I told my husband I wanted to skip Christmas that year; all I wanted was a box of hope tied with a ribbon of patience.
I phoned the kids in New York. “I have bad news—your dad’s had a stroke. He’s paralyzed on the right side of his body. He can’t walk or talk on the phone; his speech is very slurred.” I assured them that he’d recover, but the doctors couldn’t predict if he’d ever be able to walk or use his right hand again.
Joanie and Alice were both in New York; Alice was in graduate school and Joanie had just started a new job. Neither could fly back to Berkeley immediately.
Alice said, “We’ll come home as soon as the Christmas break begins.”
Six weeks later I heard a taxi pull up in front of the house.
“The kids are here!” I cried, and threw open the front door.
David’s face broke out in a huge lopsided smile.
The girls hauled their luggage down the front steps and into the foyer. The living room was unrecognizable. A plywood ramp with heavy railings descended into the sunken living room. All the furniture was pushed up against the walls. A bed was installed where the couch used to be and David, in a wheelchair, sat where the lounge chair had been. The coffee table was littered with pill bottles, syringes, a blood pressure cuff, eating utensils with big handles, and clothes.
The girls eyed the ramp and living room, ran down the plywood runway, kissed and embraced him. Tears ran down his face.
I brought in lunch, placed David’s on a little table with wheels, and slid it up against the wheelchair. The girls pretended to eat but were watching their Dad, who was working to swallow properly after each bite.
David said, “Something’s missing: ketchup, that’s it, ketchup.”
I fetched the bottle and started to open it.
He protested, “No, let me try it.”
He set the bottle down in front of him and considered how to open it with one hand. He tried to unscrew the top with his teeth-no luck. With his good left hand, he laid the bottle on its side then picked up the dead-weight right hand and carefully arranged each finger around it like a grip tool. Spastically, involuntarily, his fingers tightened to a viselike clutch. With the bottle stabilized he unscrewed the top with his left hand. Then he tried to release the vise grip of the right.
“All the little things that take two hands,” he said as he pried his fingers off the bottle, one at a time.
Finally Joanie said, “So, I see you don’t have a Christmas tree.”
“No,” I said, “I just don’t have the energy, and besides, where would we put it?”
“But you can’t have Christmas without a tree,” Alice said, glancing at her sister.
I just shrugged.
The next day, I asked the girls to go to the drugstore to pick up a prescription. They came home with a small tree.
“It was the last one left,” they said triumphantly.
I could see why, but then I glanced at David’s face, and seeing a big wide grin, I smiled, too. It looked like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree: tired, lopsided, and frazzled. Like me. The girls set it up in the living room, wedged between the plywood ramp and the bed. The smell of pine needles mixed with the smell of plywood sawdust.
David’s brain had only a brief window to heal itself before the damage would be permanent. I imagined the little nerve fibers in his brain reaching out, trying to knit together and heal; if they couldn’t find each other soon, they never would.
David still couldn’t move his right hand although his walking had improved with physical therapy. Each day he held onto the railing of the ramp with his left hand, his right arm hanging limply at his side, and practiced taking a few steps. As Christmas approached, he was able to lift his right leg a little higher and he went a little farther. I sat next to him during the day, holding and stroking his hand, warm but strangely flaccid. I thought if I touched and caressed it, the nerve fibers in his brain might be stimulated to heal. But that Christmas day, I realized I’d been stroking his hand for weeks and had felt nothing in return except for a spastic response, like a Venus fly trap clamping shut instinctually when an insect touches it. I had to admit it that day—his hand wasn’t ever going to work again. He’d have to give up his medical practice. I didn’t know how I was going to look after him. I had a full time job.
On Christmas morning we lit a Presto-log in the fireplace, put on some Christmas music and exchanged gifts. After we opened the presents, David announced, “I’m going to try to walk upstairs.”
The girls and I looked at each other, scared he might fall. “I feel I can do it—let me try.”
I wheeled him to the bottom of the stairs leading up to the bedrooms. We’d installed black iron railings along both sides of the staircase. He grasped the railing and pulled himself up out of the wheelchair. Then he slowly placed his left foot onto the first step, waited, and then pulled the right foot up beside it. I inched along behind him, ready to catch him if he fell. The girls stood at the bottom of the stairwell holding their breath. When he reached the top landing, he yelled out triumphantly, “I did it!”
It wasn’t exactly a Christmas miracle, but it would do for us.