By Mediator Lee Wallace
Last year at this time I was visited by a full-sized leprechaun dressed in bright Kelly green and wearing a cleric’s collar. This is a true story, and she changed my life. I’m a mediator, and normally I write about mediation. But this week is special, for a host of reasons.This photo starts the story. It’s of my husband, not the leprechaun, and for all you skeptics out there, no, I don’t have a picture of the leprechaun. But this picture tells the story of the worstbest Christmas I ever had. And if worstbest isn’t a word, it ought to be.
Things Get Bad
My husband George is a paraplegic, but due to a rare and unpronounceable condition called a syringomyelia, he is losing the ability to feel and move his hands and arms. In 2017, we were extremely fortunate that George was admitted to a study of his exact condition that was ongoing at the National Institutes of Health. We spent all of June that year in Bethesda, Maryland, where doctors installed a shunt in George’s back, hoping to drain spinal fluid and stop the spread of the paralysis. It didn’t work. That fall we watched helplessly as George slowly lost his ability to open jars, put on his shoes and type. He had to take permanent disability. We were ready to do anything to stave off the panic we felt as his feeling ebbed away, and the doctors were willing to try another surgery. So in early December we headed back to Bethesda for round two. We were supposed to be gone a week, back in plenty of time for the 13 houseguests who would be arriving for Christmas at our house. George had the new operation, and at first it seemed like the surgery went really well. But instead of rallying within a day or two, George got worse and worse. I knew things were bad when I could not coax him into opening his eyes long enough to watch the Netflix series we had been watching together for weeks. It reached the point that the only time he would open his eyes was when a doctor came into the room — just long enough to tell them that I was overprotective and generally crazy to be saying that something was wrong. At long last, he could not even do that, and by default I won an argument I wanted to lose. George clearly had an infection, and the doctors decided to do yet another surgery, this time to take out the shunt we had spent all of June putting in. After that third surgery, George lay in ICU for days, barely responsive. I was living itinerantly from hotel to hotel. NIH has a lodge for family members, but the lodge had been booked long before by those able to plan ahead. I could not find a hotel that had full availability, plus there was always the hope that the lodge would have an opening, so each morning I checked out of one hotel and that night I checked into another. I now know more about Bethesda hotels than TripAdvisor. It was the coldest weather I ever remember, outside of law school in Boston. The newscasters talked about “punishing cold” and “abnormal cold snap.” And each evening when visiting hours ended, I trudged a mile into downtown Bethesda to a hotel, pulling my suitcase behind me and lugging my laptop in my backpack. I bought gloves and a scarf, and an awesome Christmas hat with tiny lights that really worked, but they were scant help against the intensity of the cold.
Christmas is a huge deal in my family, the only time of the entire year when we all get together. At my house, no less. I could not, would not, miss it, but day by day I had to mentally move our homecoming a day later. We would be there two weeks before anyone arrived, a week before, the day before, the same day they arrived, just 1 day later, just 2 days later.
Meanwhile, I decorated our hospital room. I wrapped the door in a large gift bag and set out little ornaments I bought at the drug store.
Looking for My Christmas Miracle
The thirteen houseguests descended on our house back in Atlanta, hosted by my teenage son. I knew we would be joining them soon. Why, I must have read two hundred Christmas books by now, and I know how this works! The hero and heroine endure great hardship right before Christmas. After all, it’s not much of a plot unless there is something to overcome. But at the last minute, the train gets through, the broken-down car is fixed, the war ends — and they make it home just in the Saint Nick of time.
I headed over to the NIH patient library for confirmation. NIH has the most wonderful librarians, and they had set out a section of Christmas books. I plowed my way through them, and they started saving some back for me. Yep, I was right. It ALWAYS ends on a happy note.
I clung to my Christmas hope until reality cold-cocked me in the face on December 21, 2017. George was still in ICU and he was only somewhat responsive. He had royally failed a swallow test, mostly because he did not wake up during the test, and so he was not going to be allowed to try liquids for another week. And he was so, so sick. He mostly knew who I was, but the details about our 23 years together were fuzzy. He told one nurse that we had 19 children. (Wrong wife, George!)
There would be no happy homecoming, no last-minute reprieve, no Christmas miracle for us. It would be miracle enough just to go home, eventually.
