Joy, Jill, Leja, Jody, Lauren, Valerie, Robin, Ann, Jane.
We were grown daughters all, some mothers of high school or college kids, a few of us seasoned career women. We had become our middle-aged selves — our wisest, steadiest, most powerful selves yet. And we discovered a new best in ourselves together because I was dying, really dying this time, and we weren’t 25 anymore.
I was dying, really dying this time, and we weren’t 25 anymore.
I had been ill back then too. Shockingly ill. But in our mid-20s, we had not yet become fully formed women. Still emerging into adulthood, we easily turned as moody and flip as self-interested teenagers. Our focus was on dating or setting up newly married lives, finding our way at first jobs or completing graduate school. We floated above small troubles, giggling arm in arm through parties and bars that kept us out late into the New York City night. We invested more in great shoes and best-fit jeans than in how to rise up for a friend who needed some kind of crazy surgery we could not begin to understand.
Our empathy had not ripened at 25. At 50, it had.
So in the winter of 2014, when a doctor said that my transplanted heart was in precarious failure, my friends paused their lives and rallied around me. When I was told my best shot at re-transplant depended on my husband, Scott, and me moving immediately from our house in New York to a hospital room in California, friends followed in constant rotation — abandoning must-do responsibilities that left husbands scrambling, bosses irritated, and teenagers unsupervised by the crucial mothering eye.
When I woke again and again in the darkness of that hospital room so far from home, engulfed by what felt like a literal heart on fire that scorched a line of breath-stopping pain from shoulder to shoulder, my friends threw their arms toward me from where they slept on a low cot beside my hospital bed.
Jill, my closest friend since the second grade. Lovely Jane, my go-to style guru who never seemed to mind my copycat attempts. Lauren, the ever-meticulous mother of three and my stalwart escort to many of the surgeries, procedures, and scary medical tests. Val, all steadiness and serenity even as my roommate during our grueling first year of law school. And Ann, my hippie sister-in-law in platform flip-flops, her Mother Earth smile surrendering to tautened lips, wordless, just holding my hand.
Rougher than I had ever seen them, these five friends — along with four others — cared for me until the sun came up, showered quickly, if at all, and got right back to my bedside, cheerful and energetic. They pulled surprise gifts from their suitcases, anything to help me get through another day.
More than the tending and diverting, there was conversation — our best talks yet. No filters. Last-chance candor. It was a time and place for unfastening. We got serious. Turned silly. Came clean. Worried. Mused. Raged. Laughed. Our honesty soared with purposeful abandon, answering a call of necessity that challenged each of us: Ifnot now,when?We dove into truths and discoveries about ourselves, our husbands, our children, and our group of friends that lit the space around us to shimmering, no matter how alarming the signs that time was running out on my heart. Suspended in this desperately enchanted bubble, we found a new way to talk about life.
And when death did come up, in what were the frankest conversations of all, it was clear that no friend wanted me to die on her watch.
After an intensely caffeinated day, Ann feels prepared for the night ahead. (I am in my 20th day at the top of the list for a heart transplant. Ten days to go, 10 days before I decide my pacemaker will be turned off, and I’ll die, if I don’t receive a new heart.) She sits in the chair beside my bed and vows again to stay upright and awake all night long.
I turn on my side and face her. “My pacemaker is going to keep me up. Give it 15 minutes — watch. That’s why I dread going to sleep. It’s the worst part of my day. So I’m in no rush to close my eyes.”
“Want to talk, then? We can chat if you want…”
“But let’s not talk about waiting for a donor heart, all right?” She chuckles. “Fine with me.”
“Let me tell you, then, about your sweet daughter Abby. Do you know — she’s texted me every night … everysinglenight … to say ‘I love you’ and good night? And she sends the goofiest pictures. Got one the other day of her on the toilet, in a bathroom stall at school. ‘Thinking of you, Ames,’ she wrote, or something like that. I laughed out loud.”
“She’s a nut muffin.” Ann smiles. “And oh, she loves her Auntie Amy. Maddy too. Both my girls adore you.”
“I adore them.”
