Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Unexpected visitors

My mother used to tell the story of time her mother came to visit her. I wish I had paid more attention to the details of that story. As much as I peer into the thick darkness of that memory, I can’t remember when Mom said that Grannie Armstrong came to visit. But I do remember that it was after she had died.

I never met my mother’s mother. She died suddenly from a stroke, at the age of 70 – the year before I was born. When my mother got married and moved to Canada, she never saw my grandmother alive again. They were very close and I don’t think my mother ever got over the shock of that loss. She wrote of it in her diary. I hear the loneliness in her voice, thinking of being so far from ‘home’, trying to be a good wife in a strange, cold country.

My mother was not given to flights of fancy and, despite her struggle with depression, she did not experience hallucinations. She was a creative but also quite a practical person who worried that I was too “airy fairy”, as she often referred to my childhood day-dreaming. When my mother told the story of the night her dead mother visited her, I got goose bumps. Not because I was afraid but because I felt it to be so absolutely real and unarguably true.

My mother said that she awoke in the middle of the night, uncertain of the time. My father was working shift work that night and so she was alone. She described being suddenly wide awake, not struggling to shake off the cobwebby feeling one often has when roused from a deep sleep. Looking up she saw her mother sitting at the foot of the bed, hands folded in her lap. She smiled at my mother and my mother smiled back. They shared a long and loving gaze before my grandmother simply disappeared. My mother said she hadn’t been afraid and I could tell she was deeply comforted by the love and warmth of that singular experience.

I wasn’t able to be with my mother when she died and after she passed away I secretly hoped that I would receive a farewell of some kind from her. I had travelled to visit with her only weeks beforehand and she had rallied from a period of illness. Despite struggling with advanced Alzheimer’s she still knew me at our last visit. I spent hours with her each day, helping her eat, looking at pictures, telling stories. On our second-to-last day together, I remember telling her that I loved her and, being unable to reply in a full sentence, she pointed to me and mumbled “Love” with a smile. Perhaps that was her goodbye. I just wasn’t ready to hear it.

I desperately hoped for a visit from Chris after he died. His sudden and unexpected passing left a huge gash of emptiness inside of me and I thought that if I could see him once more and say goodbye, it might provide some comfort… some closure. Someone he knew had a dream about him soon after his death in which she saw him floating up in the sky with the energy of being free. In her dream he told her that it was so wonderful in the afterlife and that he was pain free and feeling vibrant again but that he was so sad to be away from his beloved Sandra.

I was jealous that she had heard his voice. Why hadn’t I heard from him!? All the irrational, insanity of that time left me questioning my own perceived openness to alternate realities, the depth of my love for Chris, etc, etc. So many painful, questioning nights laying in bed staring at the ceiling, hoping for a vision, a voice, anything that would signify communication from my beloved Chris… I often prayed to awaken from what I had begun to hope was a long nightmare. But the visit never came.

So it was a shock when I did get an unexpected, early morning visit back in January. I remember waking up very suddenly, my eyes literally snapping wide open, and my senses being very sharp as if the volume on my hearing had been turned up. Not more loudly but more crystal clear, the constant hum of life and my own busy mind suddenly quieted. Someone was in the room with me but I wasn’t afraid as I obviously would normally have been. I continued to lay on my side, not turning to look about but simply feeling this intense presence in the room.

No words were spoken. No voice was heard. No touch was felt. An overwhelming sense of comfort and calm filled the room and then, as suddenly as it had quieted, the hum reasserted itself and the visitor left. I don’t know if it was Chris or one of my parents. I don’t know if it was even someone I knew. I do know that I was left feeling more peaceful than I had in a long time.

I remember a couple of months after Chris died, a bitterly comical scenario played out in my imagination: Mom and Dad are hanging out in the afterlife (whatever form that may take) and in walks Chris. “What the hell are you doing here?! You’re supposed to be back there with Sandra! You promised to take care of our little girl!” cried my parents to Chris. He shuffled his feet in embarrassment, chewing his lip, and struggling to find something reasonable – or even witty – to say that would appease them. Nothing came to mind…

I hope they’ve forgiven him.

