Time in Willow Creek: 1 year, 4 months, 3 days
Nothing could have prepared Juliana for that day. Nothing. No kind words. Not a comforting letter from mamá. Nothing. She had many days she could look back on and say, “This day changed my life forever.” But that day? None compared. It began peacefully just like many other days. She awoke from a sound sleep and felt rested and prepared for another long day. Harriett made breakfast. It was Juliana’s favorite: warm, fluffy, buttery pancakes. They ate together, and Harriett mentioned she was a little “pudgy.” Between her beloved pancakes and mashed potatoes, eating out with Kevin and him chauffeuring her everywhere, she had put on a few pounds in the year she had been there. Being so young and still having so much to experience in life, she wasn’t concerned about it.
Juliana noticed Harriett was a bit quieter than normal but figured she had a lot on her mind. The baby was coming soon. She was planning another program at the library. Then there was that appointment she had last week she never spoke of. So much to think about.
After breakfast, Harriett went upstairs to get dressed. Juliana waited for her to come downstairs so they could walk to the library together, but she told her to go ahead without her.
“I’ll be there in a little bit,” she yelled.
Juliana left without a second thought. What reason would she have to think something was wrong?
Trish was already there when she arrived. It was a busy day. School was out for spring break, and there were more children around than usual. Mid-day came around so quickly, and she hadn’t noticed Harriett didn’t arrive yet. Not until she got the phone call.
Hillary was hysterical. “OH MY GOD OH MY GOD! JULIANA! You have to get to the hospital!”
Juliana’s body tensed up. Cement filled her shoes again. She was afraid to ask, but she had to. “What’s happened?”
“It’s mama! She had a heart attack! You need to get here!”
She heard her, but it didn’t register at first. Perhaps the cement spread to her brain.
“Ok…ok…I…uhhh, I’ll call Kevin.”
She stood in the middle of the children’s section staring at her phone trying to process what just happened. ¡Dios mio! Did she really just hear those words? In the corner of her eye, she saw Trish and figured out her first course of action. She told her what happened and said she was leaving.
“Whaaat? Yeah, go! Go! I hope she’ll be all right.” For the first time, Trish looked like she actually cared about someone other than herself.
Juliana hurried outside before she made her next phone call. The reality of the news was getting clearer, and the emotions were beginning to build up. She dialed Kevin’s number.
“Hi Juliana! Everything ok?”
It wasn’t normal for her to call him so early, but he too had no reason to suspect anything. It was just a casual question: one that no one ever hoped to receive an actual answer for other than a simple yes. But, he asked, and she thought about it. Her chest rose and fell quickly, and her face was getting damp. Everything was not ok.
“I need you! I have to get to the hospital!”
“Oh no… Is it the baby? Is Hillary ok?” There was urgency in his voice although he was trying to keep quiet.
She was sobbing by then. “It’s Harriett!”
There was a brief moment of silence on his end. “I’ll be right there.” He hung up without a second thought.
She sat on the steps of the Community Library, praying that everything would be fine. She wasn’t sure how much time passed from when she hung up until he got there, but he seemed to arrive in record time. There was no way he could have made it to her from downtown that quickly without breaking the law. She ran to the car, and he immediately began Operation Comfort Distraught Friend.
“Everything is going to be fine, Juliana. Ok? I’m sure the doctors are with her, and they are going to take the best care of her, ok?” He squeezed her hand.
She tried to believe his words, but they weren’t as comforting as she needed them to be. Kevin raced through the quiet streets of Willow Creek like he was daring law enforcement to challenge him. The engine on the sleek, black machine of beauty roared, skipping a beat with every methodical change in gears. His eyes never left the road except for the occasional steely glance at his mirrors. The left hand weaved the powerful, sexy hunk of metal in and and out of traffic with grace and precision while the right hand never let go of Juliana. He was a man on a mission. He had been in that position before and knew exactly where to go and where to park. The car came to a gentle halt, the engine was silenced and Kevin jumped out of the car. He helped Juliana out, and they rushed toward the hospital door. She appreciated his strong, steady hand nestled in the small of her back. When they crossed the threshold, she heard Hillary yell her name. They raced to her and followed her lead.
“What happened?” Kevin asked pointedly.
“She had a heart attack!”
The waiting room was not far, and when the trio arrived, Juliana found everyone there. Everyone. Rebecca was sitting next to Harold and Hillary next to Axel. She hadn’t seen him in a year, but given the circumstances she couldn’t concern herself with whether she wanted to be around him or not.
