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Early one morning in 2002, my brother picked me up from the airport and drove me to see my dad in the hospital where he had been unresponsive since the afternoon before. It was his rapid turn for the worse which had prompted the phone calls urging me to catch a cross-country flight that very night if I ever wanted to see him alive again.
The second I walked into his room, I knew that though he was technically still with us, he was gone nonetheless. But I was wrong. He came back to us later that day.
“I died last night, Martha Lee,” he would tell my mom. She believed him.
And so did I.
In the days that followed, Dad made incredible progress, so much so that the doctors even contemplated his release, though it never came to pass. If it had, it would have only been so Dad could die in the ivy-covered stone house. With his stereo on. Listening to opera. Near his books. Near us. No beeps from machines. No lukewarm cafeteria meals served upon brown plastic trays. No nurses whose last names we’d never know.
Dad gave everyone in our family quite a gift that last fortnight of his life. In light of how different we are, I’m certain we each had our own takeaway as to what that gift meant. Mine?
I learned that there’s much magic in the melancholy, much beauty in the struggle. Which is why you bravely fight on, no matter what. Not for you. But for everyone else. So they can see that beauty. Beauty which will live long after you’re dead and gone. Beauty that looks like hope. And determination. And dignity. And, most notably,
It was that love I pondered as I stood outside Holliday’s ICU room and washed my trembling hands. I had a hard time tying a knot behind my back to secure the gown which I was required to wear, not to mention putting on those impossibly thin latex gloves which were also mandatory. I experienced an eerily similar routine nearly three years before, outside the doors of a different ICU, the neonatal ICU, each and every time I visited Kirby, the tiniest and last of our triplets to be born.
The circle of life? I wondered.
The calls had started the day before, on Saturday. My sister, Graham, had been in Houston since Wednesday with an important but simple objective — to help Holliday get through the second round of chemotherapy before transporting her back to the apartment she had rented where she would recuperate until the following round. The first one had been so difficult that Holliday remained in the hospital throughout. The same thing had held true this time, but she was doing okay. A bit loopy from the morphine (which was largely ineffectively in easing her pain), my sister still knew who she was, where she was, and what was going on–an improvement, believe it or not, from the first time.
On Friday I had spoken to Graham at length about the logistics moving forward. I was eager to clear some things off my plate such that I could fly to Houston and lend my assistance. But by late Saturday night, I realized that instead of leaving for MD Anderson in a few weeks to help Holliday live, I’d be leaving in a few hours just to reach her before she died.
The doctor was holding Graham’s hand when he had delivered the news. Our sister was simultaneously experiencing multiple life-threatening situations. In spite of the hellishly aggressive chemo, the tumors had actually grown. And they were bleeding which was particularly troublesome because her blood contained next-to-zero platelets. What’s more, Holliday’s white blood cell count was virtually non-existant which meant that even the smallest infection could cause her demise.
Graham suddenly had a new objective — to relay the grim report to the rest of us. The doctor warned her that Holliday’s husband, who had originally planned on driving over the following day, had better fly instead. That was all I needed to hear.
Holliday’s husband and daughter were already in the room visiting with Graham when Mom and I arrived. I wasn’t sure which was more surreal — the sight of my sister on what I assumed to be her literal deathbed, or the fact that idiomatic pleasantries are actually exchanged before such a backdrop. I walked to my sister’s bedside, unsure of what to say. So I said nothing, I think. Except maybe her name. But I’m not even sure I said that. All I really remember was hoping to have some time alone with her.
Which I did. For 45 minutes. Silent minutes at first. Until I decided to talk about our common past which had created such different people — though still ones who would, in many ways, forever be exactly the same. I told her that we still wanted her to fight, but only if she wanted to. I sensed that she did, though I also knew that a pitcher only holds so much water. At some point, if you continue to pour it out, there’s simply nothing left.
Not even a drop.
The cacophony of beeps and buzzes belonging to the medical machinery which surrounded us was distracting, especially when an alarm sounded for what felt like an entire minute. I allowed it to interrupt our one-sided conversation, as if whatever it had to announce took precedent over what I was saying, at which point I politely looked away, so as not to offend it, before gazing down at my phone to check email until it had finished. Once certain it was through, I scooted my chair right next to Holliday and continued again. Hesitant at first, I slowly reached my hand out to touch her arm. She had been twitching morbidly throughout the entire visit, yet the intensity of those motions picked up drastically the instant I made contact.
Skeptics won’t believe me and I’m sad for them. Because it’s true. And so’s this — Holliday knew I was there. If not her unconscious mind, then certainly her undying spirit.
That night, Graham, Mom and I ate dinner at a restaurant in the lobby of the Marriott. We spoke of our little club between bites, fondly reminisced between sips. Dad was alive, again, sitting right alongside of us, if only until we got our check. In fact, everyone was there, though you could only see the three of us.
That’s what people do, you know. They gather somewhere and remember. And sometimes say things with their eyes. Even if their lips don’t quite push the literal words out. Which is okay, because they don’t have to — their minds already know it. For those things are true.
They’re why they gathered in the first place.
Mom and I flew back the next morning, Monday, July 5th. Holliday’s husband and daughter would be staying with her until the next Saturday, which would give us time to figure out a game plan from that point forward. The terrifying turn of events had seemingly stabilized, but ultimately, Holliday was still caught between worlds. It’s our hope that she’ll find her way back to ours, if only to give us a similar gift to the one Dad gave us nearly eight years ago. Regardless, her fight has spanned decades and contains more beauty than she’ll ever know. Why didn’t I ever tell her that before?
Maybe I’ll have another chance, yet.
I dropped Mom off a little past five and headed home, staring blankly out my windshield, negotiating the final leg of an exhausting round-trip commute to the sound of sports radio. I received a call from my Lovie’s brother, so I turned down the volume to deliver the bleak update in peace and quiet. Our conversation ended as I pulled into my neighborhood.
For no reason, I turned the radio back up for the final quarter mile of my trip. The music I heard confused me until I finally realized that I was tuned in to a different frequency, one I must have accidentally landed on while adjusting the volume just minutes before. It was the intro to a song that I knew, yet couldn’t quite place, until the first two words of it told me it was Madonna.
I froze in disbelief, sitting quietly in my driveway, covered in goosebumps, as a lone tear meandered down my cheek before splashing onto the lap strap of my seatbelt. After a minute or two, I turned off the ignition and got out of the car, wiping my eyes as I made my way to the door, excited to see everyone. The triplets were all fired up. They knew that Daddy had been on an airplane.
They love airplanes.
Thanks so much to everyone who has commented, tweeted, facebooked, emailed, texted, or called me with kind words of support. I’m happy to say that Holliday is still with us, and ask that you continue to hold her close in both thought and prayer. I’ll post an update that will catch us up to the present by no later than Thursday. I hope and pray that it will contain some encouraging news.