This Christmas, I thought I’d share something a bit different. I pray this short story about memories, friendship, and unchanging hope brings a little joy to you today!
Fake Poinsettias and plastic evergreen decor signaled the arrival of the Christmas season. Agnes, quite attached to her traditions, kept a calendar to help her failing memory track the day-to-day countdown of activities. The list was the same as it had been for some 40 years or so, evolved from scattered childhood nostalgia too precious not to commit to a lifelong holiday plan.
Careful to mark every day and it’s accompanying festivity off with a red and green “x,” Agnes glanced at the calendar with satisfaction. December 4. According to the calendar, she’d already watched A Christmas Carol, listened to O Come All Ye Faithful, and picked out the Christmas cards she would send. Today was one of her favorite traditions: setting out her beloved nativity. She was even wearing her preferred sweater, the red one with the white star pattern, over her pale, thick frame.
Grinning with all the delight her exacting, serious self mysteriously succumbed to at this time of year, she plodded down the hallway of the nursing home toward Delia’s room in the dementia ward. As is fitting of decades of friendship, some of Agnes’ traditions were Delia’s now, too. In this case, arranging the animals in the scene was Delia’s hallowed duty.
“I wonder if she remembers the difference between a donkey and a lamb,” Agnes thought to herself, the spirit of Christmas unable to push away Agnes’ concern for her friend. Agnes’ own failing memory was fitting of an 85 year old. Delia’s wasn’t, and the threat of her forgetting the things that mattered most loomed larger than the grave to her best friend.
“Agnes,” a pretty, young nurse said, blocking her path as if her tiny frame and wild blond hair could get in the persevering old woman’s way.
“Yes?” Agnes replied primly, instantly agitated by the disruption to her blissful trek to tradition.
“You can’t remember?” the nurse asked gently, gesturing in the direction of Delia’s room. “She and the rest of the ward who might not remember the distancing rules are in quarantined to their rooms because of that bug going around.”
Agnes had not remembered, though now she supposed she did.
“Well,” Anges answered, waving the nurse aside and squinting at her name badge, “well, Sophie, I don’t have that bug, see?”
Wiggling her body with enough sass to snap her 85 year old bones, Agnes demonstrated that she was just fine, throwing in a defiant toss of her gray hair to punctuate the point.
“I can’t allow it, Agnes,” Sophie insisted, biting her lip to hold back a blend of laughter and pity, “but, if you promise not to go in, you can peek through her window and wave, alright?”
“Fine,” Agnes shot back mischievously, “I’ll try to remember not to go in.”
Sophie darted ahead of Agnes down the hall, muttering something about memory loss and safety. Agnes arrived just in time to find Sophie scribbling out a sign and sticking it to Delia’s door.
“What’s the sign for?” Agnes asked, jerking her thumb at the window of Delia’s door, “she do something?”
“Do you remember you can’t go in?” Sophie said, raising an eyebrow in the direction of the woman who seemed to savor sass. As she asked, Sophie showcased a sign reading: “Quarantined! Stay out!”
“I remember now…” Agnes admitted, only a little grumpily as she recognized the quarantine sign was for their own good, despite its interference with her beloved tradition.
“I’m sorry you can’t go in,” Sophie said as she headed back to her station, “maybe you can play charades or something through the window?”
Peering in, Agnes waved. Delia didn’t. She was staring off at the opposite wall, intent on something God alone would ever know, given her state of mind. Agnes knocked, watching as her friend turned and shuffled to the door, bursting into one of her famous toothy smiles at the sight of her oldest friend staring through the window.
“Hi Del,” Agnes said loudly, waving with one hand and holding the door shut with the other as Delia wiggled the knob for a moment before looking back at the window in confusion. Her lips moved, but no sound came through the solid oak and thick, sterile glass between them.
“I can’t come in for…something or other,” Agnes shouted, forgetting the details of the virus.
Delia gestured with shrugs, unable to hear or make out what was happening.
Mustering up a reassuring smile, Agnes motioned backward. Delia went backward, eyes fixed on the door. Putting a hand up to signal a stop, Agnes then rotated one hand around another, alternating as she also pointed at the chair in Delia’s room. It looked like a mime was giving instructions for the hokey pokey to someone on a treasure hunt, but eventually, Delia sat facing the window in the door.
With a thumbs up and the same “stay” signal she’d given her dogs over the years, Agnes commanded Delia to wait as she hurried back toward the nurse’s station and her own hallway.
“Nice visit?” Sophie said as Agnes passed by.
