It was Thanksgiving weekend so to stay with plan/tradition, Joe “let” me put the Christmas tree up (read: he puts it up and I help because it’s 9′ tall and I’m only slightly more than half of that and it’s just too big for me to handle). Tradition dictates that the ornaments may or may not go up on the same day to tree is assembled – in fact, this year they did not – but whenever I start hanging them (except for the ones at the top 2 feet of the tree, which I can’t reach even with my step stool…again, a “Joe job”. If you look closely, you can even see a line between what I’ve done and where he takes over), I know which one will go on first.

My “Gloria” bow.

It’s always the first to go up and the last to come down. Joe and I have developed a few Christmas traditions of our own but that one is all mine.

See, before I started working in Home Health, I worked for eleven years on a psychiatry unit in a hospital in New York. During my tenure there we serviced thousands of patients who were deemed to be a danger to themselves or others due to their Dementia (with Agitation, Depression and/or Hallucinations), Bipolar Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Substance Abuse, Borderline Personality Disorder, Schizophrenia, Schizoaffective Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, etc.  I loved working in Psych. I loved giving my patients structure and direction so they could escape from themselves for a few minutes. I loved learning how to read people and how, to this day, I can accurately guess someone’s diagnosis before being told. I loved how everyone’s issues were so different, where you could have one person talking a mile a minute to the voices inside his head while you were celebrating the fact that the person next to him just gave you eye contact for the first time in the two weeks she has been there. And if the eye contact was only for 2 seconds, well, I also loved learning how to gauge my expectations so that, even today, a little can mean so, so much.

As is often the case when working in mental health, many of our patients came back over and over, like a revolving door. recidivism is very high in Psych units – who stopped taking their meds, who tried to kill herself again, whose meds weren’t working as well as they used to, who was off the wagon and beating up his lady friend, etc. So we got to know some of our patients VERY well over the years, because we would see them a few times a year. Emma. Pamela. Francis. Mary. Anthony. Vincent. (names all changed, of course, for privacy)

“Gloria.”

Of all those thousands of patients that passed through our doors, she was probably one of the ones we saw the most often during my eleven years of working there. Often enough that when I was getting ready to move to Florida and she was “visiting” us again, this time in the depressed phase of her Manic Depressive disorder, I went to her room, where she lay in the fetal position. She was silent as I reminisced about how long we had known each other but how I wanted her to know that when if she came back next time, I wouldn’t be there because I was moving far away. And Gloria managed to sit up, put her face too close to mine, and say, quite sadly, “Sharon. Oh, Sharon! (pause) Are your eyes hazel?”

OK yeah, that’s another reason why I loved working in Psych…the conversations could be rather interesting sometimes ;-).

But back to Gloria. She had a lifelong problem with Bipolar Disorder and we saw her at both ends of her cycles – when depressed she would spend all of her time in bed but when she was manic, she would become haughty, manipulative, self-focused and demanding. When she was on her way to an even keel though, she was a very nice lady and, I daresay, one of our favorites. And since most of us on the Unit tended to work there for years on end, I think we wound up becoming something of a surrogate family to her. Family enough where, not stupid by any stretch of the imagination, Gloria used to come back for a “mental tune up” just about every December, so she could spend Christmas with us. See, the nurses and aides would bring gifts for the patients, and the Recreation Therapist and I used to hold some kick ass Holiday parties, with even more gifts. Gloria always got a new pair of slippers – we made sure of it.

Anyway, one Christmas season, after we put up our two 6′ tall Christmas trees on the two wings of the Unit (complete with every sort of non-breakable ornament known to man. But nothing with sparkles. We HATED those friggin’ sparkles. They would shed EVERYWHERE and in the middle of July we’d still find sparkles on the floor), we noticed that the small, red cloth bows we had attached to them were disappearing by 2 or 3 a day. That’s also when we noticed that Gloria, in the throes of her manic phase, was suddenly wearing red bows in her hair every day. That little turkey was stealing our bows! HAHAHA! We really didn’t mind – we still had lots of other ornaments, the other patients didn’t seem to notice and if it was something that made her happy, it was a small sacrifice for our tree to not have any small, red bows. She really reveled in all the complements she got about her “new hair ribbons”.

When I moved to Florida I took one of those small, red bows with me. To remember. To remember the Unit, Gloria, and the concept that it’s good to give what you can, whether it’s big or small, because something very insignificant to you can bring much joy to someone who doesn’t have much.

So my “Gloria Bow” always goes up first and comes down last. To remind me.

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