Micki, her husband Nadie, and four friends were in a hospital waiting room while their friend Chuck was in surgery. Micki tells her extraordinary story of the strings that filled the last few hours of a stranger's life with joyful connections.
We were too old to have a second cup of coffee. The six of us sat tense and blurry eyed in the waiting room.
We had taken over one of the seating groups the hospital provided, couches pulled into a square with a low table in the center. Michelle had brought her knitting. The rest of us showed up with the games, memories, and armor of 35 years of friendship founded on ancient, Laurel Canyon communal living hippy bonds.
Michelle’s yarn was knotted. We spread out through the large waiting room, each holding some part of the string, the knots punctuating and directing us to veer into the aisles and down the hallway.
Other waiters unclenched their faces to smile or comment, glad to have some diversion. One woman, claiming to be an excellent “picker,” joined us. Michelle told her she looked familiar. The woman said “There are only 14 faces in the world and I have the #12 face.”
#12 was with her husband, her mother and her father who was scheduled to have his knee replaced. Our groups melded. Nadie’s pronunciation of the word “out” tipped his 40 year Canadian expatriate status to Robert, #12’s father.
Nadie sat next to #12’s mother, Evelyn, another Montreal native, and they unraveled their connection as the rest of us worked on the yarn. They had both lived on Saint Urban Street, on the very same block. They had attended the same grammar school, and Evelyn had bought fruit at Nadie’s grandparents' store. She had emigrated before Nadie was born, but the bond between them was as fresh as it was instant.
Hours passed untying the knotted yarn. We discovered each other and shared ourselves. We had all lived in Los Angeles and Sherry, Chuck’s wife, Michelle and Art still did. #12’s family had lived in the same areas of the city. Chinese restaurants and Jewish delis, long-defunct hamburger joints and department stores were savored…we seemed to have walked in each other’s footsteps.
Robert was called back to prepare for his operation. The conversation and unraveling continued. Robert returned. Some blood work had been lost. He joined the conversation. Someone suggested Pastrami sandwiches from Canter’s. Orders were taken, matzo ball soup, turkey on rye, piled high corned beef, fat pastrami, coleslaw or potato salad, Dr. Brown's sodas.
Robert again was summoned to prepare. We continued to sneak visit Chuck, our increasingly impatient patient, in the Recovery Room. And we talked and unraveled yarn. Scissors were suggested and rejected. Robert re-appeared. He preferred to be in the waiting room with us.
We heard stories from Robert and Evelyn’s 58-year marriage and told our tales of living together in a 1920’s movie star’s Laurel Canyon mansion. The way we got there was very different, but we all shared the ability to commit. Robert again was called to prepare for surgery.
This time he came out with the IV in his arm, dragging the stand and balancing with his cane. We cheered. The yarn finally, triumphantly, was unsnarled, but the conversation continued. And eventually Chuck, still in Recovery, began to feel his feet.
A nurse came and told us that Chuck had been assigned a room. He would be there shortly. We left our friends, wishing each other luck and quick healing. We agreed to meet thoughout the days of convalescence.
We spread out in Chuck’s tiny room and waited. No Chuck. Two by two we again snuck into the Recovery Room where Chuck lay snarling, impatient, in pain and helpless. The second time Sherry went to visit, she heard a “code blue” called. There was a rush of activity. The anesthesiologist who was trying to manage Chuck’s throbbing pain rushed from the room. The nurses asked us to leave, firmly.
We waited a half hour or more in the room assigned to Chuck. Fearing that Chuck would feel abandoned and desperate, Sherry and I again entered the hallway to the Recovery Room. We could visit; the staff was busy elsewhere. When the nurse returned she asked us to leave. As we did we saw #12 and her family walking up the hall. She looked at me and shook her head. The code blue had been for her father. It was a massive stroke. Robert was gone. They were shocked, devastated and grateful. They came to thank us for making his last hours joyous.
We staggered down the hallway to find Evelyn who melted into Nadie. “I never imagined,” she told him. Holding each other in the hospital hall, it was wrenching to untangle. We exchanged email addresses with #12. She pressed her pre-paid parking permit into my hand. I could hardly breathe.
Three days later, Chuck was home, sedated with a morphine patch, healing at record speed and almost convinced he would live. The day before we had seen Robert's obituary in the newspaper. Everyone wanted to go but, because of other commitments, couldn’t. Only Nadie and I could.
I felt uncomfortable about going. We hadn't brought any nice clothes with us to Los Angeles. We only had jeans. Wouldn't it be disrespectful to attend a funeral in jeans? We'd known these people only for 8 hours. Where were the boundries? It felt presumptuous, overstepping but we were compelled. We had to go.
We parked and walked up to the little sanctuary. When #12's husband saw us, he said, "Oh, you came," and his eyes filled with tears. Then #12 saw us and her mouth opened and she drew in a breath. She said. "I wasn't going to speak but now you're here." She took us to her mother, and Evelyn's eyes lit up. She told the people who had been surrounding her who we were. Then she looked at us, leaned in and said softly "I don't know who is going to take care of me now." It was so intimate.
We found seats towards the back of the sanctuary. Robert's brother spoke first. Then #12 spoke. She said that she wanted to talk about her father's last day because it was a wonderful day - a day he was really happy, really connected, a day that he had a great time. And then she spoke all of our names, mine, Nadie's, Sherry's, Terri's, Michelle’s and Art's. And she thanked us and told people we were there. She told about the yarn and the knots and the hours spent untangling and how she got her #12 moniker. She told about how long her father had waited, the delays before his name was called to be prepped for the operation, and how he had come out three times, the last with the IV in his arm... because he wanted to stay and share stories and the laughter in that waiting room. She said it was magic. A special gift.
We went to the burial site. When we left, we said goodbye to #12, and we embraced Evelyn. She told us that we are “Mishpucha” now.
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