“I just hope she holds still,” Agnes quipped, hustling on to her room, where she paused for a moment to remember what all the fuss was for. Seeing her calendar kept Agnes nearly on track as she gathered up the pieces of her beloved nativity set, hardly able to hold them all. On mission, she headed back from whence she came, armed and ready to keep tradition alive.
“What’s that?” Sophie asked from her post, both eyebrows raised.
“Christmas,” Agnes answered with a tone that said bah humbug. She couldn’t remember why, but that blond nurse she liked so much wasn’t on her good side that day.
“Please remember you can’t go in,” said the young nurse, trying to lighten the mood by adding an awkward, “ho, ho, ho!”
“Santa isn’t in the scene,” Agnes replied seriously, taking no time to rest as she bustled on to Delia’s room.
As luck would have it, a cleaning cart was sitting in the hall, not far past Delia’s room. Claiming it as the stage for her nativity scene, Agnes laid her treasure on stacks of sheets on the second shelf and wheeled along swiftly in front of the window of the door, tapping again to get Delia’s attention.
With a smile, she saw Delia’s eyes fix on the window as she began the laborious work of rising from her chair to open the door. Flapping her hands to tell Delia to sit back down, Agnes immediately raised up the open-faced stable, wiggling it for emphasis. Peering back in quickly, she saw Delia’s halo of bright white hair in place and proceeded with her mission.
One by one, she held up the silhouette figures of the shepherds, the kings, even the unbiblical drummer boy Delia’s silly daughter loved best, and mock-walked them into the stable set on top of the snowy white folded towels on the cart’s top-shelf. With every character, Agnes peeked in, just to find Delia’s wrinkly face ranging from sleepy to delighted to bewildered.
Right around the time the angels were to arrive on the scene, Delia’s face popped up in the window, only to be replaced rapidly with a series of “figurines” of her own. A hairbrush, a pen, a pair of pants, and other assorted items were flashed before a half-amused, half-anguished Agnes.
“Does she have any idea what we’re doing together, God?” Agnes prayed, wishing it was like ten years ago, when Delia’s silly streak could easily be distinguished from the dementia stranding her someplace without sensical ways of understanding the world around her. Presenting fake figurines with absurd explanations for how they fit into the scene was just the thing Delia would do- but she always remembered to connect her humor to truth, using whimsy to draw out meaning. Did any of this mean anything to Delia anymore?
An angel clattered to the floor as Agnes startled in surprise. Her set was all intact, it seemed. She had just dropped an angel as she drifted from tradition to pondering. Refocusing herself on the task at hand, Agnes picked up the angel and glanced at the door, ready to begin again.
To her greater surprise, Delia’s face was pressed up to the window, her wrinkles looking like big old dimples as she smiled and gazed at the scene, nose flattened a bit against the glass, looking fully engaged.
Scooping up the angel to hold it on high excitedly, Agnes beamed a rare unrestrained smile as she and Delia locked eyes with glee. Each remaining character sans Jesus and the animals paraded onto the scene as Delia chattered to herself behind the glass, narrating to no one words that probably didn’t make sense anyway. Even on mute, Agnes found herself loving every minute, believing that somehow Delia understood what they were doing, what they were celebrating…until the animal pieces came out, that was.
The sheep, donkeys, and camels were Delia’s part. She had done a different configuration every year, and added stories to the Christmas narrative about all the ways the four-legged witnesses came to rest in their watchful, worshipful places. This time, though, she yawned and plopped back down in her chair, where Agnes couldn’t see her smile well, or read the feelings in her eyes, or pretend to make sense of lip reading. The “figurines” Delia had held up lay limply on the floor.
Knocking on the door, waving the animals, even shouting did no good. Delia stared off at another wall, free and at ease as she explored some imaginary world happily. The voice that replied at last did not belong to Delia, but Sophie.
“Ms. Agnes,” Sophie said kindly, “I have an idea. I’ll be right back.”
Leaning back against the wall opposite Delia’s door with a huff, Agnes crossed her arms and bounced a sheep piece up and down with nervous energy. She chided herself for being so tradition-bound, so stuck in her ways, so easily frustrated over something so silly. But, when it came down to it, Agnes knew the knot in her stomach had more to do with worry and grief than anything else. If Delia didn’t remember her favorite part of setting up the nativity, what other meaningful things had she forgotten?
“Here,” said Sophie proudly, “look what I found in Santa’s workshop.”
Holding up a bright red, old style cordless telephone, Sophie explained with gusto, “I know how to call into the emergency line in the room.”
