Thursday, February 10, 2011


There’s a painting on the wall of the waiting room at Midlands Hospital.  It depicts a beautiful woodsy scene at sunrise with railroad tracks winding away in the trees.

I could tell you about every painting in that little room, about how the rocking chair leans a little to the left, and exactly where to find the Splenda.

We clustered together – Mary’s three girls, Deb, Terri, Terri’s daughter Patti, and me – waiting to see Mary who was prepped for surgery and talking to Dr. Grange.

“You can see her now!” the sweet woman behind the desk informed us.  Sitting up in bed without a speck of makeup, Mary was smiling and looking like a middle school girl.

“Mom,” her teenage daughter Steph said immediately, “as soon as we came to the hospital this morning, Katie wanted to check out the cafeteria.”

Katie, a six-foot athlete who doesn’t weigh a hundred pounds soaking wet, glowered at her older sister.  “I did not, Mom.  I’m only worried about you.”

Ken, Mary’s husband, anxiously paced the floor, but Mary smiled serenely.

“Dr. Grange wants to look at the sentinel node,” she said.  We sensed apprehension behind her calm smile.  Because of a small spot that surfaced on Mary’s MRI, Dr. Grange explained that checking out the sentinel node, the first node where breast cancer would spread, would be the wisest course.

“Otherwise,” Dr. Grange said, “if the pathology report would indicate disease, we’d have to go back in later.” 

A little frisson of fear swept the room.

“It won’t be anything,” I ruffled Mary’s hair.

We kissed her goodbye, and in the waiting room, Katie and Steph, along with Jessica and Patti, sprawled out on the floor.  Long-legged and carelessly beautiful, my four nieces settled down for a game of cards.  Ken fidgeted in the rocker, and my sisters and I pretended not to be nervous.

When our stepmother Kris and our brother Tom arrived, however, we instantly brightened.  Kris and Tom always make it better.  Kris regaled us with a story she’d just read in the newspaper about the paralyzing blizzard in Chicago.  A courageous city bus driver, trapped in the blinding mess, rose majestically to face his passengers.  “We’re all going to die!” he screamed.

Kris, who has the most contagious laugh in the world, giggled helplessly, and pretty soon we were all howling over the distress of the hapless bus driver who, along with his passengers, thankfully did manage to survive the storm.

Kris’s ability to laugh has been life giving to all of us.  No one has had more reason NOT to laugh than Kris.  Almost 30 years ago when she was four months pregnant, her young husband Tom was killed in a car accident.  She raised little Nolan alone, and when he was six-years-old, she met and married our own widowed father, Dick Brown, and became the instant mother of ten more children.

Kris was 40, and Dad was 60.

“Just give me 20 years!” she begged. 

He could only give her ten before he collapsed on his treadmill at the age of 70 and died.

It took Kris and all of us a very long time to get over Dad’s death.  Dick Brown had been bigger than life and every thing to all of us.

“You know,” Kris pondered one evening as my sisters and I sat with her over margueritas.  “I hope the name of my third husband is Harry.”

We looked up, surprised.

“Then I can say I’ll marry any Tom, Dick or Harry.”

She couldn’t say it with a straight face.  After a stunned second, we laughed.  We laughed so hard, we cried.

Kris and our brother Tom are very close.  Tom is the rock steady member of the family.  Always and forever our baby brother, he nevertheless inherited Dad’s ability to radiate calm strength by merely sitting quietly in the middle of a room.  All our brothers are like Dad in that respect, but Tom has driven through three hours of early rush hour traffic to be present at all our surgeries.

“Except mine,” Deb accuses him frequently.  “You didn’t come for mine.”

Tom chuckles.  “Now, Deb.  You know you’ve never been my favorite sister.”

An emergency at the retirement facility Tom oversees kept him away from Deb’s surgery.  Otherwise, he’d have made the long trip for hers, too.

Tom was ten-years-old when Mom died.  I’ll always remember how he comforted our grandmother.  Devastated at the loss of her only child, Grandma suddenly broke down during Mom’s funeral, her shoulders heaving with sobs.  Sitting next to her, Tom, my sweet little brother who’d just lost his mother, reached up to pat her consolingly on the back.  He’s been that same sweet boy all his life, and the elderly residents at his nursing home adore him.  But not as much as his big sisters do.

As long as Kris and Tom are with us, we can manage those three long hours in the waiting room.  Even Ken began to relax.

“I’ll certainly miss all of you,” the sweet grandmotherly desk volunteer told me on my way to get coffee.

“We’ll miss you, too,” I said.  “Let’s exchange Christmas cards!”

After three and a half hours, Dr Grange and Dr. Montag finally pushed open the swinging doors.

We waited breathlessly.

“No evidence of disease in the node!” Dr. Grange smiled.  “She did just fine.”

We rose laughing to hug our two favorite doctors.  Four sisters and four double mastectomies.  This most difficult part of the journey was over, and we’d come through it pretty much unscathed.

“Dr. Grange, I’ll miss you!” Deb said.

“We’ll expect you at Thanksgiving!” I joked, clapping her on the back.

We collected our coats and threw away empty coffee cups.  Mary would remain in recovery for another hour, but we were leaving that small waiting room for the last time.  I moved the rocker back to its accustomed corner and cast a departing glance at my favorite painting on the wall. 

This little room had been good to us.

And I hope I never see it again.