‘T’was the season to be jolly. Early in December I updated my Christmas card list in a spiral notebook, starting with the current year, 1965. 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. A strange feeling crept over me as I headed these columns with the Ghosts of Christmases Yet to come. What would the Malley 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 my Christmas cards. The phone was ringing when I got home. It was my son‑in‑law who was calling, I assumed, from California.
"Merry Christmas!" I said.
All too soon I found myself exchanging this time‑hallowed greeting with a passerby in a small, unfamiliar town. "Merry Christmas," I echoed numbly. 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 overheard my plea. He 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."
A protest burst from my lips. "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 did one devastated person console another? Dick was stoic and silent.
Back at the motel Dick 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 refused to dwell on all 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 seatbelt instead of taking a nap? If only we had 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 looked to the future and the productive life he was sure Kathie would still be able to lead. He visualized her teaching from a wheelchair 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 was for me to stay in Arizona with Dick until Kathie was strong enough to be flown back to Massachusetts. Ed and I would have given our souls if only this had happened to us instead of her. We’d had a full happy life together, while she and Dick had scarcely started theirs. The babies she wanted . . .
I don't recall 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?
As soon as we arrived at the hospital every morning, the nurses greeted us with the latest humorous quotations from Room 3. Kathie was becoming so alert that Dick and I couldn't help laughing at her wisecracks even though I’d thought we'd never laugh again. Whatever was wrong with the rest of her body, there was nothing amiss with that fine mind.
She didn't understand yet what had happened or how serious her injury was. She thought she was in a plane accident—-that we were all in the same accident together. At times she hadn't been sure that 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 dreaded the day when she would begin to ask questions about her condition; that was something we’d have to face when we came to it. Meanwhile, I was 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, "I'm grateful to be alive." Eight days after the accident, Kathie was thinking very clearly indeed.
"I have been mentally composing a projectory 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 Kathie's intelligence and wit, Dr. Barnes nevertheless refused to be rushed. He explained that she would have to be given an anesthetic when the cast was put on; in her weakened condition, this could be dangerous. We would have to be patient and hope her strength returned 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 of the nurse, "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."
"Is tomorrow the end of the week?"
Dick laughed. "Funny old thing, I think you should have been a comedian instead of a teacher."
My son-in-law returned to Berkeley to finish the second semester. I was thankful he had the strength of character to do that. Kathie's face was already a mile longer than it was before, and her chin quivered every now and then, but I had yet to see her shed a tear. She knew that giving him up for three weeks was the only sensible thing to do and wouldn't hear of his doing anything else.
Meanwhile I tried to keep her mind occupied by reading to her, which she seemed 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 was surprising how busy I managed to keep. If I was careful not to let myself think too much, I'd be able to carry on until Kathie was strong enough to leave.
She was as yet unable to read or write letters, so I became her secretary. We both smiled over this letter from Vonnie:
January 4, 1966
Dear marvelous, heroic, darling sissy,
I went over to Dad's house yesterday to dry some clothes and made an inspection while I was there. I couldn't help being concerned about how he was eating and taking care of the place. All the doors were locked except the one on the terrace. A down‑stairs and upstairs light was on but the house was immaculate. He sure is a good housekeeper. I checked out the refrigerator and it looked to be pretty healthy and well stocked. There were two steaks on a plate that hadn't been covered and the air had turned them a funny color. I left a note telling him to put wax paper on food so it wouldn't spoil.
He called me when he got home and said he'd purposely left the lights on so people would think there was someone there at night before he got home. Smart ol' Dad. He also said his steaks were still good (ach! they looked awful to me) but promised to cover them from now on. All in all he's doing pretty well.
We had our first real snowfall out here Sunday so Bob and I brought the baby outside to see it. Unfortunately his reaction was a disappointment. He didn't like it. It was too cold, too wet, and didn't taste like a cookie. He really is a delight, though. For instance, yesterday he pulled the living‑room curtains down, every day he throws his toys all over his room, feeds the dog when I'm not looking, and bangs his bedroom wall with his toys. You should see it—scratches, dents, chipped paint, etc. What a darling child. Nine months old and his nickname is Michael the Monster. He keeps me busy but it's worth it when he's asleep.
