“Will the room please settle down before the dance begins?!” says Gary to the elderly crowd in the nursing home cafeteria. “Simmer down, please!”
Gary is an old man with a saxophone dangling from his neck. He speaks over a microphone, addressing old folks who are all wearing their dancing shoes. These residents need a little fun tonight. It’s been a very long year.
“People, hush!” says Gary.
Someone goes: “SSSSSSHHHHHH!”
The murmuring stops.
“Let’s do this in an orderly fashion!” says Gary. “I need two groups! I want my men dancers over HERE! I want my lady dancers over on THAT side!”
Soon, the room is reorganizing itself like the final round of a livestock auction. It’s a downright mess.
“Quickly, people!” says Gary. “We haven’t got all night!”
It’s a good night for a dance. There has been an 82 percent drop in COVID cases among U.S. nursing homes since the vaccine, and these people need something joyous.
Gary says, “Alright! I want healthy dancers to the front of the line. Quiet please! Orderly fashion! Healthy knees and good tickers up front! Anyone who’s only upper-body dancing tonight, you’re at the back of the line!”
The people in the cafeteria once again reorganize. Ladies on one side; men on the other. Even nurses and cafeteria workers are present for the fun, watching this clambake from the outskirts in case someone overdoes it.
“Okay,” announces Gary. “Ladies and gentleman, it gives me great pleasure to introduce TONIGHT’S BAND!”
Everyone claps. You would never believe a nursing home could produce so much applause. But as I said, it’s been a long year.
Each person within this cafeteria knows someone who has died from COVID-19. Each person bears the scars of a pandemic. Thankfully, everyone here tonight is healthy (knock on wood).
There are four musicians in tonight’s community band:
Lonnie (Pacific Grove, California) playing electric bass. Lonnie can’t feel his fingertips because of neuropathy, but he can still play.
Jennifer (a staff nurse, originally from Tampa) on upright spinet.
Thomas (Sioux Falls, South Dakota), on the drum kit, holding his sticks like Gene Krupa.
And of course Gary (Lansing, Michigan) on alto sax and vocals.
“Everyone ready?” Gary says. Then he counts off a tempo. “And a’one, and a’two, and a’one, two, three…”
The band launches into “Somewhere Beyond the Sea.” People come unglued. The whole facility suddenly becomes ten shades happier.
By the the first chorus, the cafeteria dancefloor is already crowded with eight men and fourteen women.
Bashful smiles. Weathered hands clasping other weathered hands. Feet shuffling. A few women are dancing with other women since there aren’t enough men to go around.
One old man wraps his arms around a woman’s waist. They are barely moving. This non-aerobic dance style is what’s commonly known as “Prom Dance.”
Another athletic couple is doing light twirls and they’re both smiling—literally—to beat the band.
The tune ends. The band plays “When You’re Smiling.”
Gary is now singing like Louis Armstrong, and the heck of it is, they say Gary does an excellent imitation.
Fifty years ago Gary used to be in a band in Orlando. His group used to play this tune every night at closing time.
People are moving stiffly on the dancefloor, wobbling about as gracefully as the decades of osteoarthritis will allow. Onlookers seated in wheelchairs are singing, clapping in all the wrong places.
The next tune is Cole Porter. “You Do Something To Me.” Medium swing. This one really gets them cranked.
A few wheelchairs scuttle to the dancefloor, accompanied by enthusiastic nurses who are performing upper-body dance moves with non-mobile patients. This is already the best day of the entire year.
Gary plays saxophone solo after solo. People do foxtrot after foxtrot. Everyone is glowing.
When the party winds to a close Gary takes the microphone and makes his final speech. He gives the dancers a chance to catch their breath while he uses a serious voice.
“I’d like to dedicate this song,” he begins, “to everyone who has lost someone this year.” His voice breaks when he says it.
The nurses and staff bow their heads.
