62: The Penguin Christmas

62: The Penguin Christmas

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: It's Christmas!

The Penguin Christmas

A single rose can be my garden... a single friend, my world.

~Leo Buscaglia

What could have easily been the saddest Christmas of my life turned into my most cherished holiday memory. Christmas of 2005 was the Christmas that I had been dreading all my life; it was my first Christmas in a nursing home.

I was born with cerebral palsy, a condition that left me totally dependent on my parents, who did their best to take care of me. But as they became older, they decided that it was time for me to find a new home. I was only forty-eight years old.

Although my family had chosen a very nice nursing home for me, a Catholic home where I could attend daily Mass, it was still a nursing home. The nurses’ aides were nice enough, but they were on a tight schedule, so they had very little time to talk. Besides, a lot of the CNAs were teenagers who worked after school. These girls were sweet, but hearing them giggle about boys night after night got to be old.

I also found it difficult to relate to the other residents. Most of them were too sick to carry on a conversation. There was one sweet lady whose company I enjoyed very much, but Eleanor died just a few weeks after my arrival. All of this, combined with the fact that my family wasn’t visiting me as often as they had promised to, left me feeling very lonely.

Then one night, an aide who I had never seen before came into my room. This middle-aged woman, who introduced herself as June, had bright blue eyes and a smile that lit up the room. Somewhere deep in my heart, I felt connected to her.

Over the next few weeks, the bond between June and me grew even stronger. Since June was closer to my age than any of the other CNAs were (in fact, she was nine years older than me), I found her very easy to talk to. June must have felt the same way about me, because every night, as she put me to bed, we would have a nice chat. June would tell me stories about her grandsons, whom she adored. Hearing about the antics of these three young boys would always make me smile. June just seemed to have a gift for cheering me up. No matter how sad my day had been, I would usually be laughing hysterically by the time June tucked me into bed.

Once in a while, June would pop into my room early in the evening, just to see how my day had been. “Why are you always watching penguins on that little TV of yours?” June asked me one night.

I couldn’t help but smile to myself. Since my sweet friend was extremely computer illiterate, I wasn’t about to try explaining YouTube to June. “Penguins have always intrigued me,” I said. “They walk upright. They remind me of toddlers, and they seem so cuddly.”

“Have you ever seen a penguin in person?” June asked as she got out my nightgown.

“No, but I’d love to.”

“Haven’t you ever been to the New England Aquarium?” June asked. “I thought that every kid in Maine had gone there.”

Without knowing it, June had brought up a painful subject. “My parents thought that traveling with me was too much work,” I said quietly. “They always waited until I was away at camp before they took my brother on family vacations.”

I could tell that June was fighting back tears as she put her arms around my shoulders, and kissed me softly on my head. “It won’t be for a long time,” she said. “But maybe after I retire, you and I can go see some penguins. Would you like that?”

I could only nod. The idea of getting to see penguins was exciting. But if June and I ever traveled to Boston, I would have her all to myself for a whole day, maybe even two. I would be in heaven.

Over the next few months, I began to adjust to living in a nursing home. As the holidays approached, I enjoyed all of the Christmas activities that were offered. (Since my grandparents had died, my family had very few holiday traditions.) I loved the carolers, the parties, and the crafts that we worked so hard on. We even put on a Christmas pageant. I was really enjoying the holidays until reality set in.

Christmas Eve in a nursing home is one of the loneliest nights of the year. All of the little carolers who brought us so much joy during the past few weeks were at home celebrating with their own families. Everything on TV is a rerun, because hardly anyone watches TV on this holy night. But there was one thing that made this Christmas Eve bearable for me: June was working.

June was running late that evening, and I was wondering why. It was almost an hour past my bedtime before she came into my room. But when I saw the huge gift bag that she was carrying, I knew that June had put all her other residents to bed first so that she could spend some extra time with me. Maybe this wasn’t going to be such a bleak holiday, after all.

“It will be quite a while before we can go to Boston,” June said as she placed the bag on my lap. “But maybe having these will make the waiting easier.”

Until that moment, I hadn’t noticed that there was a picture of a penguin on the gift bag. As June helped me empty the bag, I saw that there was a definite theme to the bag’s contents. The bag held a penguin doorstopper, penguin socks, penguin pajamas, penguin-shaped chocolates, and penguin knickknacks. Even the card that June had signed with love was a penguin Christmas card.

My eyes filled with tears as I pictured June going to different stores, and picking out all these things for me. These little guys that now filled my room showed me that June had put a lot of time, thought, and love into shopping for me. I had never received such a precious gift.

That Christmas was six years ago, and June still has to work two more years before she can retire. But every year, when those precious penguins reappear in my room, I’m reminded of the vacation — and the time together — that June and I will someday share.

~Jamie Henderson

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