It Looks Like Christmas
--By Larry C. Kerpelman
In my recently published book, Pieces Missing: A Family’s Journey of Recovery from a Traumatic Brain Injury(Two Harbors Press, 2011), I describe how my wife sustained a traumatic brain injury after falling while jogging and the many impacts of this injury on so sensitive (and important) an organ of the body. It took three emergency room visits, two hospitalizations, one brain surgery, and months of rehabilitation for her to regain the pieces missing from her speech, thought, reading, confidence, and zest for life. The book also tells how our marriage and family persevered and survived the biggest crisis of our lives and how the human spirit and love helped us overcome this challenge. This excerpt from the book takes us to her discharge—just before Christmas—from her second hospitalization, after undergoing neurosurgery for her subdural hematoma.
Sunday, December 17
With the operation behind us, and Christmas only a week away, this evening Janna and I revisit her idea of readying the house for the holiday and, we hope, Joanie’s homecoming. Our daughter 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 and to bring them downstairs.
Before going to sleep, Janna and I (but it is mostly Janna) set about starting to make the house look like Christmas. She scurries to position around the house the brass horn, garlands, Christmas stockings, and miniature hand-crafted 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 placed over the course of several days’ decorating before the holiday, but it achieves its purpose: the house “looks like Christmas.”
Wednesday, December 20
With her discharge imminent, I need to buy a tree if we are going to complete decorating the house for Christmas 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 trees to get “a Fraser fir, as fresh as it could be” for Joanie’s homecoming.
Janna and I agreed last night that while I was doing that, she would go in to visit Joanie this morning and then leave in the afternoon (rather than at night, as she usually did). Not only does she have to go back to her apartment, for the first time in a week, to get clean clothes to wear and to retrieve her mail, but also she is to pick Todd up at Logan Airport at eleven o’clock tonight. Since her apartment is just outside of Boston, we had agreed that she would be the one to drive in to the airport to get him.
We have not yet told Joanie that Todd moved up his planned arrival from December 24 by four days, 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 Joanie’s room, shortly before noon, Janna and I tell her the news. The broad smile and glow that light up her face tells us she couldn’t be happier. This afternoon, she sits in a chair for several hours, orders up by telephone her food from the hospital food service, eats well, walks around the halls, and allows herself to think that she might actually be discharged from the hospital and home in time for Christmas—and with her whole family around her.
On arriving home from the hospital, I have one more thing to do before going to bed. I put the lights up on the Christmas tree and (knowing that Todd and Janna will finish decorating it once they arrive home from the airport) 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 Christmases—like the little soccer player enthusiastically kicking a ball and the ornament with the slate on it saying “For the best teacher” we had given to Janna in years past, and the miniature computer and Yale bulldog ornaments we had given to Todd—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 home together again.
Thursday, December 21
At one thirty in the afternoon, the nurse arrives with Joanie’s discharge papers, instructions on her care and the medications she should take while recovering, and a list of the therapists who will be contacting us for follow-up rehabilitation at home. She admonishes Joanie that she will have to take it easy for quite a while to give all her bodily systems a chance to recover and reintegrate, but she assures us that recovery will come with time. With that, we wait for a wheelchair to come to take Joanie from her room and out of the hospital.
As we wait, I gaze over at my wife. Her head is bald where they had shaved her to get to the hematoma that had 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 had seen her look at any time over the past three weeks.
Soon, the wheelchair arrives to take her down 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 a traffic accident while we are driving home. So when I pull my car up to the hospital entrance, 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.
As we pass the Burlington Mall on the drive home, I point it out to Joanie. I want to make concrete the answers Janna and I had given to the question she asked us so many times while in the hospital, the one about just where the Lahey Clinic is located. Halfway home, she remarks, “How terrible it must have been for you and Janna to have to drive all this way to get to the hospital to visit me.” In actuality, it is only a thirty-minute drive, but to Joanie, the drive home must seem as if it were taking forever.
She also comments how strange everything looks. Over and above having been groggy and confused so much over the past several weeks, she also has been in an environment that was sensorily restricted. All that she had seen during that time were the confines of a room, either a hospital room or, when she was home between hospitalizations, our bedroom. Now she is emerging into the light, so to speak, and certainly into surroundings that are infinitely busier, with sights and sounds she’s not seen for weeks.
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 family room, like a frightened animal in a new environment, taking in the live Christmas tree Janna and Todd had decorated and all the other decorations 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. Now begins the work of getting Joanie back to normal.
You can order Pieces Missing: A Family’s Journey of Recovery from Traumatic Brain Injury at Larry’s Web site, (www.LCKerpelman.com ), or from www.Amazon.com or www.BarnesandNoble.com.