What we want for Christmas
A heartwarming story for the holidays
The minute Nurse Dan decorated the giant plastic tree in the lobby, we knew what we wanted for Christmas. We wanted to go home.
“First thing I’ll do,” Iraq says, “is meet some buddies at the bar.”
“Girls,” the Kid says. “I need to see me some girls.”
“Like you’d know what to do with them!” Iraq cries. He and the Kid share the big room with me at the end of the hall. Iraq always shouts and the Kid always slurs. I don’t say much and they don’t ask me. But I just want one night of real warmth from the woodstove, and maybe to see some stars.
“You leave, you lose your spot,” says Nurse Dan, delivering this news as he flips the Kid over in bed. “There’re too many injured folks waiting to get in.” He lifts the Kid’s top sheet so it catches air.
“It’s just one night!” the Kid whines as the sheet settles. “You act like the freakin’ Gestapo around here.”
Nurse Dan shrugs. “Insurance regulations,” he says, tamping the sheet down.
“I might vacate all the same,” Iraq yells. “Not like I’m improving, anyhow.”
“Me neither!” the Kid agrees. “All I do is smell these nasty old-guy smells you got in here. How you expect me to improve, smelling nasty old-guy smells?”
“That would be you,” Iraq calls to me.
“No offense,” the Kid adds.
Nurse Dan is not without sympathy. He says we can skip therapy Christmas Day. He’s signed us up for one sweet extra, if we aren’t diabetic, and requested new foot socks with the dog-paw patterns from the supply closet down the hall. We’ll get music from two old warblers said to be real women under their gooed-up hair and winged-on eyebrows, and glittered Christmas cards from the Catholic school kids. But he can’t let us go home. If we want to keep our spot, we have to stay in rehab.
The stucco building is long and low, sits by itself beyond a strip mall and a housing tract, surrounded by open field. As if life got up on its hind legs and reared back when it saw rehab. Our room at the end of the hall is the biggest. My bed is a cushion wrapped in crackly plastic that wheezes and sweats. The miniature television swings at you on a metal arm, and if you’re not careful, the nurses will leave it stuck in your face.
Every morning I go to therapy in a kindergarten room. Low tables, giant bouncy balls, and a play kitchen to relearn things like how to use a fork and spoon, fold a shirt, wash your plate. You’re not supposed to overdo it, though. Not too many reps on the leg lifts or too many arm stretches on the yellow band tied to your wheelchair. The therapist asks me questions like “Who’s the president of the United States?” but won’t let me get up and hold onto the parallel bars. “This is one instance where trying too hard can cause a setback,” Nurse Dan is always saying. “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
Once, Nurse Dan wheeled me out and down the sidewalk to the strip mall—me jiggling in the chair over the uneven sidewalk like a kid in a wagon, with cars clipping by on the four-lane. I watched the tattoos crawl down from Nurse Dan’s rolled-up sleeves, and end blunt as cuff marks at his wrists. I got a haircut and a bowl of soup. Then my two hours were up.
That’s the only time I’ve been out since I got here.
Inside rehab, the four-way mirrors in the hall let you know if someone’s coming. Got to navigate like on a deer trail, since old Mrs. Chue can’t lift her head to look up and runs her wheelchair into mine every time. I can’t get out of her way, now that I’ve only got the right hand to push with, like a boat with one oar.
The guy in 10A is hanging out on the portable john again. The lady in 2B we never see is screeching behind the door. My goal is to always be in the lobby when my brother, Rand, comes at lunchtime—a little matter of pride—but he finds me halfway there, snaking along.
I was driving my John Deere when I had the stroke. One minute I’m scraping the old farm road, the next a tree is ramming me. “What’s that doing here?” I remember thinking. I felt like melted butter the tree was heading for. But I hardened up when it hit.
A month later, I’m still in rehab.
“Consider yourself lucky,” Nurse Dan says. “Some people don’t have the insurance coverage for a place like this.”
Rand comes right on time, bandy-legged in a cowboy hat and boots, his one dress shirt checkered and with pearl snaps. I prefer white shirts when I dress up. And a tall white hat. Wear the hat in rehab and Nurse Dan calls me the rehab cowboy. “No more Cheetos, Cowboy,” Nurse Dan warns when Rand sneaks them in. “Garbage like that’s what put you here.”
Nurse Dan is all about good and bad cholesterol, and lean cuts of meat. Shoot, never even heard of cholesterol when I was a kid, and now there’s two kinds? Nurse Dan says it’s the bad kind left my side paralyzed, and slurred my speech so I sound like the Kid. “At least,” Rand says, “you can’t boss me anymore.”
I’m the older one. It was always my responsibility to take care of Rand. Now he thinks he’s got to take care of me. I want to tell him I’m sorry. Big guy like me falling off the tractor, hung up on that tree. Danged tree jumping out at me. I should have known better. Rand called me a fool for getting back up and turning the tractor off. Trying to get back on. That’s when I slipped and hit my head and like to broke my nose.