“You know, Ames, I’m going to need your help with Abby’s college applications in the fall. I want to talk with you about some schools that might work well for her — where she can play soccer and get academic help if she needs it.” Abby has a learning disability and has to work hard at writing and organization.
“She can do it,” I say. “I have full confidence in her smarts.” Abby would be finishing her junior year in just two months, and already there had been college-counseling seminars at her school, as well as assignments in English class that were prompts to prepare for the standard college application essay.
“I’ll be handing her over to you to help with some editing in the fall, of course,” Ann tells me now.
If I‘m here for it, I can’t help but think.
If I‘m here for it, I can’t help but think.
“Actually, she told me she wants to write her essay about you, Ames … about the texts she writes you every night and how much she admires you. She’s so proud of those texts, you know.”
“She should be. You know, when you’re young, you want to run away from people who are scary sick, right? Don’t you remember being little and passing a cemetery and holding your breath? What Abby is doing is pretty remarkable — reaching out to me every single night. I tell you, it’s so much more mature than the way my 25-year-old friends acted when I had my first transplant … some of them headed for the hills and we never spoke again. Abby is brave.”
“She loves you.”
“Yes, but she’s got something in her, that girl. She’s — uh-oh …. ” Heaviness. A pulling in my chest.
And here it comes … the searing pain from shoulder to shoulder.
“Ann — I’m pacing, damn it. Ow, ow … Oh my God, ow…”
She jumps to her feet. “Should I, uh … what can I do for you? I, uh ….”
“This is worse than ever,” I gasp. “Holy crap … ouch … ouch ….”
I shift my legs over the side of the bed and push myself to standing, hoping it will make my pulse rise. “Help me, Ann. I’m too weak ….”
She slips her hand around my waist, and I lean my body weight against her. “I got you.”
“Ow… ow… it’s ripping through my chest!”
“Should I call the nurse?”
“Uh … no … well, maybe yes … I don’t know. The pacing has been a lot worse lately. Let’s, uh … give it another couple of minutes …”
“Can you stand it?”
“I have to stand it, Ann. This is what my life is now …” I press my lips together and feel my eyes well with tears. “But just for 10 more days now. And then, no more. No more.”
Ann blinks long and shakes her head. “Just hold on, hold on to me … “
“Oh, Annie!” I cry, collapsing against her shoulder. I begin to weep.
“Sorry you have to do this ….” Up until this moment, I’ve tried hard not to let myself cry during nighttime pacemaker firings because it seemed only to make it so much harder on everyone. Friends have attended to these episodes with a loving but mostly logical, problem-solving approach — each woman with her own method and goal of getting me through, it seemed, and an air of confidence, whether real or skillfully feigned. Ann, though, is not capable of methodology; she has no guile. She is simply present, with wide green eyes, not even attempting to mask the tortured twisting of her facial expression or the lack of self-assuredness upon seeing me so ill. Had Ann come earlier, I would have been an easier sight to bear and challenge to rise to. But timing and fate have placed her at the closest point to my end and the furthest point from hope; she is here to catch my near-ultimate fall — and I am so comforted by her presence. Her body movements channel serenity — a dancer’s grace in the way she elongates her neck and folds toward me ever so slowly with a gaze of acceptance.
“I just love you so much, Ann,” I say, gripping her tighter. “I love you too, Ames.”
After a few minutes, the pain subsides. She leads me back to my bed and pulls the blanket up to my chin. “There you go.” She pulls her chair up close beside me, takes my hand, and holds it for a long, long time — 10 minutes, 15, 20. We sit wordlessly, staring with unfocused eyes. I turn my head toward the red blinking light without imaginings tonight; the only good luck beaming toward me is my choice to end this waiting list ordeal.
Out of the silence comes an admission. “I feel selfish,” Ann says, splaying out her arm toward the wall of photo faces. “You say sorry to me … sorry that I have to be here with you. But you know what? I am so glad to be here—it’s a gift to me to be able to help even a little tiny bit. Because you’ve given me so much … and the girls too.”
