She was nine and I was seven when she suddenly appeared at our church. Her name was Marlene and she had come to live with a lady she called her aunt. Since we both were at church every time there was a service, we soon became friends. I was goody two-shoes and she was the rebel.
I was raised in a very strict household. Women who painted their nails were obviously “sinners”. One Sunday Marlene said “Come down to the bathroom. I have something for you”. She pulled out a bottle of clear fingernail polish. I felt giddy and terrified at the same time as she stroked the clear liquid onto my nails. Would mother notice? Would God? I knew a color on your fingernails was a sin, but mother had never mentioned clear.
Every week I wrote to my brother, Tony. He had joined the Navy and was halfway around the world. Marlene began writing too. Then came the day when he began answering her letters.
Christmas time…and Tony came home on leave. He came to my room and handed me a little box. “Do you think Marlene will like these?” A lovely engagement and wedding ring set nestled there. He was going to marry her!
Marlene and Tony married and moved away. My life with Marlene, as I knew it, was over. She and I had a long distance relationship.
In 1998, our family began discussing where we would hold the next family reunion. I volunteered. That June, my family (including Tony and Marlene) gathered in my back yard. I had never seen tears in Marlene’s eyes. Yet when it came time for them to leave, she cried. It unsettled me. Something was wrong.
In October, Tony and Marlene traveled from Colorado Springs to Ft. Collins to visit our oldest brother and his wife. Tony was retiring. They had their trips all planned. As they passed through Denver on the way home, they stopped at a mall. Marlene entered the restroom…and didn’t come out. She had experienced a major heart attack. Tony watched helplessly as they rushed her to a hospital.
She survived the attack. But with all the testing they performed on her she received a new diagnosis…cancer. She needed major surgery, but her heart was too weak. Finally they scheduled surgery for December 2nd. I called her daily, just old friends visiting.
December 2nd, Tony called to say Marlene was out of surgery and in recovery. But several hours later, Marlene had still not awakened.
Dec. 3rd, and she was still not awake.
Dec. 4th and no improvement. But when Tony called to give me the update, he told me, “Happy Birthday”. One of the last instructions Marlene gave him was to remember my birthday on the 5th. She was still reaching out.
Dec. 5th and Tony reported only static in her brain and her lungs were filling. Monday might be the day to decide to remove life support…and Tony must make it. But for anyone who knew Marlene, the decision was already made. She would never want to exist hooked to machines.
On the phone, I say “This time I’m not asking if you want me to come. I’m telling. I’ll be there tomorrow.” The wheels are set in motion for my journey to say “goodbye” and to stand by Tony.
Short night; emergency plane ticket.
All too soon, I’m standing by Marlene’s hospital bed. I instantly want to turn and run from the room screaming “No”. This still form in the bed is not Marlene. I hold her hand. I call her name and let her know I’ve come. No response.
All the testing is done. Options are given. The doctors need direction. The family begins to gather to be with Tony as he faces his moment of decision.
December 9th Tony and I watch as the sunrise reflects off of Pikes Peak. Tony is dressed in a suit. I’m dressed in my best. He says, “I see you’ve got the same idea I do”. I’ve dressed up to honor Marlene.
At the hospital, the family is summoned to a conference room. We all know what’s coming. A doctor, nurse, and the case manager come in. We hear the words “brain stem activity only” for the first time. The doctor shakes Tony’s hand and leaves.
Wet eyes and blowing noses…eyes meeting eyes across the round table. We are in agreement, but that doesn’t make it easy.
Marlene is going home for Christmas.
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