It’s become a joke when we walk into the surgeon’s office together.
"Here are the Mary’s!" the receptionist crows.
Our mother and father, devout Catholics, named all my sisters and me "Mary" and our five brothers "Joseph". Except for one Mary and one Joseph, the rest of us go by our other names.
It’s caused quite a bit of confusion throughout the years, but never so much as when the four of us marched into Dr. Grange’s office armed with our medical records for our first appointment. When we’re traveling in a pack to the surgeons’ offices, we try to alleviate confusion by simply answering to "Mary". But Dr. Grange has tried hard to keep our names straight and always refers to me by my full name, Mary Catherine. The reason for that, I believe, is that both she and I are keenly aware of another Mary Cathryn.
Almost 25 years ago, before she was a surgeon, Dr. Grange was a young slip of a girl married to a boy who was four years behind me in high school. He eventually moved back to Grand Island after med school to join his father in the family optometry practice, and he brought his young bride with him.
Although Dr. Grange never knew me during that period, I knew who she was. I had always liked her husband and thought they made a beautiful couple. She gave birth to a son named Jack and then a beautiful baby girl named Mary Cathryn.
When Mary Cathryn was a few months old, however, she died tragically of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). I remember attending a wedding of a mutual acquaintance shortly after Mary Cathryn’s death. Dr. Grange’s husband, my old high school friend, introduced me to his lovely young wife, and I was painfully aware of the sadness in her eyes. I shook hands with her politely, but really what I wanted to say was, "I have a baby, too. I’m so very sorry." But I didn’t. It seemed to me that she was using every ounce of energy to hold her fragile self together.
They moved away after that. Dr. Grange made the monumental decision to enroll in medical school in Omaha.. I remembered little Mary Cathryn in my prayers, and I was saddened to learn sometime later that her parents’ marriage had not survived. We never saw any of them again after that. Until Terri was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Dr. Grange is currently a noted breast cancer surgeon in Omaha, and she came highly recommended to Terri. The first time all my sisters and I met Dr. Grange at Terri’s first appointment, I told her that we had been briefly introduced many years ago. She was still lovely and personable.
Last week at my pre-op appointment was the first time we had spoken to each other alone. She guided me through the pre-op exam and reassured me about the surgery. Finally, we just talked.
"I always notice your name right away," she smiled.
"I know," I smiled back, "because Mary Cathryn was the name of your little daughter. I still pray for her every day."
Dr. Grange was touched, and all at once, the doctor/patient formalities slipped away, and we were just two women who loved our children.
"I was only going for an hour to shop," she said, describing that day nearly a quarter of a century ago. A good friend persuaded her to leave her baby for the very first time for an outing to the mall. Another good friend offered to watch Mary Cathryn. "I was breast feeding," Dr. Grange recalled, "so I could only be gone for an hour."
But before the hour had passed, little Mary Cathryn was gone. Dr. Grange described the call, her arrival at the hospital, the face of her husband who had arrived first. "I wanted to lie down and die with my baby," she said.
But she couldn’t. Her two-year-old son needed her. "Jack doesn’t remember his baby sister," Dr. Grange said, "but he remembers the time when I was sad." Mother and son still share a powerful bond.
"I always wondered if Mary Cathryn’s death was the reason you decided to go to medical school," I suggested.
"It was," she said. "I couldn’t understand my own baby’s autopsy report."
During that traumatic time in her life, Dr. Grange suffered another tragic loss as well - the death of her closest sister, only 26-years-old, from breast cancer. Her life, which had only before seemed so certain and predictable as a young wife and mother, suddenly veered in a direction she never, I’m sure, could have possibly fathomed. But Dr. Grange sees the divine big picture in her dramatically altered life.
The fact that her baby died during that single hour when her mother left her seems, to Dr. Grange, like a merciful blessing from God. "I couldn’t have watched Mary Cathryn die," she said. And now, reflecting back on her remarkable life, she says she feels as if her baby was telling her, "Goodbye for now, Mom!" Mary Cathryn had completed her journey. Now it was time for her mother to start hers.
"My baby and my sister are my angels," Dr. Grange said. With the help of her two angels, Dr. Grange has saved hundreds and hundreds of women’s lives, my sisters’ and mine included.
Sometimes, in the midst of pain, we are called to change our fates. It can seem overwhelming, unthinkable. Dr. Grange embarked on her own astonishing journey because of a tiny baby called Mary Cathryn. Out of piercing sorrow was born the desire to heal. She healed my sister Terri. And my sister Deb.
It strikes me as no coincidence that our paths have crossed again. Dr. Grange was compelled to change her fate, and she is helping my sisters and me to change ours.
And somewhere, our angels are smiling.