We noticed the other family the first day at the hospital. There was an attractive, energetic mother/grandmother in her early 60s, and a young matron with a bright-eyed baby. They were dark-haired and small. The strong family resemblance made it obvious the two women were mother and daughter.
The Family, as we called them, kept vigil all week, like us. Two other children, a boy of about 8 and a girl of 6, and two other young women (the young matron’s sisters?) were often there. But the two women and the baby were the constants.
We didn’t know who they had in the neurology wing, and of course we couldn’t ask. The absence of men in the family group led us to believe one of their husbands was in a room there, as was our sister, Lib. We didn’t see The Family down our hall, so we assumed intensive care. I went down that hall only once. The bustling, silent urgency of the place was unnerving.
I imagine they speculated about us, as well. There were five of us the first days. They probably guessed we were sisters. Besides the physical resemblance (all fair and hearty), there is something about the way we interact; comfortably, with the ease of long practice. Old, familiar annoyances bubble to the surface, but underneath is a deep bedrock of love. Two of us, Mary Kay and I, were left as watchdogs for our family.
The other family spent a lot of time in the long, window-walled corridor that linked the regular neuro rooms with neuro intensive care. It was lined with benches, tables and chairs. They fed and entertained the baby there. We admired his sweet disposition. They smilingly replied that he was not always so good.
The corridor was, at heart, a thoroughfare. Physicians walked and talked briskly by, trailing residents and medical students like the tail of a comet. Carts squeaked along carrying food, drugs, and supplies. Gurneys smoothly, quietly moved their burdens to the next round of tests with a minimum of jostling. Their riders looked so ill.
What was Lib doing in this place, the imposter, healthy and laughing? Soon, we knew, the flocks of doctors that flew in and out of her room would realize this was all a funny, terrible mistake. They would scold her for wasting their time.
The Family made themselves at home in a small waiting room down around the corner, especially when the older children were there. They spread their books, electronics and snacks across a table and the women took the two, comfy chairs, the baby in his stroller between them. They had enough paraphernalia for an army on the march.
We were in and out of that waiting room all the time. We needed the long walk to stretch our legs, and to give our sister some privacy. Too, that’s where the coffee was. We consumed endless cups of that horrible brew. The pot was often empty, but my sister and I quickly mastered the Bunn machine. Once a visitor asked for directions, mistaking our brisk competence at the coffee machine for the efficiency of employees.
One afternoon they were trying to lull the baby to sleep. We whispered about how hard it is to get a child to nap when you want him to, the four of us meeting over the shared bond of motherhood. We did not discuss why we were all there.
Something bad happened on the sixth day. There were no children that day. The mother/grandmother sat alone in the corridor, staring out of the window. She did not meet my eyes this morning. Hers were red and swollen; her face, a study in despair. The 3 daughters were there, huddled down the hall by the elevators, talking in hushed whispers. They approached her solicitously from time to time. We decided then that the person lying in the room was her husband – the father/grandfather.
The Family left early on Thursday, and we feared the worst.
But on Friday morning they were back in the waiting room. The wife/mother/grandmother looked tired, but composed. Maybe a crisis had passed?
Friday afternoon and it was time for us to go. For good or ill, our sister was being sent home.
We took one more trip to the waiting room to top off our cups of weak coffee, and stopped short on the threshold. The room was packed. The Family was there, along with others – sons-in-law, aunts, uncles and cousins. This was a day of farewells for both of our families. It seemed that their farewells were to be more permanent.
We wanted to stop and offer condolences, to speak some words of comfort to the people we had come to know, on some level, in our shared waiting. But we didn’t. We had no right. After all, we were strangers.