(today's word is SLIPPERS)
This afternoon I walked into a small nursing home in West Valley City. It was not one of those facilities owned by a group of doctors and businessmen, with a nice shiny reception desk and fresh cookies under a glass dome next to a water cooler with fresh sliced lemons floating in the fresh ice water. It was the kind of place where you have to walk through a cloud of smoke outside, where a couple residents sit in metal chairs on the porch and hack between puffs. A place where a ragamuffin of a dog yelps when you walk in the front door, and the large screen TV is blasting in the corner of the front room, where mismatched recliners line the perimeter, and where a white haired woman plays cards at the kitchen table with two younger women. I stood there, my gig bag slung over my shoulder, and looked around to see if anyone with any authority might notice me and tell me where to go. It was obvious where I was to go, because besides that main room and the dining space where the card game was going, there were only bedrooms. I’ve sung here before, and it was a relatively pleasant experience, so I didn’t have that semi-panic I sometimes get, like I’m in the zoo with no fences and no zookeeper. There was banging in the kitchen, and the white haired card player became distressed about her hand or something, because she started screaming bloody murder. The ladies she was playing with walked away. I stood there.
Finally the activities coordinator came in from outside and asked if I wanted to sit down to play. “No thanks, I’ll stand.” But on second thought, I decided to pull up the piano bench. I unzipped my gig bag, attached my guitar strap and capo, and sat down next to a pleasant fellow named Lonnie. The TV was turned off, and the white haired screecher found her bedroom. I ducked my head under the strap, pressed my fingers into the thin steel strings of my guitar and began…”I bless the day I found you. I want to stay around you….” The chatter of the room quieted, and one by one people shuffled out or rolled out from their rooms, planting themselves in soft recliners next to throbbing oxygen machines. Eventually even the kitchen quieted down and I felt the energy shift to a pleasant calm. Lonnie sat there, leaning forward in his chair, staring at me as I sang. He moved his lips half a second behind mine and sang along. A frail old great-grandmother shuffled up to me. She stood right by the headstock of my guitar and held out her hand. Because I was playing with both hands, I smiled and leaned my head toward her. She kissed my forehead. As I bowed my head before her I noticed a lovely pair of new red slippers on her feet. She held a stuffed lamb and a package of popcorn treats. She smiled at me and shimmied across the wooden floor to an empty chair. When the woman beside her reached out for her bag of snacks, she squealed like a cat, pulling the bag across her chest and hiding it between her hip and the arm of the chair.
I sing at facilities like this quite often, roughly every other week for the last fifteen years. I know my songs so well I have developed, strangely, the ability to sing and play and at the same time let my mind carry a whole new train of thought. It’s weird, but that’s one of my talents. So I’m thinking as I sing Edelweiss that in all these years I’ve been singing at nursing homes and rehab facilities, the months following Christmas give evidence of love in the form of slippers. Bright new slippers on old blue veined feet. I think to myself that someone somewhere cares enough for this human in this little building tucked away to the west of the big city, to buy him or her a pair of new slippers. What else does one get a person in a nursing home? So as I move into the lyric…”A place that’s known to God alone; Just a spot to call our own”, I thank the Lord that people care, at least enough to bring slippers for Christmas.
Forty-five minutes later, when my songs are almost all sung, I notice the woman who grabbed at the bag of snacks is nibbling on popcorn with the cat screecher in the seat beside her. They are both smiling and nodding at me. Lonnie is playing air guitar beside me, his pleasant baritone voice trying to catch-up with my song. I unstrap my guitar and scoot over right close to him. I shift the body of my guitar off my lap and into his. I tell him to strum, and I play the chords. “Down in the valley, the valley so low….” His rhythm is impeccable, and he sings along with me, his eyes closed and his lips quivering. I look down at his feet and smile. He too, wears soft new slippers.