This was the last story I wrote for my short story book collection, Gerry Tales, in 2009. Three years later, it still gives me a shiver.
There is a fine line between life and death, exultation and despair, and as that weekend unfolded, our family brushed up too close to those boundaries. My hands shake and my heart quakes as I begin to tell this story of what families are all about. There is no Irish license taken; this is real life.
On the Tuesday evening before Thanksgiving, our daughter Shannon checked into Beaumont Hospital, accompanied by her husband Steve. After nine months of pregnancy, it was baby time! Her mother, Kathy, joined them later in the evening, and, after a night of increasing contractions, Shannon’s labor began in earnest in the early hours of the morning. At 1:30 p.m., Asher Avery Crepeau joined us. Asher is Kathy’s and my first grandchild. As I cradled the little guy, I recognized the same bright eyes that had shone out at me at Shannon’s birth nearly three decades ago. Oh, we’re going to really enjoy this part of life, I thought.
When Shannon had first gone into labor, I had started to call our other three children. They were not expected to join us for Thanksgiving due to job, college, and family commitments, but one by one, they told me that if it was possible to book a flight, they could make it in to see their first nephew. Dan had two days off from his basketball practices at Emerson College. Joe, who is working for the Maine Red Claws, the Boston Celtics Development League team, also had an unexpected break. Moira’s husband, Mike, a smart and generous fellow, told Moira to go see her nephew, earning a nomination to the In-Law Hall of Fame. Moira, a high-school history teacher in a New York City suburb, booked her flight immediately.
So the Boylan family converged, and it was grand. Moira imitated a Hallmark commercial by calling her mom a few minutes before we turned into our driveway and telling her that she really wished she could make it home for the holidays but wouldn’t be able to. When she walked into our kitchen, where Kathy was baking cookies, still on the phone, Kathy laughed and cried.
We enjoyed a great Thanksgiving Day, even though we attended the Lions–Packers game (the Lions got thumped, as expected). My mom led the roster of our guests, including siblings and members of the extended family. The turkey was perfect, the laughs were loud, and before we knew it, the dishes were done, and we could recline in the joy of it all.
Steve, Shannon, and Asher were headed home by Friday morning, and while we left them alone for their first night, Kathy and I began to plot a lifetime of spending time with our grandson. I have to tell you, saying “my grandson” out loud sounded strange and very cool at the same time. Of course, within the first twenty-four hours of his birth, I had invented twenty-seven reasons to tell complete strangers about our new grandson and what a beautiful boy he was.
With Moira, Joe, and Dan home, we took advantage of the helpful labor and brought all the Christmas decorations downstairs. Then the five of us went out together to buy a Christmas tree. Joe and Dan even re-created the family tradition of chasing each other through the Christmas tree lot, although it was harder to hide behind the trees as full-grown adults. For the first time in forever, we didn’t purchase the tree on a subzero day with the wind howling and a slushy combo of sleet and snow pelting us! By evening, the tree was up, decorated, and lit. And so it was that this Thanksgiving was a whirlwind of family blessings.
The next day, the winds of fate changed direction and altered everything.
I was returning from running some errands at around two on Saturday afternoon, and as I pulled into the driveway, I saw Joe in his stocking feet, one hand holding a phone to his ear and the other motioning at me wildly. His face was contorted with a worried look I had never seen before.
“What’s wrong?” I said as I stepped out of the car.
“It’s Moira! Hurry!” Joe pointed past our side door to the house. As I pushed the door open, I heard him say, “Yes, 911? We have an emergency.”
I walked hurriedly through our kitchen and saw our twenty-seven-year-old daughter lying on the floor. Kathy was sitting next to her with her nurse’s stethoscope on her heart.
“I can’t get a pulse, Gerry,” Kathy said calmly. But then she said it again: “I can’t get a pulse.”
My heart raced, then froze. “Is she breathing?” I asked.
“Yes, but very lightly.”
“What do we do, Kathy? Should we pick her up and drive her to the hospital? Beaumont’s only five minutes away.”
“Joe called 911. I think it’s better to wait. They can start treatment faster.”
“What can I do?”
“I don’t know.”
I rushed outside. Joe was in tears, waiting to direct the forthcoming ambulance to our driveway. I decided to move my car to allow it easier access to our house. I wanted to do something, anything, because I was helpless. I rushed back inside and ran back to Kathy and Moira, then turned and ran back to the door. No ambulance yet.
Everything will be okay, won’t it? I thought. Whatever this is isn’t happening, is it? My God, my beautiful little girl is lying on the floor unconscious. We can’t lose Moira.
“Kathy,” I said, “is Moira going to be okay?”
“I don’t know, Gerry.”
I couldn’t catch my breath.
The sound of the siren reached the house, and Joe frantically waved the EMS ambulance and a fire engine to the side door of our home. A portly man in a blue uniform moved toward our door as two younger EMS firemen rushed into our house with their gear. They replaced Kathy at Moira’s side, working toward identifying vital signs as their older colleague asked questions rapid-fire.
