The wind is fierce today, lifting the leaves high into the air, then dropping them back down like remnants of a past life. The sky is gray, the air cold, and the residents of Summit Towers are taking their dogs out in baby carriages, wrapped in head scarves and dog sweaters. A Jack Russell puppy runs around the yard so fast—darting this way and that among the other dogs—that I half-expect him to lift off the ground. Mallory jumps out of her carriage and chases him, but she is no match for his speed.
The peacock from next door wanders around the yard aimlessly, ducking his head back and forth. Entranced by this magical creature, I call to him: “Come here, little bird.” I have been trying to get him to come to me for two years, often rushing upstairs for kernels of corn to woo him, but he will not be bought. He gobbles down the treats then struts away, ignoring me. He has no fear of the dogs, who are mesmerized by him, staring at him as if to say: You’re not a person, you’re not a dog or a squirrel. What the hell are you? The peacock just continues his strutting, disdaining their attention.
The entrance to Summit Towers is magnificent, with a 10-foot, inflatable snowman at the left, a Christmas tree on the right, and twinkling lights everywhere. I am moved by all the effort that has gone into making a happy Christmas for everyone who lives here. The elevator is crowded with people in wheelchairs and leaning on canes, not to mention the dogs in their baby carriages. I shove Mallory in and hope the elevator door will close.
An elderly woman in a wheelchair smiles up at me. “Are you having a blessed day?” she asks.
“I don’t know yet,” I answer, hung over from last night’s excesses. “I just woke up.”
“Happiness is a good buzz,” says a good-looking man from the third floor. The next day I learn that he is in a coma from a drug and alcohol overdose. His brother died from an overdose in the same apartment a couple of years ago. Both are veterans.
My husband and I go to the First Baptist Church downtown, where a free breakfast, family portrait, and box of food and various other items (such as nail polish, shampoo, even dog treats) have been placed for our enjoyment. I have not been in this church for 43 years, when I was a UT student and walked up the aisle, guilt-ridden and despondent because I had had pre-marital sex. I was a 19-year-old freshman. Since then, I have lived in New York for 12 years, been a drug addict, recovered, or almost, moved from Bearden to Summit Towers in downtown Knoxville, and faced eviction from my apartment five times.
I get up from the table at the church, thinking I will have to wait in a long line to get my food cafeteria-style, but a beautiful young woman in a red T-shirt says: “No. you needn’t wait in line. We will serve you.” And so they do. With grace, love, and utmost charity. My husband and I sit down and eat with gusto: bacon, eggs, biscuits and gravy; milk, juice, and coffee. At the table next to us sits a family from Mexico. Their 14-year-old son has long brown hair with bangs so long he has to push them out of his eyes to see the food.
“You have beautiful hair, “ I say, and he beams. At another table there is a family from Peru. At still another table, a family who has just returned from Hawaii. It is the essence of Christ’s love. All are welcome, all are served with love and a smile. So many people have been fed, so many have received Christ’s message, so many have been accepted here today with unconditional love. I thank them over and over. Throughout the whole time we are there, no one grumbles or complains.
We go to pick up our family photograph, which shows my husband, Karl, locked in an amorous embrace. Little girls in red velvet dresses giggle and stare after us as we pick up our photograph. There are many people here from Summit Towers. Some are photographed alone. Some are photographed in wheelchairs. Others are posed with children looking away, longing to get to the toys.
At night, unable to sleep, I wander the halls. On the bulletin board on my floor, someone has eight postage stamps to sell; someone else is selling a pair of red cowboy boots for $10; a new resident wants to buy a TV converter box: “Must be cheap.” People are poor here and trying to scrape up enough cash to buy Christmas presents for loved ones.
Next to the items to be bought and sold there is a typewritten letter to God: “Dear God. I know you are up to something in my life. But all it feels like right now is just hardship and difficulty. Open my eyes, show me the way you are trying to redeem me. Amen.”
I go to the community room for church service on Sunday morning. I am 20 minutes early and people are sharing breakfast. Sausage, biscuits, grapes, whatever they have managed to get from Second Harvest, a food bank that delivers food here each Thursday. In the window are green, red, silver, and gold streamers that glisten in the sunlight.
Women are dressed up as though for a gala event. Red velvet blouses, pleated skirts with high-heeled boots. Christmas-tree earrings dangle from their ears. Many wear crosses around their necks. Each time someone enters the room there is loud applause. Dora, from the 11th floor, is blonde and beautiful at 78 years old. She wears an ash-blonde, page-boy wig and looks like a young coed. When I comment on this she says, “Honey, I just couldn’t bother to wash my hair today.” She grabs my hand and says, “Sit by me,” which I do, and we hold hands throughout the service like two third-graders making claim over their best friend.
We sing Christmas carols. Residents who have had grievances with one another for months suddenly lay them aside and embrace one another at the Christmas service. Tears are shed as “Silent Night” is sung. There are many people who were here last year who are absent now. Joe, who used to roam Market Square on First Friday with his shuffling gait, is now in a nursing home suffering from dementia. Some are in rehab centers, some have died, and some have just disappeared.
There is much faith here at Summit Towers. Although fellow residents who are no longer here for various reasons are missed, the empty space they have left behind is quickly filled by newcomers. The ones who remain take it in stride, for loss is something we are used to.
The preacher talks on and on about loving the Lord. This has always been a hard concept for me. It would be easier for me to love the man in the moon than “the Lord,” as my early childhood associations in a fundamentalist Baptist church are filled with hell-fire, damnation, and religious terrorism. I raise my hand.
“Isn’t the best way to love the Lord through loving each other?” I ask.
It is the night before Christmas. Residents who have practiced together for days go floor to floor singing Christmas carols. I stand in the hall with Mallory to listen, and despite myself join in the singing, while Mallory howls. I take her outside to frolic in the yard with the other dogs and look up at at one of the windows where a cross with red lights that flicker on and off in the growing dusk says: “Peace and Goodwill to All.”
The man in a coma who was practically given up for dead has, like Lazarus, risen. Against all odds, he is speaking, breathing on his own, and will hopefully return to his place at Summit Towers soon. There has been much prayer for him, and now there are tears of joy and thanksgiving for him.
Miracles occur all the time at Summit Towers.
Note: This was originally written a few years ago, before Donna Johnson left Summit Towers.
Donna Johnson describes herself as a person who thrives on breaking the rules other people have made while also creating rules for herself that do make sense. “My rules do not necessarily follow the law set out by the government and law-abiding citizens,” she says. “They follow an inner law, one unto myself, and when I attempt to go outside this, to conform, disaster follows.” Her stories are often about people who are not recognized by others, who may even seem invisible, but “they often have a great truth to share if one but listens.”
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