Bowling for Christmas

by Mark Dvorak

The chances of a pro bowler rolling a perfect game are around one in five hundred, roughly the same percentage of babies born with a condition called hydrocephalus. 

Hydrocephalus is more common than Down’s syndrome or deafness, and a baby born with it has a body that can’t properly circulate fluid within their little brain. In pronounced cases the cerebrospinal fluid builds up and begins to stretch the still soft bone tissue of their skull, enlarging the size of their head. As the child grows, the amassed fluid will slowly begin to put pressure on the brain itself, and that can cause all sorts of problems. 

And it feels strange that this subject has come to light while killing time between shows at the MainStreet Theatre in Michigan City, Indiana. I’m sitting in a lovely coffee shop just a short walk from Franklin Street downtown, and right across Wabash is the Lighthouse Place Outlet Mall, a huge outdoor shopping extravaganza. 

It’s spring-chilly today and the sky is hazy. After a busy winter, signs of fatigue are again knocking at the door. My voice is a little scratchier, my bones a little achier, and I might admit to being a little grumpier too. Out the window, traffic and shoppers lumber towards the mall. The giant cooling tower from the Michigan City Power Plant lurks in the background, spewing a column of steam into the March sky. As I type and sip and look things up on the internet, a touch of melancholy has settled in with the afternoon.

Early in my performing life, the Lighthouse Place hired me to stroll the grounds with my banjo and guitar. The mall was pretty new then too, as I remember, and a season-long army of entertainers was engaged to help create a festive hubbub for the shoppers and mall walkers. Was it twenty years ago? Maybe more. I think it was autumn. I seem to remember crisp air and leaves and bits of trash swirling along the concrete walkways. I also seem to remember there were not so many people to play for. 

In those days, much like in these days, I was willing to accept just about any booking that came in. Between coffee houses and bar gigs, summer festivals and an occasional concert, I was able to cobble together a modest living by playing at places like Lighthouse Place. There were also the Cub Scout troops, the women’s clubs, the street fairs, the nursing homes and assisted living residences. I sat with children in day care centers and at birthday parties. I entertained at family barbecues and for church groups. 

From there, the list of more unconventional venues I ventured into over the years grew to include a plentitude of elementary schools, and an equal number of libraries all over the place. For six years I helped entertain in a string of homeless shelters in Chicago, and made regular visits to the Rehabilitation Institute, the Marklund Home for Children, the psychiatric ward at St. Joseph’s Hospital, Hines Veterans Hospital and other institutions for the handicapped, the addicted, the sick and the needy.

I promise you, the ability to play a banjo and guitar, even marginally well, will result in many adventures, and more than a few curious circumstances. But what the heck, I was out of the warehouse and out on the road playing music, teaching a little and learning a lot, no longer lifting boxes all night long to make a living. I remember counting up the money at the end of one of those early years, astonished that my income from music and teaching had so easily surpassed what I could make from other less attractive forms of employment.

Awash in memories from what today feels like a twenty-year mad dash through a jumbled maze of faces and shadows, bright light and long, all-night car rides, the image of a kaleidoscope comes to mind. Bits of broken glass, cobalt blue, amber and deep forest green, tumble and shimmer in a long tube of mirrors. 

Before today, I did not know the word hydrocephalus. I wound up searching it out on the internet this afternoon because of a woman I once met who had it, a woman that I have never forgotten. I don’t remember her name, but she lived at the Glen Oaks Nursing Home in Northbrook, Illinois. She was a little person, a dwarf, whose body was small, whose head was large and whose very sweet eyes were the color of robin’s eggs. I met her on Christmas Eve, the same year of my first visit here to Michigan City, to strum and sing while strolling the walkways of Lighthouse Place. 

This afternoon, only pieces of things from that year fall to memory. It was the middle of December, and a woman’s voice, husky and urgent, is on the phone. She asks if I am who I am and I said that I was. She said who she was and continued, “I’m the activity director at Glen Oaks Nursing Home in Northbrook. It’s really more like Skokie,” she said, “but we’re in Northbrook.” Something about that last part made her laugh, which triggered a craggy smoker’s cough.

She was hoping I might be able to help her out. She had planned a Christmas party for the residents on her floor and the entertainer she had scheduled had just cancelled. “I know it’s like the last minute,” she said, “but I was hoping you might be available.” She laughed again and then coughed. “I can pay you fifty dollars.”