“How old is your daughter? Has this ever happened before? Does she have a history of seizures? Is she pregnant? Describe what happened to your daughter.”
Kathy answered every question calmly and professionally, like the RN that she is. She explained that Moira had started having an allergic reaction to what she thought was an antibiotic she was taking for a sinus infection. In a twenty-minute period, she had gone from having itchy arms to having full-blown hives to vomiting in the bathroom to slumping to the floor unconscious. Kathy explained she had given her a Benadryl as the hives appeared and was on the phone calling our family doctor when she heard her fall.
I was listening half to the Q and A and half to the young fireman working with Moira. After installing an IV, they started calling out her vital signs. I only heard one: “Blood pressure is thirty-eight over twenty.” The numbers jumped into my head, and I knew my daughter was in real trouble. I was frightened to my core.
Within minutes, Moira was on the stretcher trolley and then inside the ambulance, headed to Beaumont Hospital with Kathy. I stood in the doorway, watching the ambulance scream off, my heartbeat reaching the same pitch. Joe was sitting on our porch seat, sobbing. He had been there for the entire episode, and I knew we were feeling exactly the same thing. He stood up, and we hugged hard without exchanging a word.
The drive to Beaumont is only a mile and a half long. I backed out of the driveway and waved to Joe, waiting until I was down the block before I began to sob and quiver. I made myself calm down by the time I had parked at the hospital. I was escorted to the critical care section of the emergency room. Kathy was sitting outside a curtained-off area where six people were still working on Moira. Kathy stood up and calmly explained to me that the doctors were using adrenaline and steroids to get her system “up” again.
Just then, a young doctor opened the curtains and walked over to us. “She’s stable and she’s going to be fine,” she said.
For the first time, tears filled Kathy’s eyes. Her face showed the wrestling emotions of fear and relief. She was Moira’s mom again, not her nurse. We grabbed each other for support.
“Your daughter had a very serious anaphylactic shock reaction. I understand she was taking a penicillin-based antibiotic and that that was likely the cause. I also understand that you gave her a Benadryl early in the reaction, Mrs. Boylan. You probably saved her life by doing that. The antihistamine likely kept her from completely shutting down and kept her airway open. She’s a lucky young lady, and she’s going to be fine. We’ll check her in for the night to keep an eye out for an unlikely rebound effect. You can go in and see her now.”
With one concise medical narrative, we stepped back from the edge of a precipice over which lay a damaged future for all of us. Instead of looking down into that precipice, we looked forward—and saw the face of our shivering, scared, and very alive daughter. We had Moira back!
Kathy held her daughter tight, warming her and stroking her forehead. All was nearly right with our world, and I think we all exhaled at exactly the same time.
Kathy prepared to spend a second night with a daughter in the same hospital within a week. Joe arrived to keep watch over Moira, and I took Kathy home to pack an overnight bag.
“Stop at that McDonalds,” said Kathy emphatically on the drive home. “I want a Big Mac.”
“Really? How many years has it been since we stopped at Mickey D’s?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t care. My daughter is going to be okay, and I want a Big Mac, fries, and a shake.”
And that is exactly what she got.
Three days later, Moira was packed and ready for me to take her to the airport for her trip back to her husband, Mike, and their home in New York. She hugged her mom tight and, in a full flood of tears, said, “Thanks for taking care of me, Mom. Thanks for saving my life.” I can’t write the emotion of it all.
Returning home from the airport, I was surprised by a visit from Shannon and her husband, Steve, over for their first visit with Asher. I saw Kathy sitting in her favorite chair with her grandson’s chin tucked neatly into her shoulder. Shannon sat on the arm of the chair, and I saw beside each other three generations. And I can’t write the wonder of it all.
Later that evening, Kathy and I were walking her little dog, Zeke. “I can’t believe how calm you were during the whole crisis,” I said. “How did you do that?”
“I’m a nurse, and I had the most important patient of all,” she said. “But don’t kid yourself. As I held Moira in my arms and couldn’t find a pulse, even with the stethoscope, I thought I was going to lose my little girl. I thought I was going to lose my little girl.”
The aftermath of our thrilling and harrowing Thanksgiving was akin to post traumatic shock syndrome. Kathy explained to me that she was going to be crying on and off for at least a week. Everyone in our family, including Moira’s husband, Mike, has considered all of the “what ifs” and realized how the situation turned out for the best. We’ve stumbled about reconciling the miracle of birth and the fragility of life, and how they will never fit nicely into a box with a bow on top.
Tonight our grandson is in the house and in our arms. And so we count our blessings—and keep the Benadryl ever so handy!
Epilogue: Moira and her husband Mike became parents to Eli in June of 2011 and the lovely Kathy and me became grandparents for a second time. We truly count our blessings.