Thursday, July 11, 2013

If She Dies...

The story goes like this: After receiving the “you’d better come now” phone call from our mother, my sister Karen arrived in San Francisco on the 5th of 38 days I would spend in the intensive care unit. I was nearing the triple-digit mark in pints of blood transfused, and apparently – though I can’t confirm this because I was comatose at the time – I looked like hell.

My brother, ever the family patriarch since our father’s untimely death when we were kids, felt the need to warn Karen before taking her into my hospital room. “Heads up,” Tim said to her in the ICU hallway. “Lauren is twice her usual size and looks as if she’s been floating facedown in a river for weeks. It’s not a pretty sight.”

They entered my room and took their places on either side of the high-tech bed, where Karen – both my best friend and nemesis growing up – got her first glimpse of me: bloated, unconscious, amber-yellow skin, lips curled back from my teeth, and tubes, wires, and machinery crowding and connecting to my barely functioning body. Despite years of working with the sick and dying in hospitals and nursing homes, Karen’s expression betrayed her shock that the ghastly and unresponsive body in the bed was indeed her little sister. It was at this point that my brother leaned across my distended abdomen (thank you, liver failure) toward my sister and said, “If she dies, I get her bike.”

It’s an age-old family joke that elicits a scowl from our mother every time my siblings and I say it to one another, usually when one of us is embarking on a lengthy journey or precarious endeavor. “I love you” has never come easily for my family, and humor – served with a healthy dose of “noogies” – was our preferred expression of affection growing up. Tim’s utterance of those seven words, at a time most would deem highly inappropriate, brought an immediate smile to Karen’s face while simultaneously incensing the attending nurse, who hadn’t yet come to know, or appreciate, my family’s sick sense of humor.

The off-color jokes continued over the coming weeks, most frequently during the worst of times. While sitting in the ICU waiting room after receiving particularly disconcerting news about my prognosis, my family and a few close friends had a group meltdown. Not one of them was able to muster any of the optimism they had taken turns providing when one or another of them would lose faith in my ability to recover. Then, without warning, my sister started laughing. “She can’t die,” she said with such certainty the others stopped crying long enough to hear her reasoning. “Why not?” someone asked. “Because,” Karen said, as if stating the obvious, “that would deprive us of the pleasure of killing her for putting us through this nightmare!” And with that, the tension broke and tears were transformed to laughter, offering the briefest of reprieves – but a reprieve nonetheless. 

Inappropriate? You bet. Lacking tact? Yup. Necessary for my family as they dealt with the devastating probability that I wouldn’t pull through? Absolutely!

Not only do I enjoy hearing the dark humor anecdotes of my time spent in the ICU, but I applaud my siblings for having had the courage to “go there.” Sometimes, the only way to face the horrific is with irreverence and absurdity. In the toughest of times, I find that humor is like chocolate: the darker it is, the better it is for you.

"No, you can't have my bike."
And I'm happy to report that my bike remains unequivocally in my possession.

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Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Lauren's memoir, Zuzu's Petals: A True Story of Second Chances, free.  Click here and go to the link below the "Buy the Book" button.  Zuzu's Petals is also available on Kindle and Nook.  Hardcover signed and inscribed copies are available at Happy reading!