Silent Night, Fiction

Image contains: Abbie, smiling.The following short story was published in the fall/ winter 2018-19 issue of Magnets and Ladders. I can think of no better way to commemorate Christmas Day and the 200th anniversary of the creation of “Silent Night” than to include this story along with a recording of me playing and singing the song. Merry Christmas, everyone.

SILENT NIGHT

The day before Christmas, my seven-year-old daughter Hannah was rushed to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. I opted to spend CHRISTMAS Day with her. My parents, as they’d done every year since the divorce, had invited Hannah and me to their house for Christmas dinner, but I couldn’t leave my little girl alone in the hospital.

Hannah wasn’t on solid food yet, but a nurse offered to bring me a tray, perhaps realizing it would be difficult for me to navigate to the cafeteria with my limited vision. While Hannah slept, I sat by her bed and enjoyed a delicious turkey dinner complete with stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans, and pumpkin pie. The food was surprisingly good for a hospital.

I said as much to the nurse when she came to collect my tray. “We have a chef now,” she said. “Of course many of our patients are too sick to appreciate it, but it’s certainly better than the fare we used to serve.”

The little girl in the other bed moaned and then started crying in earnest. I looked over and couldn’t see anyone sitting with her. “Oh, that’s Jessica,” said the nurse in a conspiratorial tone. “Poor kid, she fell out of her neighbor’s treehouse yesterday and broke her leg in three places. She’s in a body cast from her chest to her right foot.”

Hannah must have awakened for she said, “Ou, I guess I won’t complain about my tummy anymore. I’m glad I don’t have a treehouse, and I hope Santa didn’t leave me one.”

I marveled at how sensitive my daughter was. As the nurse went to Jessica and tried to comfort her, I said, “How are you feeling, sweetie?”

“I’m okay, but my tummy still hurts.”

“I thought you weren’t gonna complain about your tummy anymore,” I said, as I ruffled her hair.

Hannah giggled, then winced. “Out, Mommy, it hurts more when I laugh.”

“It sounds like you could use some pain medication too,” said the nurse, as she started to leave the room.

“No, it only really hurts when I laugh,” said Hannah.

“Well, in that case, laughter’s the best medicine,” said the nurse. “I’ll be back soon.”

“How old is Jessica?” asked Hannah.

“Oh, I think she’s about your age,” answered the nurse. “I’ll be back in a bit with some medicine for her, and that’ll make her feel better.” With that, she was gone.

Jessica was still sniffling, but it wasn’t as loud as before. “Mommy, you should go sing her a song,” said Hannah. “like you did for me last night when I was really hurting. I’m not hurting as much now, and I think she’s hurting more.”

Years earlier, I’d worked as a registered music therapist. That was before Hannah was born, before I’d started losing my vision, before my world changed. My husband hadn’t wanted a child but was resigned to the idea once he learned I was pregnant. The vision loss after Hannah’s birth was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Fortunately, he paid plenty of child support. That, along with my disability payments, allowed me to be a stay-at-home mom, and once I learned to use a computer with screen reading and magnification software, I brought in a little income from freelance writing.

Now, I looked over at the little girl in the other bed. My specialty as a music therapist had been with elderly nursing home residents, not hospitalized children. I hadn’t even done a clinical practicum with that population. I remembered bed-ridden residents who smiled and relaxed when I sat by their beds, held their hands, and sang. I even performed at some of their funerals. The fact that my singing in the emergency room the night before had calmed Hannah made me think that perhaps I hadn’t lost my touch. I rose and pulled my chair next to the other bed, where I sat and took the child’s hand that lay on top of the white sheet covering her.

“Hi Jessica,” I said. “I’m Joan. My little girl Hannah is in the other bed. What’s wrong?”

“My leg really hurts,” she answered. “I’ll never play in that stupid treehouse again.”

“That’s too bad,” I said, stroking her hair. “Would you like to sing a song with me?”

“Will that make the pain go away?” she asked.

“It’ll take your mind off of it. What’s your favorite Christmas song?”

She was quiet for a minute, then said, “I like Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”

“All right, let’s sing it together, shall we?”

I started, and soon, she joined in, followed by Hannah. When we finished that song, Jessica suggested “Jingle Bells,” then “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” The nurse appeared and said, “What lovely singing. Jessica, I have some medicine that will make you feel better. I’m going to put it in your IV now.”

As she started to do this, I said, “Why don’t we sing one more song?”

“I want to hear you sing something by yourself,” said Jessica. “You have a pretty voice, and so did my mommy. She used to sing to me at night before I went to sleep.” A wistful look crossed her face.

“Why doesn’t she sing to you anymore?” I asked.

“She was killed in a car accident a few months ago,” she answered. A tear rolled down her cheek.

“Oh honey, I’m sorry,” I said, as I stroked her hair. Tears welled in my own eyes.

Holding them back, I said, “What song did your mom like to sing to you this time of year?”

“‘Silent Night,'” she answered.

“Yeah, sing that one, Mom,” said Hannah.

