The loud whirring of the treadmill, the force of my feet as they rhythmically beat the track... Eyes closed and clinched, my mind uncomprehending... Tears flowing; thoughts racing. Prayers formed and unformed wrenched upward. It was just before 5:30am on a dark February morning and I exercised not from discipline but from a need for release from some of the tension and confusion that had frozen my brain and emotions. My sister would probably die that day.
* * *For weeks, and months as it turned out, she had faced a puzzling array of symptoms that her doctors had dismissed. Christmas overwhelmed her and the new year was daunting. Even her unfailingly loving and supportive husband didn't comprehend her situation.
In a telephone conversation less than 2 weeks before, she described her symptoms and frustrations and asked me, "Don't I sound sick to you?" Yes, she did and she was frustrated because no one was taking her seriously.
And then within days, she was very sick and in the hospital and the doctors weren't sure what was happening. Yes, there seemed to be some liver infection; not hepatitis. A diagnosis was not forthcoming, and as the doctors pondered her illness worsened. She was terribly sick and still they dithered.
Finally, days too late, they sent her by ambulance to the University of Chicago Medical Center. GJ's husband and oldest son followed the ambulance, hearts heavy with fear and thoughts racing. JL drove from Michigan and I from the NW suburbs of Chicago. We left our jobs and homes and schedules and took a leap off an unfamiliar cliff to be close to and support and comfort our sister.
As I headed to my car that morning I grasped at ideas for comfort because I knew my limitations--I could bring my sister my prayers, my support, and maybe some comfort. I grabbed my favorite afghan, a cross-stitched sampler I'd made of a Bible verse GJ had offered me a few years earlier when I needed comfort, and a cassette recorder with the tapes I found most comforting--My Utmost for His Highest, Amy Grant, and Rich Mullins.
On admittance to that famous teaching hospital, GJ was diagnosed with liver failure. Acute liver failure. Her situation was deemed critical.
When they'd settled her in the hospital room and JL and I were allowed to see her, we found her relieved and weak, hooked up to monitors--tubes of fluid moving in and out. Her tears were amber--not tears of fear but tears of weakness and relief. Relieved that her illness was finally recognized and being taken seriously. God's grace and strength were with her.
The cath bag's fluid was an incomprehensible tea-stained hue. Strong tea. JL explained that without the purifying processes of the liver, the toxins were poisoning GJ. The liver was failing and no one yet knew why.
* * *It's always alarming when a phone rings very early or very late--the noise of the treadmill masked the sounds, but CA heard and immediately brought the phone to me. Overnight miracles had begun to happen. True miracles. God-designed and controlled.
Late in the evening, JL had returned to her daughter's apartment and CN and SN to the nearest motel, exhausted and numb. With the lights out, CN could hardly think; barely pray. The prognosis the doctors had given was more than grim. GJ needed a new liver. Now.
I'm not sure how the transplant list works now, but 13 years ago wherever your name fell on the recipient list when the doctors classified you as critical, you moved to the top of the list. But, organs are not a commodity that can be warehoused or procured. In all likelihood, there would be no liver available in the short-term and the short-term was all that GJ had.
Laying in the dark but not sleeping, CN and SN were none-the-less startled by the ringing phone. As he reached for it, CN glanced at the clock and registered in that split second the time was 11:11pm. GJ's birthday is 11/11.
The hospital was calling. There was an available liver and the helicopter team was heading out to retrieve it. If the tissue matched, the liver was GJ's. I doubt CN or SN slept at all.
By the time my phone rang at 5:30am the tissues were matched and GJ was being prepped for the transplant.
Numbly, I began to dress and prepare to move forward into a day I could not fathom. Because I am a problem solver and a nurturer, I decided I needed to be in charge of food. I loaded our large, wheeled cooler into my car and started my journey. Recently a Byerly's had opened near Woodfield and while prepared and semi-prepared food is a grocery store staple today, Byerly's was a front runner and a mecca of possibilities. I decided that we were going to need top quality sustenance that day. Stopping off near Woodfield was a necessary detour.
I don't recall how many hours the surgery lasted. It seemed all day. The waiting room filled up throughout the day with GJ's sons and daughter and their spouses and babies, our siblings and nieces and nephews, dad and mom, friends of GJ's from church and her pastor. NC flew in from Seattle. I remember tension and silences, laughter and babies' cries. GJ's daughter JB was a new mommy with a 10-day old infant and a breaking heart. I have a vivid memory of CN's arm around JB, her head on his shoulder, and despair on their faces.
At some point GJ was out of surgery with the replacement liver, still critical but living. People migrated home and to the homes of friends and family--hearts heavy and prayers flowing we were citizens in an unknown land. All of us.
It was late, at least fully dark on this winter night and I only remember CN, JL, NC, and I being left, but there were probably a few others still waiting when the transplant doctor, the surgeon, came out to talk to us. Things had gone very well. GJ had the new liver. There had been a decision made as to whether to replace one kidney that had ceased functioning. They didn't, betting on the kidney to kick in once the liver was functioning.
GJ's liver had been the size of a baseball, where a normal liver is more the size of a football. The biopsy had shown that there were no living cells in GJ's liver. You can't live a day without a liver.
That day was not GJ's day to die, it was God's day to work his miracles. I don't know why it seems that God waits until the last minute so much of the time. I guess he really doesn't and that he performs miracles and acts in all of our lives so often and with such forethought that we can't imagine all he's spared us from enduring.
The road to recovery was long and rocky, but 13+ years later her life is full and dynamic. Her marriage is loving, her children are thriving, her grandchildren well-loved. She quilts and teaches Bible study; she's become the rock our aging aunt leans upon.
We learned to live life to the fullest and to marvel at God's provision and sufficiency. We learned that our family functions beautifully when challenges arise. When both our mom and brother-in-law died just over a year later, we accepted those losses as realities of life. As we learned to celebrate GJ's miracle, we also learned to accept the grief and pain of miracles denied.
Our family story has had many more chapters since then and we have many more still to be written. For now we are learning how to support and manage the care of our elders--the balance required to live our own lives while negotiating the time and energy required for the larger family unit.
We don't have a map yet, but each day and each experience is teaching us how to traverse this territory one day and one event at a time. When we project ahead we are overwhelmed, so we are beginning to remind each other of God's strength for today, his sufficiency in times past, and our eternal hope for the future.
We won't get it right every time. We will flounder and fail and complain. But, we will do the best that we can because we won't forget that God is in control. He does miracles that we can see and marvel at, and he does miracles that we can't even imagine.