Visiting Helen


Visiting Helen


No family would be visiting Helen on Christmas day.

I was alone, too. My sons were visiting their mom out of town. My stepsons were with their dad. My current wife was with her boyfriend. Months earlier she’d fallen in love and moved out.

Sadness has weight, and days earlier I’d foreseen the impending crush of loneliness. I looked inward and decided to reach outward. I called a nearby nursing home.

Helen lived on the “memory care wing” of the Serenity Senior Center. The manager on duty walked me to Helen’s spartan room. A small painting hung on a wall—a guardian angel hovering over a child. A sky-blue blanket covered a single bed. Helen sat calmly in a corduroy-covered lounge chair.

She had an innocent smile that brightened the moment I arrived at her open door. Later, I realized it reminded me of my grandmother’s smile in her last years. To this day, I think the serenity of their smiles came from having no obligations to make others happy, not even an obligation to make oneself happy.

“Helen, you have a visitor,” the manager said. Helen rose from the chair slowly but gracefully.

“Hi, Helen. My name is Pat. You don’t know me, but I’ve come to spend some time with you on Christmas day.”

“That’s nice.” Her voice was gentle. “When is Christmas?”

The manager spoke up. “It’s today, Helen. We’re going to have a party in a little while.” She turned to me. “Can you stay for the party?”

“Sure. I have plenty of time.” I fought the temptation to brood about the seemingly vast time alone I faced. I thought, what good is feeling sorry for myself?  But that didn’t stop me from feeling sorry for myself.

I’d already learned a little about Helen. She was eighty-two. She’d never married and had no children. Her sister was still alive but couldn’t visit. Interestingly, Helen had been a college professor at the university in my hometown. She had advanced Alzheimer’s.

Which meant this place was likely where she would die. Alone, I thought.

I sat on the edge of the bed, and Helen and I talked for a while, an awkward but sweet conversation that didn’t seem anchored to any reality—hers or mine. I asked about her past, but she didn’t remember my hometown. Or being a professor. Or her family.

Later, our exchange made me think of two teenagers on their first dance date, trying to find something to say and not step on each other’s feet. Helen and I fumbled and searched for what to say, too, but still we talked. And smiled. And that seemed a good enough dance for both of us.

When one of the aides announced the Christmas party was about to start, I escorted Helen to the memory wing’s small kitchen and dining area, separated from the main dining room.

A Christmas tree, decorated with simple paper ornaments, made earlier by the residents, lighted up one corner, and tiny snow-flocked trees or Santas stood in the middle of each of the tables covered in red paper tablecloths. Three staff members, all women, one wearing a Santa cap, greeted each person, helping some with their wheelchairs, others with getting comfortably seated. They likely were foregoing precious time with their own children and grandchildren, but the warmth of their affection radiated like the Star of Bethlehem.

It was the most wonderful Christmas setting I’d ever experienced.

Helen and I sat at a small two-person table, a six-inch Frosty the Snowman for company. We watched the staff prepare the party treats—orange juice in holiday cups, a sheet cake cut into small squares loaded onto paper Christmas plates, and tiny fluted cups filled with green and red M&Ms.

Helen smiled gently. “Now, who are you?”

“I’m Pat,” I said. “Your new friend.”

“Oh. That’s nice.”

I don’t think my name mattered, but she still understood what having a friend meant. As we talked, simple childlike topics seemed best. For both of us. “How’s your cake?” I asked.


The sense of taste diminishes with age, I knew, but the primal allure of sweetness stays strong, and the room quieted as the residents ate their treats. Soon, a staff member put a CD into a small boombox.

“Ready to sing?” said the aide in the Santa hat.

Some nodded quietly, still eating; others said “Yes” with fervor.

“White Christmas,” the original Bing Crosby version, played first. The residents sang along, stumbling over the verses until Bing crooned the chorus, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.” Everyone joined in with, “just like the one I used to know.” Helen and me, too.

“Jingle Bells” followed. Everyone sang—jingling all the way!—with the enthusiasm of a kindergarten class. Faces lit up. Helen’s, too.

I marveled how they could recall—with gusto—songs they’d learned seventy, even eighty years earlier, although few could remember the names of the staff, or the names of their own spouses and children.

Memories matter. Or do they? We hold some memories so close to our hearts we believe they define us, give our lives meaning. was a group of seniors whose unconscious memories of childhood songs—sung with joy—were the ones that remained unscathed. Other memories were simply gone.

Should I feel sad for their loss of memory? They’d lived long lives—working, raising families, laughing, crying, loving others. In short, making memories. Even though many memories were no longer available, their lives had been rich. Maybe that was enough.

That’s when I realized, I have a long life ahead in which to create new memories.

The singing ended with “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” When we all sang, “and a happy new year,” I choked up. Many of these wonderful people would not finish the next year alive. And yet at that moment, they were happy.

I suspect Helen didn’t remember me the next day. That’s okay. I remember her.


Pat Partridge

Novelist and short-story writer Pat Partridge has a restless mind, a gift for mischief, and a fondness for all things funny. Written under the pen name Frank Benjamin, his book of political humor, now in its third edition, has sold over 70,000 copies. He is currently working on his third novel. His short fiction – some humorous, some the opposite – has appeared in Remington Review, The Haven, Fabula Argentea, and the anthology Winter of Our Discontent. He is the recipient of numerous awards from the League of Utah Writers, including best short story.

Post a Comment

Previous Post Next Post