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Caroling celebrates sacred season

I'VE NEVER seen "It's a Wonderful Life." Sad, I know. But from what I've heard, it's a timeless, seasonless film. Yet its focus on perspective and faith teaches an important and appropriate lesson at Christmastime.

I've never seen the film, but I've learned those lessons in other ways. One of them happened just two years ago, during finals week my second year at the University.

I was in the middle of what I thought was the most stressful exam week ever. As soon as I'd finish taking one final, it was straight back to Alderman to study for the next. And worse yet, there seemed to be no end in sight -- at least not until two days before Christmas Eve, as my last exam was scheduled for Dec. 22.

In between study sessions, I fired off an indignant opinion column for the Holiday Supplement -- lamenting the schedule and expounding on the importance of being home for the holidays.

One night, I took a break from studying to go caroling at University hospital with a group from my choir. My friend Jennie, a nursing student, had arranged the trip so that we could actually go into some of the hospital's wings, rather than just standing in front of the enormous tree in the lobby.

We arrived at the hospital, all decked out in traditional caroling attire -- jingle bells, Santa hats, red and green sweaters, reindeer socks. The woman in charge of leading us around the hospital quickly herded us into a small room off the lobby. I remember being a little taken aback by her serious demeanor, especially given that I was reveling in doing anything other than studying for a few hours.

As she began giving instructions, someone in the group sneezed. "That's another thing," she said. "If you are sick -- with even the slightest cough or cold -- I'm afraid you have to leave. It's too dangerous for the patients. Some of the people you will be seeing tonight are very sick, and we can't afford to take any chances." Nearly half our group shuffled out in disappointment.

Despite instructions to be quiet, those of us who remained chatted nonstop as we took the elevator upstairs to our first stop, the pediatric oncology unit. The main area was gaily decorated with tinsel, small trees and drawings by the children. I smiled at Jennie, knowing that someday she hopes to specialize in pediatric oncology.

We started to sing "Joy to the World," and a few of the children and their parents came out of their rooms to hear us. The nurses at the front desk listened and occasionally flashed an encouraging smile before returning to their work. We tried to coax a smile out of a young boy in a wheelchair by yelling out silly responses while we sang "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." His mother wrapped her arms around him tightly and sang along in his ear.

I was sobered by the thought of those children spending Christmas attached to IVs. I think everyone else was too, because our usually exuberant group was silent as we continued down the hall to the Newborn Intensive Care Unit. The nurses there told us that we were to sing very quietly -- hardly louder than a whisper. We stood among a dozen incubators, some of which held babies no bigger than my hand, and huddled in close together so that we could hear. When we sang "Coventry Carol," I looked at the tiny babies and imagined that they were comforted by our soft chant, "Lu lie lu lay, thou little tiny child, bye bye lu lie lu lay." I watched a couple hover over an incubator in the corner and wondered if they'd have the chance to tell their baby about Santa Claus.

After we left the NICU, we made our way to adult oncology, once again singing in the central waiting area. We had been told that this was our last stop, so after we finished, we headed back to the elevator. But one of the nurses stopped us, and asked if we would come into a patient's room to sing. We filed into the small, stark room and smiled at the woman lying in the bed.

"She wants to know if you'll sing 'Silent Night,'" the nurse told us. We began to sing, and the woman smiled and mouthed the words as tears streamed down her face. I fought back tears of my own, unable to shake her image from my head as we left the room, walking back through the still and sterile halls of the hospital.

Our group disbanded in the lobby, and I stepped out into the cold, crisp December air. For the first time in my life, I thought about how good it felt to breathe. To be outside and feel the wind and shiver. To walk the five minutes from the hospital to my apartment nearby, where colored lights, leftover sugar cookies and a cup of coffee were waiting for me.

I thought about my family, and how they all were tucked safely into our house a few hours away. I thought about my friends, tucked safely into the stacks at Alderman or Clemons.

As I walked through the silent night, I thought about how much my thoughts had changed in just a few hours. And about how I would appreciate this Christmas more than ever before.

(Katie Dodd is a Cavalier Daily Opinion editor.)


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