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Published On September 28, 2017

CLINICAL CARE

Signs of Life

A family regroups—and heals—as a daughter recovers from surgery.

It’s 1992. My little sister walks through the front door, supported between my mother and godmother. They move past me and gently help her into the Barcalounger on the sun porch.

Like faithful dogs, my middle sister and I settle around her, nestling on the sofa and on the floor. Once again, we won’t leave her side until she is ready to function on her own.

My sister’s surgeries are nothing new. She had been having operations since 1967, when she was born with a rare heart defect known as a transposition of the great arteries.

The nurses called her a “blue baby,” because the condition starved her blood of oxygen, which in turn gave her skin a wintry cast. When she was only a few days old, her doctors made a small hole in her heart to get blood that had flowed around her lungs out into the rest of her body. It only partly worked, and they said that they would wait to operate again until the techniques got better.

After that first surgery, my mom came home to a huge cardboard box full of expensive baby clothes that my aunt had mailed us. I remember her bursting into tears and running upstairs to her bedroom.

My little sister grew into a spindly toddler with purple lips and hair like dandelion fluff. She tired easily, so we pulled her around in a red Radio Flyer wagon. In 1972 she was one of the first kids to undergo the Mustard procedure, where a surgeon from the University of Minnesota reversed the direction of blood flow in her heart. It was an incomplete fix, but her lips at last turned pink.

Still, by the time she had finished high school, her heart beat oddly. She got a pacemaker but kept landing in the emergency room. The docs would give her a Valium to blunt the pain, then shock her heart back to a normal rhythm. She would call me afterward, her voice blurred with fatigue, and I felt my own heart breaking because there was nothing I could do.

This time, in that chair on the sun porch, my sister is recovering from an operation to replace her pacemaker with a newer, dual-chambered device. It’s different. I’ve never seen her quite so drained. My mother fusses over her, and she lies there motionless and shrouded in a light blanket, not saying a word. The rest of us take turns plugging movie after movie into the VCR—Indiana Jones and La Femme Nikita—and for days we subsist almost entirely on take-out.

It is rare for us all to be in one place. My dad peeled off a few years back under the weight of mental illness, a battle that my middle sister was also doomed to fight in the coming years. I am living overseas. We are in my godparents’ house in Washington, D.C., which is as much of a home base as we can muster.

And my sister’s illness is a terrible reason to come together, but we can’t help noticing that this impromptu reunion does us all some good. One day goes by, and then another. My middle sister and I snicker at each other’s stories. We relax and bask in a closeness that we haven’t experienced that much lately. Bit by bit we reconstruct ourselves.

On the third day, a pale hand snakes out from underneath the covers. My little sister has grabbed a French fry. Then she rises under her own power, pads to the kitchen and starts eating the fries directly out of the Styrofoam container. We stupidly goggle for a moment. She turns to us and announces: “I feel revived.”

Everyone starts raucously cheering. She ignores us to focus on the fried shrimp. My godmother stirs herself to make a proper meal. Then my sister plops down on the sofa between me and my other sister, who ceremoniously hands her the remote.

In this moment my sister is back, and very much alive. And for now, everything is all right.  

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