Kevin went around to the ladies, and Harold, to give them a friendly, comforting hug. Hillary introduced him to Axel, and he shook his hand and patted his shoulder. For some reason, Juliana couldn’t sit down. Standing there, alone, and watching everyone cling to each other and whatever hope they had, she felt strangely detached. They were her family, yes. They accepted her. But, she would never share that innate bond they had with Harriett. Harold shared two-thirds of his life with her. She bore his children. Rebecca, Axel, and Hillary called her mama. Juliana knew what it felt like to lose a parent, but she didn’t want to imagine what it felt like to be on the brink of life and death with her mother.
She was still standing alone with her thoughts when Kevin called her name. He patted the seat next to him. They sat there and prayed and hoped for good news. No one had given them an update since Hillary and Harold arrived 40 minutes ago. So, they waited. They clung to each other and waited.
After an hour, Rebecca got tired of waiting. She hopped up and marched to the front desk.
“I want to speak to someone about my mother!”
“Of course,” the nurse said. “What’s her name?”
The young woman typed her name in and read something on her screen. “Hmmm…doesn’t look like there’s any information yet. But, I assure you a doctor will update you as soon as they know more about her condition.”
Her words mocked Rebecca, and she didn’t trust them. Especially because the nurse looked young enough to be her daughter.
“We’ve been here for more than an hour! No one has even acknowledged that we’re here!”
Juliana always thought of Rebecca as a tough, no nonsense, and at times cold woman, but hearing her be so emotional and a little bit out of control hurt her heart. She hurt for all of them.
“Please, just…” Rebecca took a deep breath. “I don’t even know what they’re doing to her.” A lone tear wiggled down her cheek. “Please…we just want to know what’s going on. Surely someone on the doctor’s service can talk to us?”
The nurse nodded and got on the phone immediately.
“Thank you,” Rebecca said and returned to her family.
For once, they all appreciated her impatience. Twenty minutes went by before someone came out to address them. A kind-faced doctor in a lime scrub cap stood before them.
“Are you the family of Harriett Humphries?”
Rebecca jumped up to collect the information. “We are. What’s going on? How is she?”
“She’s in surgery right now, so we’re not sure yet. It’s coronary bypass surgery…”
She clutched invisible pearls and stepped away from the doctor like she was contagious. “Good heavens!”
“She had a massive heart attack, so we have some damage to repair.”
She looked like she was ready to fall apart right then, but she caught herself and pressed forward. “So, how risky is this surgery?”
“Well, it is open heart surgery, so there is always a risk. But, we do these surgeries all the time. She is in very good hands.”
Rebecca stood there blinking at the doctor. She lowered her head before she asked her next question.
“How many people don’t make it?” she asked in a quieter voice.
“Just 1-2%. Apart from complications we can’t foresee, we’re very optimistic that everything will be fine.”
Hillary breathed a sigh of relief and began to cry again. Axel grabbed her hand.
“How long will this surgery take?”
“Usually…somewhere between three and six hours. It depends on how extensive the damage is.”
“We’ll want to keep her here for up to a week, and then she can finish recovering at home. She’ll be good as new in 4-6 weeks.” The doctor tried to smile for them.
Rebecca forced a smile and nodded. “Thank you.”
“When the surgery is over, we’ll update you again.” She nodded confidently and went back into the operating room.
Rebecca trudged back to her family. “Everything is going to be fine.” Her hands patted the air like she was trying to calm some invisible crowd. “They have excellent surgeons here. It’s going to be fine.”
Harold reached around her and pulled her closer by the shoulders and kissed her forehead.
“Juliana… do you want a soda or snack or something?” Kevin asked.
She shook her head. He addressed the rest of the family.
“Can I get anyone something to eat or drink?”
Various forms of no came out, and he headed toward the common area. Juliana felt alone without him.
Another three hours went by. It was agonizing. Every person wearing scrubs who walked by raised their hopes. They were growing weary of waiting but had to trust that it would be over soon.
Finally, the surgeon himself came out to address them. They all stood and gathered around.
“Surgery went great.”
“Oh thank God,” everyone said in their own way.
“Can we see her?” Rebecca asked.
“Sure. But not all at once. I want her to rest today and get stronger. She doesn’t need to be overstimulated right now. You can go two at a time, but just for a few minutes, ok? Once she’s out of the intensive care unit, you can have more time with her.”
“Of course,” Rebecca said. “Thank you, doctor. Daddy…” She beckoned for him to come along.
