By Lindsey Mead
Eleven years ago, I learned what it really means to give thanks. My father-in-law received a heart transplant two days before Thanksgiving, on my daughter’s one-month birthday and his own thirty-fifth anniversary. By Thanksgiving morning, Matt and I were shell-shocked and exhausted, but we still got in the car and drove an hour south to spend the day with my family. The day was a blur, filled as it was with warm family arms holding Grace and gentle whispers asking us how John was doing. Grace was living up to her name: we had discovered we were pregnant (a true surprise) the day after John was diagnosed with his rare and serious illness. And now, one month to the day after her birth, a heart.
After Thanksgiving dinner, in the dark, Matt and I drove back to Boston, to Massachusetts General Hospital. John was just starting to come out of anesthesia, my mother-in-law, Marti was at the hospital, and Matt wanted to see them both. I had Grace’s car seat slung over my arm as we took the elevator to the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit (CICU) and walked through a maze of shadowy glass partitions. Despite the faint beeping of machines, there was a deep, pervasive hush; the CICU was one of those places, like a church or a library, where you automatically whispered. In contrast to the always-bright ward where John had waited for his heart, this wing seemed to be in permanent dusk. The metaphor that this presented struck me as odd given that this was where John was supposed to wake up and begin the next phase of his life.
John lay in a bed behind two sets of sealed glass doors. My mother-in-law sat beside him, robed in a sterile gown and wearing a face mask and rubber gloves. She turned when she noticed us through the glass and stood up, peeling off her gloves and lifting her mask as she hurried through the double doors. She crouched down immediately, without saying a word, and simply stared at Grace’s sleeping face. I glanced at Matt, wondering if we should say something, and he shook his head slightly as if to say, no, leave her. Long moments later she stood up, hugged Matt tightly, and asked him if he wanted to go into the room.
“Is it okay, Mom? I don’t want to bring extra germs in there,” Matt looked worried. “You know, from Grace or something?”
“No, it’s okay, as long as you wear the gloves and mask. Theresa will help you.” Marti nodded at the nurse who was stationed between the two sets of sealed glass doors. I noticed the dark circles under her eyes. My mother-in-law was always perfectly put together; this was about as disheveled as I had ever seen her. And she still had a silk scarf tied around her neck.
“Okay,” Matt went in to the small chamber between the two doors. He spoke briefly to Theresa and then I watched him shrug the paper robe on over his clothes and, after scrubbing his hands at a small sink on the wall, pull on rubber gloves. Theresa helped him adjust the paper mask over his face and then stood back, looking him over, and then nodded her okay. Hesitantly, as though he was stepping onto the moon, he walked through the second set of doors to his father’s bedside. Even through two thick panes of glass I could see trepidation in his hazel eyes above his paper mask.
“He’s just starting to wake up,” Marti murmured at me, not taking her eyes off of the two men in the room in front of us. Matt sat down on the stool on wheels that Marti had vacated, which was to the right of John’s head, and looked down at him. He then looked over at the glass wall and gestured at me, holding his hands up in the general shape and size of the car seat. “Oh! Oh!” I leaned over and picked up Grace’s car seat, holding it up so that John, had he been looking, could have seen it. Matt gave me a thumbs-up sign and turned back to his dad.
“Is he awake? Could he see that?” I asked Marti as I lowered Grace in her blue plastic bucket to the floor.
“I don’t know. He’s been in and out of consciousness, I’m not sure what he can see.”
“Wait,” I said, kneeling down and unbuckling Grace, trying not to wake her as I pulled her gently out of the plastic bucket. Squatting, I held her against my shoulder and felt her moving gently, her head turning side to side, her little nose pushing against my neck. A waft of her baby smell came over me and I closed my eyes briefly, still. Then I stood up again, holding her in front of my face, knocking gently on the glass so that Matt turned to see. I saw his eyes crinkle in what must have been a smile beneath his mask, and he turned to his father and tapped him on the shoulder. I looked over at Marti who was beaming, looking not at Grace but at John. We stood that way for several long moments before Grace began to squawk and I lowered her back into her car seat. I’ll never know what John saw because he can’t remember anything about those days. But I will never forget that Thanksgiving.
Illustration by Christine Juneau
Lindsey Mead is a mother and writer who lives outside of Boston. Her work has been published and anthologized in a variety of print and online sources including the Huffington Post, the Princeton Alumni Weekly, Torn: True Stories of Kids, Career, and the Conflict of Modern Motherhood, and Literary Mama. She blogs at A Design So Vast and is also on facebook and twitter.