Sis . . . We're plugging for you. Our hearts never leave you. I can't really put into words what we feel, but believe me, it's strong and warm and everlasting.
Kathie continued to "hold me up," as my sister put it so accurately. She cried for the first time—said she felt as if she needed to cry to ease her tensions. I said, "Go ahead and get it out of your system, darling, before your hubby comes back. He'll tell you what a tough kid you are, but a good cry might make you feel better."
My words sounded pitifully inadequate in the face of a sorrow so unanswerable, so beyond the reach of comfort. I longed for a wishing stone to turn back the clock, to turn off her tears. But Dick said "No if onlys." I must try to focus on the positives, as Kathie did nearly every waking moment.
Before I left, she had dried her eyes. She gave me a smile, reached out her arms for a hug, and said not to worry, she was all right now.
One of Kathie's nurses told me Dr. Barnes said he had never, in all his twenty-three years of medical practice, seen her like.
January 10, 1966
Dear Aunt Sissy,
You really do deserve a medal but this safety pin was the best I could do. I used to have two of these to hold my diapers up and now I have to manage with one. Believe me, that's tough. I was a naughty boy yesterday. Mommy undressed me (oh! she's so fresh) for my bath and left me stark naked in my crib. The funniest thing happened. I poohed and didn't know what it was. I wiped it all over the crib, all over myself ‑‑ including face and hair ‑‑ and all over my toys. Yech. It smelled awful and tasted worse.
Oh well, I gotta learn somehow. Since Mommy never tells me nothin' I guess I'll have to use trial and error. When you come home maybe you can do something about the situation. Mom told me you teach mentally deficient children. How about helping her? HA HA HA! YUK YUK! OUCH! WHAA! She hit me. BOO HOO. (Whispers so Mommy can't hear) HEE HEE. Love and smooches.
Your darling nephew, Michael
January 12, 1966
I don't remember whether I answered your question about the flowers you ordered for Kathie after the accident, but anyway, they did arrive ‑‑ beautiful red roses ‑‑ and lasted long enough for her to say, "Aren't they lovely!" during one of her more lucid moments.
We also enjoyed "The Smitten Kitten." Kathie had fun showing Wee Wisdom to the nurses and bragging about her grandmother, the poet. We loved the illustrations, too.
Kathie's volume of mail has been tremendous, so I have my hands full helping her with replies. It is clear that all her associates in California adore her and are shaken by the seriousness of her injury. One friend writes long letters every day. Her principal has telephoned twice. One of her fellow teachers wrote that Mr. Lievore still hasn't recovered from the shock of hearing about the accident.
We should be home within two weeks. Kathie will be at Massachusetts General Hospital where, Ed says, she will get the finest possible care in the country.
Dr. Barnes spent over two hours in Kathie's room last night, examining her from head to toe, checking her eyesight (her right eye "lagged" a bit but will gradually become normal), and fending off her amorous advances. She flirted with him outrageously, much to his amusement. He said she had shown marked improvement in the last week, and when the bedsore on her backside was sufficiently healed, she would be ready for a cast.
The treatment for the bedsore consisted of placing her on one side or the other for as long as she could take it (she has worked up to half an hour at a time) with a lamp's rays directed at the sore. Tonight Dr. Barnes and the nurse put her on her stomach for the first time, and he was pleased to see the area looking much better. There was a great deal of kidding back and forth about what he would remember best about her after she was gone.
At one point he turned to me and said quietly: "You were right when you told me what kind of girl this was, the first day I met you. Maybe you didn't think I was taking it in, but I listened and remembered, and you're right. She's one in a million."
This one‑in‑a‑million daughter said to me, "It's probably selfish of me, but I'm so thankful I'm the one who's lying here instead of Dick. I wouldn't be able to take it if anything ever happened to him."