The Leprechaun’s Visit
I was sitting in ICU by my husband’s bed, too despondent to read my Christmas books, when the leprechaun came. She was bigger than legend has it, but I recognized her from the bright, Kelly green suit, flaming red hair, and Irish brogue. She was the hospital chaplain and I wish I knew her name, because like I said, she changed my life.
She started with George, whose eyes were closed the whole time. She spoke to him softly and stroked his arm. She told him his job was to get better.
Then she turned to me and grabbed me by both shoulders and gently shook me. I needed a higher intensity intervention, and she knew it. “That’s his job. But you! Your job – your job is to accept grace! Look around you. It is being offered to you all around. Your job is to accept every bit of it that is offered to you. If someone offers you grace, it is your job to let them! Soak it up like you are a sponge!”
And she turned on her heel and left.
Her words left a bitter taste. I didn’t see much grace, nor anyone to offer it.
But still … what would it hurt to keep an eye out, just in case?
That night was the first night I was able to get into the family lodge on campus, near the hospital. The walk was mercifully short, and I had a clean, bright room that was free. Grace?
Underneath the door to my room was a handmade Christmas card from a local middle schooler. He wanted us to have a happy holiday and hoped we got better soon. It was hard to deny the grace in that generous gesture from a complete stranger.
The next morning I munched on my free bagel and sat watching a beautiful snowfall out the big picture windows in the lodge dining room. And it hit me: I had a front-row seat on a heavenly display of grace.
My husband opened his eyes and spoke to me. He no longer thought we had 19 children. He moved out of ICU to the neurology unit just before Christmas. The hospital had a gingerbread house contest in the lobby, and George got to go down and see it. The library had books for me and a CD player with Christmas songs. I had completed most of my shopping before I left (a miracle in and of itself!) and back in Atlanta my cousin and sister-in-law finished out the shopping, and my cousin wrapped all the gifts for me. Friends and family called to check on us. Grace, grace, and more grace.
Inspired, I set out in the bone-chilling cold to buy Christmas gifts and a miniature tree. I bought ornaments to mirror our family, which was not going to be together for Christmas. Two snowmen sat on the top – George and me – and further down there was a girl angel and a boy elf, and of course a dog ornament for Scotty. I bought Christmas gifts, too. They had to be small enough to fit in our suitcases on the plane ride back to Atlanta. I found a soft, red, Christmas blanket and essential oils (“unleash amazing healing powers!”) for George, and sparkly, blue earrings and fuzzy socks for me (“Why, George! Exactly what I wanted! How did you know?”). I bought a bag of chocolates to hand out to the many staff members who spent their Christmas day helping us. Ok, I bought two bags. (“One for you, and one for me!”) Fortunately for me, there were quite a number working that day.
On Christmas Day, we got to see the family open gifts back in Atlanta via Skype. Not one but two of George’s doctors actually left their families and spent part of their Christmas day at the hospital checking on George. A local charity brought in a sumptuous turkey luncheon for the family members staying in the lodge. (George wasn’t as lucky – he was relegated to apple sauce and pudding, with no liquids.) I let George open my gifts, too, since he was the one who would be surprised. Christmas supper I ate in the mostly-abandoned cafeteria, thanking the staff for working on Christmas.
We made good friends with a couple that arrived the week after Christmas for cancer treatments. I got to see my sister and her kids for a few hours because she happened to be in town for a conference.
Grace, pressed down and overflowing. All around me, filling my life and my days – and I would have missed it all had it not been for the Irish chaplain.
I wish I could tell you that we at least got home for New Year’s, that the second surgery worked and the paralysis stopped spreading, and that I floated through the next year constantly grateful and alive to the good things around me. I wish I could tell you those things, but I can’t. But still, things were not the same, in a good sort of way.
This year Christmas should be a little more normal. George will be at home, and all things considered, he’s relatively healthy. My family will come, and this time I plan to be here. I’ll go shopping, enjoy our family ladies’ tea, and feast on ridiculously high-calorie meals. And I will get to watch everybody open my gifts in person, which is one of my favorite things in life. All in all, this Christmas will be very different from last.
But one thing will be the same. When I open my eyes on Christmas morning, I’m not going to be measuring the day by how many presents I get, whether the turkey gets cooked just right, or even whether everybody likes the gifts I got for them.
I’m going to spend the day looking for grace.
And I bet I find it.