You get the call, your father-in-law’s breath hitching on the other line, and you know it’s bad news. Your mind goes to the biopsy results that were supposed to come today, but it quickly becomes clear it’s worse than you thought – no slow cancer word lurking in the shadows of your conversation, but something fast and unexpected. Trouble breathing and a call to 911. The responders at the fire station who were there in 2 minutes; the way, in the end they couldn’t save her, except maybe somehow there could be a little hope.
Across the county you make arrangements, call out of work for the week and ask your neighbor to watch the pets. At midnight your husband buys plane tickets while you fold laundry and pack suitcases. Neither of you sleeps. By 3:30 am you walk out the door.
And of course it’s not easy- you are shell-shocked and tired. You go to drop your car at the Hilton for long-term parking. Somehow the keys get locked in your car, while it’s parked there in front of the grand front doors. Your brother-in-law makes a 4 am call to Triple A. You coordinate a key hand-off with an angry valet. In the end, you make it on the plane.
As you travel it’s the small things that count- the kindness people don’t even know they are doing. The lady who switches seats with your husband so you can share a row of the airplane. The flight attendant who smiles and says he won’t charge you for the box of kids snacks. They don’t know but you hope they can feel it in your grateful smiles.
Then you land and it takes an hour to get the rental car, another three hours to make the hour-long drive home. Because of course it’s the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Everyone is driving home to their families, too. When you stop for desperation chicken nuggets, the lady in Wendy’s gives your daughter a free toy. Another smile, another thank you. Kindness stretches as far as the line of tail lights.
And then you arrive and your parents arrive, the ones who were visiting you in Seattle, the ones who turned around and came back, too. And they watch your daughter so you can drive to the hospital. Six kids crowded in the car. Three sons and their wives. Your sister-in-law sucks in her breath as you drive past a deer. You’re glad you didn’t see.
It’s late when you arrive, so you enter the hospital a back way, walk a labyrinth you will come to memorize on your way to the ICU. Your mother-in-law is at the end of the open room, past a row of people 30 years older than her. It’s quiet. Your boots click on the floor, too loud.
And then you reach her and tell her that her children are here. Name them, one by one. Later, your father-in-law will thank you for the prayer he thinks you said. You correct him, and realize maybe it was a kind of prayer after all. Names and faces, tethers to the here and now.
You go to the side of the bed, kiss her, and hold her hand. Her skin is still warm. Her hair is perfect. But the ventilator that keeps her breathing wears away the lipstick on her mouth. You all agree that she would be angry if she knew you could see her like this.
The next morning there are tests to run, ones that hint at what you already know. You meet with a team from the organ donation center, a woman and a man who reach out with two hands to shake your own. Ones who say thank you, thank you. Who stagger you when they say 21 people a day die while waiting for a transplant. Who tell you how kind your mother-in-law is, which you already know.
At points it’s hard to connect the person in the bed to the woman who welcomed you to her family with open arms. You remember meeting her ten years ago over a plate of her famous spaghetti, the way she was so excited to hear where you were born because it meant so much to her. You remember the way she hugged you at your wedding, how she told you she always wanted a daughter and how she had one now. The way she held your daughter after she was born, how she sent your daughter frivolous dresses that were always her favorites. You’ve packed a suitcase of those dresses now; it would have made her happy to see.
On Wednesday you call the rabbi, and you hold hands around her bed while he says words that have been said a thousand times. You are here, at the verge. May you and your family be blessed, may your sadness be eased. You always cry at the religious stuff. Your tears taste like the pages of old books. That night they start to run tests and see she’s assisting her own breaths. It’s a reflex, the doctors say, to ease false hope.
So on Thursday you gather in the hospital room a final time. You put your hand on your mother-in-laws shoulder, whisper thank you’s in her ear. You count back the days and wonder if you’ve been kind enough, if there is more you could have said. You had just told her you would come home for Easter. You wipe away tears; you are here now.
They do a final test, to confirm that she’s really gone. It’s the longest eight minutes and also the fastest. In the end the doctor stands at the foot of her bed, says I’m so sorry for your loss.
And it’s strange because she’s still breathing, the ventilator and IV drips keeping her body protected to keep those precious organs safe for someone else. At Thanksgiving dinner you get a call – three people’s lives have been saved because of her gift. The tiny blessings that come from the biggest loss.
That night you toast her- red wine and bourbon and a plastic cup of apple juice. Later again with champagne poured in Dixie cups. Aloud and in your heart. Thank you, thank you. All it means and more.