I took a deep breath and began. To my surprise, the nurse joined in, singing alto. Our two voices blending together in harmony was almost too much, but I managed to continue.

As we started the second verse, I sensed a presence at my side and turned to see a man standing there. “Daddy!” Jessica said, her eyes wide with delight.

“Hey princess,” he said, reaching over me and ruffling her hair. Then he said, “oh, don’t stop singing on my account. It’s beautiful.”

His voice broke, and it was all I could do to keep from losing it. We started the song where we’d left off and finished the second verse. To break the spell, I turned to the nurse and said, “You and I need to talk. I sing in a women’s group that could use an extra voice.”

“Wow, that sounds interesting,” she said. “You also have a nice voice. I need to see to other patients, but I’ll come back later after my shift, and you can tell me more about it.” She turned and started to leave the room.

Jessica’s father put a hand on my shoulder and said, “You and I also need to talk. It’s only been two months since I lost my wife, and I never dreamed I’d say this to another woman, but could I buy you a cup of coffee, maybe in the cafeteria?”

From the doorway, the nurse said, “Our coffee here isn’t as good as the food. Why don’t you two go across the street to Starbuck’s?”

We hesitated. “Your kids will be fine,” she said. “They’re both out of the woods. I have your cell numbers in their charts. If anything drastic happens, I’ll call you. Joan, you’ve been here all day. You need a break. Go!” With that, she was gone.

I looked at this stranger, not knowing what to think. Finally, I said, “I’ve been divorced for about six years. I’m losing my vision, and I never imagined another man would ask me out for coffee.”

I expected him to back away, but instead, he said, “Any man not interested in you is a fool. You’re a beautiful woman. You’re good with kids, and you have a lovely voice.”

Flabbergasted, I said, “You just got here. Don’t you want to spend some time with Jessica?”

Jessica said, “I’m okay. My leg doesn’t hurt so much now that the nurse gave me some medicine in my IV. Daddy, Joan could make you happy like Mommy did.”

“Yeah,” said Hannah. “Mom, I think this guy could make you happy like Daddy did.”

Jessica’s father laughed and said, “I think these two, along with that nurse, are trying to play matchmaker.” He extended his hand. “By the way, I’m Don Gray.”

“Joan Clark,” I said, taking his hand and shaking it.

Still uncertain, I turned to Hannah and said, “Honey, don’t you remember what I’ve told you about not going off with a stranger?”

“Yeah, but he’s not a stranger. He’s Jessica’s dad.”

“She’s got a point,” said Don.

“My dad told me not to go off with a stranger too,” said Jessica. “but he’s okay. He’s been really sad since Mom died.”

I could feel my heart melting as more tears threatened. “Jessica and I could sing another song,” said Hannah. “How about 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall?”

“Yeah,” said Jessica. She started the song, and Hannah joined in. Laughing, we both made our way out the door.

“Do you need to take my arm?” Don asked.

“Yes, please,” I answered, realizing I’d left my cane in the room. As I grasped his muscular arm and walked with him down the hall, I had a good feeling about this.

 

My Books

 

My Ideal Partner: How I Met, Married, and Cared for the Man I Loved Despite Debilitating Odds

That’s Life: New and Selected Poems

How to Build a better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver

We Shall Overcome

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Thursday Book Feature: Brain on Fire

<strong>Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness</strong>
by Susannah Cahalan
Copyright 2012.

And I thought the dream I had a few weeks ago in which I woke up in a hospital, not sure how I got there, was bazaar. This takes the cake, and it wasn’t a dream. In the spring of 2009, Susannah Cahalan woke up and found herself strapped to a hospital bed, not remembering how she got there. When she panicked, a figure in purple with a foreign accent told her to calm down. Thus begins her memoir about her experience with a rare autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks the brain.

The author explains how she first experienced symptoms while she was working as a journalist for the New York Post. It started as an obsession with bed bugs in her apartment. She then experienced numbness and other flu-like symptoms and gradually became forgetful, paranoid, and dilusional. Her gynecologist referred her to a neurologist who said these symptoms were caused by stress and too much drinking. Then, she had her first seizure, and things went downhill from there. Her parents were finally able to get her admitted to New York University Hospital’s epilepsy unit.

Since she doesn’t remember much of what happened after that, most of her information was gleamed from interviews with family and friends, her father’s journal, and footage from EKG video. She describes the battery of tests she endured and how she was visited by neurologists, psychologists, and other professionals who were stumped by her condition. She reverted from being paranoid with dilusions to a catatonic state where she could barely speak, let alone care for herself. Her doctors were about to send her to the psychiatric unit when a new neurologist joined the team. After performing a brain biopsy, running more tests, and conferring with other doctors across the country, he finally diagnosed her with anti-NMDA receptor autoimmune incephalitis. This neurologist pointed out to her parents that her brain was on fire, hence the title.

