A Brief Vignette From a Possible Death:
I had been warned that Mary's skin was going to look yellow when I saw her, but, no, I didn't expect such a vivid shade of dingy yellow to completely cover her flesh, smoothly, without splotches or shadow, like an exotic skink. She is lying in the ICU of a New York City hospital, gravity and bed rest giving her shape a settled look, as if she is slowly melting. She has the well-ordered tendrils of tubes around her, some with clear liquid, some with blood. Mary is on dialysis 24/7, and her liver has failed. If she does not get a donated, matching liver for a transplant in the next few days, the doctors have said she will not make it. "She is at the top of the list," everyone says - her sister, her mother, a friend. If she was strong enough to hold out until the Fourth of July, she'd have a better chance, they say, since people tend to have accidents around the Fourth. Fireworks, drinking, driving, barbecues, the usual.
We have never been great friends, Mary and me, but we have come to rely on each other. We are colleagues who have offices across the hall from each other at the college. We have been in the trenches, on the same side in the many petty battles that busy us in academia. She is younger than me, but she has been at the job a couple of years longer. We have hung out together, mostly in larger groups, been to a few movies, had a few meals, had a few drinks. We have talked about our lives and families, but most of our conversations have been about the various intense and perverse personalities of the people around us. She's hard to get to laugh, but I'm pretty good at it, mainly because she likes the occasionally too-honest assessment I'm willing to give about different situations. She is far more valuable than I am to the functioning of the department. We all rely on her. She bears this burden with great solemnity, even working up until the moment they brought her to the hospital and told her that there is a good chance she is going to die.
"Go to see her," said a poet friend of us both. She has a tendency towards the melodramatic. "If nothing else, just to say goodbye." So we went today, drove to the upper reaches of Manhattan, and entered the ICU to see her, yellow and still. Her wheelchair-bound mother backed up to let us have some room. Mary's sister told us that the hospital was giving their mother Valium when she got too upset. She told us, "Talk to her. The doctors say it will help keep her brain functioning." I don't know if that's true or if it's just something doctors say to give visitors some sense of purpose when they sit with the critically ill. But we did talk.
It was a good visit. Mary can recognize people now. The dialysis has given her some stability. She saw the poet and me and her eyes went wide, the whites also yellowed. It was, frankly, terrifying - the stare, unblinking, moving around. But she knew we were there. She acknowledged the messages the poet read her from Facebook and email. She smiled, barely, at memories from her childhood that some old friends had posted, nodding to acknowledge their truth when we asked. She even laughed at an unkind joke we made about another professor, adding a brief, cutting remark of her own, the only audible words she spoke. The poet and I were pleased. She lights up, her sister said, whenever her colleagues and/or friends visit. The poet had been there three other times. Each time, Mary had reacted positively.
All over our Facebook pages, people are saying that they may be atheists, but they are praying for Mary. I will not join them. This foxhole won't make me a believer. I want her to get better. I want that liver to be found. I want time and occurrence to converge to make it all possible. I don't want magic for her. I want medicine.
After a while today, we said our goodbyes to Mary, whose eyes were closing. The poet touched her and said she'd be back. I touched the blanket to give her a reassuring arm squeeze. The poet and others in the ICU room laughed. I wasn't touching her arm. I was touching a stuffed cat doll under the blanket. I started to make a joke to Mary when she opened her eyes. Moving more than anyone had seen today, she uncovered her yellowed arm and reached it out to me. I leaned in, and she touched my shoulder and gently pulled me towards her, whispering a "Thank you" as we embraced. I said, quietly, "You are loved in this world by many people. Get better." I gave her a kiss on her yellowed cheek and said I'd return soon, even if I wasn't sure if I would.
Standing by the elevator, the poet said that she was shocked when she first saw Mary, but now she's gotten used to it. I told her to forgive me. I couldn't respond. There was a lump in my throat. I hadn't expected that last moment.
If Mary survives, we won't become best buddies. We'll be across the hall from each other still, talking smack and plotting our minor revolutions that never come to fruition.