Stacy had drawn the short straw on Christmas Eve. Fate was holding her hand when she drew it.
Nearly all the staff at Woodrow Hill Elder Care were sick or quarantined with COVID-19. Stacy wasn’t among them. She had already tested positive a week after Thanksgiving. Fourteen days and a couple of negative tests later, she returned to work - just in time to cover the schedules of her stricken colleagues.
The thirty-year-old health care worker felt tired and lonely. She just wanted to forget the Christmas of 2020.
Stacy checked her mask before opening the heavy glass door. Satisfied with the fit, she walked in and approached the main desk. Aaron was standing behind it. He wore a mask, as well.
“Hey, Stace. You’re in early.”
“Only an hour. I’m going to be here ‘til two AM, anyway. Are you finished with meals and rounds?”
“Yes, missy. However, Jake’s taking care of Neil in 17B. I’m afraid we might lose him tonight.”
She looked over the resident logs. “He’s the compassionate release, right? What happened?”
“That's the one. Twenty years for DUI, death resulting. He only had three more to go. Labs came back yesterday with almost no liver function. I think the cirrhosis finally got him. He wasn’t even out a week.”
“That’s a shame. Did you call in hospice? I don’t think he has anyone.”
“He doesn’t, but hospice is booked solid. Jake’s it. He’s been taking the training, so he’ll do okay.”
“I’m sure he can handle it.” Stacy looked up from the log book. “You’re all caught up, Double-A. Get lost. I can take it from here.”
“Woah, girl.” His big eyes got even bigger. “You’re letting me go home early?”
“Yup…I’ve got nothing outside. You have Brian to snuggle with. Just do a little snuggling for me, okay?”
“You are a goddess. Forget Brian…will you marry me?”
“Aw shucks, you're proposing to me on Christmas Eve?” She smiled. “I don’t think I’m your type.”
“Girl…if anyone could make me straight, it be you.”
Stacy rolled her eyes. “Um…I don’t think it works like that.”
“It doesn’t, but I had to say something nice. That’s the best I could come up with.”
“Out-out-out, before I change my mind.” She was laughing now.
“Gone. Merry Christmas - and thanks.” He blew her a kiss as he jogged around the desk. It would have been a hug if not for this stupid coronavirus.
Stacy shouted at his back. “Merry Christmas.”
Aaron kept his pace as he passed the artificial Christmas tree next to the main entrance. The door closed with a soft woosh behind him.
At least someone will be merry tonight. Stacy hadn't been able to visit her boyfriend for two weeks because of the quarantine. Now that she was free, it was work that kept them apart.
Soft chimes and a blinking light broke her reverie. It was Bernard in 12A. The poor man had Alzheimer's, so she was surprised he had figured out the call button. He must be having a lucid day. Stacy adjusted her facemask and walked over to see what he needed.
The room was lit by dimmed ceiling lights and an LED menorah. While the resident in 12B was snoring like a chainsaw, 12A was awake and alert. His bright blue eyes called to Stacy, so she responded.
“Hey, Bernie,” she spoke in a soothing tone. “How are you feeling today?”
“I am doing well, Janet. I have much on my mind, if you will hear it.”
Janet? Maybe he’s not so lucid today. “I have some time. What’s going on, Bernie?”
“You have taken such good care of me after I got out of Birkenau. I was skin and bones - more golem than human.”
I’m going to look up ‘golem’, later. “Thank you, Bernie. I was…um…doing my job.” She chose her words carefully.
“You do more than your job. You care.”
Stacy knew he would forget all of this by morning. Yet she kept up the act so she wouldn’t hurt him now. “Of course I care. You’re a good man.” She patted his arm. Even in the modest light she could see the faded number tattooed on it.
Bernard smiled. “Bad things happened to me, but those alone do not make a good man. However, I know a good woman by her acts. You are a mensch.”
Two words I need to look up now. “Oh, come on. I’m not that special.”
“Oh you are. I saw what you did with the pills you gave us. You scraped off the gelatin and didn’t tell anyone. It wasn't kosher, so you scraped it off. During your leave you found a Torah in München and brought it back to the hospital. You did these things, and you’re not Jewish.”
“You had it rough and deserved some respect. It was no big deal.”
“Not to you, but it was to us. It is to me. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, Bernard.”
“Dear Janet…you are to leave Germany in three days. I will never see you again. So I must ask this now, even though I fear the answer.” His eyes were hopeful. “Is there a man waiting for you at home?”
Bernard spoke about Janet all the time, so she knew the answer. “I have no one.”
His eyes lit up. “Then will you have me?”
Stacy couldn’t give this poor man much, but she could do this.
“Of course I will, Bernie.” The lights of the menorah sparkled through her tears.
He was crying, too. “I will be the good man you deserve. If you can wait for me, I will follow. However, I first need to find my family and friends.” His old lips formed a devilish smile. “Then you can help me break tradition.”
“I understand, Bernie. I will be waiting for you.”
