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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

(1) "IT'S POSSIBLE SHE WILL BE A VEGETABLE FOR THE REST OF HER LIFE."

                    
December, 1965   
     ‘T’was the season to be jolly.  I updated my Christmas card list in a spiral notebook, starting with the current year. Following each name a space was left for check marks, indicating "sent" and "received." Very efficient, I thought. Very practical. No point in doggedly sending cards to people who, for whatever reason, were not interested.
     In a further burst of efficiency I drew a series of ruled lines to separate the next six years, 1966‑1971. An eerie feeling crept over me as I headed these columns with the Ghosts of Christmases Yet to Come. What would our family be doing six years from now? What unanticipated joys or sorrows would brighten or darken our days?
    On the morning of December 19th I mailed the cards. The phone was ringing when I got home. It was my son‑in‑law, who was calling, I assumed, from Berkeley, California.
     "Merry Christmas!" I said.
     A few days later I found myself exchanging this time hallowed greeting with a passerby in a small, unfamiliar town.
     "Merry Christmas," I echoed. There was no way the stranger could tell that my heart was breaking.
     Kathie was in a hospital in Williams, Arizona.  Ed and I strove to reach her side as fast as we could. I remember nothing about our flight except a stopover where we were supposed to change to another plane. The airport was thronged with happy travelers returning to their families for the holidays. To our dismay, we were told there was only one seat left on our connecting flight.
     "You go ahead," Ed said. "I'll join you as soon as I can."
     I didn't want to go without him. I needed him. Kathie needed both of us.
     "Isn't there anything you can do?" I begged the ticketing agent, fighting back tears. "Our daughter has been hurt in an accident."
     A young serviceman standing nearby stepped up to the counter and said we could have his seat. He was in no hurry.
    The plane was boarding. Did I take the time to express my gratitude to the young man for his generous offer? I couldn't remember. For years to come I would thank him in my heart and wish I had thought to ask him for his name and address.
     The doctor led the three of us, Dick, Ed, and me, into a room where Kathie's X‑rays were displayed on the wall. He pointed to the damage done to her spine, using medical terms that were meaningless to me but as ominous as the wail of a siren. Dr. Barnes believed his patients' loved ones should know the worst‑case prognosis from the beginning.
     "She is in a coma because of a severe concussion. I don't know how much brain damage she suffered. When and if she regains consciousness, it's possible she will be a vegetable for the rest of her life."
     "That can't be!" I cried to the doctor. He didn't understand what a brilliant girl he was talking about. Her principal said he had never seen such a gifted teacher. Mr. Lievore said Kathie had accomplished miracles with her retarded and emotionally disturbed children. "She can't be a vegetable; she just can't!"
     Ed tried to soothe me, but he too was staggered by the doctor's pessimism. How does one devastated person console another? Dick was stoic and silent.
     Back at the motel he said, "It seems as if life has come to a grinding halt." Then he covered his face with his hands and went into the bathroom to weep.
     After recovering from that brief breakdown, he has refused to dwell on the whys and if onlys. (Why had this happened to a girl like Kathie, who never did anything wrong in her life? Why couldn't she have been in the front seat wearing her seat-belt instead of taking a nap? If only we'd told them we were planning to visit them in February! If only we had understood how homesick they were—so homesick they allowed a flipped coin to send them on their way). Dick looks to the future and the productive life he is sure Kathie will still be able to lead. He visualizes her teaching from a wheel-chair or writing a book on her successful teaching methods with retarded children. "The main thing is to be sure she has something to keep her mind busy."
     The doctor said it would be 48 hours before he could even make a guess as to whether our daughter’s mental faculties would return. With every hour that went by after the first 48, there would be less chance that she would ever communicate with us again.
     The plan is for me to stay in Arizona with Dick until Kathie is strong enough to be flown back to Massachusetts. Ed and I would give our souls if only this had happened to us instead of to her. We’ve had a full happy life together, while she and Dick had scarcely started theirs.
     The babies she wanted  . . . .
     I can't remember what time it was or where we were standing when Ed and I said goodbye on December 21st. Outside the hospital? Outside the motel? I held back my tears until he left. Our poor little firstborn, why did such a terrible thing have to happen to her?
     
