By Sean Dietrich
“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 first chorus, the cafeteria dancefloor is already crowded with eight men and 14 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.