Broke my nose plenty of times before. And hit my head, too. But those kinds of hurts are easier. This stroke I call a soft one. Nothing about it hurt, except banging my head after. A hard hurt is easier to take. A soft hurt, that’s unsettling, just taking you so gently by the hand and pulling the wool over your eyes, making trees move and you aren’t able to.
When he finds me in the hall, Rand wheels me the rest of the way to the lobby for a look at the Christmas tree. Sprayed-on cedar scent and globbed with fake white snow and silver dangles. It’s plunked between lobby couches and chairs with nice arms, and the big windows with parking-lot views. Outside, planted trees puff with wind, and beyond the lot, rain pelts the open field. The lobby has two sets of double doors. One set leads to a glassed-in entry, the other set leads out. Rand wheels me over to the first set, and the doors panic as he runs my wheelchair back and forth. He already wants out and he just got here. I smell rainy air and my hands shake, wistful.
We are outdoor boys, me and Rand. We grew up on our ranch. Still run horses, still ranch. We got a couple of hands, nearly as old and decrepit as we are, and some nice horses. No reason to keep them wild except we like to. Used to run cattle through the mountains to pasture, winter and spring, too, but all that’s over now.
Thinking thoughts like this makes me blubber. Nurse Dan says tears come with the territory when you have a stroke. Like your tear ducts are on overload. And your heart gets sentimental at the drop of a hat. I keep a handkerchief stuck up my sleeve and yank it out, jerk it at the wheezing doors. I’m thinking about my Christmas wish. “Let’s check me out of here,” I say. “This place is for the birds.”
Rand twirls the chair around. “What about that pool therapy?” He looks down on me. He’s in cahoots with Nurse Dan, who’s cooked up this bright idea it will teach me to walk again if they dunk me in the swimming pool. Water therapy, shoot! I can’t even swim when I got two good legs. “I ain’t drowning in any pool. You want to get me wet, wheel me out in the rain!”
“Act as stubborn as you please.” Rand settles his hat down low. “But I’ve set my mind on it.”
“You best set your mind on something else! What are you doing coming around here every day, anyway? Take that trip to Hawaii you been wanting to take. Pete can watch the horses.” Rand has been threatening to go to Hawaii every Christmas for the last fifteen years.
“You tired of seeing me then?” The way he says it is the closest we’ve come to a fight in a long time. I don’t have much fight in me, though, which makes him madder than ever.
“I’m just sayin’,” I manage, “don’t wait until it’s too late.”
The next day, I make it all the way to the double doors and wait in front of the lobby tree, but Rand doesn’t show. An orderly finally wheels me to the dining room, alone.
“That’s gonna be some Christmas, stuck in here,” the Kid croaks. He and Iraq are playing poker while Nurse Dan shoves food in the Kid’s mouth. The Kid can’t hold his own fork, much less his cards, so Iraq has a hand in each fist. One he shows to the Kid and one he looks over himself. Iraq doesn’t like to eat in front of anyone—traumatic brain injury—so the orderly parks me at the table next door.
“You’re the one got yourself busted up for the holidays,” Iraq yells at the Kid.
“It was Sam’s fault. He was on the other bike and turned in front of me.”
“Your mama never tell you to watch out for the other guy?”
Rand is never late. Maybe he really is mad at me. Or maybe he took my advice and hopped a plane to Hawaii. Wouldn’t blame him. This place can get depressing. We’re all in here together but nobody acts like it. Nobody associates, even in the dining room, except for Iraq and the Kid. ’Cause if you associate, then you’d know you were one of us.
A group of ladies from the Red Hats comes into the cafeteria. They’re loaded down with audio books. Rehab-patient present for Christmas, since tomorrow is Christmas Eve. On their heels comes a gang from the Daughters of the Revolution with a pot of chrysanthemums for every room.
“Flowers!” Iraq bellows. “Books on tape? What do you say,” Iraq points across the dining room at me, “let’s you and me bust out of here!”
“I’m coming, too!” the Kid slurs.
But before I can agree, Nurse Dan is here, wheeling back my chair. “Today’s pool day, Cowboy,” he says. “You ready?”
The pool is indoors and heated, and the pool lights reflect wavery on the ceiling. Nurse Dan gives me over to a lady swallowed in a baggy track suit, bright orange stripes down the track-suit legs. She says her name is Mary Jo. Before I know it, Mary Jo has stripped down to a bathing suit and strapped me into a hydraulic chair. The chair swings out over the water like the bedside TV arm. “Test drive,” she calls it. “And maybe a little dip. But only if you’re comfortable.”