Monday, April 27, 2009

When a stranger calls...

It was the telephone that woke me up, jangling insistently like a rude alarm clock.

I sat up, struggling to find my even keel in the middle-of-the-night darkness. My throat tightened as I hesitantly said hello. Phone calls in the middle of the night are never good news… or so I thought.

“May I please speak with Christopher Dixon?” asked the voice at the other end.
“May I ask who’s calling?” [at such an ungodly hour, asked the voice inside my head.]
“It’s the transplant unit. We have a donor kidney for Christopher.”

I breathed, listening to make sure I remembered that moment.

Chris was a very sound sleeper and I had to literally shake him awake, he hadn’t even heard the phone. “It’s the transplant unit, they have a kidney.” I said – quite calmly in retrospect – before I handed him the phone, making sure he was awake.

We were both wide awake now. I sat on the bed beside Chris and never took my eyes off his face as he answered and asked questions for a few minutes. When he hung up, we looked at each other, our eyes filled with hope, anxiety, nervousness, love.

Surprisingly, you’re not expected to run red lights when you get that call. “Take your time, don’t panic, bring a few things in a small overnight bag… we’ll see you when you get here.” And so we did just that. I packed socks, underwear, pyjama pants, razor, toothbrush/toothpaste, my list of people to call, and a roll of quarters that we had kept in the drawer for just this occasion.

We were out the door in 15 minutes flat. The taxi ride to the hospital was quiet. We held hands as we watched darkened houses rush by our windows.

The hospital was brightly lit but the hallways were empty as we quickly made our way up to the transplant unit.

Things happen pretty quickly once you get there. You’re assigned a room – always private, for fear of infection in immune-suppressed transplant patients. Blood is drawn for last-minute tests. X-rays are done to check for infections. Electrodes are mapped out across the body to monitor heart activity on an EKG machine.

In between tests, you sit and wait. Your mind racing. Your heart racing. The thumping isn’t loud enough to drown out the fears, the excitement, the what if’s. Transplants are not a miracle cure – they’re a therapy, an interim measure. They don’t last forever. The surgery – like any surgery – is risky. Chris and I had had all those conversations many times. So we sat and we waited, wondering which room along the hall sheltered the other anxious kidney recipient. I watched the sky turn indigo and then golden pink as the sun crept up to meet us at the horizon.

I called Chris’ parents to tell them that we were at the hospital, that there was a donor kidney for Chris, that I would call later when I had an update.

I remember the nurse coming in. “I’m sorry, but the kidney isn’t a close enough match.”

Eyes blinking. Empty silence. As suddenly as it began, it was over.

How to put into words that floor-falling-away feeling? The adrenaline and exhaustion suddenly colliding inside your head, your heart, your stomach which minutes before had been churning with anxious elation. Sitting in the patient lounge, our arms limply encircling each other, as the rising sun shot through the drapes and bled down the wall.

We quietly checked out and walked down the hall, leaving ‘our’ kidney to the next candidate on the list. The list really is life…

The rest of that day is a fog in my memory. I know that we both stayed home from work, sleeping a bit, eating a bit. I know I called Chris’ parents to break the news but I don’t remember calling them.

I’ve never had a miscarriage and I can’t pretend that it’s the same feeling but it’s the closest thing I can imagine – coming home empty-handed and empty-hearted instead of joyful. It was a very quiet day, a sad day.

We went for a walk and thought about the person who had died, their family who had consented to organ donation – who were they? We thought of the other people like us who had received long-awaited calls for lungs and heart and liver and corneas and kidneys. Were they in surgery or in recovery by now? Their families waiting anxiously for news of a successful surgery, preparing for the possibly bumpy road to full recovery.

We wondered when the next call might come.