During the last 3-4 years, my mother has had more knee replacements than anyone ought to have in a lifetime. It’s a long complicated story, but suffice to say you do NOT want to get an infection when you get a knee replacement. Curing that infection is not a matter of proper rest, drinking plenty of fluids, and a prescription for a Z-pack. It’s an ordeal that requires not one, but two additional surgeries, along with in-home IV antibiotics and so much more. And all that was just for the first knee. Getting the second one done was yet to come–overcompensating as it was for the pain and infection in knee-number-one. It’s been ridiculously frustrating and also rather frightening for Mother and therefore for all of us who love her.
Thus, you can imagine my alarm when my sister called last night, beginning the conversation with, “Mama’s fine. She’s fine, really. She’s in the Emergency Room, but she’s fine.” Naturally, I assumed that she was not fine in the least. Worst case scenarios raced through my psyche at a heart wrenching pace. Thankfully, Mother really is fine. It is not a blood clot as first thought; instead it is a common and treatable (though painful) condition that is (somewhat) easily corrected. Last night, the emergency personnel conducted the appropriate tests, applied the necessary treatment, and released her. As a matter of fact, she called me first thing this morning, sounding just like herself, getting ready to head to church. So she’s fine. (Allow me to remind myself of this one more time, if you will; it’s been our experience that where Mother’s knees are concerned, everything is serious. She’s okay though. Really.)
But that’s not the whole story. Not even close.
My parents, though they are 79 and 81, are business owners who lead full, complex lives. (If something happened to either of them, our whole family would feel as if they’d been struck down in their youth.) Back in 2001, Mother and Daddy purchased Together Forever Wedding Chapel in North Myrtle Beach, SC; in 2008, my brother and his family moved to North Myrtle Beach to join our parents in operating Together Forever. So when Mother’s knee gave out on her Saturday, my sister-in-law was nearby; Hal and Daddy were there too, completing one wedding and preparing to begin the next one. Mother wasn’t in such dire straits that she wanted the business to come to a standstill to attend to her needs, so when she decided she should go to the ER, she asked her daughter-in-law to take her. After confirming the plan with Daddy and Hal, Mother and Kim took off, sans husbands.
Now, I have never taken for granted–I don’t think–the gift of my sister-in-law’s love for my parents. Even before she married my brother, Kim has been committed to our parents. She doesn’t think her devotion to them is anything that remarkable; it’s just who she is. But I recognize her unselfish commitment as extraordinary. You see last night, as my sister Dawn and I talked on the phone, trying to suppress our urges to drive straight to North Myrtle Beach, we would remind each other in turn, “Kim is there. Everything will be okay.” We knew that Kim would not allow our mother (who–let’s be honest–is a force to be reckoned with in her own right) to be ignored or overlooked. We knew that together they would ask the right questions. “Kim would tell us if we should go down.” We could sit still, trusting Mother to speak for herself and Kim to back her up. “Don’t worry. Kim’s with her.” And because she was there, we could breathe in and breathe out while we held our phones in our hands, waiting for an update. “Kim will tell us if she knows anything at all.” We never doubted it.
That’s power: the power of a sister who joined our family through marriage and instantly committed to be there for all of us, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.
It was the second time in a week I had experienced the power of a sister.
My own beloved mother-in-law has been seriously ill for most of the summer. She was admitted to the hospital (for the umpteenth time this summer) on Friday, July 28, 2017. At the time, I was actually in North Myrtle Beach for my family’s annual gathering there. When he heard the news about his mother, my husband Jay, who had not yet left Asheville, went immediately to his parents’ home that Friday night. He spent most of Saturday in the hospital with his mother and was about to go over on Sunday morning when his dad called him from his cell phone.
“Jay, come to the hospital now. Overnight, your mother’s health took a dangerous turn. Come now.” He quickly explained to Jay that his mother had been moved to the Intensive Care Unit and was having a procedure done that required anesthesia. Now, my mother-in-law has had muscular dystrophy for 50 years or more and her lungs and heart don’t always play nicely together any more. Adding anesthesia into that cocktail of concerns could end badly. Not doing the procedure would definitely end badly though, so they made plans to proceed.
As Jay got into the car, he called his sister with the urgent message; simultaneously, I happened to call my father-in-law. When he answered, he was distraught, beside himself with fear and anxiety. I’d never–in 30 years of marriage plus 2 and 1/2 years of dating–heard him sound that way. It was heartbreaking. I awakened my daughters to go with me to the hospital which, under the best conditions, was a ninety minute drive. Next, I called my son’s fiance; my son was about to lead in worship at his church so I was hesitant to call him directly. I knew Addison would handle it and that together they would figure something out. (They were more than two and a half hours away, but arrived at the hospital as soon as possible.)
Oh wait. Did I mention that I had just had bilateral carpal tunnel surgery? Yeah, so that was about a week and a half old at that point. Pain was still pretty pronounced and function still limited to the slightest tasks. The surgeon’s post-op directions had said to avoid using my hands for lifting anything over two pounds, or pushing, pulling, or twisting. (You might be surprised at how many activities those restrictions eliminate.)
“Get food, don’t lift anything heavy, get caffeine, what else do I need, where are the girls, don’t hurt your hands, is there anyone else to call, maybe there’s a shortcut, is Jay at the hospital yet . . . ” My brain was grabbing at whatever it could find so that it didn’t have to process the possibility of losing my mother-in-law. It didn’t work. “What if she dies what if she dies what if she dies what if she dies what if she dies . . . ” it was the cadence of the cacophony in my mind.
“I’m going with you.” My sister, laden with a knitting project or two and her sling bag, wasn’t asking me. She was ready to go when we walked out the door.
“I don’t want to take you away from everyone,” I looked from Dawn to Mother and around at the rest of the family.
“It’s what we do,” Mother said. “This is what we do.”
We arrived at the hospital, emotion running high. The procedure was to take 15 minutes and when we arrived it had already been 45.
Dawn took a seat across the waiting room, present yet not intrusive. “I’ll just be over here if you need me,” she said, taking out her knitting.
I did need her. I needed her, for example, to run errands–it turns out that even in a crisis, people need to eat and dogs need potty breaks. But I also needed her to share the experience with Jay and me and the rest of the family. I needed her to be there in the flesh. My first best friend and playmate, my teacher and mentor, my friend and confidante. My sister’s presence helped me to be my best self. That’s a powerful presence right there.
Incidentally, all 12 of my mother-in-law’s immediate family members made it to see her when she came out of anesthesia. She’s still recovering, but for now the urgency has subsided. She welcomes your prayers for her continued improvement, as do we all.
So there you have it. Two mothers plus two sisters, at least in my life in the last week, equals the circumstances surrounding one emergency room visit plus one critical ICU patient, raised–that is, lifted–from untethered desperation to grounded hope by the power of two loving sisters.
Also, one more thing. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that when Hal learned what was happening, his response was, “I’m so glad Dawn could go. If she hadn’t been able to go, I would have gone with Aileen.”
It’s what we do. It’s just what we do.