I paged through my appointment book knowing that a flurry of holiday bookings had already been arranged. Between those and what remained of my teaching schedule for the year, the rest of December was pretty filled up. Fifty dollars was an okay offer, but not terribly exciting. I sometimes got as much as seventy-five for a similar type of job, and one time got a hundred. 

Also, these last minute jobs can turn out to be difficult. Perhaps someone really had just cancelled on her, but then again the line about a cancellation is sometimes a cover for a lack of planning. It could be a sign of a disorganized organization, and I had already experienced my share of those. Details get lost or forgotten, dates and times mysteriously change, or a promised check never arrives. 

“I’m looking pretty booked up for the rest on the month,” I say, “What’s the date of your party?” 

After a moment she said, “Christmas Eve.”

I looked up December 24 in my book, a little relieved to find I already had something scheduled for that afternoon. 

“I’m so sorry,” I said to her, “I’m already scheduled for the afternoon of the twenty-fourth.”

“You’re busy in the afternoon?” she said.

“Yes,” I said, “I’m sorry I won’t be able to help you out this time.”

Another pause. “Our party is in the evening,” she said. “I was hoping you could come around seven.”

“On Christmas Eve?”

“I know you might already have something going on,” she said, “but my volunteers and I have planned a Christmas celebration for the residents, and we were hoping for some special entertainment before they open presents. You know, they really, really love music.”

I had been looking forward to Christmas Eve with my parents and brothers, and to a good rest through the holidays. It had already been a busy year and things were looking up. I had just started teaching at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, and for the first time it began to feel like I might do okay at all of this. I’d always been pretty good at worming out of things I didn’t want to do, and whether I turned her down now or not wasn’t the question. While flipping through my internal rolodex of excuses, her voice broke the bit of silence. “Look,” she said, “these are special needs people and they have so little. We’re putting this together out of our own pockets and on our own time. We’re just trying to give them something for the holidays.”

She had me. Anything else said at this point would only have come across sounding like, “Bah, humbug.” I would have to break the news to my mother that I had a job on Christmas Eve.

“I’ll give you sixty,” she said, and she coughed.

Eight days later, I pulled up to the front entrance of the Glen Oaks Nursing Home in Northbrook, Illinois. It was cold and dark and it was Christmas Eve. I unloaded my gear while visions of roast beef with potatoes and gravy, and glasses of rum-laced egg nog danced through my head.

Glen Oaks was once a swank hotel, but at some point was converted to a nursing facility. I remember very few holiday decorations in the lobby. And there weren’t any families or staff people around, save for the receptionist behind the counter. Running a little late, I headed towards the elevator, guitar and banjo in tow. Up I went.

The elevator doors opened and the little woman with hydrocephalus, the gal with the sweet eyes was there to greet me.

“Oh welcome,” she said. She backed away a little shy, as I stepped off the elevator. Her voice was light and cheerful, “We’re so glad you could make it to our party tonight.”

I set down my instruments and bag and Laura, the husky-voiced woman on the phone, rushed over to introduce herself. “Thank you so much for coming,” she said extending both hands, “and Merry Christmas.” She looked directly into my eyes and the sincerity of her greeting was striking. “Yes, Merry Christmas to you,” the little gal chimed in from somewhere behind Laura, nodding and smiling.

Laura introduced me around to several of her volunteers and a handful of the special needs residents who were already gathering in the common area of their floor. A slender Christmas tree stood in the corner with a pretty plastic angel on top. There were lights and homemade ornaments and a life-sized cardboard image of a rosy-cheeked Santa Claus enjoying a bottle of Coca-Cola was taped to a nearby wall. And I remember being nervous and feeling unsettled about the whole assignment.

I headed back down to the truck to haul up the sound system, wondering what in my prior life could have possibly prepared me for the experience about to take place. Growing up in school, there had almost always been a special needs kid or two, but until that evening at Glen Oaks, I of God-given health and well being had never been so in the minority of so many other adults so physically and mentally disadvantaged.

My recollection of the evening from there is vague. I remember how curious all the folks were as I set up my gear and plugged things in. There was an older gent who walked all bent over, smiling all the time and mouthing words I couldn’t understand. There were younger people confined to state-of-the-art wheel chairs who weren’t able to do much more than receive stimuli and wiggle with glee or moan for attention. There was a woman born without eyes who smiled quietly. Still others sat along the wall, with a fixed gaze or rocking in their seat, focused on a memory or a vision that no apprentice folk singer could ever be privy to. 