    Kathie is becoming so alert that Dick and I can't help laughing at her wisecracks even though I thought we'd never laugh again. Whatever is wrong with the rest of her body, there is nothing amiss with that fine mind. As soon as we arrive at the hospital every morning, the nurses greet us with the latest humorous quotations from Room 3.
      She doesn't understand yet what happened or how serious her injury is. She thinks she was in a plane accident --that we were all in the same accident together. At times she hasn't been sure I was really her mother and Dick her husband. She said to him while he was bathing her forehead with a cool cloth: "You're such a wonderful husband. I don't know if you're my husband but you're a wonderful husband."
      Dick and I dread the day when she will begin to ask questions about her condition; that’s something we’ll have to face when we come to it. Meanwhile, I am sustained by his optimism. As long as she can still think, talk, read, study, he is convinced she will triumph over her handicap.
      The day before Christmas I inquired of Dr. Barnes, "Kathie will be able to read and write, won't she?"
      His dubious look as he replied, "I don't know, it's a little early to tell yet," filled me with dread, but Kathie settled the matter the next day when she unwrapped a present from me.
      "The I Hate to Housekeep Book by Peg Bracken," she murmured, gazing at the cover while Dick and I exchanged relieved glances.
      "If it's loose, pick it up;" she added drowsily. "If it isn't, dust it; if it moves, feed it."
      Dick took the book from her hand and his brow cleared as he reads the fine‑print blurb above the title. "That's what it says, all right."
      Our Christmas wasn't as totally miserable as one might imagine. Dick bought a huge red stocking that he filled with little surprises and hung on the curtain railing above Kathie's bed. Her favorite presents were a stuffed poodle that looked like Moppet, and a perky red reindeer     
      "What are you going to call the reindeer?" Dick asked, and she replied with a wan smile, "Archibald . . . Archibald Antlers." On Christmas day she talked to Dick's family.  I heard her say she was glad to be alive.
                                                       

      A week after the accident, Kathie was thinking very clearly indeed. "I have been mentally composing a trajectory to present to the doctor," she informed Dick and me, "giving various reasons why I feel I should be put in a cast as soon as possible, my arguments being based on the pre‑med courses I took when I was considering medical school."
      Obviously charmed by his patient's intelligence and wit, Dr. Barnes nevertheless refuses to be rushed. He explains that she will have to be given an anesthetic when the cast is put on; in her weakened condition, this could be dangerous. We will have to be patient and hope her strength returns soon.  
     For two or three days, Kathie was aware of pain and discomfort, despite the medications that were supposed to help her.
    "No one was ever meant to have such pain . . . I guess God doesn't like me very much," she said to Dick.  But even under these circumstances she was able to wisecrack.
    Nurse: "Is your pain any better, Kathie?"
     
    Kathie, wryly: "Is my pain better? How can pain be better? Pain is pain."   
    Next, she demanded, "Where is that sex-pot doctor? Tell him I want him front and center immediately."
    Nurse: "I don't believe he'll be back today. He's gone to his office in Flagstaff."
    "Is he arranging my plane reservations so I can fly home tomorrow? I get so tired of just lying here all the time.  I want to be sitted up."
    Nurse: "The doctor said he might let you be propped up a bit toward the end of the week."  
    "What's today?"  Nurse: "Monday."  "Is tomorrow the end of the week?"
 
    "Funny old thing, I think you should have been a comedian instead of a teacher," Dick laughed. How he appreciates her little jokes.
                                            


     Dick has returned to Berkeley to finish the first semester. I am thankful he had the strength of character to do this. Kathie's face is already a mile longer than it was before, and her chin quivers every now and then, but I have yet to see her shed a tear. She knows that giving him up for three weeks is the only sensible thing to do and wouldn't hear of his doing anything else.      
     Meanwhile I try my best to keep her mind occupied by reading to her, which she seems to enjoy very much. With pets Lurch and Moppet to care for back at the motel, letters to write, my room to keep tidy, and laundry to do, it’s surprising how busy I manage to keep. If I am careful not to let myself think too much, I'll be able to carry on until Kathie is strong enough to leave.
      She is as yet unable to read or write letters, so I have become her secretary. 

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