After 3 weeks in the states, with much anxiety and apprehension, I had the car packed, baby on board, and coffee in hand- Max and I were Quebec bound. This was our first trip sans papa since last winter, when Maxime was still a sleeping beauty, waking solely for her two scheduled feedings; the first in White River Junction, and the second just past the Canadian border in Coaticook. You’d think I’d have been anxious to get back to Mathieu and get the family reunited, (the trip had already been postponed almost a week because of M’s traveling for work), and yet something still wasn’t sitting right in me. Perhaps it was the rain in the forecast; the thought of driving 8+ hours of wet road amongst the plethora of Quebecois tractor trailers on Vermont’s 91 and Quebec’s 55. Or the realization of listening to a hysterical screaming one year old just out of arm’s reach in the back seat of my 1999 Toyota Camry who has perhaps NEVER made a trip this long. Anxiety-invoking? Sure. But I think now, looking back on that morning, that although this seemed to make perfect sense, it really had nothing to do with it at all and everything to do with the phone call I got from my girlfriend Karen the night before.
Thursday, October 14th
Face washed, baby sleeping, I crawled into the empty queen-sized bed in my room at my parents house in Farmington. No sooner than I laid my head down, did my phone ring. It was Karen.
I called the ICU, spoke with Kathleen. Apparently Mary is there, she hadn’t been feeling well and had to be put on the ventilator but has been taken off and is doing better. I’m going to go there tomorrow.
Ok, good.. thanks for calling me. Call me tomorrow and let me know what’s happening.
It had been close to three weeks since any of us girls had seen Mary, or spoken with for that matter. We all knew that when we didn’t hear from her, things usually weren’t going so well, but don’t think we were ever really capable of preparing ourselves for what was happening.
Friday, October 15th
The ride north was going well, but my bladder couldn’t say the same, so we made a stop in Brattleboro for a bathroom/lunch break. There’s this really great place off of exit 2 called the Country Store. With it’s barn-red exterior and dark wood, cabin-like interior, it is as Vermont New England as they come. Stocked to the brim with things like maple syrup candies, nantucket nectars ‘half and half'(my personal favorite), local beef jerky, and sandwiches titled; ‘the Gobbler’ and ‘the 91’. We grabbed a sandwich and a half and half, and got back into the car. As I waited at the stop sign to turn left back onto 91 north, I saw Karen calling again.
Hey, where are you?
Brattleboro, just getting back onto 91. I had to pee. What’s happening?
Kathleen just called me.
Mary isn’t doing so well…
Call waiting… Liz.
Karen, hold on a sec.. Liz is calling.
Hey, did you leave yet?
Yes, what’s going on?? Karen just called me..
It’s Mary. She isn’t doing well..
I should turn around, huh?
Yes, I think you should.
Panic set in. My heart began racing and tears began to fall as I turned my car around. I frantically called Mathieu to let him know I wouldn’t be coming home that night, and then immediately dialed Dana in Brooklyn. Oh shit. Oh shit. No, this is not really happening. But it was.
Here I was again in Brooklyn attempting to work out, but I felt drained and exhausted from most nothing at all. Mid calisthenic, I decided to glance at my phone which was weird since I’m not in the habit of checking it during my exercise time. Two missed calls from Jenn. Strange. So I called her back to hear that two hours into her ride to Quebec, she was turning around back to CT. News was that Mary was in the ICU unit of Saint Frances Hospital in Hartford and that these were going to be her final days. I was shell-shocked and didn’t even utter a word as Jenn spoke for me saying I needed to get to CT. The sadness, the stress and anxiety, left me mentally paralyzed as I began running around in circles in my apartment checking bus and train schedules, coordinating pick up times with my sister Stacey, and packing a ridiculous overnight bag consisting of one pair of jeans, a vest I hadn’t worn in 4 years and my mouth guard for night teeth grindage (this bag ‘story’ would eventually bring some much-needed laughs to those holding daily vigil in the ICU waiting room).
