A Brief Note on a Death (A Follow-Up):
(This is about a situation I first described on June 19.)
I was bruised, bleeding, and soaked as I walked into New York Presbyterian Hospital at Columbia on Thursday's rainy afternoon. I headed up to the surgical ICU and saw Mary's exhausted sister and mother. They could barely speak. I offered my sympathy and asked when it was going to happen. "Saturday," her sister answered. They were just headed out to get coffee. "I'm glad you're here," Mary's sister said. "She'll be happy to have the company." She pointed out where to get the gloves and gown and then pushed her wheelchair-bound mother away. I looked at Mary in the bed and instantly wished that I hadn't come. But if I had stayed away, then I would have regretted not coming. Mary would have appreciated that: we had been in more than one situation at work where there was no good answer and no good outcome.
She did end up getting the liver transplant a few days after I wrote about Mary. What followed were weeks of ups and downs, as these things go. We weren't allowed to visit during that period. Her immune system had been weakened by years of battling Epstein-Barr, and she was susceptible to infections. Even her family could be with her for only a few minutes a day. She ended up needing two more operations. It wasn't that her body was rejecting the liver. It was that everything else that came along with her illnesses prevented her from benefiting from her acceptance of it. In the end, the last words from her family were that she had pneumonia and then a bacterial infection and that she was in a coma and that her brain was no longer functioning and then "Saturday." Since there was no longer any chance of her getting sick from us, we could visit. But only covered up because we might catch something from her.
The poet visited on Wednesday. She didn't believe the nurse who said that Mary was in a vegetative state. The poet talked to her, told her jokes, gave her a bracelet from her daughter, saw a tear come out of one of Mary's eyes. The poet insisted that Mary could hear, that Mary was listening. And she believed for a moment that a doctor had said there was hope. There wasn't. But she left glad that she had sat with Mary and, over email, encouraged several of us to go.
To say that Mary looked awful would be a vast understatement. She was a nightmare, a distorted image of herself. Gaunt from weeks without eating, her skin was an even deeper greenish yellow; her eyes were half open, fixed, sunken, surrounded by dark purple bruising, and coated with lubricant gel because she couldn't blink; her mouth hung limply open with a trach tube coming out. She was a vessel of air and fluids being pumped in, pumped out. She was a corpse being forced alive by machines.
I sat down and started talking because I couldn't think of anything else to do. I talked about a few things, I thanked her for helping me when she was the chair of the department, I told her that she would be missed, that I would miss her, and then I realized that I was talking to myself. I felt foolish, even a bit angry, unable to allow myself the thought that she could hear, knowing that people have to believe the things that get them through tragedy and that perhaps it's pessimistic of me to merely believe in what I can see. She wasn't there. I wasn't talking to her. And this sight of her was now going to compete with others when I remember her. I pulled off the gown and gloves, told her "Goodbye" and "Peace," and left.
On Saturday, the time of disconnection was 10:30 am. I received an email that "It shouldn't be long." I reloaded my email constantly for the next few hours until, about 2:30 pm, I got the simple message: "It is over." On Thursday, she will be buried.
There are very few people you can say this about, and, yes, even though, as I said in my last post about Mary, we were close, but not very close, she was a genuinely good person in a shitty world, the kind whose absence will be felt, who deserved far, far better than she got, dead at 42.
Last Thursday, when I walked out of the subway station at 168th Street to go to the hospital, thinking about what I was walking into, I didn't notice that the exit to the sidewalk had a step down. I tripped and fell forward, landing on my right knee and my hands. I used my hands to bounce off the sidewalk and twist around so that I came to rest on my back, on the wet concrete, rain falling down, mentally checking if anything was broken, wondering if I should take it as a sign to just turn around and leave, thinking how completely awful this day had become. People walked around me until a thin man came over to me and bent over. "Are you okay, man?" I asked him to grab my umbrella, which had flown out of my hands. He got it as I rose off the ground. He came back over and said, "I just wanna make sure: Are you okay?"
I stared at him for a moment and said, "I'm going to see a friend. She's dying."
He handed me the umbrella. I thanked him. "But are you okay?" he asked.
A couple of tears coming down, my knee throbbing, I said, "My friend is going to die" before limping towards the building.