I was doing my annual “Managing Holiday Stress” lecture on a cold December evening one week in the Hospital Auditorium. This lecture has been traditionally part of our Behavioral Health Departments’ Holiday gift to the hospital and the community. As a Clinical Nurse Specialist, I regularly presented on Wellness for the general public. One never knows what one will “get” at these lectures. I had spent a fair amount of time preparing for the talk. The audience turn out was dismal. Or so I thought.
I turned my back from the large empty auditorium to collect my things and leave. When I turned back again to the seating, I was surprised to see one woman, a senior citizen, sitting alone in the middle of the large room. “Oh my,” she said in an embarrassed tone. “No one else is coming. Well, I won’t take your time.” She began to gather her things to leave. I thanked her for coming and sat down near her. I asked, “Why did you come here tonight?.” “I love these lectures,” she replied. “I don’t go out at night except to come to these talks. I don’t really have a reason to go out at night anymore. I don’t understand why more people aren’t here. I knew it would be interesting.”
“Well, how do you spend the Holidays?” I inquired, hoping that I could help to make her venture out in the cold worthwhile. “I don’t do Christmas, you know. I don’t have the money for gifts in boxes. Today everyone has everything anyway.” I agreed and asked if she’d like to do next year’s talk with me. She smiled and we laughed.
“I’ve had to ‘downsize’ (her word) and don’t have room for lots of stuff anymore,” she said. “I’ve been able to give away a lot this season!” She sparkled as she said this.
I commented that giving is part of the Holiday spirit. “Yes,” she replied. “That’s mentioned in Eastern religions, isn’t it?”
“Oh yes,” she replied.
“Oh yes,” I answered. “And in the prayer of St. Francis: It is in giving that we receive.”
“Oh, that is right, isn’t it?” was her cheerful reply. “Well,” she went on, “Don’t you think we should practice that part of Christmas every day?” I smiled and nodded.
I was wondering how she coped with the holidays, so I asked, “What do you do?”
She held her head humbly. “I don’t do Christmas. Instead, I go to the soup kitchens downtown and feed the homeless. I really enjoy that. Thanksgiving is my favorite. I have so much to be thankful for in my life. I’ve always had food and shelter.” I asked about family and friends, in concern for her loneliness (I was thinking about inviting her to a potluck I was to attend later in the evening).
“I have no family, but I have a few friends. Therefore, I don’t like a lot of those family things. I’m not comfortable. All that food is more than I like and more than I need, as well.” She continued, “Sometimes those gatherings can be like ‘false tinsel’, just like the emphasis on presents that cost money. I see how that makes people crazy. I work weekends in a gift shop and watch people suffer over the perfect gift.” She hesitated. “I think the whole gift thing can be kind of fake sometimes. You know, people with possessions are possessed.” I nodded and asked permission to quote her. We laughed again. “You are so kind,” she said. “Well, you know I’ve done all that Christmas gift stuff in the past. I have grey hair now,” (as though that would excuse her from the season’s stress). Her snow white hair seemed to glow as she giggled and combed it with her fingers.
I did go to Christmas in the Prado in Balboa Park. It was wonderful! The park was filled with children, music and beautiful sights. You really should go next year! I assured her that I would.
I told her that I thought she had the spirit of the season, and that her giving and acknowledgment of others was what Christmas was about. She became coy, bowed her head and repeated, “You are kind.”
“You know, I think you really do ‘Do Christmas,” I insisted. To my surprise, this wise woman quietly replied, “You really think I’m OK?”
I assured her that she was.
I asked her name. She replied, “Mary.”
I told her she had given me a gift.
I turned back to the stage to once again collect my things. When I turned back Mary was no longer in the auditorium. I said, “good bye” … to myself.