We left the Williams airport in an ambulance plane, a small single‑engine Cessna that barely had room for Kathie's stretcher, Dick, the dog and cat, myself, and all our luggage. Moppet had become quite brave about flying. Instead of crawling under the seat when we took off, she perched up on top of Kathie's cast and looked out the window at the passing scenery. The cat was another matter. Lurch was hit by a car as a kitten and had never recovered from the trauma. Kathie and Dick raised him to be a protected house cat, so whenever he sees the outside world, he becomes panic‑stricken. Dick put Lurch in a cardboard carton, but by the time we landed at Phoenix, he had nearly busted through his cage.
At Phoenix, TWA provided two heavy cardboard carriers for the animals, and we were allowed to carry them with us onto the plane. They withstood the five‑hour flight to Boston very well—and so did Kathie. She was provided with a "stretcher kit," composed of four passenger seats laid flat, thus making a bed, and curtains for privacy if she desired. She preferred having them open, smiling her cheerful smile at passengers boarding or disembarking.
When we arrived at Logan Airport late in the evening, we were met by an ambulance and by Ed. Dick went with Kathie to Mass General, and Ed and I followed. Her room in the rehabilitation ward on the ninth floor was not yet available, so she was put in a ward with surgical patients on the sixth floor. She had a bad night. Unable to sleep because of moans and snores from nearby patients, it was nearly 1:00 a.m. before she dozed off. Then she heard a voice in the distance, calling, "Where's the paraplegic?"
The voice neared the ward. "Where's the paraplegic?" the resident repeated. "Mrs. White?"
"I'm Mrs. White," Kathie said sleepily.
"Are you the paraplegic?"
"I don't know," she said. It was the first time this term had been used in her presence.
"You can't walk, can you?" said this bedside monster.
"Not yet," she replied hesitantly.
"You're the paraplegic," the resident declared flatly.
In her forbearing way, Kathie said later that he was probably wakened from a sound sleep and hadn't meant to be insensitive. Personally, I am unable to condone his callousness.
She was given no breakfast in the morning since no one thought to order one for her. She didn't even get a pitcher of water until I arrived in the afternoon. She did get a lunch tray, but it was sitting on the table in back of her. She had been placed on her side to give her bedsores a rest, so she couldn’t reach it. By the time someone noticed her plight, the lunch was cold.
Not a good start, but now she is on the ninth floor where she will be placed on a bed like the one Senator Kennedy had when he was recuperating from his plane accident. Called a Stryker frame, it is designed to help her bedsores heal; then therapy will start. The doctor says he’ll know better in 48 hours how much recovery we can hope for.
Dick is established in the apartment over our kitchen and will begin his courses at Harvard in February.
January 27, 1966
Massachusetts General Hospital
To Mr. Lievore (dictated)
Whatever you do, don't write and tell me about California weather! Snow is not confined to Arizona ‑‑ the drifts were a foot high when we arrived in Boston. I tried to fill my thoughts of California with billowing smog, but the warm sun and crisp air of February insist on coloring my memories.
Although the trip to Boston was cold and wintry, I enjoyed every minute of it. The air was fresh and without a trace of ether, rubbing alcohol, or antiseptic. Instead of four walls there were mountains, lakes, clouds, and whole cities in miniature to see from my Pullman ‑type berth on the plane. When the stewardess suggested that I might close my curtains for privacy while the other passengers were boarding, I insisted it would be a pleasure to see people who weren't dressed in hospital garb.
"That's fine," she said. "Why don't you be our fourth stewardess and smile and greet everyone as they come in."
No one tapped me on the shoulder every hour and said, "Pill time!" Best of all, I had a nice big tenderloin steak for dinner. . . .
