Copyright is held by the author.
MILLIE PULLED back the curtains at the window in her room at the Royal Oaks Retirement Home. Six floors below she could watch the cars pulling into the driveway and the people spilling out into the dark parking lot.
“Christ,” said her son, David as his feet slid on the icy asphalt of the parking lot. Gauzy sheets of snow drifted across the pavement. “If this weather keeps up, we’re gonna wish we’d never come. Hurray up, will ya? I’m freezing to death out here.”
“I don’t feel good about this, David,” said Karin. “Is this the right place for your mother? I think she’s lonely. Do you think she’ll ever be happy here?”
“It’s fine,” said David. “We should have forced this on her years ago. Her condo’s sold and there are no more choices left. Everything is pre-planned and booked.”
They left the car and shuffled through the blowing snow to the automatic doorway into the retirement home. It was a new building, bright and luxurious. Just like a five-star hotel, thought Karin as she followed David into the grand foyer. They hurried past the receptionist. She was wearing a green elf hat and waved a bowl of candy canes in their direction.
“All set for the big night? Millie’s waiting up in her room.” She grinned and indicated a group of women sitting in the lobby assessing the visitors. “The three wise woman are already here. They’ve made a big effort to get dressed up.”
“Hi sweetie,” said the tallest one to David. “Still dragging around that little mouse? Let me know when you’re free to hook up. We could meet on the roof top. It’s on my Christmas wish list.” She turned to the other giggling women. “Why are the good looking ones always taken? You can never find a decent single man around here.”
Karin smiled tightly at the three wise women and wrapped her arm through David’s. She remembered when they’d toured the Home together last summer. Millie was so impressed by the roof top with the helicopter landing pad. There was an open area with a big white H in the middle of a black circle. A wide yellow border outlined the landing spot.
“Now there’s something that’s always been on my bucket list,” she’d said. “Do you think I could book a flight? I got lotsa money you know. It’s no problem for me to pay for a ride.”
David had cleared his throat before answering his mother. “Sure thing, Ma. I’m sure they conduct city tours from the top of this building. Probably get a great view of the countryside. I’ll see if I can arrange something for you.”
But there was no possibility of a pleasure ride. Helicopters arrived only for rare emergency hospital lifts. And Millie had made it clear, after her last lengthy hospital stay — before the move to Royal Oaks, “No more. Get me outta here. I’m never coming back to this place.”
That was in June. Before leaving the hospital, David had picked up a glossy brochure illustrating “the finest retirement home ever built.”
“It’s too expensive,” Millie said. “ I just wanna go home.”
“It’s your new home, Ma. Look at all the activities you can get involved with. All the new friends you’ll make.”
Karin and David rode up the elevator to Millie’s room. A tiny green wreath with a miniature Santa Claus decorated her door.
“That’s how I can tell it’s mine,” she had said when they hung it. “Otherwise, I might get lost and wander into the wrong room. This place is confusing.”
“So, what’s the deal tonight, Ma?” said David. He could see Karin in the background holding up one of Millie’s many medications.
She was mouthing the words, “diabetes — empty.”
He nodded and rolled his eyes.
“It’s gonna be a special night. We can eat whatever we want because it’s Christmas Eve. There’s even going to be wine at the tables. The staff is all going to dress up and treat us tonight.” Millie stumbled a bit as she crossed the room.
Use your walker, Ma!” David shouted and grabbed her arm.
“I don’t need the damn walker. It’s just a nuisance and gets in the way,” Millie shook his arm away. “I know where I’m going, and I’m going to take my damn sweet time to get there.”
“Karin, help me pin this thing on, will ya? It’s my special one and I want to wear it tonight. I don’t get many chances anymore.”
Karin pinned the sparkly brooch onto Millie’s chest, and smiled. “You look lovely. Ready to go? If we hurry we’ll get to the elevator before it gets too crowded.”
The three of them stood silently as the steel lined elevator descended from the sixth floor to the ground level. Millie leaned against the frame of her metal walker and watched the lights on the panel blink off and on as they tracked their downward journey. Off and on. Green and red.
“Just like the Christmas lights all over this place,” she said. “You know, the problem with this place is they never tell you when anyone’s died. They just disappear. Where do they go? How do they get them outta here without anyone seeing them?” Ninety-two-year-old Millie stared at her son and daughter-in-law as the elevator door opened into the main hallway.
David rolled his eyes. “I dunno, Ma.”
Karin tried to change the subject. “Look — doesn’t everything look great done up for the holidays? It’s really beautiful here. Look at the wonderful decorations.”
They headed into the large foyer outside the dining room. Millie tightened her grip on the walker and gave a little shove. She tottered unsteadily along with David trailing behind.
“Those women that were checking David out are gone,” said Karin.
“Probably staked out at their special table where they can spy and bitch about everything, said Millie. An elderly man in a grey cardigan was seated alone by the fireplace. Apparently the three wise women weren’t interested in him. Millie nodded as she trundled by.
A tuxedo clad pianist at the grand piano belted out old holiday favourites. Millie pointed out the crowd sitting on folding chairs.
