”

After eight songs, the administrator notices the residents are fading. After thank yous and merry Christmases, my dears, she ushers us back to the front hall.

“Will you be able to sing a few songs for the ones upstairs?”

“Sure,” says Dave, one foot on the first step, turning to us. “Ready?”

We glance silent misgivings at each other. But good Christians soldier onward, so we climb a cramped staircase to a dormered upstairs with un-level floors and spartan furnishings.

I feel this nightmare called a home is not right for the bedridden. A din of complaints and unworldly sounds emit from white swaddled figures lying on narrow mattresses book-ended between metal headboards. Legs kick and arms lift like ghosts, except for the arms and legs strapped down, heads rolling side to side. Discomfort escalates to anxiety and waves of claustrophobia: the air is loaded with smells and pierced with cackles. White faces lie under dishevelled white hair matted over skeletal heads.

Watch Dave. Dave will lead us.

Our band of Christmas cheer warbles under the dormers. Our song master ignores invasive hands grappling at his clothes, ignores the growls and ignores an aid’s firm grip on a wretched old woman whose reaction to our appearance screeches above our the high notes of “First Noel”: a spectre of Christmas past in her Christmas present.

Downstairs again, the administrator thanks us. In the parking lot, Dave lights a cigarette and reminds us of the good we’ve done.

Elaine and I say nothing on the way home. I spill out to my parents what I’ve seen that upsets me. The images keep me awake at night, but fade over time, replaced by pressing teen problems. I don’t see much of Dave after the winter of 1961. I outgrow Junior AYPA.

For years after, I drive past the nursing home and feel guilt, or disgust. The outdated establishment that offered cold comfort to the lonely and forgotten is now demolished. Christmas carols remind me of Dave, the untidy, big-hearted volunteer who knew about warm comfort for the suffering at Christmastime.

Mary E. McIntyre is a member of Life Writers Ink and The Writers Community of Durham Region in Ontario. See Mary’s blog at http://maryemcintyre.wordpress.com.


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