They say that one of the reasons for tragedy is that you learn important lessons from it. Appreciation for your nor¬mal life, for one thing. A new longing for things only ordinary. The feeling is that we are so caught up in minu¬tiae—slicing tomatoes and filling out forms and waiting in lines and emptying the dryer and looking in the paper for things to do—that we forget how to use what we’ve been given. Therefore we don’t taste the plum. We are blind to the slant of the four o’clock sun against the changing show of leaves. We are deaf to the throaty purity of children’s voices. We are assumed to be rather hopeless—swallowed up by incorrect notions, divorced from the original genius with which we are born, lost within days of living this distracting life. We are capable only of moments, of single seconds of true appreciation and connection. That is the thought.
I never did believe that. I always felt I had a kind of con¬tinual appreciation with a flame that did not flicker, despite the ongoing assaults of an imperfect life. I didn’t think I was the only one, either. I thought that all around me were awake people with hearts huge and whole and open. And I wondered, after the accident happened, what is the point in this? Where is the meaning in it? What lesson can I possi¬bly learn?
But sometimes lessons take the crooked path. I mean that I used to wonder how I would feel if I were suddenly plucked from my normal life. I wondered how I would see it; wondered, in fact, if I would see it. I suppose it’s like the desire for a true mirror to reflect all of our parts, both visi¬ble and unseen. I think now the accident was a way of that happening. Because I did get plucked from my normal life, put in the position of seeing it from another vantage point. And I would say that I did see it. I would say that I saw and saw and saw it. And though the method is not one I would have chosen to verify a supposition, I would also say that my gratefulness is unutterable.
Ican tell you how it happened. It’s easy to say how it happened. He walked past a building, and a huge chunk of ice fell off the roof, and it hit him in the head. This is Chap¬linesque, right? This is kind of funny. People start to laugh when I tell them. I see the start of their hand to their mouth, their poor disguise. I laughed when I heard. I thought after the doctor told me what happened that Jay would get on the phone and say, “Jeez, Lainey, come and get me. I’ve got a goose egg the size of the world. Come take me home.” Only what happened wasn’t like Chaplin: Jay didn’t land on his butt with his legs sticking out at chopstick angles, twitch his mustache, get back up and walk away. He landed on his side, and stayed there—rather like a child sleeping, the ambu¬lance attendant told the doctor. He was on his side, his arm draped peacefully across his chest, and he didn’t wake up at the hospital nor has he since.
Now there is no ice on buildings. Now daffodils sway, uncertain in their newness. Now the hospital is going to transfer him to a nursing home. No more they can do, they told me in our little meeting this morning.
“Wait,” I said. “There has to be more.” I wanted a bigger conference, one of those fancy ones where the social worker comes and tries not to let me see her looking at her watch. It’s a tacky watch. You shouldn’t try to make a watch look like a bracelet. One or the other. But anyway, Wait, I said, and they said, Sorry, Mrs. Berman, we just can’t keep him. I said nothing after that. I thought I would sit there saying nothing until they gave in and said okay. They didn’t do that. They left, one by one. I saw the white coat of the neurologist flapping a bit as he walked past, the head nurse looking at notes she pulled out of her pocket. I heard the squeak of the physical therapist’s new sneakers, Nikes, he’d said yesterday, he always buys Nikes, and we’d talked about the relative merits of sneakers and I’d watched the sun play off the top of his hair while he gave Jay range of motion. That is what they call the passive exercise Jay gets here, range of motion. He can no longer jog every morning, returning on Sundays with a bag from Lessinger’s bakery that smells of warm sugar and is stained with irresistible patterns of translucence from the grease. He can’t move at all. So every day, a few times a day, someone must put each of Jay’s body parts through all the movements of which they are capable. First the thumb is bent, then straightened, then bent and straightened again, twice more. Next, each finger is done individually; then the whole hand, fingers all together. Then comes the wrist, then the elbow, and so on. They do his neck, they do his knees, they do his great toes and his little ones. Don’t forget, a stranger’s hand tells Jay’s body. Remember all that is here for you to use. So I was watch¬ing and I was telling the therapist I still liked Keds, but I was thinking, Be careful. And I was thinking, Save him.
