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Earlier, we had been informed of the drill: I had to exit in a wheelchair and get picked up at the entrance. So Marianne went for the car, leaving Mike with me as I finished packing.
Lots of questions from Mike. How did the elevator know where to stop? Could he see my “surgery?”
He scrunched his eyes behind his glasses, processing the answers, resembling the curious boy with the high-pitched voice in “Sherman and Mr. Peabody” on “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” we often watched on TV together.
And that’s when I detected a different energy emanating from Bed 3.
And then I was sure. The old man’s vacuous eyes now focused. The head tilted attentively. The certain light of an uncertain smile on his yellow skull.
Mike grinned, scratching his head, explaining about Christmas vacation.
He asked Mike his grade. His name.
Gentle, actual syntax in the same voice that had bellowed like an animal through the night made me quiet.
Mike skipped carelessly over to Bed 3, stopping several feet short, looking back, but then expansively resuming his reply about his letter to Santa and his baby sister who “does not even know how to print, Mister!”
The old man bobbed his head in spasmodic rhythm with Mike’s expressiveness.
Soon we had to go. The man shifted painfully in his bed. I nodded goodbye.
I had always intended but never dared to find out what became of him.
But I wouldn’t forget his rallying that morning. How his encounter with the beauty and innocence of a child gave him respite from the hellish night. Brought back remembrance, perhaps, of the goodness in life.
We went and had our festive holiday, better than any other. But it was less because of my clean bill of health than the realization that I may have finally understood the meaning of Christmas.
David McGrath, of Hayward, Wis., is emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage and author of “The Territory.”
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