She was old and frail, unable to speak. But to the nurse in this 1979 story, she taught a real lesson about Christmas.
December snow swept across the parking lot of Crescent Manor Convalescent Home. As the youngest nurse on the staff, I sat with the charge nurse at the North Wing station, staring out the double-glass doors and waiting for the first wave of evening visitors. At the sound of bedroom slippers flapping against bare heels, I turned to see Elizabeth, one of our patients, striding down the corridor.
“Oh, please,” groaned the charge nurse, “not tonight! Not when we’re shorthanded already!”
Rounding the corner, Elizabeth jerked the sash of her tired chenille robe tighter around her skinny waist. We hadn’t combed her hair for a while, and it made a scraggly halo around her wrinkled face.
“Doop doop,” she said, nodding quickly and hurrying on. “Doop doop,” she said to the man in the dayroom slumped in front of the TV, a belt holding him in his wheelchair.
The charge nurse turned to me. “Can you settle her down?”
“Shall I go after her or wait till she comes around again?”
“Just wait. I may need you here before she gets back. She never does any harm. It’s just that ridiculous sound she makes. I wonder if she thinks she’s saying words!”
A group of visitors swept through the front doors. They came in, scraping feet on the rug, shaking snow from their coats, cleaning their glasses. They clustered around the desk, seeking information, and as they did Elizabeth came striding by again. “Doop doop,” she said happily to everyone. I moved out to intercept the purposeful strider.
“Elizabeth,” I said, taking her bony elbow, “I need you to do something for me. Come and sit down and I’ll tell you about it.” I was stalling. This wasn’t anything I had learned in training, but I would think of something.
The charge nurse stared at me and, shaking her head, turned her attention to the group of visitors surrounding the desk. Nobody ever got Elizabeth to do anything. We counted it a good day if we could keep her from pacing the halls.
Elizabeth stopped. She looked into my face with a puzzled frown. “Doop doop,” she said.
I led her to a writing table in the dayroom and found a piece of paper and a pencil.
“Sit down here at the desk, Elizabeth. Write your name for me.”
Her watery eyes grew cloudy. Deep furrows appeared between her brows. She took the stubby pencil in her gnarled hand and held it above the paper. Again and again she looked at the paper and then at me questioningly.
“Here. I’ll write it first, and then you can copy it, okay?”
In large, clear script, I wrote, “Elizabeth Goode.”
“There you are. You stay here and copy that. I’ll be right back.”
At the edge of the dayroom I turned, half expecting to see her following me, but she sat quietly, pencil in hand. The only sound now came from the muffled voices of visitors and their ailing loved ones.
“Elizabeth is writing,” I told the charge nurse. I could hardly believe it.
“Fantastic,” she said calmly. “You’d better not leave her alone for long. We don’t have time to clean pencil marks off the walls tonight.” She turned away, avoiding my eyes. “Oh, I almost forgot—Novak and Sellers both have that rotten flu. They’ll be out all week. Looks like you’ll be working Christmas Eve.” She pulled a metal-backed chart from the file and was suddenly very busy.
I swallowed hard. Until now I had loved my independence, my own small trailer. At 22 I was just out of nurse’s training and on my own. But I had never spent Christmas Eve away from my parents and my brothers. That wasn’t in the picture at all when I moved away from home. I planned to go home for holidays.
Words raced through my head: They’ll go to the candlelight service without me! They’ll read the stories, and I won’t be there to hear! What kind of Christmas can I have in a little trailer with nothing to decorate but a potted fern? How can it be Christmas if I can’t be the first one up to turn on the tree lights? Who’ll make the cocoa for the family?
Tears burned my eyes, but I blinked them back. Nodding slowly, I walked toward the dayroom.
Elizabeth sat at the writing table staring down at the paper in front of her. Softly I touched my hand to her fragile shoulder, and she looked up with a smile. She handed me the paper. Under my big, bold writing was a wobbly signature.
“Elizabeth Goode,” it read.
“Doop doop,” said Elizabeth with satisfaction.
Later that night, when all the visitors were gone and the North Wing was dark and silent, I sat with the charge nurse, completing charts. “Do you suppose I could take Elizabeth out tomorrow?” I asked. In good weather, we often took the patients for walks or rides, but I didn’t know about snowy nights. “I’d like to go to Christmas Eve service, and I think she’d like to go with me.”
“Wouldn’t she be a problem? What about the doop doop?”
“I think I can explain it to her. You know, nobody else talks during church, so she’d probably be quiet too. Look how well she did this afternoon when I gave her something to do.”
The charge nurse looked thoughtful. “Things would be a lot easier around here if you did take her. Then you could get her ready for bed when you got back. There’ll be visitors to help with the others, but nobody has been here for Elizabeth in a long time. I’ll ask her doctor for you.”
And so it was that a first-year nurse and a tall, skinny old lady arrived at First Church on Christmas Eve just before the service began. The snow had stopped and the stars were brilliant in the clear, cold sky.
“Now, Elizabeth,” I said, “I don’t know how much you can understand, but listen to me. We’re going in to sit down with the rest of the people. There’ll be music and someone will read. There’ll be kids in costumes too. But we aren’t going to say anything. We’ll stand up when it’s time to sing, and we’ll hold the hymnal together.”
Elizabeth looked grave. “Doop doop,” she said.
Oh, Lord, I hope she understands! I thought. Suppose she gets up and heads down the aisle wishing everyone a doop doop?
I wrapped Elizabeth’s coat and shawl around her and tucked my arm under hers. Together we entered the candlelit church. Elizabeth’s watery old eyes gleamed, and her face crinkled in a smile. But she said nothing.
The choir entered singing. The pastor read the Christmas story from the Bible: “And there were in the same country, shepherds . . . ”
Costumed children took their places at the front of the church—shepherds and wise men, angels and the holy family. Elizabeth watched, but she said nothing. The congregation rose to sing “Joy to the World.” Elizabeth stood, holding the hymnal with me, her mouth closed. The lights in the sanctuary dimmed, and two white-robed angels lit the candelabra. Finally the organ began the introduction to “Silent Night,” and we stood again.
I handed the hymnal to Elizabeth, but she shook her head. A cold dread gathered at the back of my neck. Now what? Would this be the moment when she started wandering down the aisle? I looked at her wrinkled face out of the corner of my eye, trying to guess her thoughts. The singing began. I sang as loudly as I could, hoping to attract Elizabeth’s attention. As I paused for breath, I heard a thin, cracked voice.
“Sleep in heavenly peace,” it sang. “Sleep in heavenly peace.”
Elizabeth! Staring straight ahead, candlelight reflected in her eyes, she was singing the words without consulting the hymnal.
Oh, Lord, forgive me, I prayed. Sometimes I forget. Of course it can be Christmas with only a fern to decorate. Of course it can be Christmas without a tree or the family or cocoa. Christmas is the story of love. It’s the birth of the Son of God, and it can live in the heart and memory of a gray-haired old woman.
“Christ the Savior is born,” sang Elizabeth. “Christ the Savior is born.”
“Merry Christmas, Elizabeth,” I whispered, gently patting her arm.
“Doop doop,” Elizabeth replied contentedly.