December 16, 2011 in Features

Life on the bright side

Spokane’s Terry Schudel doesn’t let ongoing health issues dampen his holiday spirit
By The Spokesman-Review
Jesse Tinsley photoBuy this photo

Terry Schudel stands in his northside front yard Friday, Dec. 9, 2011 where he has set up a Christmas display. Schudel has suffered a stroke and his little use of his right side, but still manages to put up his lights and stand-up figures.
(Full-size photo)

Holiday lights displays

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Terry A. Schudel lives alone in a tiny house north of the Garland District. Just before Christmas in 1996 he had a stroke that robbed him of the right side of his body, and much of his ability to speak.

Talking to Schudel, 50, is a combination of homemade sign language and gestures. A conversation looks much like a game of Charades.

And here Schudel is, standing in his front yard, surrounded by a Christmas display that would delight any child. Icicle lights hang from the gutters; golden tinsel garland has been wrapped around light strings and strung along the walkway. Candy canes hang on the fence while Santa, his sleigh and a reindeer sit in the middle of the yard.

Every Christmas for the 11 years he’s lived at 4124 N. Madison St., Schudel has put up Christmas lights. He was right-handed but after the stroke, he learned to do everything with his left hand.

It takes him about six days to put up all the lights.

When asked if his neighbors help him, he answers empathetically: “No.”

He’s a tall, trim man with a gray beard. He uses his fingers to count out dates and years, much like a baseball umpire counts out balls and strikes. His gray-blue eyes twinkle when he gets a point across.

A practical man, he named his dog “Hey” because that’s a word he can say.

He never married. And when asked if he has kids he shakes his head no, but then changes his mind and holds up one finger.

And then he pulls out his wallet and produces a worn, yellowed picture of a toddler boy in red pants smiling broadly at the camera.

On the back someone wrote in black pen: Nicholas Justin Holten, 19 months, April 16, 1979.

He has traced the words many times over the years, making sure they don’t fade away. Schudel holds his hand at knee level, indicating he hasn’t seen Nicholas since he was a toddler.

Schudel was in the Navy from 1979 to 1989. He nods enthusiastically when asked if he liked being in the Navy.

He was 35 when the stroke hit him.

When asked what happened, he mimics his legs giving in, falling over backward, left literally speechless when he woke up. He wasn’t aware of any particular risk factors in his life that could lead to a stroke.

Since the stroke he hasn’t been able to work full time. Grunting to illustrate the effort, he shows how he does physical therapy at the Spokane Veterans Affairs Medical Center to stay in shape.

Except for the years he spent in the Navy, he’s lived in Spokane all his life.

Last year’s snow masses buried his Christmas lights and he had to clear the snow off the displays.

Making an engine sound and a pulling motion, he indicates that he bought a snow blower – then he looks at the sky and shrugs, as if he’s saying, “And where’s the snow now?”

Though he can’t tell a joke, his sense of humor shows clearly and he laughs easily.

He pretends to hold a TV remote in his hand, changing channels, then rolls his eyes: there’s nothing exciting on TV these days.

Is he bored? He nods yes.

Does he date? He shakes his head no.

Is it hard to date when you can’t speak? Yes, he nods, yes.

As dusk settles on a recent Friday afternoon, the sky is clear and pink to the west.

It’s getting colder and soon it will be dark.

He checks his watch – it’s almost 4 p.m. and that’s when he turns on the lights.

And one by one he plugs in his Christmas lights, lighting up the front yard for other people to enjoy, before he heads back inside to make dinner and watch TV.

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