Saturday, December 22, 2007
A Christmas Story
Many years ago now -- it must have been in 1985 or 1986, although I don't remember the exact year -- my grandfather Jerome spent Christmas in the hospital. He was in his late eighties or early nineties then, and he'd fallen and broken his hip. He needed surgery to repair the break.
After the surgery, he developed a fever and became disoriented. Lying in his hospital bed in traction, he didn't know who we were when we visited. His only clear memories were of his childhood and early adulthood. Jerome and his twin brother George had been born in Flagstaff, Arizona in 1896, but when he was well, he rarely talked about those days. His first wife, my mother's mother Della, had been killed in a car accident in 1938, an accident that also put Jerome in the hospital for six months. When he was well, he never talked about the accident, and rarely about anything that had happened before it.
But in his feverish state, those days seemed to be all he remembered. My mother and I lived a block from the hospital, and every day I'd go visit Jerome and listen to his stories. He told me about raising a pet coyote pup in the backyard when he was a boy, and about how his mother wouldn't let the children go downtown on Saturday nights, because of all the saloon gunfights. He told me how much he loved horses. Once he'd saved a stable of horse from a barn fire, running back into the burning building, again and again, to lead each of them to safety. Saving all those horses was the proudest moment of his life, he told me. He loved horses; they were so much better than cars. When he said that, I wondered if he was thinking about the accident that killed Della.
He talked about the accident, too, a little bit: about how angry he'd been in the hospital because no one would tell him how Della was, how he fainted in the hospital rooftop garden when his brother finally broke the news that she was dead. He wept, remembering it, his rage at the loss newly raw.
I loved listening to Jerome's stories, even the painful ones, but of course we also all wanted him to come back to us, to return to the present. My aunt Barbara, known as Bobbie to the family, was a nurse. She decorated his traction apparatus for Christmas, to give him something bright to focus on. One of the decorations was the bear ornament in the picture at the top of this post.
In time, the fever subsided, and Jerome came to himself again. He told us that in his dementia, the little bear had spoken to him, telling him who he was and what had happened to him. He had never shown any signs of mysticism before, and he told us about the talking bear very matter-of-factly. I wrote a heavily fictionalized version of the incident in a fantasy story called "A Masquerade of Voices," printed in David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer's anthology Spirits of Christmas, and of course I gave a copy of the story to Bobbie. Bobbie kept the bear to hang on her family's Christmas tree, and she sent me this picture of it in honor of the story.
I think what called Jerome back to his family was love: that was the voice he heard. Love became tangible in Bobbie's little bear, but also in the family photo album my mother made him for Christmas, and -- in less tactile form -- in my visiting every day to hear his stories.
There's a sad postscript to this story, though. Like Bobbie, I wanted to do something to brighten Jerome's hospital room. One day while I was Christmas shopping, I passed a health food store and went inside to buy a snack. The owner was making huge, beautiful crepe-paper flowers in vibrant pinks and blues. I asked her how much they cost, and explained that I wanted to bring some to my grandfather in the hospital. She gave them to me. She wouldn't take any money.
I kept meaning to go back and thank her, but a few weeks later, the store burned down. The newspaper said that the owner had been killed in the fire. I've always felt terrible that I didn't thank her when I had the chance, and terrible that no one ran inside to save her, the way Jerome saved his beloved horses.
Jerome died in June of 1987, and Bobbie died in June of 2006. I miss both of them, and I hope they knew how much I loved them.
This Christmas, give something bright and beautiful to the people you love, especially if they're sick. And don't wait to thank the people to whom you're grateful: let them know now how much they mean to you.