After being given medication to combat this disorder, she was discharged. She then describes the long, arduous process of recovery. Although she was able to move and care for herself by this time, her speech and thought processes were slow. She talks about how her parents, boyfriend, and other relatives and friends supported her during her stay in the hospital and recovery. After six months, she returned to her newspaper job, and she describes how she completed her first major assignment, an article about anti NMDA inhibitor autoimmune incephalitis and her experience with it. She provides more information about this disorder.

This book was an Audible daily deal, and I’m glad I picked it up. The narrator does an excellent job portraying the author’s first-person account of her story. I love this book’s beginning and ending in which the author describes waking up in the hospital’s epilepsy unit, then returning years later after her recovery for a visit and her encounter with a nurse who cared for her during that time.

I would like to have known more about Susannah Cahalan after she returned to work and successfully published her first major article. She mentions moving in with her boyfriend, but did she eventually marry him and start a family, perhaps balancing that with her career?

According to the author, this rare disorder strikes women of child-bearing age and is often mistaken for psychosis. At the time this book was written, a percentage of women afflicted with anti-NMDA inhibitor encephalitis ended up in psychiatric hospitals where they eventually died. So if you’re a young woman, I encourage you to read this book, and if you experience any of the symptoms mentioned, consult a neurologist before you see a psychiatrist.

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Abbie Johnson Taylor
We Shall Overcome
How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver

That’s Life: New and Selected Poems
My Ideal Partner: How I Met, Married, and Cared for the Man I Loved Despite Debilitating Odds
Like Me on Facebook.

Thursday Book Feature: The Sleep Revolution

The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life One Night at a Time
By Arianna Huffington
Copyright 2016.

The founder of The Huffington Post shares her insights on sleep. Using scientific evidence and other sources, she describes what she calls a sleep crisis, in which many Americans aren’t getting enough sleep. She explains how people in the trucking and medical industry and even politicians can be adversely affected by sleep deprivation. She discusses the correlation between not getting enough sleep and diabetes, Alzheimer’s and other disorders.

She talks about how even Benjamin Franklin didn’t get enough sleep and the attitude that sleep wasn’t important. She explains why sleeping pills and caffeine are NOT the solution to the problem of sleep deprivation and, in some cases, can exacerbate it. She discusses sleep disorders and how they can be treated.

She then outlines what we can and shouldn’t do in order to get a good night’s sleep. She describes how hospitals, colleges, and hotels are helping people sleep better, also talking about what is being done in the workplace to promote good sleep habits among employees. The book includes a sleep questionnaire, suggested meditation techniques, information about hotels around the world that will ensure you get a good night’s sleep, and matrress recommendations.

I found many of the facts in this book fascinating. For example, did you know that the Beatles song “Let It Be” was inspired by a dream Paul McCartney had in which his mother, Mary, told him everything would work out? Here I thought he was referring to the Virgin Mary. Who knew?

I’d never describe myself as sleep-deprived, although I’ve had occasional trouble falling asleep and staying that way. Nevertheless, I decided to take the sleep questionnaire at the end of the book. I discovered, to my amazement, that my sleep was in good shape. I encourage everyone to read this book and spread the word about the importance of getting a good night’s sleep.

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Abbie Johnson Taylor
We Shall Overcome
How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver

That’s Life: New and Selected Poems
My Ideal Partner: How I Met, Married, and Cared for the Man I Loved Despite Debilitating Odds
Like Me on Facebook.

***

Forbidden Underwear

In the winter of 1975 at the age of thirteen, I was hospitalized with pneumonia. Because I was so dehydrated, it was necessary to do a cut-down in my ankle in order to inject fluids and medicine. As a result, I couldn’t wear underwear.

One day, not realizing this, perhaps in an attempt to cheer me up, Mother bought me a pair of purple underwear from Gibson’s, a local department store. Because of my limited vision, I really appreciated scents, and I loved the smell of the store and its products. I breathed in the underwear’s aroma and longed to be in that store instead of in the hospital room with its antiseptic odors.

I also wanted to wear that pair of underwear. An aide took pity on me. She devised what she thought was an ingenious plan. She threaded the garment through the IV tubing and was able to slip my feet in the appropriate holes and pull up the underwear. I loved the feel of the cotton against my skin, and with my private parts no longer exposed to the elements, I was more comfortable.

Late that night, I awoke to find two nurses fussing with my IV tubing. Apparently, the underwear was clogging it, and the medicine wasn’t getting through. One nurse commented that whoever did this should have their head examined. I wasn’t about to say who did it. Needless to say, the underwear came off.

I never saw it again. It probably went the way of many such garments belonging to patients. Now, I always wear underwear unless I’m in the shower or working out in the YMCA swimming pool. Like the apples on the tree in the Garden of Eden, it was once forbidden fruit.

In your life, was there anything you wanted that you couldn’t have? Why couldn’t you have it? Please tell me about it. I look forward to hearing from you.

 

Author Abbie Johnson Taylor

We Shall Overcome

How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver

That’s Life: New and Selected Poems

My Ideal Partner: How I Met, Married, and Cared for the Man I Loved Despite Debilitating Odds

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