The old-fashioned Christmas carol began to fill the living room as the pianist caressed the familiar keys. "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," was one she loved, and that holiday season it seemed angels hovered nearby.
"We look back on that as one of our most spiritual Christmases," Susan Darrington said, remembering her 94-year-old mother-in-law's extended visit in their home. "Because when you're caring for someone who is totally helpless and can't respond in any way, or thank you in any way and yet you love them and want to take care of them ..."
Susan's voice broke with emotion.
"It just felt like angels were in our home that Christmas season."
At least one had come for a visit.
Susan and her husband, John, had asked his angelic, aging mom, Gladys, to come during Christmas break. Susan would be free from teaching music, and John would be working from home and assist with Gladys' care. She suffered from Alzheimer's.
"The disease had ravaged her mind," Susan said. "She didn't know who she was or who we were. She couldn't speak any coherent sentences, so she'd just babble sometimes."
The voice her son remembers is one that through the years was often filled with song. Living in Gillette, Wyo., with his seven brothers and sisters, their mom was rarely silent; the sound of her singing or whistling held in his memory. Even a family trip to town called for a captured "choir."
"We'd get in the car, eight of us kids -- we didn't have seat belts back then, so you can imagine how crammed we were," John said with a smile, thinking back to the singalong and how music helped form their lives as adults. "One of my brothers is a very accomplished singer. The rest of us are choir singers -- OK in a group," he said laughing.
But Mom had the voice of an angel.
A robust woman with perfect pitch, Gladys learned many songs in church as a child and later by listening to the radio as a teen on their rural farm. She could hear a song once, remember the tune and then coax a friend to key it on the piano, John said.
But when she came to visit that Christmas in 2011, that robust woman was fragile. She was a shadow of the woman once known for her scrumptious cooking, who would cheerily hum her way through the preparation of an impromptu meal.
Life had changed dramatically with the progression of her Alzheimer's disease.
"She was so feeble -- and she'd been a sturdy woman -- and down to 85 pounds," Susan said. "She didn't know much of what was going on, so we'd bring her out after her morning care and she'd sit in the recliner."
The comfy chair sat a few feet from their white baby grand piano, a red poinsettia atop, and Christmas tree lights in her view. It was a front-row seat to where, a few days before Christmas, Susan began to practice a few traditional carols. "Joy to the World" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" began her repertoire.
And that's when Susan was taken completely by surprise. From over her shoulder, a familiar voice burst into song.
"She started singing along with the music when she hadn't been able to communicate," Susan said, recalling how she immediately telephoned across town to urge her daughter to come quickly.
"It wasn't a one-time event!" Susan said enthusiastically as she reminisced about the bigger surprise in store. "We began singing Joy to the World while I played and Kim did some high flourishes, and then mom said, 'That was wonderful!' "
It was a parting gift from Gladys, who died a few months later, never to sing again. But no one will ever forget that joy-filled Christmas when their silent "angel" sang.
(Lucy Luginbill is a career television producer-host and the Spiritual Life editor for the Tri-City Herald. In her column, she reflects on the meaning of her name, "Light Bringer." If you have a story idea for Light Notes, contact her at email@example.com.)
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