"My husband always said, 'My wife can fix anything.'"
Her name was Karen. A moment before, I hadn't known her. I'd stood alone in the crowded waiting room of the hospital--so many people in it I couldn't find any place to sit down, every chair lining the walls already taken, every table encircled by chairs already filled--and looked around, a bit lost. Unless you're in a hospital waiting for a new baby, a waiting room isn't the happiest place to be. People were coughing. People were nervous. People were fidgeting. Otherwise they weren't moving. They were going nowhere. The only seat left open was next to a very well-dressed woman with beautifully braided hair, and her large purse was in that chair. I hesitated; luckily she noticed me, and nodding said the spot actually belonged to her son, but since he had gone down to the cafeteria for lunch I was welcome to have it, at least until he came back. I sat and told her I was grateful, that I was waiting on a loved one, and overly anxious, and that it meant something just to be able to sit down.
"Are you waiting on a loved one too?" I asked.
"And are you nervous?"
"I'm at peace."
We both hesitated. A hospital is a private experience, no matter how public the room. Neither one of us wanted to pry. But at length I asked her how she managed to be at peace.
"It's because I know it's going to be okay."
"But how do you know that?"
"Because I've been through all this before."
With our hands on the table across from each other, most of our shyness slipped away now, and she told me, straightforwardly, that she was waiting for her husband, Curtis, who had already been through a heart transplant. It had started three years before, when he'd come down with nothing but a funny cough. At first, they'd both thought it was just a reaction to the chemicals he had to pick up at the Houston plants where he worked as a truck driver. She was a nurse, and she couldn't find anything wrong with him; and so they went on. Until that one evening when Curtis told her he couldn't breathe out of his left nostril.
"'Oh, don't be a sissy,' I told him, 'you just have a cold.'"
"'No, honey,' he says, 'I'm serious. Something's wrong. I can't breathe out of one side of me.'"
And then he collapsed.
The doctors decided it had been, not a reaction to harsh chemicals, but rather a rare strain of virus that had attacked and destroyed his heart muscle. He was put on the list for a transplant, but wasn't likely to make it, she was told. There just wasn't time. They were about simply to go home, with a portable pumping device attached to him to give him a few more weeks, when Curtis had looked her in the eye with a look that said, No.
"And that's when I said, 'Okay, you wait here'--and I left him and I went down to the hospital chapel and prayed. I'd never even really talked to God before. We were never what you would call intimate. But I said, 'Lord, I know I've always been able to fix everything myself, but obviously I can't fix this. I think I need help. My husband needs a transplant. I don't know what to do. I just don't.' And the next day my husband was given the heart of a nineteen-year-old. I didn't stop to ask questions. I was just thankful. I remember at two in the morning the surgeon came out and he told me that young heart was beating all on its own inside my husband's fifty-six-year-old chest, that it knew just what to do. And a week later, we were sent home. And a few weeks after that, Curtis went back to driving his truck around again."
Her eyes fell. She didn't seem to want to go on.
"Is he . . . in for his heart again now?" I went on, heedless. Because her story had made me forget mine. I had transplanted, substituted it for mine.
"No. Something else."
"I'm so sorry."
"But I'm at peace."
"Because you've been through this before."
This time--she spoke after a long pause--her husband had fallen down and hit his head. Hard. It had had nothing to do with his heart. He had fallen, and they had done a CT-scan, and discovered that a huge lumpy mass had planted itself on the front lobe of his brain. He was in neurosurgery. They'd taken him in at nine that morning, and he wasn't expected to be out until three that afternoon.
I looked at the clock on the waiting room wall. It was only one.
"But I'm at peace," she repeated.
Then I heard my name being called out. My own loved one was out of surgery. The surgeon wanted to see me. To talk to me. I stood, nervously.
"Honey, thanks for talking to me, what's your name?" she asked quickly. "Mine is Karen." She stood.
We held each other, chest to chest. A long moment.