Finally it was time to begin. Laura and the volunteers got everybody situated, seating themselves among the bouncing, rocking, squealing and silent group of perhaps thirty residents. The volunteers wiped mouths and noses, held hands, clapped rhythm and searched deep into vacant eyes talking and singing, until a trace of a smile began to appear. 

We sang “Jingle Bells” and “You Are My Sunshine."  Someone then asked for “Jingle Bells,” and so we sang it again. I played some other folk songs too, perhaps “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and “This Land Is Your Land.” I remember aiming for the familiar while feeling my way through the program. 

The rhythm of guitar music became exciting in ways I had not considered before that night. I remember at one point looking at the cardboard Santa and then to the angel at the top of the tree, hoping the music might somehow transcend this peculiar chasm, and in some way unite the array of destinies gathered within the room.

There was silence, then a gasp and a squeal when I opened the case to reveal a five-string banjo. Whatever inherent happiness may reside in the sound of a five-string banjo, rest assured friends, that from that night forward, one more thankful than I for such magic, has never walked the earth. I don’t remember what I played, but I remember it wasn’t too fast. I remember the strings ringing and sound darting across the room like little rays of light, then dissolving like star dust from Tinkerbell’s wand above the heads of those lovely people. 

One of the volunteers began clapping rhythm and a kind of honest festivity flared up and made itself known. Another volunteer mimicked a square dance with a slow-footed gent, another held both hands of a wheelchair-bound lass and each of them beamed. Laura kept an eye on me, nodding assurance as I navigated through the program, and I noticed again the little gal with the robin’s egg eyes. She was smiling, looking right at me. And she seemed happy for all of us, every one.

I remember our wobbling, beautiful voices on “Silent Night,” so slow and solemn, and the pure merriment in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” a song I had never admired until I heard The Weavers sing it on a scratchy old lp. 

Laura came rushing over and whispered, “Do you know ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’?” I nodded and as she turned, I called out, “Hey everybody, Santa Claus is coming!” and the room erupted. I had done bunches of similar Christmas programs before, and assumed Laura had arranged for Carl the Janitor or somebody to don the red suit and beard and stuff a pillow under his blouse and make an appearance. At Glen Oaks though, on that Christmas Eve, Carl had already gone home for the night. No suit, no beard, no pillow. Laura turned back and announced to everyone, “Santa is busy tonight but he stopped by earlier today.” The room erupted again.

I began the happy verses and at once all attention turned to Laura and the volunteer who schlepped in a huge box wrapped in Christmas paper. Those who could, ganged around them like ball players on the winning side after the last out of the world series. Those who couldn’t wiggled in their chairs, smiling wide and bouncing. 

The package was placed next to the tree and someone handed me a paper cup of Kool-Aid and a napkin of cookies. Laura quieted the group and I began wrapping wires and putting instruments away. Two volunteers kneeled and dramatically opened the package. The group huddled in close.

“Look,” said the volunteer, “it’s a bowling set!” Silence. She opened the box and out came ten plastic pins, a black plastic bowling ball and a plastic floor mat indicating where the pins ought to be set up. The volunteer held up a pin with one hand and the black ball with the other. She stood up the single pin and demonstrated how a rolling ball could make it tumble to the floor. 

“Oh, it’s a bowling set!” said the little gal, “It’s a bowling set!” She leaped with excitement and her glee began to spread. “Let’s set it up,” someone said. “Let’s play bowling,” said someone else. “Yes, let’s play bowling,” became the chorus.

Everyone looked towards Laura and Laura looked at her watch. It was already past eight-thirty and Laura looked tired. Finally she spoke. She thanked the volunteers by name, and looked at her watch again and said, “I don’t think we’re going to have time to play bowling tonight. I’m so sorry, but it’s getting late. We have to get home to our families.”

Laura and her volunteers still had to clean up and get everybody off to bed. There were pajamas to be changed into, bathrooms to visit, teeth to brush, medications to administer, wheel chairs to deal with and what all else before the people on this most special floor of the Glen Oaks Nursing Home were all nestled snug in their beds.

“Tomorrow is Christmas,” said Laura. “We’ll set up the bowling game tomorrow.” Her words hung in the air.

Before today, I did not know the word hydrocephalus. I wound up searching it out on the internet this afternoon because of a woman I once met who had it and who I have never forgotten. She was a little person, a dwarf, whose body was small, whose head was large and whose very sweet eyes were the color of robin’s eggs. 

And her voice was light and cheerful when she exclaimed, “We’ll have bowling for Christmas!” And after a pause came the words I want to always remember. 

She said, “We have so much to be thankful for.”

5.5.10

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