Updated: Apr 20, 2022
Work is unusually quiet. I’m out of sorts and don’t know why. I startle when the phone rings. “Barb, you need to call this number,” my boss says.
I call immediately. Gay, Marcia’s sister-in-law, answers the phone.
“Oh, Barb…I’m so sorry to have to tell you this. Marcia collapsed earlier this morning. She was taken by ambulance to the hospital. She’s in critical condition in the intensive care unit there… She’s in a coma. Try not to worry, she’s in good hands. I’ll keep you posted.”
Coma? How can I not worry?
When I visited her two weeks ago, she thought her headaches were due to a sinus infection. The diagnosis must have been terribly wrong.
I live in Madison, Wisconsin, over two hours away from my sister. I leave work early and call my close friend Laurie.
“You need to pack your bags," she says. " We’re going to the hospital right now and I’m doing the driving.”
In less than an hour, we’re on the road. Radio off. Few words exchanged. Daylight fades into darkness. Headlights from approaching cars glow with eerie halos through my tears, A horrible feeling sweeps through me.
“She’s gone,” I say.
Arriving at the hospital’s intensive care unit, a nurse escorts me to a small room with harsh fluorescent lights and stark white walls. One of the doctors in the room points to a CAT scan image showing a large dark cloud inside Marcia’s brain.
“An aneurysm on your sister’s brain stem has burst. The damage is irreversible. Marcia is brain dead,” he says.
Numbness sets in.
A nurse touches my shoulder and guides me to Marcia’s room. The lights are dim and the antiseptic odor strong. Hair hidden by a surgical bandana wrapped tight around her head, I recognize her long eyelashes. She is connected to a life support ventilator. Ever so gently, I take her warm hand in mine. “Marcia?” It’s me, Barbara. Please don’t leave me. We are meant to grow old together.”
My brother Bill and our parents arrive from Iowa. Tom, Marcia's husband, is joined by many of his siblings...
I lose track of time. My sister has been on life support for a while now, maybe two days. I don't know. Doctors call us together for a consultation. Crowded in a small room, many of us sit cross-legged on the cold linoleum floor.
One of Tom’s brothers is a doctor. He has flown in from Colorado. Like the rest of us, his face is drawn with fatigue. “We all love Marcia,” he says, “but it’s clear we can’t save her. It’s very difficult for me to ask you this, but I want you to consider donating Marcia’s organs. There’s a mother in this hospital who will die unless she receives a heart transplant. There’s a young man who desperately needs a kidney.”
After difficult and heart breaking discussion, Tom asks my parents for their permission. Mom and Dad, though deep in sorrow, understand Marcia would want to save others. Before she is taken to surgery, everyone in the family says good-bye. I hold my sister’s hand one more time and tell her I love her.
April 17, 2022
(Anniversary of Marcia’s Birthday…If she had lived, she would have been 74.)
Many of us, if not most of us, have lost someone we have loved and though our grief may lose its sting, our loss remains tucked inside our hearts.
I will always miss my sister and can't change what happened. I'm able to retrieve the memory of her death in order to tell this story, but that is not what comes to mind when I think of her. Instead, I remember the gifts she shared while still alive and am grateful for the gifts she left behind.
Marcia’s organs and tissues brought new life to many including the fifty-two year old woman who needed a heart, the forty-nine-year-old man who needed a kidney, a fifty-three-year-old woman who had been on dialysis for over eighteen months and a one-year-old girl whose first liver transplant had failed.
Marcia, often called Cia, left us with the gift of her three children.
Raised by their father Tom with the help and loving support of extended family, friends and neighbors, Marcia’s two daughters and son have grown into adults she would be proud of. Her four grandchildren (three boys and a girl) bring new life and energy into the world. Her only granddaughter is named Cia.
Though I see my nieces and nephew rarely (they live so far away), technology has made it easier to stay in touch. Marcia’s light shines in them. I see her in their smiles and in their eyes. They have her sense of humor, her spirit, her love of family, her kindness. They even move like her. They know how to let loose on a dance floor!
Marcia left those of us who knew her with memories we can treasure and we share these memories with her children. We answer their questions; we share photos, letters, drawings, even the report cards of her youth, giving insight to who she was.
Marcia’s light shines in me. She reminds me to ‘seize the day’ and not waste time with negative thinking. She says, “Cherish the life you have. Don’t wait to say I love you.”
Marcia will always remain my heart companion.
Heart companions are gifts. We don’t know how much time we have to enjoy being with someone we love. That is why the ‘here and now’ is so important. On Marcia’s birthday, my brother and I honor her memory by giving a gift to someone else. Sometimes the recipient is a perfect stranger. Marcia keeps on giving… through us.
Whose light still shines in you?