36: The Power of Giving

36: The Power of Giving

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

The Power of Giving

Christmas is the spirit of giving without a thought of getting. It is happiness because we see joy in people. It is forgetting self and finding time for others.

~Thomas S. Monson

The e-mail came from a friend who is always doing something interesting, unusual or rewarding. This time, it was an invitation to participate in a Christmas Day visit to a Lutheran assisted-living facility in our community. The mission: help the staff in whatever way we could because, as Jewish families, we don’t celebrate Christmas ourselves.

Christmas can, in fact, be a somewhat odd day for those of us who are Jewish. Most years, the formula is familiar: a newly released movie and Chinese food.

We almost said no. We’d already made plans, and this suggestion sounded a bit daunting, as the unfamiliar often does.

But after some conversation, my husband and I decided to take on the three-hour shift together at the familiar building on our town’s Main Street, a building we’d walked past often.

Of course, the motivation was not only that we could be of help to the staff; we also could hopefully interact with some of the lonely souls who were not slated to have visitors on Christmas Day.

My husband always had the gift of easy communication and connection. As a long-time writer I, however, had been shielded behind the written word.

I’m a tad shy, and I was more than a tad nervous about this Christmas Day visit.

“These are strangers,” I reminded my easygoing husband. “We’re Jewish. We don’t even celebrate Christmas. What will we talk about?”

Vic made short shrift of my anxiety. “We’re human!” he said. “Humans find ways to communicate.”

We got our first challenge at the entrance to the Lutheran home, where a lone elderly man sat in a wheelchair. We greeted him with the standard “Hi,” but got no response.

He seemed so alone, and what touched us so much was that he was holding a small American flag in his hand. There he sat, on Christmas Day with his flag. But after several attempts at conversation, it struck us: He had lost the gift of speech. A stroke, perhaps, or some other infirmity.

I don’t know what made me do it, but I stepped up close to his wheelchair, smiled and pointed to the flag. And I gave it a thumbs-up.

Suddenly, a smile as radiant as the sun spread across an old soldier’s face.

Mind you, we don’t know that he was one, but he seemed straight out of Central Casting as a World War II vet.

In that moment I knew we’d made a very good decision.

All around us were people in wheelchairs — some surrounded by families, some alone. There were staffers bustling around, leaning over to whisper something sweet or funny or just friendly. These are the amazing men and women who sacrifice their own Christmas Days to be there for the forgotten or the needy.

Suddenly, religion didn’t matter a bit. Nor did shyness. All that mattered was the privilege of being a part of this day.

To pause to say “Merry Christmas!” To shake a hand. To offer a cookie.

But there was so much more to come.

We were ultimately assigned to the area where the Alzheimer’s and dementia residents were finishing lunch, many of them slumped in their wheelchairs, a few with some small spark of awareness.

We’d been advised to meet these residents at eye level, to approach them from the front, never from behind, and to expect anything from total indifference to anger to a blank stare.

We got some of each.

But gradually, as we knelt down to try to connect — as we smiled, patted a shoulder, held a hand — there was a glimmer of something.

Eye contact. A hesitant smile. A word or two.

In some ways, that was a most difficult, even exhausting experience. But oh, the amazing rewards.

There was the tiny lady whose sweet face showed delight when we wished her a Merry Christmas. Her nails had been polished, her white sweater was clearly for special occasions, and her ability to connect and respond was in there somewhere.

So we talked without words. And yes, that’s not just possible — it’s amazing.

I handed her two soft little plush teddy bears that were available to these residents to have and to hold. She cuddled them close to her heart.

We repeated this again and again with men and women who didn’t care what religion we were or why we were there, as long as we let them know that they were worthy of a smile or a touch.

And then we discovered the lady with a cap of silver hair who began to call us “Mommy” and “Poppy,” and reminded us that we used to make Christmas pudding together. She was, she told us, seventeen years old.

Good for her! Maybe that’s how she felt on this Christmas Day in her late senior years.

Our most astounding moments came with her.

The background music piped into the activity room was Christmas music, and almost instinctively my husband began singing along to the words of “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” Then I, the world’s most self-conscious singer, joined in.

Then, suddenly, there was a third voice. Our silver-haired lady friend was singing every word of “Jingle Bells,” and then of “Silent Night.”

There we sat, two Jewish Christmas visitors and a sweet woman with a voice like an angel, singing together on Christmas Day.

Unlikely? Definitely.

Uplifting? Absolutely.

Meaningful? Certainly for us.

Hopefully also for the residents of this place, five blocks — and light years — removed from our lives.

When we tiptoed away, we noticed that our new friend had fallen into a peaceful sleep, with just a hint of a smile on her lips.

We left knowing that we’d just experienced our very own beautiful, wonderful Christmas miracle.

~Sally Friedman

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