For three years, Julie Bombeck has been on a nationwide transplant list for a new pair of lungs.
A good friend to so many of us, including my sisters and me, Julie has battled Cystic Fibrosis for more than half her life. Just a few weeks ago, her own lungs deteriorated so rapidly that she was rushed to a Minneapolis transplant hospital in a last desperate hope that a donor might still come through.
Deb was worried about her. "I want you to promise," she said to me, "that if I don’t wake up from my surgery, you’ll make sure Julie gets my lungs."
I hate it when Deb talks like that. "You bet," I said, "and we’ll put your liver on ice just in case one of us should develop a drinking problem."
But miraculously, in the 11th hour, Julie received her new lungs, and every single person in her hometown rejoiced and immediately filled out a donor card. Julie Bombeck is our hero.
So today, it wasn’t necessary for Deb to donate her lungs to anybody. But she would have. She would have parceled out every organ in her body like Christmas presents if she thought it would help somebody.
Deb’s husband Brian and their two younger daughters Brandi and Sydney were waiting with Deb in Surgery Prep when Mary, Terri and I arrived at 8 this morning. If Deb was fearful, she wasn’t showing it. We hugged her and told her we loved her, and it was only then that she choked back a few emotional tears.
But her husband Brian Durning, the biggest smart aleck I know with the possible exception of my own husband, refused to let any of us become weepy. "I hope you’re ready for a good time," he informed us with his gets-me-every-time poker face. "We’ll be playing Charades in the waiting room."
"And I brought my game of LIFE," 23-year-old Brandi joked with a straight face uncannily like her father’s.
If you have to endure three hours in a cold waiting room while your sister undergoes a double mastectomy, be sure to do it with the Durning family. And throw in my stepmother while you’re at it.
Our stepmother Kris arrived shortly after Deb was wheeled into surgery. Kris would pretty much drive through an F-7 tornado if she thought we needed her, and we did. Between Brian and Brandi’s irreverent jokes and Kris’s appreciative laughter, the three hours passed with only minimal anxiety, and exactly at noon, Dr. Grange and Dr. Montag came striding through the double doors to deliver the good news.
"No sign of disease in the lymph nodes!" Dr. Grange said immediately. It was the news we were longing to hear, and once again, those two good doctors with their reassuring smiles became like saviors to us.
As we were hugging them and each other, our youngest sister Caroline arrived, and we trooped down to the hospital cafeteria to eat lunch until Deb was transferred to her own room.
"Caroline," Mary said in her very direct way, "have you made your appointment to have this surgery yet?"
She was halfway joking, but Caroline immediately bridled. "I’m not having a double mastectomy," she said shortly.
"Sure you are," Mary said confidently.
Caroline, at 42, is petite and drop dead gorgeous. Newly divorced with three children, she’s just entered the world of dating again, and the last thing she’s thinking about is getting rid of her breasts. Who could blame her? I felt sure she would be diligent about her breast health and would confront her family history in her own way, but Mary’s supreme confidence has always cracked me up.
However, before the two of them could engage in any kind of a spirited debate, a nurse arrived to inform us that Deb was in her hospital room and was ready to see her family. My brother-in-law Brian, who is as tender-hearted as he is ornery, instructed Brandi and 11-year-old Sydney to go first, and they rushed down the hallway.
In my mind’s eye, there are few things I’ve witnessed as lovely as the picture today of my loving nieces carefully embracing their mother. Even after three hours of grueling surgery, Deb smiled her beautiful smile and gazed with love at her girls.
"You look so good!" Kris said to her.
"Do I?" Deb said. "Would you say I’m radiant?" she joked.
She was. She was beautiful and radiant and heroic.
My little sister Deb lost her breasts today. She gave them up for the sake of her girls, much like she’d give up her lungs for Julie Bombeck. That’s the way she is.
It’s days like today that I realize what Deb means to me. A long, emotional 24 hours will do that to you. The day is finally over, and soon I will go to bed. But first I will drop to my knees to thank God for Deb, who is precious to me.
And for Mary.
And for Terri.
And for Caroline, who will fight like hell to keep her breasts.
Sleep well, my sisters.