The Best Gift
From Judith Moriarty
Christmas - oops, Seasons Greetings and now a Holiday tree in Washington, lest we offend somebody! So what-once upon a time it was supposed to represent the birth of Christ not a Spiderman balloon at the Macy's Parade or hordes of people trampling each other to get into some junk-o-box store. But it's all a colossal materialistic joke anyway. In my town I find it interesting that the nativity set is kept behind Plexiglas. That's in order since religion itself is such a plastic affair anyway. I was trying to imagine someone sneaking off with a plastic camel or one of the shepherds under their arm!
I was remembering a few of my favorite Christmas memories that had nothing to do with malls (I never shop them). I was working in a distant state, at an institution. They always built these echoing-Victorian-places far out in the country-lest the decent folks be offended by the flawed or less than perfect in their midst. This particular sprawling place was way up in the mountains 15 miles out of town. High ceilings and antiquated windows added little to the warmth. I had managed (with much threats) to paint a few murals on the walls in the section I worked in. Bile green walls didn't exactly add any cheer to this dismal place-so I painted harbor scenes with fishing boats and docks.
It was Christmas and the residents mostly severely retarded with multiple handicaps were excited. Tinsel and garland hung in the hallways was a welcome reprieve from the harsh cruelty of this place. There was to be a gala event at the auditorium on the other side of the grounds. This place had its own farm, power house, greenhouses etc. It was really a small town. A town, I reminded myself with some contemptible human beings; who took sadistic pleasure in abusing the helpless and powerless. When I see the pictures of the torture and abuse of Iraqi people's I'm not shocked. People do stuff like that right here in the good old U.S.A---atrocities that never make the news.
I wasn't a popular employee in that place. I made it clear that they could sit on their lazy asses (employees) and not do their share of the work; folding clothes, moping floors, cleaning toilets, bathing residents et al; but by God let me see one of them abuse anyone and they would be reported immediately. Believe me I followed through-but that's another sordid tale of the impossible and how officials tried to cover for the abusers!
The Supervisor asked for volunteers; to take a dozen of the more able-bodied residents, through the blizzard blowing outside, to the Christmas show. Nobody moved. I waited thinking there would be at least a few who would raise their hands. Just when the supervisor was about to announce that it looked like nobody from our building would be going, I raised my hand. It was a chore getting everybody ready. People in institutions don't have the luxury of warm mittens-boots or warm clothing. I layered them in shirts and sweaters borrowed from hither and yon and put socks on their hands. Enough caps were found and we were ready.
Just then I felt a tug at my jeans and turned to see Mike. Now Mike had been in the institution his whole life and was in his mid seventies. He never spoke-just nodded his head. I could see that he wanted to go. I hesitated, because Mike was dying of terminal cancer. Again, it needs to be understood, that in institutions, no heroic treatments are given and not even pain medication.
I hurriedly dressed Mike and off we went through the drifts. I held Mike's hand as we led our scraggly troop off into a white-out. Finally we reached the main building. The auditorium was full. There were wheelchairs and coffin boxes (for those who could never sit up). Every type of deformity and handicap could be witnessed here. There was such excitement as Santa came on stage and token gifts of candy canes and stockings were handed out. Christmas carols were sung---------all loud and off key. Mike was thrilled bobbing his head up and down and insisting I take him up for communion when the Mass was said. The priest hesitated, knowing Mike wasn't Catholic. I told him (the priest) that if Mike wasn't deserving of communion then nobody was---he gave him the Host.
Afterwards, I took my gang up the long echoing hallway, to the front lobby, where a huge manager had been erected. It was filled with poinsettias and flicking white lights under the hay. My guys had an average intellectual age of about five-so I told them the story of Christmas, much as you would your little ones. We finished with singing Happy Birthday; in that darkened lobby, as sock covered hands reached out to touch the baby Jesus on his feet and face. Mike, meantime, was groping frantically in his jacket pockets. As we turned to leave, and I called for him, I watched as he slowly approached the manager and laid a handful of cigarette butts on the baby Jesus swaddling clothes-and then he turned with a wide grin. I said, "Oh Mike I just know the baby Jesus is going to love your present best of all." Mike and other residents who smoked had a habit of cleaning out ash trays or picking butts up in the driveway---so this was a very special gift.
They were so thrilled with their candy canes and stockings. It really took so very little to bring joy into these deprived lives. People shake their heads and pity those so diminished or incapable of making it in the mannequin perfect body world.they shouldn't. The only suffering I ever witnessed, or fear, was brought about by abusers, not the person's handicap. There are sick malignant people in all walks of life. Mike had to sleep on the cold sun porch, where a dozen other cots were set up, as it was so crowded. I found an extra blanket and put it over his thin shivering frame. It was getting late and my shift was over at 11:30. I sat awhile with Mike and told him that he was dying-but that soon the pain would be gone and he'd be in a place with sunshine and cigarettes, and that best of all, he'd see Jesus. He was listening intently, his blue eyes never blinking. As I kissed him good night I said; "Mike do me a big favor---when you see Jesus tell Him I said hi".
As I turned to leave, Mike said, "Yep". The only word I ever heard him speak! The next day when I arrived at work I heard that Mike had died a little after 4:00 am that Christmas morning. This was the best Christmas I can remember, and the very best gift; given in love.



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