Almira peers at me from my iPad with a familiar and perpetual frown. I know Almira. I know she is not angry or even sad, but I do wonder what sorrows have knitted her grey eyebrows into such deep lines. Her hair is permed in the tight curls of so many in the nursing home, framing her face in a stern halo. Almira glares at me like an iron-willed queen from a somber Renaissance painting. When her mouth releases a sliver of saliva, she carefully and slowly wipes her face with the bib she wears.
“How are you?” she asks in a garbled voice, as if her mouth is full of marbles. Almira is polite as usual, and I remind myself that just because she doesn’t look very happy, she is still glad to see me and is enjoying the music. “You look very pretty,” she adds, approving of my blouse dotted with colorful Christmas lights, purchased last year from WalMart. I never thought I’d be wearing such an outfit—from WalMart of all places—but I love that Almira and the other elders enjoy it so much.
Part of moving towards elderhood myself is shedding former self-conceptions of what kind of person I am, including what kind of clothes I wear. The elders show me the way. If you have to wear a bib, you have to wear a bib. It’s not really a big deal. If I have to wear “tacky” clothes and string Christmas lights behind me to light up their lives, it’s not a big deal either. In fact, it is fun.
It is December of 2020, a particularly harsh holiday season for everybody in the world, but especially for elders in nursing homes who have been shut away from their loved ones for so many months. I am still not able to see them in person, but I sing Christmas songs for them from my iPad. We are all weary of the pandemic, but the music cuts through, a candle flame dancing in the darkest time of the darkest year of most of our lives.
Almira enjoys the songs and sometimes sings along with some of them such as Silent Night and Jingle Bells. But there is one special song that Almira always wants to hear, and the only one she ever requests. “I Love You Truly!” she demands in her warbly voice. I have learned from past conversations that this song was played at Almira’s wedding. Almira can no longer tell me her husband’s name, but the song is as important to her as the dog-eared devotional she keeps at her bedside.
When I started the musical elder work five years ago, I met Almira on my first day. She was sitting in her wheelchair in the hallway outside her door. Just like today, she called out imperiously, “I love you truly!” For the first few years, Almira was not on my one-to-one list of people to visit with music therapy. I would pass her in the hall and tell her, “I promise, I will learn that song for you someday!” But since she wasn’t on my official list I kept forgetting and putting it off.
Until one day when I opened a banjo case and found a “message” from my father inside.
My father had many stringed instruments, most of which came to me after my mother moved from her big house. One of them was a tenor banjo, which Dad used when he played jazzier songs. It’s what I used to call his “fast banjo” when I was very little, probably the banjo he was playing when I was still in my mother’s womb. I had not opened the banjo when I first got it, but I finally decided to check it out.
When I removed the banjo from the case, I saw a torn piece of notebook paper lying on the deep blue velvet bed with some writing on it. I picked it up to examine it. It was in my father’s distinctive scrawly handwriting and was simply this: “I love you truely.” (He was never a great speller!)
My father had been gone for years and had probably written this down years before that. I knew that this scrap of paper was probably in the case because Dad was reminding himself to learn the song—I often write songs I want to remember to learn on random bits of paper too. But still, I felt as if it was a precious and powerful message left just for me to find, a message from my father. I knelt on the floor beside the banjo case and sobbed, feeling my father’s love wrap around me from the Great Beyond. In my head I could hear him laughing and calling me “Little Nell,” one of his pet names for me.
That very day, I learned “I Love You Truly” and soon began singing it to Almira, who had been requesting it so persistently for years.
Today, I think of that scrap of paper as Almira once again requests her favorite song. Love. A universal expression of truth, a human truth. Love is what it is all about in our short existence: loving truly, loving deeply, loving for real. And love leads to joy, the sacred emotional connection we seek to find in this time of year when so much is so gloomy.
Seeing that little frown still engraved on Almira’s face, I decide to try something new with her before I play her favorite song. I tell her I have a special tool I keep in my pocket that helps me feel better. I show her a peace sign, and then I turn my hand around and put my two fingers on each corner of my lips, stretching it up to a smile. I tell her that sometimes when I feel sad, I SMILE and it instantly makes me feel better. (True! A trick I learned from the Barefoot Sensei, Mick Dodge.)
Almira breaks into a huge smile and her face instantly transforms. I realize I have never seen her smile before! The years drop off and I see the young Almira, full of hope and anticipation. She is beautiful when she smiles, and I tell her so. She turns her smiling face up to the aide standing behind her and gets more encouragement. Almira and I sing “I Love You Truly” together. When we are finished, I remind her of the power of the smile again. For the first time since we met, Almira leaves me with a smile on her face.
I probably will never know more about Almira’s life than what I can read on her face. But she is human, and her life is not over. She can still change. She remembers love. She finds joy in her own body simply by smiling at another person.
It is almost the winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. I am warmed by memories of my father, and the beauty of Almira’s smile. My flame burns brightly.