The only option was a 2:00pm bus to Hartford, a way of getting to CT that I would never consider for anything but this. Car service to the Port Authority, waiting in line for bus ticket, and then waiting for the bus, all I could do was cry silently. This Friday bus ride was incredibly long of course, but the anxiety I felt was not like any I had before experienced. I kept thinking about Mary…
The first thing I noticed about Mary Riordan was her striking beauty and youthful glow. I got to know Mary 10 years ago when we were dating boys that were besties. At first, it did not appear that we had much in common. Mary, in my presence, was quiet and demure and likely intimidated by my gruff attitude and ever-brooding elusiveness. Nothing to be proud of.
I was aware that she had an illness, but it was never adequately explained to me, likely cause it was none of my business. As months went by, she was in and out of the hospital for short stints of time, but eventually, they became longer. I realized that this degenerative disease was much more complicated than I wanted to believe. Yet something about her strength and positivity kept me so attracted to her.
When both of our relationships ended, Mary and I continued to go strong. We were each others sounding boards, laughing and crying and knowing that somewhere in between, we would be ok. When I felt as though my bullshit problems were making my world crumble, Mary would be there with sound advice, strong conviction, and unconditional love. And every step of the way, she did so with the grace of a ballerina, the acumen of a psychiatrist, and the style of a fashionista. She is the epitome of Flaxen Tawny.
The drive back to Connecticut was excruciating, especially after I received the call from Paola telling me that she was not going to be revived after the next time she went into cardiac arrest.
Cardiac arrest?? The next time?!?!??
I was clearly still not wanting to recognize the severity of this situation. I called my brother to take Maxime, as I wasn’t sure of the ICU protocol with kids. I quickly made the drop at his house in Farmington, and then made my way down Farmington Avenue toward St. Francis Hospital.
I walked off of the elevator on the 5th floor of the hospital, shaky, adrenaline raging through my veins, to find a handful of friends already there for Mary, eyes welled with tears, looks of confusion and fear on their faces.
Can I see her? I asked someone, I can’t even remember now, who.
The woman at the desk buzzed me through the doors and I walked down the hallway toward her room, each room I passed before hers leaving me with even more of a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
This is the ICU. You don’t just come here for nothing.
I robed myself in one of the yellow gowns that they had waiting for us outside of the room, and I walked in to find my Mary. OUR Mary, in a bed with a tube in her throat, staring up at the window, barely blinking, and not making eye contact with anyone.
She would have never liked us seeing her this way. You see, aside from just being a friend, she was my roommate in my first two apartments I had ever lived in. We shared clothes, jewelry, shoes, furniture, and decorating ideas. When living with Mary, I really learned how private a person she could be. And it was never because she didn’t like people or that she didn’t like sharing her life with people, but just the opposite. She loved her friends so much, she never wanted to burden anyone with her own personal quandaries, no matter how big.
I have a memory of Mary, in Matunuck at the beach house that my parents had rented for a week. While sitting outside having cocktails on the deck, we somehow got on the topic of needing help and how Mary has never been one to ask for it even when she needed it. She told us all a story of being a child and falling down outside while playing, and that she instead of crying aloud and telling someone she was hurt, ran inside quietly and locked herself in the bathroom to silently deal with her pain. When my dad asked her, why??, she said just that-I didn’t want to make anyone worry about me.
This story has always stuck with me, I think because it so clearly explained Mary’s attitude on life; her incredible selflessness and sometimes sacrificial love for everyone around her, such a huge reason why so many people loved her. She LOVED people. She never discriminated when it came to giving and loving and sharing her incredibly huge heart with people. She touched every person that came into her life. I think her favorite hobby was love. Yes, she also enjoyed collecting jewelry and shoes and ‘old’ soulful things, but what she perhaps unknowingly did her entire life was collect people. It was her natural gift, her unintentional intention, her most beautiful quality. And it was evident, there, in the ICU waiting room, just how much she was truly loved as more and more people poured in to see her for what was seemingly going to be the last time.
As the bus hauled into Hartford’s Union Station, I saw my sister’s car parked in the lot across the street. It was at this moment, that I broke down. This was the first I had seen of anyone who knew and loved Mary as I did.
Did something happen? Dana, did something happen?
No, I’m just so happy to see and be with you.
