Excerpt From When Did She Know

Jean-Louis sees the difficulty Diana is having breathing and he begins to panic. I have never seen him like this before. He yells at the nurses to do something, can’t they see that she is having trouble breathing. Why aren’t they taking her to ICU?

Finally, the people from ICU arrive and Jean-Louis and I are alone in her room, packing her belongings: her books, her slippers, her night-gown, toiletries. Everyday belongings of a person alive.

“Why don’t you just bring them home for now,” I tell him. “She won’t be needing them in ICU.”

A nurse comes in and I ask her if she wants the flowers I had brought her.

“We’ll have to throw them away,” she says. “We don’t know if they are infected.” I forget to pick up the watermelon in the pretty blue container and later regret it. It is only a plastic container but it is as if I left behind part of my sister in that gesture, in that room, part of myself.

In ICU a very kind nurse sits with my brother-in-law and myself to explain what being admitted to intensive care means. Every once in awhile the gentle nurse drops words such as critical, very, very sick and those words stand out for me like warning signs on a highway. I process them and know that my sister is in a life threatening situation for why would a nurse spend more than half an hour with us? Why would she hand me this booklet entitled Intensive Care Unit – Information for Family and Friends as well as a business card telling me and my brother-in-law that we could call anytime. Anytime.

On my drive home I keep repeating, like a mantra, what the doctors from ICU said. If you are not better in seven days what do you want us to do? Seven days. Seven days. I miss the next two days at work. How can I concentrate. I go around in circles in my home. I do not know what to do with myself and I visit my sister. When I do go back to work I go into my coordinator’s office and break down. “It’s my sister. She’s in intensive care. She’s in critical condition.” I will need to say these words over and over to my colleagues and friends.

As I sit by Diana’s bedside I can’t help but know that if she saw herself she would want out. Her lungs have been invaded by nocardia, a common bacteria found in the earth and the more invasive aspergillums fungus. On the ventilator her condition is not getting worse but it is not getting better either.

Her partner and children have posted photos of her grandchildren on the wall facing her. She has six of them ranging from one and a half to seven. They are all healthy. All adorable.

They are her greatest joy, along with her three daughters. These are the light of her life. Now though, when her partner asks her to make an effort for her grandchildren, she shakes her head.

“She is giving up,” he tells me and cries.

There is water in and around her lungs. Recently, I heard from two different people that to be on a ventilator is similar to the sensation of drowning. When she was six or seven my father jumped into a river with his trousers and shirt on to save her from drowning. Of course this is not so remarkable because any parent should do that but what was remarkable was that my father didn’t know how to swim.

In that way of putting others she loves before herself Diana was much like my father. It is one of her characteristics. But this is not what preoccupies me at this moment as I’m sitting by her hospital bedside. Now, I think she is drowning once again and I do not know how to swim in this ocean of life support systems.