The first time Donner died, it was in my arms and I watched the color and life drain from her face as her body tried to let go. It was traumatic and terrible, and there was little I could do but clutch her purse to my heart after it was over and pray. Maybe that’s why the second time Donner died, it was almost anticlimactic, but even more heartbreaking. Even though we had begun our friendship with little in common, it hadn’t taken long for the two of us to find commonality in many areas, and our loyalty and fondness for one another grew proportionally.
Sometimes, in work, you find yourself making a connection with someone you’d probably never otherwise be friends with. That’s how it was with Donner, whose real name was Donna. Born and raised in the harsh climate of northeast Maine, Donner’s accent was as heavy as her personality was pragmatic. She was the bookkeeper for the non-profit organization where we both worked. The staff was small, and the staff break room even smaller. Because we had similar work ethics and a responsibility to make sure the phone got answered, every day the two of us would gather in the staff break room for lunch. Actually, saying that we lunched together was a bit of an overstatement, really. I lunched, and Donner drank a delicious Slim-Fast chocolate shake. Every day. Even though she had no real need to drink a delicious Slim-Fast chocolate shake instead of eating a meal, she did it anyway. Then she would go outside for a cigarette. Sometimes, even though I didn’t smoke, I would go hang out with her while she smoked; other times, she would go alone. Over the course of hundreds of lunches, which I suppose translates into gallons and gallons of delicious Slim-Fast chocolate shakes for her, we became close friends.
To understand Donner’s pragmatism and how someone as practical as she could end up being friends with someone as flaky and idealistic as me, you have to know a little about our shared similarities. Both of us had been married to abusive men; both of us had spent time living through seriously challenging times financially because of love, and both of us were strong-willed survivors. The mother of three grown children, all of whom adored their mother but lived thousands of miles away from their mother’s sunny Florida home, Donner’s happiest moments were spent with her children and grandchildren. I, who often felt secretly isolated and sad because of my lack of both of those things, relished her stories over lunch. If Donner didn’t share a “Mitchellism,” which is what we called the funny things her youngest grandson would often say, I would usually prod her to come up with one because it was so great to see her face light up just mentioning her children and grandchildren.
Donner knew she shouldn’t smoke, but she didn’t stop. Even when she started having an extended bout with what she felt was indigestion and gas, she couldn’t stop smoking. She didn’t smoke a lot, but she smoked. I think it helped ease her stress because, even though she was in a relationship with someone she’d known for many years, she wasn’t happy, and there was a great deal of stress that she, being a proud and private woman from Maine, didn’t share with anyone – except perhaps her daughter and me, who was fortunate enough to fill the space her physical daughter’s distance couldn’t. I never dogged her about her smoking – I certainly have enough of my own bad habits, and honestly, what good would it have done for me to tell her that what she was doing wasn’t good for her. She already knew that.
Donner had been out of work for a few days with what she believed to be a stomach bug or some kind of long-lasting bout of indigestion. She rarely took time off work, and had I missed her terribly – and not just at lunchtime. With no one frugal and pragmatic enough to refill the hand soap bottles with half water and half soap, our non-profit might well sink into the red. Donner called me mid-morning to ask if I would be able to meet her at her doctor’s office early in the afternoon. She said it wasn’t a big deal; she just wanted me to go in case they sent her for any tests and mostly just to keep her company while she waited because she missed me, too. As it happened, I had planned to take that afternoon off because I’d been putting in so many hours and the organization didn’t like to pay overtime, so I agreed and met her at the doctor’s office. Honestly, I don’t know how I found the place because I was new to the area, and my aforementioned geographical challenges are great. Perhaps some of my other guardian angels intervened.
When I arrived, Donner was waiting for me and said that, as expected, the doctor was sending her for a test. We headed for her new champagne-colored Jeep Liberty, and she asked me to drive. I was a nervous wreck, but she said it would give her a chance to just enjoy the ride, since she was dealing with this constant indigestion. She simply gave me directions and enjoyed the ride. We got the test done, but as we were leaving the testing facility, I felt compelled to take her by the arm. She seemed to be walking at a 45 degree angle, something completely out of character for a woman so practical and straightforward in every other area of her life. Just as I was about to mention that, she stopped and said, “I really, really need to have a cigarette, Wendy.”
The cigarette seemed to calm her down and make her feel more comfortable. She even asked if we could go back to her house, where she wanted to pick something up before we headed back to her doctor’s office for the results and a consultation. Once again, she allowed me to drive and simply gave directions through the streets of 1950’s and 1960’s ranch-style homes that all looked exactly the same to me. Once at her home, she began to rummage through a drawer in the utility room, looking for what she said was her trusty book of numbers. I thought maybe it contained her credit card or insurance information, so I spent the time being entertained by her trio of Yorkshire terriers. She asked if she could sit for a few minutes to just relax, and we both sat silently in her living room, but it wasn’t an uncomfortable silence – just peaceful. The dogs sat by Donner while she rested, and it wasn’t long before my indefatigable friend got up and announced that it was time to go.