Gears creak. I’m hoisted above the pool and left dangling. Water hits my toes and I feel dizzy. “Mary Jo,” I say. The chair contraption stops and I hang there, trussed up like a stuck pig. “I ain’t comfortable.”
Mary Jo hesitates. She looks disappointed. But you got to have nerves of steel when you can’t move one side and can’t swim and somebody else is loading you into a pool. It seems like forever before she swings me back over solid ground. She’s about to unbuckle me when Rand’s voice bellows out, “Hold on a minute, ma’am!”
Mary Jo’s hands pause on the buckles. She watches Rand bow-leg up. He tips his hat to her and I can tell she’s already impressed.
“This is my brother.” I point at Rand with my good hand. “Who is supposed to be on his way to Hawaii!”
“And miss pool therapy?” Rand grins.
Mary Jo shakes her head. “I’m afraid he’s decided against it.”
Rand settles his hat. “He’ll give it a try, don’t you worry.”
“You like it so much, get in yourself!” I say.
Rand grins wider. Mary Jo is looking between us. She looks amused. But she doesn’t know Rand’s grin. It’s the one that says he’s little brother and don’t tell him what to do. He kicks off one boot, then the other. He unsnaps his checkered dress shirt.
“Uh, sir?” Mary Jo doesn’t look amused now. She looks nervous.
“You can’t actually get in…”
Rand is pulling down his jeans.
“Regulations,” finishes Mary Jo.
Rand is wearing a brand-new pair of yellow flowered swim trunks. I stare at them blooming above his bony knees.
“Oh, geez,” says Mary Jo as Rand jumps in the pool. “Not a word about this. Our insurance will have a fit.”
“You old fool,” I call when Rand comes up spluttering. “You forgot to take your hat off.”
Rand was a smart kid. I was the bigger one, the tougher one, but he had the skills. When we’d hunt together he’d spot things I never saw. He had a keen sense of how to read the land, how to keep his wits about him. Before Christmas one year he spotted a cinnamon bear up on the ridge. When it wasn’t cold enough to keep a bear in hibernation, you sometimes saw them. They tended to come out surly with sleep, so you had to be on your toes. But Rand wasn’t worried. He wanted that cinnamon bear to make our mother a nice Christmas rug.
We were fond of our mother. We believed she worked too hard and loved us just enough. And we hated seeing her hands looking so suddenly old and knobby. Still, when Rand spotted the bear three days before Christmas, I wasn’t convinced. “Might be reckless,” I said. “There’s a storm coming.” That was our father’s word, reckless. “Don’t be reckless, boys,” he’d say. He’d died reckless himself, the year before. So now we had to make up our own minds.
We tracked the bear until dark the first day. When the storm hit we camped under a rock ledge we knew of, built a fire to keep warm. It would have been okay except Rand cut his thumb opening a can of beans. It didn’t seem like much at first, but Rand didn’t feel so good the next morning. We had to wait out the snow, and by nightfall of the second night, Rand had blood poisoning.
I thought maybe I should lance it. I saw a ranch hand do that once. But Rand said, “Don’t you come near me. I’ll kill you.” I guess he was out of his head by then.
He kept telling me he heard the bear rooting. He wanted me to go on out and get the son of a gun!
Lay quiet, will you? You’ll work up the infection.
Get the lead out! He’s getting away!
I was glad when Rand passed out. I put my hand on his forehead like our mother would do when we were sick. I was that scared, imagining how I’d have to take his body back to her if he died under that ledge. Rand slung over his horse like a sack, and all for a cinnamon bear rug. She’d blame me. I blamed myself.
I lanced Rand’s hand while he was out, and stayed right by him. I kept the fire going but the wood was so damp it barely took the edge off. In my head I was out there, shooting that bear and skinning it, laying the cinnamon pelt warm over Rand’s shaking bones. I thought my brother would die on Christmas Eve. In the middle of the night, the snow stopped. It got so still and cold, I felt thin as ice, about to shatter. When I heard some branches crack, I crept from under the ledge to stare at the howling stars.
And there he was. Straight across from me on another ridge, pretty as you please. His cinnamon hide darker than the night. His head raised, like he was finding grace in the stars himself. I thought about how much I’d wanted to shoot him earlier. Reasoned out the steps to reach the rifle and pick it up and aim. But in the end I thought against it. It wasn’t any big revelation. I just thought against it.
Rand rallied on Christmas Day. I saddled us up and headed him home. Empty-handed! Rand complained the whole way. He was not going to forgive me for letting his bear get away. “You nincompoop!” he moaned. “Why didn’t you shoot him? That was Mom’s Christmas present you let run off.”
The truth is, I owe Rand at least a try at that pool. I tell Mary Jo to buckle me back in and the big chair slings me out over the water again. Mary Jo lowers me down and Rand is there, waiting. Mary Jo jumps in and they both slosh over beside me. Mary Jo unhooks things. “Relax,” Rand says. “You aren’t gonna drown with me here. Like my trunks?” The yellow flowers billow around his skinny legs.