“Well,” Agnes answered, a rush of emotions removing what little filter she had in the first place, “do it! Thank you ma’am!”
Sophie dialed in with a smile, tapping the door and pointing to help Delia realize she needed to pick up her end.
“You’ve reached Lasting Landscapes, how may I help you?” Delia answered warmly, as she had in years past when she was, in fact, a sought-after landscape artist. She sounded ready to take an order.
“What’s she say?” Agnes interrupted, as Sophie chuckled and said, “Yes, hello, I’ve got a friend here for you Ms. Delia.” Handing off the phone, Sophie headed back toward her station, setting a timer on her watch to come back and check on the pair of mischief-makers in five minutes, lest someone break something somehow- including quarantine.
“Hi Del,” exclaimed Agnes, “how’s it going?”
“I’ve got a great idea for the new flower installment over at…” Delia began to explain.
“Right,” Agnes interrupted, her start of unbridled enthusiasm returning to a status nearer her usual sobering realism as she recalled again the way Delia was these days. “Before anything else, we’ve got to set up these animals, okay?”
“Oh yes,” Delia answered, her eyes sparkling creativity, “just place the donkey in the barn, the camels to that side, the sheep over there.”
Obeying with her one free hand, Agnes tried to make it look good from the odd angle she stood at, looking up every chance she had to see Delia’s eager face and follow the directions of her pointing fingers. When Delia nodded, Agnes asked what she always had, reveling in a few moments of life as it used to be, even against the improbability that Delia really grasped the significance of Christmas anymore.
“So what’s the story?” Agnes quipped into the phone. “How did the animals get to the stable this year?”
Delia’s eyebrows furrowed like she was concentrating with all her might. Whatever dementia did to the brain, Agnes prayed it skipped over this precious part, leaving intact everything Delia needed for one more clever backstory about the scene to bring out the truth of the good news of Jesus’ coming. What wonder would she weave? Agnes could hardly stand to wait, and, in true form, didn’t.
“Delia? Delia?” she said, her voice betraying both expectancy and a current of concern as Delia’s sober face seemed frozen in place. “What’s the story?”
“The story?” Delia said, puzzled. “Oh, you mean….”
“The animals, yes,” Agnes interrupted, her heart pounding unexpectedly as she felt the turmoil of hope and despair wrestling in the wait.
“The reindeer,” Delia answered, ready to proceed.
“No, Delia,” Agnes replied, seeking to reason and rush to seize the preciousness of the moment before Delia returned to her chair, which so often seemed mysteriously located in another decade, in another town. “Not reindeer, Delia. The nativity. We’ve got to hurry…”
“Hurry?!” Delia said anxiously, “when…does Santa come tonight?!”
“Santa?” Agnes snapped, “we’re too old for Santa.”
“But I want my presents,” Delia replied with all the sincerity of the 6 year old she may have believed herself to be in the moment.
“Seriously?” Agnes said sarcastically, a sinking feeling suggesting that Delia might be serious, actually, and not have been so cognizant of their tradition as Agnes wanted to believe. It wouldn’t be the first time Delia had entered a time machine no one else could see. But this was Christmas. This was tradition. This was about remembering what mattered most- and if Delia couldn’t remember that…
“I asked for something small, see….” Delia explained, interrupting the formation of a knot in Agnes’ throat.
Agnes shot back a look as snarky as her decades of discomfort with raw emotion demanded, uttering “What’d you ask for? Baby Jesus?”
She held up the tiniest piece of the set, saved for last each year. He was always placed as they, Agnes’ family and Delia’s too, read from the Bible. The Gospel of Matthew to be exact. Did God even know where Delia was this Christmas, wandering somewhere in a mind that appeared lost?
“Agnes,” Delia answered, clear as day and disarming her friend as she laughed merrily, “I already have Jesus!”
A grin broke on Agnes face as she looked from the figure of a baby in her hand, to the cleaning cart nativity scene, to the peaceful eyes of the woman she’d had the privilege of seeing Christ work in and through for a lifetime- a legacy of faith dementia couldn’t take.
Delia patted her heart and reassuringly recited into the phone, “Immanuel, God with us, remember?”
“God with us,” Agnes repeated back into the phone, letting the simplicity settle over the sore spots on her soul, “how could I forget?”
She slowly set Jesus in His place, all the creatures and pieces of the old, old scene watching and worshipping just as they had for decades, just as they were made for. All fuzzy over the phone, she heard Delia’s rich voice begin a round of “Joy to the world, the Lord is come,” and softly joined in.