He wondered how she stood it. The smell of wet flannel in her nose, sitting by her husband, day after endless day. It must have permeated her very being, the smell, the sense of despair, the gloominess of the place. How did she rise above it, the rows of beds, the crippled men in them, the tears? Where did the hope come from, the light?
Lionel had never spoken to his mother about those awful days. When she was first married, pregnant with her first child, not knowing what her future would hold. Would she be the caregiver of a broken, crippled man, a destitute widow, or a wife with a capable husband?
His mother might have told him, if he’d asked. But he hadn’t. When the time was right, when he first realized that his dad wasn’t like other fathers, he was too young. He’d been told his father had had polio, a virus, which made his legs weak. The March of Dimes was mentioned and given to. There were conversations around money, loose change, how dirty it was, how it may have carried the virus from person to person, to his father.
Later on, when he might have understood, he was too preoccupied with his own life, with playing football and kick the can in the back yard, with school, homework, television and puberty, to give his father’s condition much thought. It was a fact of life that his father had weak legs, wore a brace, walked with a cane and occasionally fell, sometimes hard, resulting in injury, the need for a wheelchair or crutches, anguish in the house. Lionel knew that his mother found it hard. He’d heard her sing in a low voice about martyrdom when she thought no one could hear, and he knew she wasn’t referring to the Jesuit missionaries he was learning about in his Canadian history class at school.
His parents had six children – three boys, three girls. Life, even for his father, became almost idyllic for a time. A house in the suburbs of Montreal with a large backyard, a farm in the Eastern Townships with cows, ponies, horses and room to roam. They skied in the winter (his dad sat in the chalet with a book and a beer), rode in the green seasons and fall, competed in horseshows, showed calves at the local fairs, went to 4-H, learned to play golf, fished and swam in the farm lake, and played in the yard until dark.
Lionel’s dad had been an accomplished rider before polio atrophied the muscles in his legs. It was part of who he was – his love of horses, his skill in the saddle. He’d tried to ride after he left the hospital, despite his new wife’s concerns, but it did not go well. With the strength gone from his legs, he fell off too often, hurt himself too badly.
When Lionel was young, his dad kept a driving horse – Star. He had a small sleigh he used in the winter, a buggy he drove in the spring, summer and fall. The children enjoyed going with him, but there was an element of fear, too, or maybe just uncertainty, at least for Lionel. It was the what-ifs, what if something happened and Dad couldn’t cope? What then?
Time went by. Lionel’s Dad found the commute to the office from the suburbs too risky in the winter, even with the phone he’d had installed in the car. They moved into the city, still going to the farm for weekends, holidays and the summer, but no longer country kids.
Lionel can’t remember when he noticed the wooden horse on the mantelpiece of their city house. It was laying down, poised to get back up on its feet. He must have asked about it at some point, because he knew that its name was Tomorrow, and that his Mum had given it to his Dad years before, in the polio ward.
He thinks about the wooden horse over the years. What it stood for. The hope implied in its name, the commitment it represented, what the gift must have meant to his father during the weeks of wet flannel and the years of rehabilitation that followed. During the lean years after his parents were first married, when it was hard for Dad to work, to find a decent job.
The horse fades from his thoughts after his father’s early death. Years pass. There’s been a stepfather, career, marriage, stepchildren, grandchildren, homes, celebrations, travel, a good life, before the memory of the horse on the mantle, its name, what it symbolized, comes back into his mind.
It’s been three years since Lionel had acute pain in his abdomen, since his wife drove him to the emergency department of their local hospital. Three years since he woke up in the intensive care unit, in a dream, with a doctor inserting tubes into his neck, stitching them into place. Three years since his wife, Sharon, told him that his family were on the way, that the doctors had advised her to call them, that his prospects were not good.
He doesn’t like thinking about those days. The pain, the transfer to Vancouver General, lying in the ER, his kidneys failing, so thirsty, thinking he would die. Listening to the woman in the next bed demand methadone. His stepdaughter pleading with the nurse to do something. The pain, a few days later, when they ripped his urethra to shreds attempting, unsuccessfully, to insert a catheter. A black spider hanging over him, descending, in the operating room. The nightmare he woke up into again and again as he came out of the anesthetic. A four-patient room of bed curtains, noise, comings, goings and discomfort. Writhing in pain through bladder irrigations, despite the morphine. Fear.
Lionel remembers Sharon holding his hand, stroking his head, being brave day after day as his stay in the hospital stretched from one week to six, as his pain subsided but he continued to bleed. Her fear that he would not leave the hospital alive. She wanted to bring him home, tried to get him discharged, but was afraid she wouldn’t know what to do if he started bleeding again, if the pain returned.
It’s only now, three years after he left the hospital, that Lionel starts thinking again about the wooden horse, what it symbolized. Sharon had given him a crystal bell when he was discharged from hospital. “To ring if you need anything,” she’d said. He’d never rung it, although he’d come close one night, when he was still sleeping downstairs in a hospital bed, and the pain in his abdomen pierced him like a stab wound.
A few weeks later the bell moved to his bedside table, upstairs, when he felt pain-free enough to sleep in the same bed as Sharon. Unlike the wooden horse his mother had given his father, the bell did not stay in its place for long. Two years after she’d given it to him, Sharon told Lionel that she’d like it to go. That it reminded her too much of the past, the fear she’d had of losing him, the emotions she’d experienced watching him suffer. They donated it to the thrift shop.
Lionel had not been sure he wanted to let the bell go. It was a security blanket, symbolic of his wife’s love, her presence, a declaration that she would stay with him, come what may. He knew that his wife’s fear had not left her, that she still feared losing him, of being left alone. It was behind their move from British Columbia back to Ontario, where they were closer to grandchildren, family. Behind the joining of clubs and groups.
He has his own fears. Not that he would bleed again and die, but that Sharon would grow tired of his flaws – the tiredness, Peyronie’s Disease and recurring yeast infection he suffers from now, his lower sex drive, his modest income, much reduced following his illness and subsequent retirement. She might leave him, find a new, whole partner. No one else would want him – he was damaged goods.
Still, in his heart he knew it had been time for the crystal bell to go. He did not want Sharon to stay with him out of a sense of duty. There had to be love, kinship, for their relationship to be sustainable.
Perhaps his mother had been right, he thought. The hope embodied in the wooden horse was much stronger than the security blanket that the crystal bell represented. It spoke to the future, not the past. Not fear, but of what could be, of what his mother had yearned for – a life with the man she loved.
Yet in the end it had not been the wooden horse that mattered, but what it expressed. Lionel knew he would have to find hope in himself, then convey it with words, deeds, to be whole again.