Gary whips up the band. The musicians begin to play “What a Wonderful World” at a ballad tempo. The whole room comes alive because everyone on planet Earth recognizes this song.
Dozens of elderly voices are soon bellowing in wrong keys, but each mouth sings the correct lyrics. Even the employees are howling along with Gary.
Because everyone here knows that Gary has had one of the hardest years among those here. His wife died from COVID last year. He’s playing this number for her.
Gary brings the saxophone to his lips and begins to play, but he is interrupted. In the middle of his solo a nurse approaches the stage and asks Gary if he’d like to dance with her.
Gary turns red. “Gosh, it’s been a long time, I don’t think so…”
The nurse ignores his remark. She forces Gary to discard his saxophone and join her while the band plays. Pretty soon the two of them are on the dancefloor.
The nurse rests her head upon Gary’s bony shoulder while they sway in rhythm. She can hear him sniffing loudly. After a few moments, they stop dancing and simply embrace on the dancefloor. The nurse rubs Gary’s back while he weeps.
And later that evening, when that nurse recounts this entire story to me in an email, I find myself doing the same thing.
Because, it really has been a long year.
Sandi. - March 23, 2021 7:13 am
Has it really been just a year? In many ways it seems more like three or four years.
Ann - March 23, 2021 10:14 am
WHAT A BEAUTIFUL STORY❤️🥲
Adele - March 23, 2021 10:26 am
Jo - March 23, 2021 5:31 pm
I’m drying my eyes..Love it..
pdjpop - March 23, 2021 10:35 am
So incredibly heartwarming. A perfect delivery of a wonderful world.
Jean - March 23, 2021 10:52 am
Yes it has been a long and miserable year….I know so many that were lost. Good to know that happier times are ahead. Love this story
Karen Erwin-Brown - March 23, 2021 10:53 am
joan moore - March 23, 2021 11:45 am
Yes, and I am out of Kleenex, but strangely have a lot of toilet paper…now. One of your best. Again.
Barbara Roberts - March 23, 2021 11:54 am
What a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing
Bar - March 23, 2021 12:06 pm
Yes, Sean … it HAS been a long year. Thank you for words that help make it bearable, that help me get through a day.
Cyn - March 23, 2021 12:10 pm
Wonderful celebration. Thank you.
Heidi - March 23, 2021 12:11 pm
A heartwarming story full of hope. Thanks for uplifting us during this Long. Stressful. Gawd Awful. Year.
Pamela - March 23, 2021 12:21 pm
My therapy dog, Lucy, hasn’t been able to make visits to the nursing home we were visiting each week (sometimes more) for over a year. So this column really hit home.
Te Burt - March 23, 2021 12:33 pm
As usual, you’ve made the scene come to life, and it’s easy to picture those folks laughing and shuffling. You give me my morning laugh or my morning cry because all too often, your words are vividly etched on my mind. (You had me at “Ella Mae.” After that, you walk on water!) It’s gonna be 73F and sunny in South Georgia. Good day for this old woman to wash some dogs.
Phil (Brown Marlin) - March 23, 2021 12:34 pm
Yes, it HAS been a long year, but if we squint down the tunnel we can now see a glimmer in the distance. God bless all those folks at Gary’s place of residence. At long last I can begin to visit my friends in nursing homes and other retirement facilities again, because they’ve had their vaccinations and so have I. Now, if I bite anyone they won’t get rabies.
Becky Kaufman - March 23, 2021 12:56 pm
I hope crying before breakfast has a health benefit, because I do this regularly.
Carolyn Waldron - March 23, 2021 12:57 pm
I was virtually dancing with them. You put me on the dance floor, too. So, so glad I found you, Sean.
Bobbie - March 23, 2021 12:58 pm
Me too..weeping that is. I can just see them. So much life left in them…Gary and his crew giving them a chance to live it again. God bless you Sean. A beautiful story. It’s things like this that make us appreciate life…we’re not done yet.
