A song for Christmas
My father-in-law, Missy’s father, slipped into death at the Veterans Administration hospital on a gray day when the wind blew cold from the northwest, as it so often does on Long Island.
He was alone when he died. The family had stepped out for a much-needed break and he chose that exact moment to pass on, as so many veterans do.
He had taken a long time to die. He had Alzheimer’s disease, which can be a bit comical at the start, but quickly develops into the most miserable sadness imaginable. During the early days, someone would say to him, “How about a beer?” and he’d screw up his face as though he was a contestant on a quiz show and answer, “Who?” Everyone in the room would chuckle and then someone would say, by way of explanation, “Not who, Pop, what. A beer. Would you like a beer?” He’d shake his head and laugh at himself, not quite sure what was happening to his mind. Then he’d accept the beer, but in a childlike way. He’d look at it for a while before taking a sip, as if he wasn’t quite sure what was expected of him. Alzheimer’s can turn something as simple as a cold beer into a riddle.
There was a day when he got in his car to drive my mother-in-law to work. He had retired from his job as a butcher, and he was spending most of his days looking over the racing papers and sneaking off to OTB to spend small amounts of money that he had stashed away. He didn’t think she knew about his stash, but she did. On this particular day, he waited for her in the car out there at the curb. He pumped his foot on the gas pedal, hoping the old car wouldn’t stall, as it often did on cold days. He honked the horn a few times and cursed mildly under his breath. He no longer had the patience he had once had. The Alzheimer’s was stripping away his patience and replacing it with layers of confusion and anger. Finally, he drove off by himself.
She came out of the house and looked down the street. He was turning the corner. She somehow knew that nothing would ever be the same. She rushed into the house and called a taxi. The driver took her to where she worked and she saw him walking around and around his old car, cursing in Polish, and slapping his strong hands on the hood, the roof, the trunk. She was supposed to get out of that car and go to work. That’s what she did every day. But today he couldn’t find her in there.
We took away his keys that afternoon. He wouldn’t speak to any of us for a long time. And then came the months in the VA. We suspected he was there for good, but we hoped for the best nevertheless.
Missy took her father’s passing the hardest. Our family had done what we could to protect her from all of this sadness while it was going on, but in her own way, she knew exactly what was happening. People with Down Syndrome are not unaware. They know things. They’re like tuning forks. “My pop pass away,” she said on the day we returned from the VA. She could tell by our expressions. She knew. No one had to say anything. “My pop in heaven,” Missy said. Her pupils waggled back and forth and that’s how we know when she’s confused. It's in her eyes. On this day, Heaven was confusing Missy. “I miss ma Pop,” she said finally, and then she waddled to her mother who was now a widow. She put her pudgy arms around her mother’s shoulders and patted her mother’s hair. “I miss my Pop,” she said, and this made her mother sob uncontrollably. Missy looked at her family. Her pupils waggled furiously.
We buried him in a Catholic cemetery near a stand of tall pine trees that once sheltered a farmer’s field in the days when there weren’t as many people on Long Island as there are today. On the way to the cemetery, the hearse disturbed a flock of sparrows in a bare maple tree by the side of the road. The birds burst into the air like feathered fireworks and this made my mother-in-law smile in a way filled with faith and with hope. Her husband had been a bird lover, and from inside the black car, she grasped at this on that sad, gray day. “That’s Pop,” she said, pointing toward the soaring birds. “Look.” And that was how she gave her man back to God.
On a cold Christmas morning, the year before, Santa Claus had left a toy violin under the tree for Missy. The violin was one of those electronic wonders that plays music by itself whenever you touched it in a certain way. Missy particularly liked the way the violin played Turkey in the Straw when she drew the bow across it. She played this tune over and over and it could really get on your nerves if you were with her in an overcrowded house on a rainy day. Someone would eventually divert her attention while another would swipe the batteries out of the toy. This didn’t stop her, though. She’d waggle her eyes, tell you to buy her more batteries, and then she’d start singing that same old song. She didn’t have enough memory to remember all the words so she focused on just one or two out of the entire tune and wail these over and over again while stroking the battery-less violin. “Turkeeeeeeeeeeee. Strawwwwwwww. Turkeeeeeeeee! Hayyyyyyyyyy!” And she could go on like that for quite some time.
One day she told us that she wanted to play her violin for her father. “Your pop’s in heaven,” we said. “I go cemetery!” she insisted, and then she went upstairs to practice some more. As the weeks went by, Missy grew more and more insistent about playing for her father. We made as many excuses as we could, but finally gave in as Christmas approached. After all, we were making a visit anyway, and she certainly seemed ready for it. So why not?
It was cold the day we went to the grave. The wind blew hard from the northwest, as it so often does on Long Island. The snow bounced dull white light over everything. Missy, bundled in clothes that never seem to fit as they should because she is so short, waddled from the car to her father’s stone. She looked down and began to play. We huddled and listened to her wail the words to that old tune. Turkey in the straw. Turkey in the hay. She played quickly, bundled small against the cold, a child in a tiny woman’s body. This was her gift to him – the very best she could do and the wind picked up the notes from her toy violin and blew them high into the cold, white air, like a burst of sparrows. Blew them all the way to Heaven.
And when she was done, Missy looked up at us from inside her hood. The pupils of her eyes were rock steady. And for the briefest moment, I could see straight into her perfect soul.
And there was an angel in there.