When Kate called me all hysterical about how her sister's baby "has no heartbeat," I figured there was sufficient cause for alarm. If it had been Daniel, for example, I would have calmly assumed he was talking about the Mexican soap operas he's addicted to these days, even though he doesn't speak Spanish and can't even watch them on his own set, seeing as how his home doesn't get that channel, but rather at a Mexican cafeteria where the televisions run all day set to the same drama.
But this is Kate we're talking about, and Kate rarely freaks about anything. This is a person who, back when she was a flight attendant, came home one night with blood splattered on her glasses, and when asked what happened, she nonchalantly explained that a man died on her flight that day -- in her arms no less -- and made a big mess while he was doing it. So when Kate called me crying about her sister Kirsty's baby and the eminent emergency C-section, and how she couldn't find her way to the hospital even though she works there every other day of the damn week practically, I didn't just dispatch any of this to typical new-aunt jitters. Again, this is Kate we're talking about.
"Girl, calm down, focus on the road," I told her.
"I mean, the baby has a heartbeat. Oh my God, I can't believe I just said the baby doesn't have a heartbeat! What I mean is that the heartbeat ... there's something wrong," then she burst into tears again, which almost made me burst into tears because I have never heard Kate cry and never thought I would.
"I'll be right there," I said.
At the time, I was hosting a huge yard sale, if you can call it that since I don't have a yard at the Telephone Factory where I live. But I do have a hallway, which is where I shoved everything and stuck prices on the items so everyone else in the building could be thoroughly charmed, no doubt, by the fact that one of their neighboring lofts looked like it just barfed up all its contents into the common area.
"Come buy this cool crap while you can," I blared in the notices all over the building. Of particular interest was my '60s lime-green boomerang sofa. I didn't want to let it go, but with the combo effect of pets and a 6-year-old, I figured I had another two weeks tops before it looked like a litter of puppies was birthed on each of its cushions, so I wanted to get it to a good home before that happened. Though admittedly I wasn't all that whole-hearted about selling it, as evidenced by the outrageous price I put on it.
Then Kate called all undone about Kirsty and Jan's baby's heartbeat, so there wasn't much for me to do but abandon everything where it lay. If our property manager, Sarah, was in town, she would have kicked my head open for cluttering up the hall like I did, what with the big signs, blinking lights and circus music. So I put out a plate of cupcakes and a pitcher of mimosas to soften the imposition, and told people to take what they wanted and leave the money in my mail slot. "Honor-system yard sale!" I wrote on the chalkboard, and left without a second thought. I mean, this is Kate we're talking about.
The night the man died in her arms, Kate, just moments earlier, had been on the cart expecting nothing more than some minor hassles over the fact that she was out of decaf. Then the poor passenger, who was very ill to begin with, ruptured a tumor and turned gray right there in his seat. There was little more for her to do but drop everything and revive him, which she did, numerous times, to dubious success. "What's happening to me?" he asked each time, his voice hoarse with fright, blood pouring from his nose and mouth. That is what she remembers the most: his terrified questions and his terrified eyes.
His death came in spite of her efforts to stop it, and she was honored with holding his hand when it happened. It was not an honor she asked for or wanted, but it was bestowed on her nonetheless, and with it came a new denomination of strength by which she can define herself. When Kate came home that night, she undressed on her front porch before entering her house and left her blood-stained flight-attendant uniform behind, in every possible sense.
Today, Kate's training to be a nurse, and I would have thought nothing could throw her, but then Kirsty called to say there was a problem, and Kate crumbled like stale coffee cake. "My little sister, my little sister," Kate cried, "she's my little sister." When I got to the hospital, Kate was there anxiously awaiting word, which came soon enough in the form of a sunny-haired, perfectly healthy baby girl. "Meet little Catherine," Jan said, smiling from under her hospital togs, "and Kirsty's fine, too." Jesus God, if you thought Kate fell apart before, you should have seen her there! She fell right into my arms and bawled like a baby herself. Some might have been thrown by that. But not me, I tell you. Not me. I was honored to be there.
Hollis Gillespie is the author of Confessions of a Recovering Slut and Other Love Stories and Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: Tales from a Bad Neighborhood. Her commentaries can be heard on NPR's "All Things Considered."