Catherine - March 23, 2021 1:24 pm
For future reference~where do I sign up for this nursing home? 💓
Leigh R Amiot - March 23, 2021 1:26 pm
“Weathered hands clasping other weathered hands.”
What a beautiful turn of phrase!
Jennifer Kimbrell - March 26, 2021 1:19 am
That’s the phrase that jumped out at me, too. So descriptive.
Lisa Wilcox - March 23, 2021 1:53 pm
Julie RN - March 23, 2021 2:08 pm
God Bless that Nurse who instinctively knew that
Gary needed some TLC too❣️ Sweet way to return the love and joy that Gary gave so many, and allow Gary a beautiful dance, and much needed watershed 💕
DAVID A WILSON - March 23, 2021 2:57 pm
Harriet - March 23, 2021 4:43 pm
I love this story.
Linda Moon - March 23, 2021 4:55 pm
Every person knows a deceased victim of COVID-19? Wow. That’s hard to take in. The good news of the drop in cases mitigated it somewhat. This story from the nurse to you and then to us readers made me want to weep, then dance with everyone in that crowd!
Denise M Hendricks - March 23, 2021 4:59 pm
Again, Sean, I should not read your articles while sitting at my desk at work! My boss isn’t buying the “having something in my eye” excuse anymore. Great read!
Carolyn Sue Rhodus - March 23, 2021 5:11 pm
This one..THIS ONE ❤..touches my heart and soul !!! I work in assisted living and I have seen their longing for normalcy..yet they muddled through each day looking forward to better days without complaint !! Seniors are so strong ..never underestimate their power. God bless them..each and every one !
Barbara Barnes - March 23, 2021 6:25 pm
Christopher Spencer - March 23, 2021 6:48 pm
Seems that this story causes weeping, but a beautiful story it is. Thank you Gary and all the band for giving these people some joy in their lives.
Dean - March 23, 2021 7:31 pm
Bernadette Wyckoff - March 24, 2021 3:47 am
Yes indeed a long year. I am weeping now and have no shoulder to weep on. Thank you Sean for the memories of when there was my dear Wayne’ shoulder and him to dance with. Louis was the best back in the day. Love you Sean❣
William ( Buddy) Caudill - March 24, 2021 8:12 am
Thank you for your service to your country.
I know not whether you served in our nation’s military, or not.
Your written words are what I am referring to.
I’ve only been on your mailing list for a short time.
During this time, your columns have impacted me.
This past year truly has been quite unique, in all 71 years I have been blessed to inhabit this temporary home, called my body.
Each life has been altered in some way this past year.
When I was seven, my dad passed away, after an extended illness. He was twenty-six years older than my mom. Like a real trooper, she raised her three boys, on her own, for a while. Until my stepdad, “Mr. Hamm”, came along. (Long, other story).
My mom had dropped out of school, after sixth grade, during the great depression. But, she taught myself, and my older and younger brother, to write and read, before we ever got to first grade. (There was no kindergarten in Texas in the early 50’s).
All this to convey to you, my love of reading goes “way back”.
And, thankfully, I can now read your columns, and enjoy the smiles they bring, the warm feelings down deep in my soul, and even the occasional tear some of your words bring to my eyes.
Thank you, for your service!
Melanie - March 24, 2021 12:14 pm
Jan Culpepper - March 24, 2021 10:59 pm
This is so stinking beautiful my heart can hardly stand it. Thank you.
Ed - March 28, 2021 4:24 am
Thank you Sean from the bottom of my heart. There’s a lot of loss to go around. My sister lives in Tallahassee. We have a coterie of friends and I come down from Vermont several times a year to visit my mom who lived in an Assisted Loving Facility. every day at least of one us visited my mom, read her books. She lost her sight years ago. We all loved her. She died aged 96 just before the COVID took her so she was spared the quarantine. Strange that there was a silver lining. She would have grieved the loss of our companionship so much.
May her name be a blessing to us.