Oh, Christmas Tree
By Larry C. Kerpelman
After three emergency room visits, two hospitalizations, and one brain surgery to treat her traumatic brain injury, my wife Joanie finally may be coming home from the hospital soon, the nurse tells us. Christmas is only a week away, so our daughter Janna and I hatch plans to ready the house for the holiday and, we hope, Joanie’s homecoming. Janna spends half an hour in our attic going through all the boxes of decorations stored there. Over the years, as our collection of ornaments and decorations grew, Joanie characteristically organized and labeled everything down to the finest detail, so it doesn’t take long for Janna to find the boxes she needs for the decorations she wants to put up.
Before going to sleep, Janna and I (but it is mostly Janna) start to make the house look like Christmas, just like my wife always does every year. Janna scurries around placing the brass horn, garlands, Christmas stockings, and miniature handcrafted evergreen trees, Santa Clauses, and elves that Joanie has accumulated over the years. By the time she is finished, it still isn’t half of what Joanie would normally have done over the course of several days’ decorating before the holiday, but it achieves its purpose: the house “looks like Christmas.”
With my wife’s discharge imminent, I need to buy a tree if we are going to complete decorating the house by the time Joanie comes back home. I spend the morning shopping for one. It can’t be just any old tree, though. Joanie always insisted on getting “a Fraser fir, as fresh as it could be,” which meant going to a tree farm to cut one ourselves. There is no time to do that now, so I go to several places to examine and then shake their already-cut Fraser firs to get “a Fraser fir, as fresh as it could be” for Joanie’s homecoming.
We have not yet told Joanie that our son Todd is now planning to arrive from California a few days before Christmas, as we thought it best for her to regain as much of her physical and cognitive functioning as possible in order to better handle the excitement of his coming in. Once I arrive at the hospital, shortly before noon, Janna and I tell her the news. She couldn’t be happier, and it shows in the broad smile and glow on her face. This afternoon, she sits in a chair for several hours, orders up by telephone her own food from the hospital food service, eats well, walks around the halls, and allows herself to think that she might actually be out of the hospital and home in time for Christmas – and with her whole family around her.
With the Fraser fir now sitting in our living room, I have one more thing to do after getting home from visiting Joanie at the hospital. I put the lights on the tree and then place upon it just a few of the ornaments Janna had brought down from the attic. As I place each of the ornaments we had given annually to our children in earlier years, I think back to those Christmases past when we were all together. And I look forward to this Christmas present, when we will all be at home together again.
Janna goes to the hospital early the next day to wash and dress her mother in preparation for Todd’s first visit. I drive in later with Todd, giving him the chance to sleep in after having landed from the west coast late the night before. When we arrive at the hospital, Janna and I look on at a very happy mother and son reunion. Todd looks immensely relieved finally to be seeing his mother, rather than having to hear about her from Janna or me at a distance of three thousand miles. Joanie hugs Todd joyously.
As we chat, a nurse comes in and tells us that Joan will be discharged from the hospital today pending the neurosurgeon’s review of her case and her latest CT scan to make sure that her progress has remained satisfactory.
As we wait, I gaze over at my wife. Her head is bald where they had shaved her to get to the subdural hematoma that assaulted her brain, she still is sporting thirty stitches from the surgery, and she is pale and weak from having been in bed for so long, but she looks as good and happy as I have seen her look at any time over the past three weeks. Soon, the wheelchair arrives to take her to the hospital entrance.
The worst thing that can happen to someone with a traumatic brain injury is to hit her head again within a year of the original injury, and I think to myself how terrible it would be if we were to get in an accident while we are driving home. So when I pull my car up to the entrance of the hospital, we place Joanie – like a fragile egg – in the safest part of the car, the middle of the rear seat. Todd gets in beside her, and Janna goes to get her car from the parking garage. By prior arrangement, I am to drive home slowly to allow Janna time to get home before me so she can turn on the lights of the Christmas trees – the little artificial one in the breezeway and the large, real one in the family room. I would have driven home slowly anyway, given the delicate cargo I am carrying.