“I knew you would, meine Liebe. We will be happy someday. But now I feel a bit tired. I don’t know why it came on so suddenly.”
“It’s okay," she stretched the second word. "Please get some rest.”
He was already asleep. Stacy looked at the photos on the wall - the oldest in black and white, later ones in color. Bernie and Jan made a wonderful couple. Their family was beautiful, too.
She wiped away tears and whispered as she left the room. “You’re a good man, Bernard. I’m so happy Janet waited for you.”
Back at her desk, Stacy looked over the charts. Laptops or tablets had yet to replace physical paperwork in many elder-care facilities. Aaron had circled in red any patient requirements or medications that fell due after his shift was over. This made it easier to manage what was required on hers. She double-checked to make sure he didn’t miss someone - he hadn’t. Aaron was one of the good ones.
“Merry Christmas, Stacy. Are you feeling better, hon?”
It was Angela, perceptive as ever. Tall dark African features contrasted with her snow white bathrobe and pink aluminum walker. While age eventually robs everyone of their dignity, the thief had yet to take much of hers.
“Merry Christmas, Angie. You saw that, huh?”
“Both mind and body have slowed, girl. But these eyes miss nothing.” She pointed to them for emphasis.
“Bernard got to me - in a good way, I guess. He thought I was Janet.”
“Ah yes, his wife. She passed on five years ago.” Dark eyes looked up briefly. “He still talks about her. Lately he’s been talking to her, as well. In fact, he thought I was his dear Janet last week. Imagine that.”
“Aww...so how did you react?”
“What else could I do? I played the role. Bernie had a hard life in the camp, so he's earned some comfort now. What did you two talk about?”
“Bernard was in the hospital after the war. He proposed to me and I accepted.”
“Good girl. Let’s hope someone caters to my delusions when I need comfort.”
“Oh stop, Angie. You’ve got a ways to go before that.”
“Don’t be so sure, girl. Some of us fall into delusion with age, others start in youth. Would you sit with me? I'd like to chat for a spell.”
“I'm sorry, Angela. You must be tired just standing there. I need to check on a few of the other residents first. Can you wait twenty minutes?”
"I’m not going anywhere, honey. Take all the time you need.”
She grabbed the logbook and went about her duties. After medicating two patients and cleaning the bedpans of three others, she dropped the book off at the main desk. Angela was sitting on the foyer bench reading yesterday’s newspaper. Stacy approached and sat next to her.
“So what’s on your mind, Angela?”
“I heard you and Aaron talking before you let him go home early. That was a very nice gesture.”
“Oh, that. It was nothing, really. I don’t have anyone to go home to and he…does.” Her voice trailed off, not sure if she should say anything else.
Angela smiled, “Oh honey, I know he’s gay. No need to be cagey about it.” There was no emnity in her voice.
Stacy was relieved. “Oh…I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were cool with...it. I mean…”
The darker woman pounced on the pause. “You didn’t think I'd understand because I'm old. Tell you what…I’ve been ‘cool with it' before you were born." Her voice softened. "You see...I’m gay, too.”
Stacy was stunned. “I thought you were married...to a guy. You had children with him. Wow, I didn’t know.”
“That’s okay, Stacy.” Almost nobody knows. My husband surely didn’t. I loved him as much as I could possibly love any man. He was a good person, so I wouldn’t hurt him with the truth. For a long time, I couldn’t even accept it. Things were different back then…Watts, Stonewall. Imagine being Black and gay.”
Comforting Bernard was one thing; Angela's situation was entirely different. She was sharp as a tack, and wouldn’t forget this conversation in the morning. Stacy didn’t know what to say. Yet she had to say something.
She took Angela’s hand and looked into those dark eyes. “Is there any way I can help?”
“You already have, honey. You accept Aaron. You accept me. A very long time ago, I asked a woman to marry me. The law wasn’t on our side back then. The answer would’ve meant nothing to anyone else. Straight interracial couples were catching enough grief, so I don’t blame her for running off when I got serious. I would have accepted less than the impossible - much less. Still...I am fortunate to have lived long enough to see change. It warms my heart to know someone like Aaron can be accepted by someone so unlike him.”
“Oh, Angie. I accept you, too. We're alike where it counts, you know.”
“Thank you for that, Stacy. Will you marry me?”
Stacy was suprised by the sudden question, but quickly recovered with a wink and a smile. “I'm afraid the answer is 'no'. But if anyone could turn me gay, it would be you."
Angie smiled back. "It doesn't work like that."
Both of them laughed.
After enjoying the moment, Angela stifled a yawn. "I need to go to bed. When is your next shift, honey?”
“I’m off until Sunday morning.”
“Would you mind sharing breakfast with a delusional old woman?”
“Not at all, Angie. I’d love to.”
Angela bent forward slightly and kissed Stacy’s forehead. “It’s a date, then.” She pushed herself up and took command of her walker. Her motions were deliberate and certain. She carried the dignity of a person who knew exactly who she was. There was no delusion in that.