Mary Jo eases me from the chair. “Okay. Try a step or two,” she says. She holds one side of me and Rand the other. I look down at my feet and will them to move. Finally, they do.
“I did it. I’m walking.” I take another step, weightless. If only the world were made of water, I’d be home for Christmas!
But the world isn’t made of water, so I’m still stuck in rehab.
Christmas Eve night Rand leaves early. Me, Iraq and the Kid are alone in our big room down the hall. We don’t talk much about our wish to go home. We don’t talk much at all. Even Iraq is quiet. And I fall asleep before lights out.
Then someone is shaking me awake. I open my eyes and Gonzales, the night orderly, looms over me.
“Wake up, Cowboy,” I hear Iraq say. He’s actually whispering for him. “We’re getting our wish. We’re busting out of here!”
“What?” I hear the bedrails lower. When I turn my head, a wheelchair is there, waiting. “What about Nurse Dan?”
Iraq chuckles. “He’s in on it!”
Gonzales urges me out of bed. He wraps me in blankets, settles me in the chair and sticks slippers on my rehab-socked feet. He sets my hat on my head. Iraq is already cocooned in another chair. He wheels himself ahead of us out of the room.
“We’re busting out. We’re busting out.” Iraq sings as he wheels.
“Hey,” the night orderly warns. “Keep it down.”
I figure I’m still dreaming when we don’t head for the front lobby. Instead, we scoot through the back doors. Cold air hits my face and then we’re bumping across uneven dirt, right out into the empty field that surrounds rehab. The rain from the last two days has stopped. The clouds have pulled away to mist and behind the mist, soft stars.
Gonzales leaves me to help Iraq bump off toward some shadowy figures in the distance. Then he’s back for me.
I hear the Kid’s slurry speech when we approach. “Here he is!” And a match lights. Rand’s face shines beneath his cowboy hat.
“Ready?” he says.
“Ready!” Iraq bellows. Rand bends down and lights the kindling he’s laid for a fire. The fire shoots up and crackles.
“It’s a bonfire!” The Kid’s slurry voice is thrilled.
“Your brother’s idea,” Nurse Dan says. He’s standing among a row of other wheelchairs. I recognize old Mrs. Chue. She’s parked between the guy from 10A and what must be the woman from 2B, who is so wrapped up in wool blankets and headscarves all you see is a pair of dark, glittery eyes.
Rand has brought nice, dry wood. We’re all silent as the fire grows, admiring how the blue-yellow flames race skyward.
After a while, old Mrs. Chue says, “We ought to share something” to no one in particular. No one answers at first because her voice surprises us. We’ve never heard her talk before.
“Like what?” the Kid asks.
“What about our Christmas traditions?”
“If I was out of here, I’d be sitting in a bar with some buddies,” Iraq busts in.
“No, I mean when you’re home,” Mrs. Chue says. “How does your family celebrate?”
Iraq squints at her over the flames. “The usual, I guess.”
“My mom loves Christmas,” the Kid pipes up. “Every year she puts up a tree in every room in the house and throws a big party for the whole neighborhood.”
“I never put up a tree.” Mrs. Chue’s head wobbles. “I’m an environmentalist. I put up a quilt instead. It had a beautiful tree design. I tacked it to the wall and my kids pinned ornaments on.”
“That’s some weird stuff.” The Kid ponders it. “What about you?” He turns to the guy in 10A.
It turns out 10A used to hitch up a hay wagon and take everybody caroling. After that we’re all going around the circle, telling everybody else how we celebrate Christmas. The fire warms our cheeks and voices and the little ring we make against the night. When it gets to me, Iraq says, “What about you, Cowboy? What’s your story?”
I look down. I’ve got one slippered foot resting on a stump near the flames. My slipper is steaming. Rand sees and lifts my foot off and sets it gently on the ground.
I guess Rand knows I’m feeling sentimental again because he says, “I’ll tell it.”
The fire leaps and glows hot, until one side of me is toasty, the other side damp where the cold lingers at my back. It’s a good feeling, the wet cold air and the hot fire and Rand telling the story of the Christmas we didn’t get the cinnamon bear. Inside the story I’m walking perfectly fine, like I’m still floating in the pool. Like maybe I won’t disappoint my brother, and will really walk again.
Later, after the fire burns down, Rand and Nurse Dan and Gonzales help us back to our rooms. Nurse Dan takes old Mrs. Chue, 10A and 2B down the hall. Rand and Gonzales get me into bed and pull the blankets up. Once the Kid and Iraq are settled, Rand says, “Good night, see you tomorrow.” I hear his boots retreat down the hall. The lights go out. Me, Iraq and the Kid are all sentimental now. We got what we wanted. We went home for Christmas. And all our hearts are glad.