Right around the time I was married, my mother was taken to the hospital because she felt terribly, strangely ill. My mother, who was always the one who didn’t get the cold that was going around, who rarely took so much as an aspirin, was suddenly the pale, waxy thing in ICU with tubes running out of her body and machines whirring near where her head lay on a plastic pillow encased in a thin, cheap case. My mother, an eminence at work, a strong-willed, fierce, energetic and optimistic person who gave the best parties and saw the best in everything and everyone was gone. Not dead, just transformed into an invalid with congestive heart failure and a kidney that was “blown” from the years she had refused to take prescribed medication for her hypertension. She was stabilized, she would eventually need dialysis, and we all scrambled to adjust to the changes.
Those changes included holidays, because it was too hard for her to continue to plan and execute the triumphant festivities she had orchestrated for decades. She had always loved the planning of a great party, keeping a special book in which she wrote the details of ordinary, Friday or Saturday night dinner parties as well as the more opulent holiday meals. She needed to remember that she had tried the peanut soup as a started in 1974 and that no one liked it, and that one of the guests had a shellfish allergy and would be unable to eat oyster stuffing. There were at least three events during every holiday season: Thanksgiving dinner, the Tree Trimming Party, and Christmas dinner and not one of them was a come-as-you-are/paper plates & plastic forks/Brown ‘N Serve Roll kind of affair.
The house had to be cleaned before the dinners, the “good” china removed from its zipped, padded storage boxes, the crystal glasses hand washed, the silver polished, and the linens retrieved from the drawers where they were rested, clean, starched, pressed, rolled and tied with ribbons after the last epic feast. Centerpieces were ordered after consultation with her “flower lady,” who knew the rules: no baby’s breath, no carnations, nothing that was not tasteful, creative, and stunning. My brother and I rolled our eyes as we slogged through the cleaning and the polishing every year, but even we had to admit that there was a kind of magic in sitting down to a table with a magnificent arrangement of fragrant greens in the center, candle light reflecting off the silver and glasses as we sat down and put our starched napkins on our appropriately dressed laps. She made magic.
It all changed, of course. I got married, and learned to cook; I could make parts of a holiday meal, my sister-in-law made other parts, and we had a new paradigm, a less formal gathering enlivened by the presence of babies and children as our families grew. My mother was sick, though; she had to go twice a week to the cavernous room where she sat to have a machine do the job her kidney could no longer perform. My father had a heart attack and bypass surgery, he was exhausted, she was still gray and easily tired, and making magic became very heavy lifting. We tried having Thanksgiving catered one year, and it was just strange; we sat in my parent’s house like guests, receiving food prepared by a fleet of invisible strangers that was good, and very fancy, but not quite right. We tried to throw the tree trimming party once, and saw the effort and the hours of revelry left my parents hollow-eyed and so tired that they went to bed while we were still filling trash bags with plates and cups. It turned out that my mother had only ever had one working kidney, and she needed a donor kidney or she was going to die. She was, for the first time in her life, depressed, and no longer able to be the warm sun around which our family orbited. She hated the dialysis, and the painful shunt in one arm; most of all, she hated losing control of her life.
The Thanksgiving that my son was three, we accepted an invitation to attend a dinner at the house of friends. They had a huge, annual spread to which they invited strays, those people who were alone, far from their people, or without people. It seemed strange to give up on our family tradition, but my brother’s family was going to be out of town, and my parents agreed that they would join us, or that if they were too tired we would make plates for them and make sure that they had some turkey, some sweet potatoes, and some of our Southern hostesses legendary cornbread dressing. It would be okay, I told myself, it would just be different.
Two days before Thanksgiving, the beeper went off – the one given to my mother by the transplant team. There was a donor kidney, which meant that my mother was rushed by ambulance to a hospital in Grand Rapids, an hour away. My father and I followed, not talking in the car as we sped through the cold, dark Michigan night. We knew that the kidney came from someone who had died, and although we were not supposed to know the identity of the donor, we had accidentally pieced together a news story about a young man killed on a motorcycle. My thoughts were complicated as I sat in the passenger seat; I thought about my own little boy, and about the fact that someone else had lost their own boy days before the holidays. I thought about the tight, painful nexus of life and death that made their terrible loss a chance for my mother to regain her life.
My father and I spent the night in hard, orange plastic chairs, although I spent long minutes in the chapel. I was not particularly religious, certainly not Christian, but there was something about the waiting, and the uncertainty that made it comforting to believe that there was some higher power looking benevolently down from the ozone. The surgeons came in early in the morning, bleary-eyed in their scrubs, to tell us that it had gone well. The kidney was in place, it should work, but there was always a chance that she would reject it. There would be more days in the hospital, many more medications, and tremendous caution. We entered the treacherous emotional land of wait-and-see, but when we were allowed to see her she was pink again after years of being gray, and even her voice was stronger. My father stayed with her and I went home to have Thanksgiving with my husband and son.
She continued to improve, and by the time I found myself at our friend’s house, surrounded by card tables and strangers, I was allowing myself to feel hope, even as I mourned for that other family, the one that was waking up not to a day of football and overeating, but to another day of enveloping shock and grief. Before we all sat down to eat, our host asked us all to take part in one of their traditions in which a kernel of dried corn was passed to everyone assembled; when the kernel came to you it was your turn to express gratitude. I would, at any other time in my life have dismissed this activity as sentimental pandering of the worst kind, but on that day, in that place, it was as natural to me as praying had been two nights before. The kernel passed to my son, who said he was “grateful that Grandma got a kidney.” There were, of course, tears, and a smattering of applause; it was a Hallmark moment. When he reached up to put the tiny thing into my own hand, I silently thanked the other family, the one that had shown such compassion to a cruelly unjust universe, and given us back a mother, a wife, the center of our own cosmos.
“Me too, Sam.” I said out loud, “me too.”