Stacy was still thinking that over when the call chime sounded. She approached the desk and saw it was 17B. Oh shit.
She jogged down the hall and nearly skidded into the room. Neil was moaning softly, clearly in distress. He was shivering under his blankets. Jake was doing his best to comfort him.
“Stacy, I need your help. Do you know where the heated blankets are? Ths one keeps tripping the GFI outlet.”
“I think they’re in the lower cabinet in storage room two.”
“Please get one for Neil. He’s cold.”
Stacy ran down the hall to the storage room and raced back with a blanket in less than a minute. She plugged it in and swapped the blankets while Jake manually warmed Neil’s feet with his hands. The red LED stayed on this time, and the heat along with it.
Neil stopped shivering after a few minutes. He wasn’t moaning anymore, but clearly fading. At least he did so in relative comfort.
Jake stopped rubbing Neil’s feet and checked his pulse. He turned to Stacy and mouthed out, soon.
Neil looked at Stacy and spoke. “I don’t believe this. How did you get here, Evelyn? I was dying alone on Christmas Eve, but now you’re here.”
Stacy didn’t believe it, either. This was turning out to be one hell of a Christmas Eve. She looked over to Jake who mouthed something else. You got this.
She faced the dying man and held his hand. "Yes, Neil. I'm here.”
“They let me out early, honey. I can make it all up to you - to us. We have time to make it right. It’s not too late to do all the things we planned. It’s not too late.” His eyes pleaded to her. “Can you possibly forgive me?”
“I forgive you.” She was already sniffling. “What do you want to do?”
He was whispering now, each word a struggle. “Will you marry me?”
She slowly removed her mask and softly kissed Neil on the forehead. “Yes I will, honey.” There was no hesitation, whatsoever.
Neil closed his eyes and smiled. "Thank you, Evelyn. I love you."
With a final breath the ex-convict was truly free.
For the next moment, nothing was said or done. Finally, Jake put his hand on Stacy’s shoulder. “That was some skills. Seriously, you did a good thing here.”
“Thank’s, Jake. I…I need to take a break.”
“You earned it, Stace. You've done the hard part. I can take care of this.”
Stacy put on her mask and entered the hallway. One hell of a Christmas Eve. She headed straight for the breakroom for alone time. Sure enough, no one was there. The occupancy lighting clicked on only after she walked in.
Stacy dropped an herbal-mint tea bag into a coffee mug and added hot water from the dispenser. Tea at its best still wasn’t coffee. Yet the last thing she needed tonight was caffeine. She drank a bit and stared over the rim. Her mobile phone chimed.
It was a WhatsApp message from her boyfriend. Actually, there were two messages. She missed the first while helping Neil leave this world a little more happy than he lived it.
Hey Stacy, I’m outside.
Stacy left the breakroom and walked over to the front entrance. Eric was on the other side, wearing a mask. She could imagine his goofy smile through the fabric.
She opened the door a crack. “Oh…hey…Merry Christmas, Eric. Um…you can’t be here with the lockdown and I can’t go out until my shift is over. They won’t let anyone in without a negative Covid test.”
Eric reached in his back pocket and pulled out a folded paper. He carefully unfolded it and held it against the glass door. “Merry Christmas, Stacy.” It was a COVID-19 test result - and it was negative.
Stacy’s mask was the only thing that kept her jaw from hitting the floor. “How? Why? You work from home, so you don’t need to get tested. You had to pay for this. It’s like a hundred bucks, right?”
“A hundred twenty-seven. It’s okay Stace. I can make more money; We can't make more time.”
“Aw…you make it sound so easy." She was blushing behind her mask. “I don’t deserve this.”
“Yeah…you deserve a lot more. It was an easy call - a lot easier than standing out here in the cold. Could you...uh...let me in, hon?”
“Oh, yikes…of course." She fully opened the door. "I'm so glad you're here. Let’s go to the breakroom. I really need to dump on you.”
Stacy spent the next ten minutes telling him about her night. Eric didn’t say much. He let her spill every last drop before sharing his thoughts.
“So you got four marriage proposals this evening. That's got to be a record - if anyone keeps records like that." He reached for her hand and held it. "You really are amazing.”
“Oh, thanks…but I’m not that special. I mean...you bought a Covid test just to to be with me on Christmas Eve. That's exactly the gift I needed right now.”
“Thanks, Stace. I think you have me beat, though. You gave four people exactly what they needed for Christmas - even if some of them remembered it for only a little while. You like helping people and that's why I love you." He pulled out a small box from his pocket and handed it to her. "You deserve this, Stacy. I hope I deserve you."
She accepted the tiny box with shaking hands and opened it. The gold ring inside was simple with only a small stone - and the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
Eric gave her her a moment to think before he spoke. "Stop me if you're tired of hearing this." He paused again before continuing.
"Will you marry me?"
Stacy smiled. She was neither tired nor alone. This was going to be a Christmas to remember.