Christmas Eve in 2005, I dressed my then 1.5-year-old in a silky Christmas dress, a festive hair tie and red, sparkly shoes much like Dorothy's 'there's no place like home' pair. My husband's family was there, moving boxes pushed aside to make room for themselves and a tree, and we all walked down to the rehab clinic for patients with brain and spinal injuries.
We ate a special holiday dinner with O. and all the others whose condition was too grim to permit going home at Christmas. Nurses and therapists and family members wheeled the patients in their hospital beds - or wheelchairs, if they were very fortunate - into the multi-purpose room. Some were severely brain injured, and some, I think, may have still been in comas, so it was up to staff and family members to manufacture convincing enough holiday cheer for the whole party.
Any genuine cheer may have derived almost solely from our little G., chatting (in 1.5-year-old fashion) and prancing, providing distraction (and possibly annoyance to a few, being a toddler). The French cafeteria ladies, serving the guests traditional yet, let's be honest, institutional Swiss Christmas cookies, cooed over her dress, her shoes, her giggles, her loving hand-holding with Oma and Opa (German grandparents). The cheer flowed more easily at that dinner than in all those hours when we stood around O.'s bed, when I would try to force interaction and make O. and G. realize that they were father and child. (By Christmas, O. had remembered the fact of having had a child, but mostly both just took my word for it, not remembering how they had adored each other before O.'s crash.)
After dinner, aunty and uncle took our toddler home. The in-laws and I went with O. to his room. For the first time since his accident two months prior, O. seemed quite lucid, and cried, and asked the question I'd long been asking incessantly: "Why?"
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My head suddenly felt insanely itchy as what felt like all the blood in my body rushed to my head. I scratched and scratched and tried to think and tried to swallow; my mouth was so dry. As much as I wanted O.'s brain to work again, it seemed unbearable to have him realize what he had done and all the consequences. Among the "what if?'' scenarios his family and mine and friends and I had been discussing was this very question, 'why.' 'What if Oliver starts asking questions? What if he starts to remember? How should we talk with him?' Experts at the rehab recommended honesty, followed by therapy, I recall.
There were no tissues in the room, and I assure you that they were needed. I later told a nurse about the tissue shortfall. ''Of all places, this is a place where there ought to be enough tissues," I said, assuming that landing in that rehab would mean sad times for pretty much anyone. I saw a flash of annoyance in her face and thought of how it would feel to go every day to work to a place no one wanted to be, a place of loss and sadness. Later, I learned that in fact, not everyone is acutely sad there all the time. Some people, for example, are active wheelchair users who just go periodically for exams or therapy; and there are some patients who get better. O. was there for a very long time - too long to maintain a Christmassy intensity of crying.