When we arrive home, Todd and I gingerly help Joanie out of the car. On entering our breezeway, she notices the little artificial Christmas tree we had decorated and placed there and says, “Oh, you got the little tree down. That’s nice.”
Then she walks into the house and sees the decorations Janna had put up all over the house and the Christmas tree we had bought and trimmed, its lights ablaze. She bursts into tears. She sits on the family room sofa, her eyes darting from place to place around the room – looking every bit like a frightened animal – taking in all the decorations Janna had placed there. Recovering her composure, she says, “This is so wonderful, just being here together in our own house.”
She is home at last, and, yes, the four of us are together again, and, yes, it is wonderful being all together and back home. But I can tell that the excitement of coming home has tired her out. And tomorrow is Christmas, so I make sure she gets upstairs and into bed earlier than usual.
On Christmas Day, we celebrate the simple fact that the four of us are together at home. Three weeks earlier, we were not sure this would even happen, for our family had been tipped into a crisis like we have never before experienced.
After breakfast, we open Christmas gifts and, still in our sleepwear, sit in the family room and talk, just the four of us, just like Christmases past. Soon, Joanie returns to wondering out loud, as she often does since being in the hospital, “Will I ever get back to normal?” We do our best to assure her she will but that it will take time. We kid her about what an impatient patient she is and empathize with her about how frustrating it must be for her to still not have all her normal capabilities. But I keep wondering the same thing that Joanie is wondering, and I can tell that Todd and Janna are wondering it, too.
With the four of us at home, just like old times, we have our traditional Christmas dinner, just like old times – pasta and artichokes. When our children were growing up, their mother, for several years running, put together a traditional dinner of turkey or ham with different kinds of vegetables and other trimmings, only to find that the children – picky eaters that they were then – didn’t eat much of it. So one Christmas, she challenged them to compose a menu themselves of food that they would really like to have, and what Todd and Janna came up with was pasta and artichokes. Ever since, that has been our traditional Christmas dinner.
This Christmas, Todd and Janna prepare the meal, with Todd making the marinara sauce and, for him and me (the only red meat eaters in the family), Italian meatballs. Janna prepares the artichokes and the dipping sauce for them and sets the table. Joanie relaxes – reluctantly, for this is normally her prerogative – but she relaxes as she watches lovingly the rest of the family preparing the holiday artichokes and pasta.
We sit at the dining room table, set festively by Janna with green and red placemats and a centerpiece of little Santa statues, to enjoy the meal. But first we have to engage in another family ritual. When our children were younger, we spent Christmases together with another family who were originally from England. They introduced us to Christmas crackers – rolled, decorated tubes with tabs at each end – a custom in England that hadn’t caught on much in the U.S. at that time. When the tabs on the rolled tubes are pulled (one person pulling one end and the person next to him or her pulling the other), the cracker makes a loud crack, and a cheesy toy, a cheesy hat, and an equally cheesy strip of paper containing a corny joke or riddle pop out from the tube. Some days before this Christmas, I had purchased Christmas crackers on my way to visit Joanie at the hospital, and now I trot them out so we can follow our Christmas cracker tradition.
Every Christmas day, toward the end of the day, with the opening of the gifts finished, the dinner of pasta and artichokes behind us, the cheesy Christmas cracker toys scattered about on the dinner table, and the last present tried on or played with, Joanie and I would gaze at the Christmas tree and kiddingly tell one another “This is the best Christmas tree we’ve ever had.” This year, we look at the Christmas tree I had bought in a hurry just before she came home from the hospital, one that has nowhere near the symmetry and beauty of trees we had bought together in more relaxed Christmases past, one that is nowhere near as fresh as the trees we would cut ourselves at the tree farm in years before, a tree that has only half the decorations it normally would have on it. I hold her tight and say, with less than the usual irony in my voice, “This is the best Christmas tree we’ve ever had. And,” now with no irony at all, “this is the best Christmas tree we’ll ever have because you’re home now.”