“Looks like all the inmates are here.”
A blue and silver Christmas tree soared to the high ceiling. Groups of scarlet and white poinsettias overflowed every table, and blue and silver decorations cascaded like fluttering doves from the dome overhead.
Millie rolled on, nodding to all while they located their table. “This is my family.” She tilted her head towards David and Karin. When they passed the three wise women, they all grinned and showed their teeth.
“Put the walker at the table, Ma,” said David. “Then you’ll be able to get it easier when we leave.”
“No,” she made a face at him. “I have to follow the rules here. Walkers go at the side of the room during meals.”
“And since when have you followed the rules?”
Millie stuck out her tongue at David.
Finally, they were seated at Millie’s regular spot. They relaxed and surveyed the room. It was crowded with residents and families. From their vantage point, they could look back into the lobby. The old man in the grey sweater was still sitting alone by the fireplace.
“See that old geezer in the grey sweater . . . his wife died.” Millie sipped at her wineglass. “I used to see them eating together at lunchtime. I didn’t see her for a couple of days, so I asked him, ‘where’s your wife?’ Anyhow, he said, ‘she died last week.’ It was embarrassing.” She held out her wine glass again for the server. “I just don’t get it. I don’t know how they take them out of here. I never see anyone go out, and they don’t put up a notice or anything when someone dies. You just have to figure it out for yourself by looking around to see who’s not there.”
David tapped his forehead with his index finger. “What do you think, Ma? They aren’t going to put up a sign in that elevator every time someone dies.”
From her spot, Karin observed the old man sitting at the fireplace. The pianist was really rocking it. Most of the crowd applauded and hummed along. The old man was unresponsive, and sat with lowered head and hands folded in his lap.
“Should we ask him over to join us? Or . . . maybe someone’s coming for him later tonight?” said Karin.
“Oh, probably he’s got plans,” said David turning to smile as a beautiful blond staff member in an elf costume appeared at their table.
“You look very pretty,” said the blond elf. She smiled and placed a finger on the sparkling brooch. She stroked Millie’s arm and her bright crimson nail polish glittered against the silky sleeve of Millie’s best jacket.
“Thank you.” Millie’s grin lit up her lined face. Her sparse white hair had been styled in the salon and she patted her tiny curls. “This is my family,” she swept a hand towards David and Karin, “they put me in here. They aren’t very nice.”
“Ha Ha!” They all pretended to like the little joke.
“Your mother’s quite the character. We just never know what she’s going to say or do.”
The elf woman moved to another table. “That’s Jennifer,” Millie said. “Isn’t she cute? I don’t know how she manages to stay so skinny. She’s our program director. She’s peppy too, always got something going on.” She pursed her thin blue lips and blew at her hot soup.
In the background, the pianist belted out, “Common folks, everybody join in,
“Fast away the old year passes,
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses,
Sing we joyous all together,
Headless of the wind and weather,”
Everyone hesitated then David and Karin weakly joined in the final chorus, “Fa la la la la, la la la la.”
At last, the highly anticipated main course arrived. Thick slices of turkey, mashed potatoes, dressing, green beans and a dollop of cranberry sauce. Millie ate hungrily. “It’s delicious. Usually I only eat half a serving. The portions are too big for me. How’s yours?”
Karin relaxed and looked at David. It was good to see Millie enjoying her food. Before her fall, she’d been living alone. Then there was several months stay in the hospital. In the hospital, she’d become much thinner.
“I refuse to eat the unappetizing, diabetic, low cholesterol, lactose and gluten free cold meals, that just show up — whenever. That crap they bring me isn’t fit for a dog,” she’d complained.
“It’ll be better at the Home.” David had assured her. “They’ll check on you.” And tonight, Karin thought, it seemed to be a good choice. Millie was clearly enjoying herself.
Another elfin staff delivered the grand finale. It was Christmas pudding decorated with a sparkler that exploded in bursts of light like diamonds.
“Would you like some ice-cream with your pudding?” Millie nodded.
“But your diabetes . . . do you think that’s a good idea?” said Karin.
“Diabetes be damned,” Millie said. “This is my Christmas dinner. I intend to do whatever I want tonight.” The elfin server added two scoops of vanilla to her thick, rich dessert. David looked at Karin and shook his head.
The music stopped. Everyone looked up and in from the foyer strode Santa Claus.
He was tall and powerful looking. His crimson velvet jacket reached almost down to his knees. Matching pants were tucked into his high, shiny black leather boots. Luxuriant white hair hung in flowing cascades and his snowy beard tumbled to his chest.
He leaned on his staff as he strode about greeting the guests. His face was young and handsome. Large, bright blue eyes twinkled over a straight nose and bushy moustache. His voice was gentle until he threw his head back and chortled, “Ho Ho Ho!”
The three wise women’s shrieks of joy when he leaned in for a quick peck on the cheek could be heard across the room. Millie grimaced and rolled her eyes.
“Can you believe it? They are such hussies.”
