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Giving thanks on blackest day of the year

Published: Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

This Thanksgiving evening – the turkey eaten, the dishes washed, the football game on and the tryptophan kicking in – my wife smiled and gave me the “vroom-vroom” sign.

Now, before you jump to any saucy, salacious assumptions, let me explain.

Since her stroke three years ago, my wife has been robbed of speech –vocal, written or typed. But that doesn’t mean she can’t get her point across in other ways. Although her right side is paralyzed, that expressive left hand of hers speaks volumes. And one of her favorite gestures is the one I call “vroom-vroom.”

She makes a fist, bends her elbow at a right angle, and pumps her arm back and forth like the metal arm on the wheel of a steam engine.

“Vroom-vroom?” I ask, and she smiles and nods.

It is the gesture she uses when she wants to go somewhere, and it might take 20 questions to figure it out. Get in the car and go out to dinner? Hop in the wheelchair and go for a roll ‘n stroll? Check out the theater listings and go see a movie?

Vroom-vroom.

But this was Thanksgiving evening. The only vrooming I had on my itinerary was a slow slide toward Sleepyland on the sofa.

“You can’t seriously want to go somewhere right now, can you?” I asked.

She shook her head and pointed at the TV, which was showing a commercial advertising Black Friday sales. Or maybe it was a scene from a “Grand Theft Auto” video game. They looked about equally inviting to me as I lay on the peaceful sofa struggling to keep my eyes open.

Panic welled in my chest as I watched the dire images flash on the TV screen. “Are you saying you want to go shopping tomorrow, on Black Friday, the craziest shopping day of the year?” I asked.

She nodded. Vroom-vroom.

For the record, my wife was once the George Patton of Black Friday operations. She would huddle with our daughter days in advance and plan their assault like a military campaign. They would invite other friends and relatives, and they would have T-shirts printed up to commemorate the occasion. One time they were even featured on the nightly TV news on Black Friday evening.

Weeks in advance, they would study floor plans of shopping centers, aisle configurations of department stores, MapQuest directions and travel times from strip mall to strip mall. As the turkey roasted and the pie cooled on Thanksgiving morning, they would organize their coupons, stapling them together and stacking them onto a clipboard in the order in which they would be used once the assault began.

And then, as Thanksgiving evening wound down, they would nap until near midnight, when they would bundle up for a long wait in a parking lot and grin like lunatics as the madness began.

And as they would roar off into the night, I would snuggle deep into the blankets and shudder at the horror of the thought. Given the choice between a Black Friday shopping trip and a Paleolithic vasectomy, I would have to think long and hard before making a decision.

Since her stroke, though, I have had to add Christmas shopping to the growing list of chores that now fall into my domain. It isn’t too bad, though, because some saint came up with online shopping. As it turns out, buying Christmas presents in your underwear is sort of fun. But Walmart probably has a policy, so it’s the Internet for me.

But this Thanksgiving evening, as the Land of Nod whispered in my turkey-numbed brain, my wife was grinning and vroom-vrooming about Black Friday commercials on TV.

“Oh, hell, no!” I said. “I’ll go online tomorrow and get the Christmas shopping done. But there is no way you’re getting me to take you out to hit the stores on Black Friday!”

I felt bad about being so firm with her, but sometimes a guy just has to put his foot down, firmly and finally.

So anyway, the next day, as we drove home from a morning of Black Friday shopping with the back seat of the car looking like a post-tsunami harbor, I had to admit watching my wife transform from angelic honey to Attila the Hun was a sight to see.

She had me wheel her up the toy aisle, which kept her left hand free to snatch toy after toy from the shelves and drop it into the basket. She worked at a feverish pace.

“Are you even looking at what toys you’re choosing?” I asked. “Do you even have a grandkid in mind when you pick something out?”

She flipped a petulant wave as if shooing a mosquito. “Quiet, I’m concentrating,” the gesture said.

And then, suddenly, it was all over. She smiled, gave me a thumb up, and pumped a vroom-vroom. “We’re finished,” the gesture said. “Let’s go home.”

When we got to the checkout aisle, I made a mental tally of which kid might get each gift. A chessboard for Jack. A doll for Olivia. A dress for Natalie. One by one, they all made sense. What is more, there were four gifts for each grandchild, and they all added up to about the same amount of money spent on each kid.

And best of all, we got out of there without my having to wrestle some blue-haired lady for the last doll on the shelf as my wife vroom-vroomed her encouragement.

That afternoon, we wrapped each gift and stuffed them into a cardboard box, ready for mailing. My wife’s face glowed with the pride of a veteran commander waging yet another campaign against a foe that never stood a chance. I didn’t dare think too deeply about who that vanquished foe might be.

When we were finished wrapping and packing, my wife smiled, flashed me a thumb up, and kissed my hand. “That was fun,” her gestures said. “Thanks.”

And me? My brain says “Never again,” but my heart says my day of greatest thanksgiving fell on a Friday this year.

• Tom “T. R.” Kerth is a Sun City Huntley resident and retired English teacher from Park Ridge. He can be reached at trkerth@yahoo.com.

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