Wait for me inside.
As I ran toward the ladies room, leaving Stacey to wait for Jenn, I cried, fully aware that we were so close to her in proximity, but yet so far metaphysically. I walked out of the bathroom and saw Stacey and Jenn crying and hugging and I bolted toward them. At this moment, I knew this was real.
Upon entering the ICU waiting room, we saw a sea of faces with non answers. Kathleen, Mary’s mom, came over to us saying we should go in now before the change in doctors/nurses took place. While walking down the corridor, we knew we were about to witness something we’ve never before seen. We put on our scrubs and walked in to a doe-eyed Mary, who wasn’t even able to blink.
We love you and can’t wait to be with you again.
It was too hard to hold up a poker face, so we didn’t. We just couldn’t at this point. We said our goodbyes and walked back out to the waiting room. Finally we were able to greet all of the faces we couldn’t before see, with hugs and kisses, tears of sadness and joy, and hearts broken and touched by this life form called Mary: one that we all loved so much.
We spent the next three days in that waiting room, day-in and day-out, her mother by her side every step of the way. Our trips down to Au Bon Pain were becoming expensive, so people started bringing food from home. Home-baked brownies, Naples pizza, cheese and crackers-even wine and vodka which we ever so discreetly consumed from our empty dasani water bottles, yet left in oblong stains all over the commercial rugs. Yes, ironically, as the following few days unfolded, we quickly learned that the ICU ‘protocol’ was as we desired; it being almost impossible to dictate behavior to a group of family members awaiting some of the perhaps most devastating news they have ever received. We had all of our kids there-all of Mary’s ‘nieces and nephews’ so to speak. We turned that room into our own very living room, Mary’s own doctor later telling us that at one point, he came out to count 29 of us there. 29- And this may not have even been at its peak.
During these next three days, new bonds were formed between people, and old ones rekindled. People flew or drove in from Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Texas, Hawaii, Quebec, DC, New York, Massachusetts: and we all just waited, together. It helped us all, having that support from one another, and we can only hope, helped Mary too. We laughed, passed around gossip magazines, discussed our next hair styles-things we would have been doing with Mary. It was completely surreal and yet bizarrely appropriate given the circumstances.
Monday October 18th
I was waiting for Jenn to bring me moo shu vegetable from Green Tea after she had left for a short while to bring Maxime home. We knew that this was likely the last day for our girl to be with us.
D, are you sure you want to eat this, now?
Yis. (this answer would prove fruitful later when pizza and pasta was the only option on the menu)
Mary was no longer responsive and Kathleen, after speaking with the doctors, acknowledged that Mary would be taken off the ventilator. I didn’t know how else to say, feel, act, except keep quiet and to myself picking the cloth pills off of my leggings. Jenn clearly knew I was besides myself as was she during our awkward conversation. I couldn’t wait ’till she got here.
I was back home that Monday evening, I brought Maxime home for dinner and bed before turning back to the hospital. I was on my way out the door when I got the call. It was indescribable, the sensation that had overcome me. Not anything I had ever felt. The entire drive back down Farmington Avenue was like a dream sequence; memories flashing before me as I passed by numerous restaurants where we had dined together, bars we had drunk far too much in together, and side streets where we may or may not have left each other hans in a parked car at 1:00 a.m.
Mary’s coming off the ventilator.
Once they removed it, the nurse invited everyone there for Mary to be with her in her last hours, minutes, seconds…Kathleen began singing a lullaby and Mary responded with her heartbeat lessening with each and every note. We recited ‘Hail Mary’s’ and ‘Our Fathers’ and hummed and sang together until the final part, where her heart beat zero. Sobbing, crying, hyperventilating, sadness, consolation, all feelings and reactions happening at once. All feelings and reactions only Mary could invoke.
She brought worlds together and in doing so, she built some of the most solid friendships we all may ever know. This was Mary. This was what she did and this is what she will forever be remembered for. Thank you Mary for letting so many people into your beautiful soul, forever connecting us, and teaching us all how to love in only the way you knew how.
We love you Mary, you sassy little thing. May the herald angels take their cue from you…