Saving was not on the agenda at the meeting. They were not really thinking of Jay. What they were thinking was,
Next? This left me no time to tell them that they were dis¬missing the man who showed up at my dorm room with his arms full of lilacs, stolen at considerable risk and so purple the buds were black. He wore a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the good place, and a heart-shaped leaf lay trapped in the hollow of his throat as though it were planned, though of course it was so perfect it couldn’t have been planned. He was nineteen then. Now he is thirty-five, the father of two children who hang on his arms when he comes home, fight for the privilege of relieving him of his briefcase. Girls, Amy and Sarah, four and ten, who are beginning to yell at me because they miss their father.
I go to visit him every day and I keep trying. Jay, I say. You need to come back here now. Please come back. Wake up. I put things in his hands for him to feel: his wallet and keys, his cotton work shirt worn to the softness of Kleenex, baby pinecones, his daughters’ drawings, the comb from my hair, a fork. I talk almost nonstop, about anything, just so that the language might stir him, just so that something, a word, an image, might reach the deep and silent place in him that surely is waiting for the right thing, which will be tiny, I know, which will be so tiny and amaze everyone. “How did you do it?” they’ll say and I’ll say, “Listen. There isn’t a way. It was a normal day. I turned an afternoon movie on his tele¬vision. Black and white. Bette Davis. I started to tell him to pay attention, this was a good part, and he woke up. That’s all. That’s it. You just have to wait. You just have to believe.”
I would guess that they have given up on believing, here. They have seen too many coma patients die—“fail,” they call it—even when all signs pointed toward recovery.
Now I will wait in a nursing home and I will probably be the only one who believes. It will be around my head like a pale aura, my belief, but at the nursing home they will no doubt see my hope only as naïveté and it will make them more tired than they already are. “Pardon me,” I see them saying, their arms full of scorched linens, giving me wide berth and not looking me in the eye lest I ask another ques¬tion. I’ve heard about nursing homes. Imagine how many flowers I’ll have to bring to cover up the stench of urine.
When Jay brought me those lilacs, there was a cut all along the underside of his forearm, a line of valor like a red road on a map. I had to wrap my arms around myself at the sight of it. I thought it was the most romantic thing I’d ever seen. But that was nothing.
I’ve thought: his name should have been a little longer. Lionel. Joshua. Richard. Then when he signed the checks for the bills he was going to mail on the way to work that morn¬ing, it would have taken a little longer. And the ice would have fallen before he got there. He would have walked around it, admired the cool blue color trapped in the white. I’ve thought: we should have made love that morning. He should have gone to the hardware store before work. The dentist. He should have gone in earlier than usual. Often I’ve thought: this is for something I did.
This is what you do. Also, sometimes, you sleep.
After the conference about Jay going to the nursing home, I sat on the bed beside him and pushed his hair back from his forehead. “Hey, guess what?” I said. “You’re mov¬ing!” I felt like a very cheerful person saying to another, “Well! Your house has exploded! Isn’t that nice!”
I feel you sitting down beside me. I smell your hair. Is it...are we at the breakfast table, your blue robe? I nearly start the reach but then there is the other. A high whine of wind. Speed, this hurtling forward. Red weeds standing straight below me, an evenness of the space between them. I see the black earth, mica, the start of stars. I am tunneling deeper toward all that calls. Things move aside, let me in. Lainey, my bones have gone soft and flat, spread out into uselessness. I have to pay attention. I can’t tell you. But I feel you. Stay.
Excerpted from Range of Motion by Elizabeth Berg. Copyright © 2012 by Elizabeth Berg. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.