On and on he went. The Kinghams sipped their coffee while their table was cleared and waited. Finally, it was their turn. Santa came first to Millie and knelt down to place his arm around her thin shoulders. “Ah, Millie,” he whispered. “I can see you’ve enjoyed your dinner.” He raised a gloved finger and tilted his head. “But plum pudding and vanilla ice cream? Naughty girl! You know what that means. . . Ho Ho Ho!” He shook his head and winked. “I’ll be seeing you later.”
“So, Ma,” said David, “Whattya want Santa to bring you this year?”
“I’d like a sleigh ride. Santa, could you arrange that for me?”
“Of course,” said Santa. “My sleigh awaits. Always room for one more when we head to the North Pole.” Millie blushed when he leaned and whispered in her ear.
Then Santa waved farewell to the all diners. The musician packed up and the room emptied out. The three wise women left, but not before the tall one had blown kisses in David’s direction.
“It’s Christmas Eve,” she said. “Wishes can come true.”
Karin helped Millie find her walker and they headed out. In the elevator, David pushed 6 — then pointed at the January events calendar posted on the wall.
“Look, Ma. Tons of things happening. You could sign up for shopping or a movie. And they have yoga classes!” He laughed. “You gotta make an effort and start going to this stuff. Just use your walker and get going.”
Millie sighed. “I’m trying! I just get too tired.” The door opened at the sixth floor, and they stopped at her unit.
“I’ll pick you up around noon tomorrow and take you back to our place for lunch,” said David. “That is, if you’re not too worn out from the partying tonight.”
“Oh, don’t you worry. I’m planning to live it up and have a wild time yet. The evening’s still young you know.”
“Well, if you go anywhere tonight, don’t forget to take that walker.” There was an awkward bumping of faces and hugging. The elevator door opened down the hall and they hurried to catch it.
“Love ya forever, Ma!”
“I love you forever, too.”
When they reached the foyer, Karin stopped to look around. It was deserted. David headed out towards the parking lot and grabbed a candy cane from the basket in the unguarded reception area. Karin tried to peek up the fireplace chimney. It was a false front.
“What are you doing? Are you nuts? There’s nothing up there to see. Common, we gotta go in case the storm returns,” said David. “Everybody’s gone. We need to get back on the road.”
They plunged through the unplowed parking lot to the car and brushed off a thick blanket of wet snow.
Up in her room, Millie stood at the window and watched them climb into the car, turn on the headlights and pull slowly out of the parking lot. The red taillights fishtailed as David turned onto the main road.
Millie pushed the walker into her bedroom and pulled back the bedcovers. She sat on the bed and patted her special brooch.
“So pretty.” She remembered what Santa had said to her.
She stood up and slowly turned and headed out the unit door leading to the hallway. Carefully, she made her way to the EXIT sign posted at the end of the corridor. She shoved the heavy door and began to stagger up the concrete steps leading to the rooftop.
“Fa la la la la . . . la la la la,” she sang quietly. She opened a door marked NO ADMITTANCE at the top and stepped out onto the rooftop. It was very cold, colder than she expected. The snow had stopped falling and the wind had died down. The roof top looked as if a clean starched sheet had been pulled up over top of everything. Overhead was very dark, but then a bright light shone directly down upon her face.
“Must be the moon.” She blinked her eyes.
And sure enough, he was waiting for her, as he’d promised.
“Santa! I’m ready to go for my sleigh ride,” she called to the big figure standing alone in the middle of the roof.
“Well, I’m ready for you,” he said, opening the door. “Hop inside. We’re all waiting for you.”
Inside was the man in the grey sweater. He reached out his hand and helped her climb in. “Wanna warm blanket?”
“Well, thank you kindly. I’ve waited a long time for this trip. Let’s get going.”
Millie thought she recognized Jennifer smiling at her. She was outside and closed the door as Mille leaned back against the seat. It felt hard and smooth. Through the window Millie could see green and red lights flickering off and on.
“Kinda pretty, isn’t it?”
They lifted off into the sky, and Millie could hear a loud “HO HO HO” over the throbbing noise. “I didn’t know the trip would be so noisy,” she said as she closed her eyes.
Down below, the car made a slow passage down the snow clogged highway leading home. Karin and David heard the chug, chug, chug of a helicopter in the sky.
“Must be something serious. Who’d be crazy enough to go out on a night like this?” said Karin.
“I dunno. Maybe it’s Santa Claus making his rounds. Trying to keep all the kids and parents happy,” David’s voice trailed off. “Turn on the radio, will ya? See if you can find a road report.”
“I wonder where it’s going?” she rubbed a clear spot on the foggy car window with her hand. The sky was clear and a vista of gleaming stars spread out before them. Karin pushed a knob and loud Christmas music blared out of the radio.
“Well, we’ll never know,” said David. “Shut that off, will ya? I can hardly see the road. I gotta concentrate on driving.”
High above in the sky, the lights flickered off and on, off and on as the vessel sailed up over the snowy rooftops.
Millie held the hand of the man in the grey sweater and waved goodbye with her other hand.
“Fa la la la la . . . la la la la.” They sang together to the stars and the heavens above them.