Vol. 22, No. 5,514 - The American Reporter - September 7, 2016

by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
Bradenton, Fla.
December 24, 2014
American Essay
A Christmas Story for the Poor of Heart

Back to home page

Printable version of this story

BRADENTON, Fla., Dec. 24, 2014 -- I'm an expert at feeling sorry for myself, and I outdid it all today.

I set a beautiful - at least I thought so - Christmas table with candles and napkins and cards, with a delicious (I think) strawberry cheesecake and "brownie bites" fashioned in the shape of a Santa and a Christmas Tree and a wreath, and I invited my nurse's aide to come with her children, and another nurse to come with hers, and amy current nurse to come with her 1-year-old.

Joe Shea tells how he set this Christmas table for a small party with friends - but no one showed up.  AR Photo: Joe Shea

Under the Christmas tree were nice gifts, all wrapped up, including a Minnie Mouse "Wall Friend" that lights up and talks for Jamaria, and a Minnie Mouse guitar for Olivia; these two- and three-year-olds are crazy about Minnie Mouse. There was a big plastic yellow bulldozer for a three-year-old boy named Zion, and a coloring book with pictures of race cars for him. There were even three gifts I bought for myself and had one of my nurses wrap. They were Dremel tools in case I start woodworking. They're all still there.

Before she left for another client, my current nurse lit the candles and left everything with a really nice glow, I thought. But a text message came from one of my favorite nurses: "Hey, Mr. Shea" - and when I asked if she was coming she said no, her back hurt (she's six months pregnant and very big, so that's very possible) and she couldn't come. The other nurse, who'd come last year, didn't ever text me back when I invited her to come.

No one at all showed up.

My nurses are complicated people. One is about six feet four, 280 puunds and her name is tattooed across her upper chest in two-inch italic letters, but she's no gangster. She comes from a big family: her father had 33 children by seven wives, she said, and she has eight kids and one on the way. Like most of the women who work for me, she usually needed mon ey, and I loaned her $150 once, but she only paid me back $100; I was going to forgive the other $50, anyway. She had a great sense of humor and did good work, moving with grace, speed and agility. She used to be a boxer, too, and she could flatten a big man with a single punch. She has a 15-year-old son as big as she is who could easily end up a star in the NFL.

The one I counted on coming is unmarried, and she has a two-year-old and a three-year-old by the same guy and another one due in February by her current friend. My fantasies about her extend no further than becoming the adopted father of her new son, but he's already got a dad. Her name is also beautiful, and so are the names of her son, especially, and of her two-year-old, who was a preemie and is still tiny but full of life, health and energy. The boy's forehead tells me there's a huge brain behind it, and he's always pestering his mom for new ways to learn, she tells me. I would raise hiom to be a great scientist.

Her first husband was from Liberia and quit paying child support as he vacationed with PTSD at the VA hospital near Tampa, his on-again, off-again home for years. I took her down to see our Congressman about the child support she was owed. He's a very wealthy car dealer - more than $30 million in assets, I mean - who got elected in a stolen election (18,000 people supposdely didn't vote on the congressional line), and won by 252 votes. All he could do was find out was where the husband's last $3,000-+ support check went - to somewhere in Sorth Carolina, according to the IRS, which traced it for him.

She is a Jersey girl with a very wry sense of humor, bright eyes and brown hair, a bneautiful profile and a strong rant on welfare cheating. When she got off on the government one day, I pointed out all the things it did do and could do for her. Weeks later, she got approved for another $600 a month in SSI, and appropriately changed her tune. I quietly fell in love with her as the months went on, and I think she played me like a fiddle; it didn't do any harm, I felt, at least until Christmas Eve.

This is the beautiful "golden boat" of assorted Lady Godiva chocolates that arrived at Joe Shea's house just in time to save Christmas.  AR Photo: Joe Shea

Another CNA, my current nurse, has a one-year-old, and she is the former Florida high school state champion in weightlifting. I sometimes have trouble getting up from a loveseat or sofa, and I always feel blessed that she's around to lend me a strong arm. She's been the best one yet. She loves to laugh and she's a great cook; I put off breakfast until noon, when she arrives and makes me hash browns with gravy, bacon, sausage and eggs, pancakes, muffins and other delights. I told her agency I didn't want anyone else.

When she was nine, as she and her brothers and sisters lay sleeping, she told me of the morning she found her mother stabbed to death, murdered by a man who resented her for being protective of others around him, and who broke into her house and killed her; when she awoke the next morning, she said, and found her mother, she was dying. "I saw her dying breath," she told me, and so did her older sister, who has never recovered from it. I love and trust her with my whole heart; I wish she was my secretary.

Her mom's five children went to live with their grandmother, she told me, and it was many years before she went to a "healing room," a storefront they have here in this once-rural south Florida Gulf Coast town, and there it all came out - she described "an ocean of tears."

"I cried for hours," she said, when the bad memories came back.

One by one, nurses from Caregiver Services International (CSI) in Sarasota took their turn at decorating his Christmas tree, and the result was strangely beautiful, Joe Shea says. "It lifted my spirits every morning for weeks," he said.  AR Photo: Joe Shea

Another CNA, with one of those exotic African-American names, also has a two-year-old and three-year=old, and they are both lovely children. Their mom was very helpful to me, and when her aunt died, knowing how much an arriving passle of family members and attendant friends could cost, I gave her $100 and told her to return what was left. But she spent it all on a red dress for her aunt to wear in her casket. I thought that was a good use of the money.

