by Stuart Hickox from Ottawa, ON
Dec 15, 12
When I was a boy, I felt a strong sense of empathy for the old folks at Sunset Lodge. Twice a day, I rattled past the motel-like seniors’ residence in a big orange school bus, on my way to and from Queen Charlotte Junior High in Charlottetown PEI.
There never seemed to be much action at Sunset Lodge. The west-facing picture windows were draped, even at dusk. The façade was tired and worn.
The year I was in Grade Seven I was a proud new trumpeter in the school band. My musical career was inspired by my preacher grandfather, who had, himself, learned to sing and play from his father in the coal towns of central Wales. I was happy to carry on the tradition of music, and excited to be in the concert band that Christmas. Those years, I was a quiet and sensitive young man, but I had good chops. And one day, around the middle of December, I figured I had an idea of how to bring empathy and my new-found talent together.
After practice one morning, I assembled some band members and proposed a pre-Christmas mission. We’d put together a grade seven ensemble to play for the residents at Sunset Lodge. It just seemed like the right thing to do – to bring our youthful Christmas joy to the old folks! Within a day, our little troupe had gelled. Melanie would play clarinet; Helen, the French horn. Lance volunteered to be our trombone, Zoe would add the perky piccolo. I, of course, had my shiny new trumpet.
It was perfect.
Late in the week I snuck out of class early to drop by Sunset Lodge and pitch my plan. The management embraced the idea.
A few days later, when we arrived for our evening performance, a rag-tag gaggle of residents had assembled in anticipation. The crowd was fanned out around a little stage, on stretchers, in wheel chairs, and propped against the walls, gripping IV racks. It was very quiet. We were scared stiff.
We set up our folded stands and sheet music, and selected our first piece.
“Deck the Halls” seemed like a good choice to get things going – a rousing carol, celebratory, and familiar to all. I tapped my toe to set the 4/4 time, and we began. In absolute silence. Silence, that was followed by two fog-horn honks from Helen, which was followed by more silence, and then more, and then a whimsical piccolo peep from Zoe and then three of us in unison playing the last four “las” of “Fa-la-la-la-laa, la-la-la-la.” In horror, we realized that the grade seven kids are rarely assigned the melody in junior high concert band. That was the sacred space for the seasoned older grades. The melody notes for all the tunes we planned to play were missing. Our parts were all harmony. The flourishes. In my haste I had assembled a band made up of my friends. All of them backup players. Collectively we represented the animal sounds of Away in a Manger, the cracking whip of Jingle Bells, and those last four “las” in Deck the Halls. Nevertheless, we soldiered on, red faced at our own short-sightedness.
Amazingly, the seniors didn’t seem to mind. They clapped and rocked and smiled. They encouraged us. To fill in the gaps, we began to sing and hum the melodies. Soon, everybody was singing. Over the next 45 minutes of honking, and tooting, and singing, we played our repertoire of Christmas favourites. More than once. More staff and residents shuffled by and joined in. Our spirits soared.
It was a Christmas miracle! It ended, with hearty applause, hugs, date squares and sugar cookies. Our mission was complete.