My sisters and I have an unusual family trait. We remember events by what clothes we were wearing at the time. On the day my brother Dan’s doctor at St. Luke’s Hospital in Houston told me that Dan would not likely recover from the liver disease he was battling, I was wearing a short dungaree skirt, a white tee shirt and a matching dungaree jacket. My hair was pinned up, and I had my favorite leather sandals on.
The doctor, who was wearing a white lab coat, spoke in an English accent, which gave his announcement a sense of formality and made the distance between his reality and mine seem more dramatic. A woman was with him, also in a white lab coat, holding a box of tissue. We were in the Intensive Care Unit, next to Dan’s room, and nurses in green scrub suits were walking by us.
I was trying to figure out where I could go to get away from what he was telling me. I wondered why he hadn’t taken me to a private room to tell me such devastating news. Dan only had a 2% chance of living … they weren’t going to perform liver transplant surgery with those odds, he said. The words 2% were the equivalent of a death sentence, but he spoke them as though he were giving me the fat content of a carton of milk.
If I was home I would have gone to my bedroom, shut the door and thrown myself on my bed. I wanted to hide my face in a pillow, but it seemed that the doctor and the woman with him were waiting for me to ask questions. They both stood silent, looking at me. I didn’t know how I was still standing because my legs felt like they were made of weak cardboard. I felt like I was holding up a body that I had ceased to inhabit. “Is that all you have to offer me, a box of Kleenex?” I was thinking. She held it out towards me like a box of candy, but I felt sick. “How could Dan be too well to be transplant priority one week and then too sick to withstand the surgery the next?” I was thinking.
I wanted to run, but I didn’t know where to go. Eventually, I found myself in one of the hospital bathroom stalls, where I locked the door and cried. I felt like a teenager back in high school when a bathroom stall was the only place we could get any privacy. We would go there if we had bad menstrual cramps, or to sneak a few puffs of a cigarette. But the innocence of those days was lost to me now.
The weight of what the doctor had told me was too heavy for me to bear alone. I was the only family member in Houston with Dan at the time. I thought about the phone calls I would have to make to the rest of my family. I worried about how I would get back to Dan’s apartment that night. Driving in Houston traffic terrified me, and I had no confidence in anything now.
Dan didn’t have the luxury of time, and so neither did I. I didn’t stay in the bathroom for long. I fumbled as I called my sister Kathy on a hospital phone, telling her that she had to come to Houston immediately because I needed her.
Once I knew that what I said to Kathy had sunk in and that she was on her way, we said goodbye and I hung up the phone. It was clear what to do next, the only thing I could, the thing I had done for a week before and would do for one week more; sit by my brother Danny in his hospital bed and just be there.
Post Notes: These are the countdown weeks leading to the anniversary of my brother Danny’s death 5 years ago. I recently came across the above as a sketched draft meant for The Jim and Dan Stories. Touching into the nerve that is exposed this time of year, I was able to finally finish it. The photo is a page from one of my collage journals (a photo of Dan is on the second page in the right hand corner). To read more about the summer my family lost Dan, and our brother Jim a month before, go to my website HERE, or click on the Loose Leaf category sidebar "Losing a Loved One."
~ Originally posted on Loose Leaf Notes on August 18, 2006.