On my mother's side, our people have often been servants. My grandmother, who worked at the ill-fated Triangle Shirt factory before it burned down in Manhattan, became a seamstress for a family called the Baileys. Before that and after the fire, which killed more than a hundred young women, she went to work for the Harriman family on their big estate known as Arden House in Harriman, N.Y.

When she arrived at the family's private train station in Arden, a tiny hamlet near Harriman, my grandfathjer drove the coach and horses down to meet her. John Dooley had come to the Harrimans after working as a coachman for John D. Rockefeller in New York City.

My mom was very sensitive about being Irish because she associated it with being poor and powerless, and perhaps that was what drove her to a terrible series of drunken binges; once, she broke her ankle when she was drunk and walked on it for three days before she called a doctor. As my father desperately prayed a novena, she was barely saved from having the ankle amputated.

My mom, though, was normally sober and she was a warm, good, deep and loving person whose greatest joy was seeing the first robin return each spring to the branches of the pear tree outside the house. She inspired in me a love for all natural things, and when I shot a sparrow in the barn with my new BB gun, it almost killed me. Later, crying, I wrote a poem: "I shot a sparrow in the barn/It fluttered as it fell;/Just before it hit the ground/I died and went to Hell."

That fluttering injured bird will live with me forever, and I feel compelled to help any human being that resembles it. My mom would never permit anyone to go unpaid for their work, and I have tried, and failed miserably, to maintain the same principle.

As luck would have it, though, I have been desperately poor almost all of my life, and while I live conmfortably now, it is because of Medicaid, which provides the nurses, and food stamps, which fills the pantry, Social Security, which sends me $443 a month, and $300 of SSI, and most of all, my brother Pat, who pays homeowner association fees on my condo, which I bought with an inheritance from my father. In fact, until I opened the mail yesterday and found a check for $150 from AR Senior Correspondent Walter Brasch, buying gifts and food for the party had reduced my bank account to $5.70. My 2002 Saturn SC2 is paid for, and has only 178,000 miles on it. It only starts when you jump it.

I have rambled on an awful lot here, but it was in the spirit of teling you where I come from when I encounter these odd and wonderful women, my nurses, who make my days light and often merry.

Today, though, that was not to be.

These women are white and black, Haitian and Latina, and on occasion there have been white guys for a day or so. They are all, in my opinion, exceptional people. They are capable of caring deeply, and also of not caring at all. It's not as though their moods are mercurial, but one by one, all but two quit caring for me and moved on to another client. Only one complained, that i issued a stream or requests she couldn't keep up with. I commiserated with that.

So there I was, sitting alone on the loveseat, the candles burning on the dining room table amid the brownies and the cheesecake and the Coca-Cola and slow-churned Edy's mint chocolatre chip ice cream in the fridge and the Wawa hot chocolate on the stove, all alone. I said a prayer that asked God for something Christmas to happen, for someone to come.

Jessica and Jamaria arrived the day after Christmas, not too late to share the joy of the season with Joe Shea.  AR Photo: Joe Shea

And at 3:20, not too late at all for the party, the phone rang. I was hoping it was the mother who hadn't gotten back to me, but it was a UPS guy named Ivan I had recently met downstairs at the door. I buzzed him in and a few minut6es later he arrived at the door with a pretty big cardboard box.

I went back to the loveseat and opened it up with my bronze Peruvian letter opener, a gift from my seond ex-wife, and started bawling my eyes out. It was a big golden ship in a grand white ribbon filled with tons of specialty candy from Lady Godiva, sent from my beloved cousin Patty down in Miami. I called her and started bawling again, and as I tried to thank her I resolved to recall all the times I had disappointed people on special occasions, and prayed to be reconciled to those sins by the forgiveness of Our Lord.

But what comes to mind now, a few hours later, is another memory. It was Christmas again, and my first wife had recently left me absolutely heartbroken. I was so heartbroken I quit my job at the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., and on Christmas Eve started driving toward a monastery called Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu, New Mexico, a place a friend had told me about. I thought I would go across the top of New York, out towards Buffalo and then down across the Midwest, because I wanted to see the farmlands of Wisconsin, but when I was 75 or a hundred miles along I got to thinking abou8t my sentimental mother and how she would feel if I didn't show up for Christmas.

I found a room in a small motel near Liberty, N.Y., spent the night, got up early and turned around. She met me at the door, her heart leaping into unladen arms, and told me how sad she would have been if I had not come. But I came.

Later that day, with a hug and a kiss, I said goodbye to her and my dad and drove off to New Mexico, where I soon started writing for the Village Voice and began my next age of life - the afternoon, I like to call it.

Christmas is a time to be at home, with your family or yourself, and nothing will ever spoil a day that God has made.

We are like cells, in which a charge exchanged

From love within to kindred life without

Opens wide a gate, and souls are changed

So love that hides within is drawn back out.

The room that waits for our bright sparks to fly

Is marble-paved and poised upon a sea;

And there our love, that only seems to die

Will cross in us and touch Eternity.

     We cannot know the hour nor the day

     But loss will lead us there, and love, away.
           -- From an unnamed, numbered sonnet by Joe Shea

With a group of fellow journalists, Joe Shea founded The American Reporter on April 10, 1995.

Copyright 2016 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.

Site Meter