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Laughter and songs of children cut through the din

By Sally Friedman The tree is up in the lobby. This year, it's a sturdy little specimen, complete with glittering golden ornaments on its upper branches.

By Sally Friedman

The tree is up in the lobby. This year, it's a sturdy little specimen, complete with glittering golden ornaments on its upper branches.

As I wheel her past it - and she strains to see it clearly - I know she longs once again for the gift of speech. She yearns for the simple pleasure of saying to someone, "Oh look! How lovely!"

But the stroke has left my old neighbor without voice, without movement, and on her worst days, I sense, without hope in the year of her 87th Christmas.

She lives now in a place with a lyric name, a place where they are kind to her, and see to her body's needs because she no longer can.

They dress her in the pretty nightgowns and robes her daughters have sent from across the country. Today, they've even styled the hair that was once her crowning glory.

That's on the outside, so I can't help but wonder what's going on within the withered body that houses her, and on her mind, which still registers pain, pleasure, and so many other feelings. There, too, a spirit lingers on to remind her of the renunciations, of the yesterdays when tomorrow still had glorious meaning.

I push her wheelchair into the game room where the rest of the bathrobe army sits, a battalion of battle-weary soldiers gazing into space. Through each long day, they wage war against the tyranny of aging.

As I settle her in one of the rows of wheelchairs, I wonder what she's thinking. Whether she is remembering rainbows and sunsets, and the whisper-soft touch of a baby's cheek. I wonder what she dreams at night.

Once, we talked about books and politics, travel and raising children. I loved her wisdom and her grace.

Minutes pass. But time in this room is somehow timeless.

Suddenly, something is different. Recreation aides in their pale yellow uniforms bustle about, and the janitor makes mysterious adjustments to the ancient microphone.

And miraculously, there is a new sound. Laughter. Children's rollicking, rolling, swelling laughter chases the clatter of trays and the muffled announcements.

My 87-year-old friend is instantly alert, remembering that sound of children and embracing it like lost love.

There are throngs of them - rosy-cheeked, wide-eyed, noisy young ones. They fill the room, and their radiance shines through like a remembered sunrise. Jumbles of sturdy arms emerge from jackets, hands slip out of mittens.

I watch her watch them. I sense that, for her, they are as glorious as a troupe of circus acrobats in spangled tights, so far removed from this place where endings live.

I'm sure she would love to join their circus. I squeeze her hand, trying to tell her that I understand.

There is a scramble for places in the recreation room as the teacher arranges her small charges, and the inevitable inequity that leaves one small boy too far back to be seen.

And then there is the first elusive note. When it comes, the children's sweet voices flood the room. Nothing else exists, or ever did.

They sing of White Christmases and Silent Nights and Good Kings. Their faces shine with the joy and peace and beauty that is Christmas.

And they seem so proud that they have learned not only all the words, but motions, too.

My old neighbor seems so enchanted - so lost in their faces, their voices, their message of love and hope - that she is startled when I lean over gently to wipe away the tears of gratitude that stream down her cheeks in the year of her 87th Christmas.

Sally Friedman is a writer in Moorestown.