Nearly 30 years ago, I took a job at a hospice in Milwaukee, Wis., and found my niche. As the autumn leaves began to fall, this holiday schedule was posted:
December 24 3-11 Barbara
December 25 3-11 Barbara
I was devastated. Newly engaged, I was having my first Christmas back home with my family after many years. But as a new employee, I didn't have the seniority to get Christmas off.
While lamenting my predicament, I came up with an idea. If I couldn't be with my family, I'd bring my family to the hospice. My family thought it was a wonderful plan, and so did the staff. Several invited their relatives to participate too.
As we brainstormed ideas for Christmas, we remembered the annual Christmas Eve service in the hospice chapel, normally attended by staff and members of the public.
"Why don't we take the patients to the service?" I suggested.
It never occurred to me that this great idea might not fly with my nurse manager.
"Surely you're not serious," she said. "It's never been done. Seldom do you see any patients at this service, and the ones that do go are ambulatory and dressed. Most of our patients are too sick to go. I can't authorize additional staff. What about the liability?"
But I kept trying to convince her until she grudgingly gave approval.
Christmas Eve arrived. Family members gathered in the lounge and decorated a small tree. Then we implemented our plan to transport the patients to the chapel.
Sandy, 19, dying of liver cancer, never had visitors. Her mother had died 3 years earlier and her father stopped visiting long before, so my family took charge of her. My sister combed her hair while my mother applied lipstick. They laughed and joked like three old friends as she was helped onto a stretcher. Meanwhile, my coworkers prepared other patients for the move. Then, with patients in wheelchairs and on stretchers, we paraded our group into the chapel.
We arrived just in time to hear the end of "Joy to the World," with the organ and bells ringing out in perfect harmony. Silence overcame the startled congregation as we rolled slowly down the aisle. Everyone turned to look at us as our steps echoed in the large, crowded chapel.
Then the magic began. One by one, people stood up, filed into the aisle, and began to help us. They handed out hymnals and distributed programs. They wheeled patients to the front so they could see. One woman adjusted Sandy's pillow and stroked her hair. Throughout the service, the congregation catered to our patients, guiding them through the service.
The beautiful service closed with a candlelight recessional to "Silent Night." Voices rang in disrupted harmony as the congregation helped us leave the chapel and return our charges to their rooms.
As I got Sandy ready for bed, she whispered, "This was one of the nicest Christmases I've ever had."
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Since that Christmas, my family has been blessed with many Christmases together, but that one was the best. Like author Bill Shore, I, too, believe that when you give to others and to the community, you create something within yourself that's important and lasting. He called it "the cathedral within."
All these years later, our family cathedral is still a little stronger for the privilege of giving that Christmas.
Barbara Bartlein, RN, CSP