I was lounging in bed listening to “Morning Edition” on my local public radio station. It was April 15. Tax day. But I wasn’t worried about that–I’d filed an extension. And I wasn’t awake enough yet to remember that it was the anniversary of my father’s death eight years earlier, though I’d remembered it in the days before.
When the phone rang I let the machine pick up. I hadn’t had coffee, but the message Joe left was more of a jolt than even the strongest espresso could have offered.
“Hi Jenn, this is Joe. [pause] Everything’s okay [pause] but I just need to update you on a situation about your sister.”
Debby has known Joe and his partner Mike since the 80s when they were in training together to become flight attendants. I’d spent the occasional Thanksgiving with them, shared countless dinners out, and celebrated a couple of monumental birthdays: Debby’s 40th, and more recently, Debby’s 50th.
His voice sounded calm, but Joe never calls me, so I knew something was wrong.
Potentially very wrong.
My sister and I are close even though I currently live in Albuquerque and she currently lives in Chicago. We usually spend Christmas in Hawaii house-sitting (which involves sitting on the beach, reading, eating shrimp and drinking wine).
We talk on the phone regularly, even though she’s always travelling and often I don’t know where she is. Layovers in Shanghai or London, training in Dallas, visiting a friend in Denver, working a trade show in Florida, or monthly trips to San Diego for appointments with her oncologist—Debby has Stage IV breast cancer, which she has been managing for the last 10 years. Approximately 20% of those with Stage IV breast cancer survive long term and my sister seems to be one of them. But there is a part of me that always wonders how long her lucky streak will last.
Had something changed?
Eyes wide open I jumped out of bed, grabbed the phone off my desk, and hit the redial button.
“JoeThisIsJenniferWhat’sWrong?” I asked.
Joe told me that Debby was on a layover in Paris. She had collapsed, had a cardiac arrest, was in the hospital, in a medically induced coma, but she was fine. For a moment I felt my own heart stop. I had questions, but I couldn’t articulate them at first.
“What does that mean?” I mumbled, my body numbing, my eyes blurring with tears.
Joe said that he and Mike would fly to Paris, I didn’t need to come yet, they’d have a better idea of what was going on once they got there. But I didn’t want to wait. As Joe talked, he reassured me that Debby was not alone, there were airline crew members with her, that she would be fine. I nodded while I checked flights to Paris. As Debby’s registered companion I could fly standby using a non-revenue pass. The flight out of Albuquerque, however, would leave in an hour for Dallas and I knew there was no way I could make it, so I resigned myself to leaving the following day.
Debby’s supervisor in Chicago, also named Debbie, arranged for my travel the next day, departing Albuquerque for Chicago at 6:30 am, leaving for Paris at 5 pm, arriving the day after that. An eternity, and for the first time I really wished for a Star Trek teleporter. Would I get there in time I wondered.
I spent the day packing, tracking down my passport, dashing off emails to clients, rearranging plans, letting family know what was going on, and fielding phone calls from Debby’s friends who’d heard about what happened. I always joke about the airline grapevine—best way to disseminate information: telephone, telegram, and tell-a-flight attendant. I talked to Nancy and Barb who would fly to Paris with me. Jackie called, Kat emailed, and Pam messaged me on Facebook, but I had no news to share.
I spent the night tossing and turning. I’d made the mistake of googling “heart attack medically induced coma” only to discover that the survival rate for cardiac arrest is dismal: 11%. And there was a high risk of brain damage if CPR assistance wasn’t rendered quickly to maintain blood flow to the brain. Maybe it wasn’t “cardiac arrest” I prayed.
* * *
It was cardiac arrest.
If help had arrived minutes later, she’d have brain damage.
If she’d been alone in her hotel room, she’d be dead.
If no one had stopped to help, she’d be dead.
If someone hadn’t administered CPR, she’d be dead.
I’d drawn the shades and closed the door, muting the sounds of the hospital: the clanging of still-full lunch plates being collected, the moaning of the man across the hall, and the incomprehensible (to me) rapid fire French of the nurses. Debby had been moved the day before from the Intensive Care unit to the Cardiac Intensive Care unit, which seemed like an upgrade of sorts, but she was still connected to machines that monitored her heart and to an i.v. drip. Nancy had returned to Chicago and Barb and Mike and Joe had decided to walk up to the Chagall Chapel. I wanted to stay with my sister. Besides, the cobblestoned 3-mile walk the day before to and from Notre Dame had left my knees aching. And I still wasn’t sure what time zone I was in.
“I’m going to close my eyes now,” Debby said as she pulled the rough cotton sheet and felt blanket over her shoulders. Always petite, my sister seemed to have become even smaller since the last time I’d seen her, her olive-toned skin had turned pale, with a yellow tinge, and the drugs from the medically-induced coma were still affecting her. She’d been repeating questions like “When did you get here?” “Where are you staying” or “Cute top, where’d you get that?” although with less frequency than she’d asked the day before.
She’d also repeat her own stories, or lack thereof. “I don’t remember anything,” she’d tell us, or “I don’t even remember the layover. Who was on my crew?”
We laughed about Debby’s lack of memory—the doctor had assured us this short-term memory loss was normal, that it was the drugs they’d administered—but still, I worried about brain damage.
I settled into one vinyl chair, propped my feet up onto the other and closed my eyes. Since I’d arrived in Paris I’d yet to get a good night’s sleep or a decent meal, sustained only by the offerings in the Marriott’s Executive Lounge: bread and cheese and Bordeaux the night before, café au lait and croissants earlier that morning.
As I started to drift off, Debby’s tiny voice, still raspy from the breathing tube they’d removed two days earlier, called out, “Jenn.”
“Yeah,” I mumbled.
“Why am I still here?”
Months later that question still haunts me. Maybe if I were religious I would have had a better answer, I could have said “God has a plan” and meant it. I could have said it was because angels are watching over her: Dad, Mom, Grandma and Granddad…. that it wasn’t her time. But there are no simple answers. I could have told Debby how much she is loved for her ability to smile and live life to the fullest in the face of cancer, and now cardiac arrest. She is inspirational. But shouldn’t we all be?
“I don’t know,” I said, “Maybe because I still need you.”
Jennifer Simpson is freelance writer and volunteer bereavement group facilitator working with teens and young adults. She heads up DimeStories, where authors read their 3-minute stories at open mic events in San Diego, Costa Mesa, and Temecula Calif. and in Albuquerque, New Mexico as well as online and on the radio. (dimestories.org). She is working on a memoir, Reconstructing My Mother, which chronicles her journey to get to know her mother, who died when Jennifer was 13. Set against the backdrop of turning 40, watching her sister battle breast cancer, ultimately the book is about Jennifer getting to know herself. Though a California girl at heart, she lives in Albuquerque and blogs occasionally at http:/writingthrugrief.wordpress.com.
All of Jen Pastiloff’s events listed here including the New Years retreat in Calif, Mexico writing retreat, annual Italy retreat and all workshops. Click poster below for the Mexico writing retreat.