It's hard to think of what to get an 87 year old for a holiday gift. We didn't know that December 2008 would be my mother's last December with us. I just knew I wanted to make the holiday time special; I wanted to make her happy. We had reason to celebrate. We thought she'd beaten cancer that past September. We had no clue it would be back late in April and that she'd be gone 8 weeks later.
So, what to get my darling mother for Christmas, or Chanukah, if she so chose to observe her heritage, or the solstice, or all three? Usually, if I asked, she just said "I want my family around me, and if I can't have that, then a box of Turtles" (which were a chocolate, caramel and pecan candy she loved.) Still, it seemed easier to ask her rather than guess. She surprised me with a very specific wish.
"I want red shoes", she said. "I've never had a pair of red shoes, and I want some. Pretty ones. Not like the ones in the ballet, more like Dorothy's."
Okay, red shoes. Pretty ones. In a size 7. I had a mission. I was on it.
As I looked in various shoe stores around town, I thought about my mother's shoes. When I was a girl, I loved dressing up in her beautiful shoes and clomping around. She had dazzling pumps, leather flats as soft as butter, strappy sandals that cris-crossed her slim feet like something the goddess Diana would have worn. But then, as her MS progressed, she developed a foot drop that made ambulation difficult. Her foot would drag, she'd lose balance, and often fall. To prevent falls, but to keep mobile, she began to use a wheelchair more frequently. She lost weight. Both her clothes and shoes seemed too big for her petite frame. As her body dwindled, her spirit and determination began to blossom. She tried traditional leg braces to help combat the foot drop, but didn't have the strength to carry the metal contraptions.
It was in the summer of 1975 that she learned of a type of brace, an ankle-foot-orthosis (AFO), made of a lighter material. My father, who didn't want her to face more disappointment, tried to encourage her to focus on using a wheelchair more, but she wanted to walk. "The wind doesn't feel the same on my face when I'm in a wheelchair as when I walk, " she told me.
(As a sidenote, these were words that helped shape my practice as a clinical nurse specialist, when I worked with children with spina bifida years later. The message I took with me was to hear what the patient wanted, not what others thought was the best course of action.)
I was away from home, working at a camp in the mountains of West Virginia, when I got a call that summer. My mother's voice fairly vibrated with excitement. "Listen," she said. Then silence. "Did you hear that?!"
"Hear what, Mama?"
"Did you hear me? I walked!"
My shout of joy at her joy was so loud, it brought the camp director running to see what was wrong. Soon, there was a roomful of friends who knew her only from my stories of our family, whooping and hollering congratulations to her, as she listened, long-distance, on the line. (Apparently, telling stories of my mother is a long standing habit in my life.)
The AFOs came with a price, though. She had to give up her pretty shoes for sturdy ones that tied. She carted around her shoe collection for two or three more moves, but then, before she moved to Charleston in 1988, found new homes for them. Now, in the sunset of her years, she was using her wheelchair more and the AFOs less. She wanted pretty, red shoes, and I was going to make sure she got them.
Her face, when she opened the box on Christmas morning and saw the red shoes nestled in the tissue, was one of surprised joy. She was dressed all in red, like a little Christmas elf. She immediately kicked off her slippers to put on the flats. "They're so pretty!, " she exclaimed.
She only wore those red shoes a time or two, before she left us. I've had her red shoes out maybe a half dozen times to pass on to a charity, and just couldn't do it. The other day, I was with some friends, when I felt a strong nudge in my heart. I knew what I had to do.
"Does anyone wear a size 7 shoe?", I asked. One of the women present, who has been through some extremely rough times these past few months, said she did. When I explained about Bumma's red shoes, which had ridden in the back of my car as I searched for the right place to give them, her face lit up.
"I'd be honored to wear them," said my friend. When I brought them out of the boot of the car, she exclaimed, "They're so pretty!" And I knew Bumma's shoes had found their next home.
As my friend turned to leave, she stopped, and said,"This is just about the best thing that has happened to me in months. Thank you."
"Don't thank me", I thought. "Thank a little lady who loved the feel of the wind on her face when walking."