Medical Miracles

© 2008 Ginger Manley

“Grandma, can I hit your knee with my hand?” asked Alexander, as he perched beside me on the green canvas-covered swing seat on our back deck. Most every afternoon about five o’clock, he and Grandpa and I sat down with a mug of tea, or for Grandpa, a glass of wine, and a small treat to discuss the goings on of the day. This was the third summer Alexander had traveled from his home in California to visit his grandparents, this time coming for two weeks.

            Last year, he had had a serious melt-down the night he arrived. After bravely crawling into bed and hugging the tattered remnant of his baby blanket, which he still used to comfort himself to sleep, he had found even this lovey could not replace his longing for his mommy and daddy and younger brother and sister.

            “Please take me back to the airport, Grandma. My heart hurts,” he pleaded, his big green eyes brimming. “I know there are no more flights to California tonight, but I will just sit and wait there until tomorrow morning and then Mommy will meet me at the Los Angeles airport. I just miss everybody too much to stay in Tennessee.”

            “You’ll be so much more comfortable here in the bed at Grandma’s house instead of sitting up in a chair at the airport all night, Alexander. Let’s call Mommy and see what she says.”

            Mommy assured him he could come home tomorrow if he still wanted to do so, but he needed to sleep in bed that night. Surrounded with photos of the loved ones back home, while listening to a lullaby tape in the CD player—one he had used in babyhood—he had finally managed to fall asleep. The next morning the world looked a little brighter and he stayed the full ten days with no more crashes.

            Arriving this year, he quickly assured Grandpa and me he would not have a meltdown this time. His only stipulation was that he be allowed to sleep in the back guest bedroom, which had no strange photos of his ancestors hanging on the walls, as did the other guest room. This was an easy choice for us grandparents, because we remembered his having been spooked by the family artifacts when he was assigned to that room the first year he visited. In fact, he had spent most of the first night in there systematically removing the photos and other memorabilia from their places of display and replacing them to the hallway.

            At about 2:00 AM I had been awakened by a strange thumping and upon exiting my bedroom, I encountered lying in the hall “the headless woman” which he had placed there. I chuckled when I contrasted my experience of having lovingly assembled and displayed the dressmaker’s form clothed in my grandmother’s wedding dress with his experience of being frightened by the terrors inherent in a decapitated human-like creature lurking at the foot of his bed. As a child, I had spent many a night at my own grandparents’ home awake until the early hours of daylight when the strange shadowy nocturnal invaders in their house could be banished in the sunshine. In retrospect I wish I had had in my childhood Alexander’s confidence to get out of bed and deal with the enemy instead of lying there paralyzed.

            So as we sat on the swing in the late afternoon shadows, enjoying our tea and graham crackers and welcoming the slight cooling in the air after another hot, humid Tennessee summer day, I was puzzled by Alexander’s question.

            “Why do you want to hit my knee with your hand?” I asked.

            “Well, Grandma, you keep telling people you have metal knees and I was wondering if they feel different than regular knees.”

            The subject of my knee replacements had come up several times during this visit, like when we passed through security at the airport and I had to get scanned and patted down. We had also talked about my knees while discussing the kinds of surgery which he and other people we know have had.

            “I was born with a broken heart and I had to have it fixed when I was two years old,” Alexander had explained to someone at the swimming pool when asked about the looping scar under his left shoulder blade which is almost faded from view five years after his surgery. All of us in his family had been so relieved when the defect in his heart had been repaired in what was almost routine surgery in the beginning of the twenty-first century. I am old enough to remember when the very first of these surgeries was being done and they were anything but routine back then.

            “Sure, you can hit my knee with your hand, as long as you do it gently enough so that neither of us gets hurt,” I answered him.

            Winding up ever so slightly, as he had watched a baseball pitcher do on the mound at the ball game we attended a few days earlier, his seven-year-old hand firmly struck the newest of my metal knees, just above the kneecap. It was a soft blow and no one got hurt by it.

            “Yep, it feels like metal all right,” he declared, grinning. He leaned forward and dipped his Honey Maid into the cup of tea which he had been sipping. I freshened my cup and decided to dip my Honey Maid in it, too.

            I wish I had thought to ask him if I could put my hand over his mended heart. I would have liked to have discovered if the beating of a heart which is no longer broken feels different from the way any other heart feels.


This essay received Honorable Mention in the Non-fiction Category of the 2008 Summer Writing Contest at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. It was also published in Gathering: An Anthology of Williamson County Writers, Cool Springs Press, 2008.