March 15, 1966
Massachusetts General Hospital
To Mr. Lievore
Mass. General is like any big overgrown agency ‑‑ lots of mixups and confusions and hysterics. Take last Saturday. Three of our "rehab" nurses called in sick, so a new nurse "floated" up from another floor. She gave fair warning of her dizziness. She went from patient to patient handing out thermometers and bending over to explain that she had been sick with the flu and still felt deathly ill.
When she assured the head nurse that she was experienced with Stryker frames, she was sent in to get me ready for turning. This was an experience I shall never forget. Assuming you know as little about ye fine Stryker as the floater did, I'll explain that the basic frame consists of heavy canvas straps with foam rubber over them; all kinds of pillows and padding are needed to keep the victim ‑‑ I mean the patient ‑‑ from getting bed sores from the forced immobility.
Miss Dizzy's first boner was to put the other half of the frame over me, leaving out the pads and pillows I need for my "on‑the‑back" position. Moreover, she clomped the frame down onto my sheets, blankets, and pillow. I protested, but she insisted all was well and started hauling sheets and blankets out from under the top frame. Sheets and blankets may be soft, but when they're dragging across my suture line and a bed sore . . . .
Fortunately Dick was there, and by the time Miss Dizzy had started pushing and shoving pads under the top frame, he had fetched the head nurse. Off came the top frame, and the project was renewed in a more normal and comfortable fashion. Every time Dick and I think about that dizzy nurse, we have to laugh.
Then there's Dr. Constable. He's the skin specialist who recently grafted my bed sore to be sure it would heal properly. He's a huge, craggy‑looking Englishman, dedicated to his work. All the nurses are afraid of him because he is so austere; he has been known to hit the ceiling if a dressing is done incorrectly.
Since I'm not easily intimidated, I soon discovered Dr. C. had a hidden sense of humor. When I got indignant over his taking pictures of my bed sore (it's bad enough when staff members stand around and gawk at my behind), he pointed out that I'd need something for my Christmas cards next year. And when he decided I wouldn't require the extra piece of donor skin he had saved after my grafting operation, he said, "No sense wasting it; I'll send it down to the kitchen." He complained to Dick that the dressing he had put on after the grafting was lopsided because he had never dealt with such a "jolly" patient. Nothing makes me happier than jollying a grin out of Dr. Constable.
I will have to be on the Stryker frame for about two more months, waiting for my bone grafts to "take" satisfactorily. Then they'll have me in a wheelchair and going home weekends as soon as possible. I can't wait to be by the ocean again. Dick better start lifting weights because I expect to be pushed right down to the water's edge.
Friends showed their support with phone calls, notes, casseroles, and visits to Kathie. I got a note from the hospital informing me that Daisy Rogers had donated blood—a thoughtful, quiet gesture she never mentioned to me when we talked on the phone. Other friends with the best of intentions made comments that were more jolting than comforting. Caroline assured me our ordeal wouldn't last indefinitely. She had read that veterans paralyzed in World War II didn't live very long.
Another friend, stopping in to see me shortly after my return, was surprised that my appearance hadn't altered drastically.
"You look as tan and rested as if you'd been on a cruise."
"Some people thrive on tragedy," she said. That was Lorna for you. Kathie and I actually laughed over that one.
Not so funny were the thoughtless remarks of a friend at Kathie's bedside.
"Arizona is such a beautiful state," she began in a conversational tone. "Have you ever seen the Grand Canyon? It's magnificent, isn't it? Gary and I have done a lot of skiing out there. It's the most thrilling feeling in the world to fly like a bird down those slopes—"
Kathie told me she tried to hold back her feelings, as she usually does when people are tactless, but she couldn't bear another minute of this conversation.
"I burst into tears. I just let it happen. I asked her how she could talk about the joy of skiing to someone who was lying in a hospital bed, never to ski or skate or ride horseback again. Just then Dick arrived and asked what was the matter."
Her visitor left in a fluster of apologies and called me as soon as she got home. "I'm so sorry. I didn't realize I was offending Kathie. I’d cut off my tongue if it would help."Nothing helps. . . . Nothing.