I’m a professional fundraiser but there wasn’t a charitable bone in my body when I offered to work on Christmas day. My motivation was to save paid time off for a vacation to California in January. I didn’t have any other plans anyway. My grandkids spend Christmas day with their other grandparents.
The job was to host a group of Jewish volunteers who were coming to deliver poinsettias and visit with patients; they call it their Mitzvah Day, a day to serve their Christian neighbors. I figured most of the patients would be asleep or in a coma anyway.
I arrived at the hospital and took the stairs to my second floor office where I encountered a couple, a tall white-haired man pushing a woman in a wheel chair. I asked if I could help them find something and they told me they were looking for the Breast Health Clinic. I explained that it was right down the hall but that it was closed today. “Oh, we know,” said the man. “Dr. Joan said she would meet us here.” Dr. Joan is a world renowned breast cancer specialist. She could surely find someone else to cover for her. But she was coming in. I was impressed. I found a comfortable place for the couple to wait for her to arrive.
After reviewing the instructions the volunteer coordinator provided an getting my carts together, I headed to the lobby to wait for my guests from the synagogue. There, I found a middle-aged woman was crying in the outer lobby. She kept saying that she was waiting for the number 18 bus. The security guard said that she was drunk. My guess was that there were some mental health issues at play too. At first I looked away, embarrassed for her. But then I observed a security guard treat her with complete compassion—inviting her to rest in the warm inner lobby while they made some calls. I couldn’t imagine being so alone in this world that I would be standing drunk and crying on 12th and Kilbourn in the freezing cold on Christmas day.
Five volunteers arrived and we gathered for an orientation. Sylvia had organized similar outings for the synagogue for years and knew just what to do. She explained that our objective was to share who we were, visit with each patient capable of a visit for a while, and leave behind our gift of a poinsettia and a decoratively wrapped tube of scentless hand lotion.
One of the volunteers was a class “A” jerk. Randy. He just wanted to plow through it. Kept complaining that we were wasting too much time getting instructions before we started. And then when we hit the floors he’d abruptly blurt: “Hi, we’re from here to bring you good cheer and leave you a present. Goodby.”
“Oy,” said Gladys, a tiny woman who was clearly the most senior member of the group. “That Randy is somtin’ else.” He was the first to leave.
There was a middle aged couple who volunteered, Bob and Lois. I noticed that Bob had to help Lois complete the volunteer form. I noticed that she smiled sweetly but didn’t talk or ask any questions during our orientation. And it occurred to me that maybe for Bob and Lois, this special act of charity on Christmas day was about helping Lois.
We split into two teams, each with a cart full of gifts, and headed off in separate directions to deliver our good cheer. The first person, I encountered was Annie, an old woman standing outside her room holding her gown shut with one hand and waving her TV remote around in the air with the other.
“There’s something wrong with my TV,” Annie said. The lack of teeth in her mouth made it hard for me to understand her. Her coarse, thin, grey hair was pulled back into a pony tail that stood up off of the top of the back of her head like a stiff paint brush I offered to help. I took the remote from her and cleared a patient survey question on the screen and scrolled through the menu until I found a nice Christmas concert for her to watch.
I asked if she would like to visit for a while.
“Who?” she asked.
“Yes, why not.”
I helped Annie get back into bed and fixed her tangled covers. “God bless you,” she said.
She showed me her swollen arm. It was as big as the top of my thigh and she was not a large woman. And I’m not thin. She told me that she had asthma and diabetes. She said she told her family that they had to “go on and do what they had to do,” but that she had to go to the hospital. Annie told me that she had five children–four girls and one boy. She got to seven and lost track of how many grandchildren. I asked how old she was and she said 75. It was kind of a shock to think about the comparatively youthful glow of my late-70s parents. This woman looked decades older than even my 90 year old mother-in-law. But she is just a reflection of what we know. Being poor kills you…sooner.
My next visit was with a couple with an Eastern European accent. The cheerfully smiling wife with blond haired pulled back into a pony tail looked to be about my age. She spooned thin oat meal into her handsome silent husband’s mouth. I explained what I was doing with the group of volunteers and the wife, Mary, had questions about the temple the volunteers were from. I called the nearest volunteer I could find, Gladys, the older woman who was part of my team.
Gladys answered all of Mary’s questions and then inquired about her Eastern European accent. “My husband and I are originally from Croatia,” she said, “but I lived all over Europe as a foster child.” She told us the story about how her father had died and her mother was a refugee from Yugoslavia who just didn’t have the resources to care for her. She said a few words in Croatian. Gladys told me that Mary was thanking me for visiting. I wondered if I would be as kind and cheerful as this pretty blond Croatian woman if my husband became incapacitated.
The next person I visited was Jean, who seemed fine except for the obvious tremors in her legs. She talked about the dullness of her life in an assisted living facility.
“Get up, have something to eat, watch TV; eat lunch, watch TV; eat dinner, watch TV; go to bed. Repeat.”
Jean said that as soon as she gets a few new cribbage partners, they “leave” and she has to start all over again. She has a great grandson named Marco.
She said that she wanted to die. I was afraid to ask what brought her to the hospital.
It was time to bring our visits to a close and reconnect with the other volunteer team, so I went to find Gladys, who was a few rooms down the corridor.
“Come in,” said Gladys when I motioned to her from the door. “You’ll never believe it,” she said, gesturing to the man lying in bed attached to an oxygen tank. A woman wearing a multi colored hijab stood by his side. They were from Palestine. Gladys explained that she asked them if they could speak Arabic and they could. “The same dialect I speak!” exclaimed Gladys.
“You can speak Croatian and Arabic?” I said maybe too incredulously. “Oh,” I can speak French too,” Gladys told me.
In the meantime, the couple beamed with joy at having someone to speak with during this health crisis. “Salem, Salem, (God is great!)” they repeated over and over. They offered me chocolate.
As Gladys and I walked back to my office with our now empty cart, we shared our patient visiting experiences. I told her about Jean, who said she wanted to die.
“Oh my ‘got’!” said Gladys. “If you are alive in this world, it is to do good.” She explained that even when people are ill or incapacitated they play an important role. They give others the opportunity to learn kindness and patience, and that is “doing good.” My face filled with the warmth of embarrassment. People like me I thought.
On my way out that day, I physically bumped into Sally, an administrative coworker, who was there with her two adult children to bring fruit baskets and cookies to the staff. We were both so surprised and delighted to see each other that our eyes welled up with tears knowing that we had both experienced something very special this Christmas day. My heart felt large and my spirit felt light. I felt peace and happiness.
On Monday, I wrote thank you notes to all of the volunteers. Except Gladys. She didn’t include her last name, address or phone number on the volunteer form. Only “Gladys.”
Indeed, no one was served more from this Mitzvah than me.