They followed the doctor to the ICU. Rebecca poked her nose in all the windows she passed. She knew they were following the doctor, but if he was somehow mistaken about who they were going to see, she was on the lookout. The doctor stopped at a door near the operating room and motioned for them to go in. They both nodded at him and entered slowly. Harriett was laying there with machines all around her, catheters and tubes going into her, and an oxygen mask on her face. Rebecca gasped, horrified at the scene. Her mother had always been as strong as an ox; a tiny powder keg of energy; a force to be reckoned with. She had never seen her so helpless before. The gown Harriett wore was twice the size she was. Rebecca didn’t appreciate how they left her so exposed and wished they would cover her with a blanket or something.
She and Harold got close to the bed. Rebecca sat in a chair on one side and gently touched her hand.
“Mama…mama…are you awake?”
Harriett squeezed her hand as best she could. It looked like she was trying to nod her head. Harold rested his hand on her shoulder.
“Me and daddy are here.”
Harriett used her free hand to lift the mask off her face, but Rebecca stopped her.
“No, mama. You need that.”
Harriett swatted at her with the little bit of energy she had. That put a smile on both their faces.
“See,” Harold said. “She’s just fine.”
Harriett lifted the mask up enough so they could hear her. Her breathing was labored. “I’m…” She got winded and took a few breaths from the mask. Her voice was barely there. “…fine.” She put the mask back on.
Rebecca was tearing up. “I’m glad you’re feeling better, mama. You gave us quite a scare.”
Someone appeared in the room to let them know their time was up. Harriett pulled the mask off her face once more. “Sugar,” she said looking up at Harold.
He bent down, gave her a sweet kiss on the cheek and stroked her hair. “You gon’ get some rest now, ya hear? Get strong.”
She squeezed the hand that rested on her shoulder and didn’t want to let go when he walked away from her.
Hillary and Axel took their places on either side of the bed. They grabbed her hands and kissed her face.
“Hey mama,” Axel said.
She lifted up the mask again. “I’m…sorry.”
Tears filled his eyes. “Don’t apologize, mama. I’m a jerk. I’m sorry. I promise I’ll come visit more often.”
“I love you, mama,” Hillary said.
“Love you…both,” Harriett said through labored breaths.
They kissed her face once more and left so the last two could visit. Juliana and Kevin stood next to each other close to the bed.
“Hello, Mrs. Humphries.”
Harriett rolled her eyes. That made both of them smile.
“Hi, Harriett,” Juliana said. She wasn’t quite sure what to say to her.
Harriett reached for her hand and squeezed it. Then she took off the mask again and looked directly at Kevin. “Take care…of…my girl,” she said.
He smiled and put his arm around Juliana. “I always do, but you get some rest so you can get out of here soon, ok?”
Harriett nodded. She took off the mask once more and said, “Love you…puddin.”
Juliana smiled through her tears. “I love you too, Harriett.”
The surgeon came to collect them, and they said their goodbyes. Just as they turned around to leave, the machines started beeping and a tribe of medical staff rushed in and swarmed around Harriett.
That’s what Juliana’s face looked like. All the doctors and nurses were speaking at once and flitting about like bees.
“Give her 10 cc’s of this…”
“Push 200 mg of that…”
“Get these people out of here…”
“We need a crash cart!”
“Charge to 100…clear!”
“Charge to 200…clear!”
“Charge to 300…clear!”
“…time of death…”
Kevin caught Juliana as she collapsed. He hurt for her. Watching Harriett go was sad, and he would most certainly miss her. But seeing Juliana lose it, hearing her wailing in pain… That’s what hurt the most. He held her. He held her so tight. There was nothing he could do to lessen her pain, but if there was a chance he could pass on some of the strength he had through osmosis, he wanted to do that for her.
The nurses turned off the blaring machines and began to unhook Harriett. The doctors who were leaving the room extended their sympathies to Kevin and Juliana. She still needed his physical support, but that wasn’t the only reason he was still holding her. He felt something. Holding her like that and being there for her… Being strong in her moment of weakness. It felt right. Even their bodies meshed well together. Her delicate frame seemed to fit so perfectly against him. He didn’t want to let her go yet. It was such an inappropriate thought to have at the worst moment ever, and he felt terrible for having such selfish thoughts in her time of need. But it was true, and he couldn’t deny it. Perhaps everyone was right about them being more to each other. Later on, when he was alone, he would think about it and assess his feelings and decide how to move forward. But, until then, Juliana needed him, and he intended to be by her side through it all.