I assure her that it has been my absolute pleasure. Over the years, I have jumped in (often without Ann asking) to help her daughters work toward certain aims — whether a timetable and checklist for college application deadlines, preparation for the Regents Exam in biology, or Shakespeare memorization. My nieces are always appreciative and on-task, acceding to my instructions and study techniques much more readily than my own son. Plus, they’re girls — what fun that is! I give them the short skirts I no longer wear and the cosmetic samples that come with my wrinkle cream purchases. There has been a particular joy in contributing to their lives and watching them blossom over the years.
“And Ann, you could have done all of it without me. You willdo it without me, if that’s the way it turns out….”
“It can’t turn out that way, okay? You’re not replaceable. The way my girls respond to you … and admire you. You’re such an amazing addition, a wonderful…” She begins to sob, “…part of — sniff — my mothering. You round me out as a mother. Yes, that’s what you do, Amy.” She wipes away tears with both hands.
It can’t turn out that way, okay? You’re not replaceable.
“Ann —” I turn toward her and open my mouth to say something lovely in return, but my thoughts freeze up. In truth, it is Ann who has rounded me out as mother — showing me by example how I might ease up on expectations of Casey and support his seeking of a broad variety of paths in life rather than imposing the narrow, predictable ones that are familiar to me. But what is first and foremost in my mind at this moment is the most essential way in which she completed my experience as a mother: by inviting me to attend the births of both of her daughters.
“Since you’ll never be able to give birth, I thought maybe you’d come to mine so you can experience it,” she told me, eight months into her pregnancy with her first child.
It was, to me, an unimaginably sensitive, kindhearted, and selfless offer to invite me into the privacy and intensity of her first birth. Along with her husband, Gary, and a midwife, I would be the only other attendee, she said, and I accepted with the deepest appreciation and awe. A few weeks later, I drove from New York City to a suburban hospital where Ann, Gary, and the midwife were already hard at work in what would be a very long (and very loud) birthing process that had me immediately aghast at my opting in to this fantastic, horrific spectacle.
Ann was screaming — I mean screaming. The incredible decibel level of it reached me the minute I stepped off the elevator, and it intensified to such a piercing howl as I approached the door to Ann’s room that I couldn’t bring myself to open it. Willing strength through the moment, I stepped inside and witnessed the next several hours of my dear epidural-refusing sister-in-law waiting for her damn cervix to expand, yelling and grunting and, at moments, weeping. The louder and more raucous she got, the quieter and more excruciatingly slow and deliberate the mid-wife became — and oh, how I wanted to smack that Mother Nature birthing ambassador in her stoic little face! “Aaannn, yoo-hoo, Aaannn,” she cooed, responding to Ann’s shout of “I‘mgoingto break in half!” Then the midwife spied me crying in the corner. “Hey, you,” she said, losing her übergentle-soul facade for a few seconds. “Stop with the tears.”
I did. But I couldn’t bring myself to do much else to help matters. Since I had no experience in dealing with other people in severe pain, let alone the agony of natural childbirth, all I could think to do was stand aside and let the drug-free delivery technique takes its good, sweet time. Gary’s attempts to soothe Ann were met mostly with wails and curse words — another reason, I thought, to steer clear. It wasn’t until the midwife called me to her side and dropped one of Ann’s heels into my hand to hold up in the air (just at the moment the baby’s head was crowning) that I found my place in that arduous scene: It was to observe birth, just as Ann had wanted for me. Ann put me there not to help her, but simply to have a thrilling experience of womanhood and motherhood that I otherwise would not.
I watched baby Madeleine come into the world with a final push and howl — and then silence. A cut of an umbilical cord. A newborn placed on her mother’s chest. A smiling Ann and tearful Gary.
Joy. Pure joy.
Editor’s note: With six days left, Amy was given a heart from a 13-year-old girl, whose parents donated all of her organs. Today, Amy lives in New York with her husband, Scott, and son, Casey.
Excerpted from the book MY GLORY WAS I HAD SUCH FRIENDS: A Memoir by Amy Silverstein. Copyright © 2017 by Amy Silverstein. Published on June 27, 2017 by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.