Back at the doctor’s office, the waiting room was empty except for Donner and I, and she took a minute to thank me and tell me I could go home, that she’d enjoyed having the time with me, but that she knew I had lots of other things to do. I answered truthfully that, not only did I not have anything else to do, I was kind of enjoying the afternoon being a chauffeur and driving around in her fancy new car. Besides, I joked, where else would I ever have a chance to find out that there was actually a whole magazine devoted to cheerleading, which seemed to be about the only magazine available in the waiting area? The door opened, and Donner was called back into the back part of the office while I waited outside. Because it was the end of the day, the sliding glass window to the receptionist was open, so I could hear clearly when an alarmed male voice called out to a staff member for help.
“Get me the ambu bag – stat!” The voice was tight and demanding. “It’s Mitchell.” Hearing my friend’s name and sensing the sudden change in the air made the cheerleading magazine drop to the floor, and as the receptionist reached forward to close the glass window, I slipped through the door into the back office and immediately saw something I will never forget. My friend, Donner, the queen of Slim-Fast and cigarettes, was lying on the floor, her pale complexion drained of color and her glasses askew. The doctor was on the floor with her, but he wasn’t doing anything other than making another request for whatever an ambu bag might be. What appeared to be a nurse and the receptionist bustled around, and the only sound in the room was the slamming of drawers as they searched. The doctor looked up at me helplessly. Really, the doctor looked at me helplessly. It was like a slap, knocking me into reality.
“I don’t know what an ambu bag is, sir,” I said, with knees shaking and a voice I wasn’t sure belonged to me, “but if you don’t start CPR on my friend right this minute, I will.” Someone, who turned out to be me, wheeled around and addressed the receptionist as the doctor, who seemed to also be coming back to reality, leaned down and started to focus on the lifeless Donner, whose face was no longer white, but had turned a very cold and eerie shade of blue. “You. Call 9-1-1 now! Please. This is my friend. Please!”
People always say that waiting for an emergency vehicle seems like such a long time, but I’d never grasped it until that terrible day. The receptionist kept looking at me, telling me that the station was only minutes away, and I kept playing cheerleader for the doctor, who had finally begun to attempt to start Donner’s heart and get her breathing again. It wasn’t working. When the ambulance arrived and the paramedics rushed in, they were all business, and I suddenly felt a speck of hope. Someone finally knew what to do. There was scurrying and bustling as the cavalry worked feverishly to bring Donner, now the color of cigarette ashes, back to life. It took so long, and the tension was suffocating. I don’t remember how I ended up with her purse in my arms, but I clutched it as though it was a voodoo doll, massaging it, hoping somehow it would help.
There was too much for the paramedics to do to allow me to ride with them in the ambulance to the hospital, but they gave me directions and I set out. The lovely weather we’d experienced earlier in the day had given way to a fierce afternoon downpour, and as I drove, I kept glancing in the rear view mirror through my own shower of tears, searching for the red lights of the ambulance. When they finally caught up to me, I shouted at the cars in front of me to pull over. No one but me heard, and the progress was slow.
At the hospital, I was the only source of information on Donner, so I was allowed behind the curtain to share as much information as I could. Donner’s handbag yielded few clues, but the address book, combined with hundreds of Slim-Fast lunch breaks gave me enough information to contact her daughter in Maine and her longtime spouse equivalent, a man I felt was not nearly good enough for her. The paramedics had been able to bring Donner back to life – sort of. With whirring machines and the whooshing sound of a respirator doing all the work for her, Donner was alive. The gift of this was that her daughters and son were able to fly in from Maine to bid farewell to their mother, and her brother came to fill in the gaps when Donner’s children could not stay away from their own families and work any longer.
Sometimes you pray for a miracle and, when it comes, you look up at the sky and ask for more. There’s an old joke about a woman at the beach with her grandson. The grandson gets swept away by the surf and pulled under. The grandmother screams to the heavens, “My grandbaby! My beloved grandson! God!” She wails incessantly, “Please save him!” Taking pity on the woman, God sends a wave crashing to shore and, sputtering and coughing, the grandson washes ashore, alive. The woman raises her eyes to the heavens and cries, “He had a hat, too!” It felt this way with Donner.
Donner’s second life, such as it was, lasted two months, which was time for which we were all incredibly grateful. However, it was a time of great sadness and fervent hope. Donner’s brain had been without oxygen for so long, it was likely her brain had been irreparably damaged. With her family unable to be constantly at her side, Donner’s two closest friends, ironically both named Wendy, took turns sitting at her bedside in the evening – a pilgrimage of hope and friendship. The other Wendy would read to Donner, talk about mutual acquaintances, and keep up a steady monologue of her day’s events and activities. I would schlep into the hospital with a CD player and headphones, books to read to her, and, when the staff was out of the room, my own voice to sing her soft, sweet songs. Donner had heard me break into song a few times during our friendship – and it had always made her smile. When we were alone in her room and words failed me, I would simply begin to sing to her. While she couldn’t respond, I noticed a softening of her features and many less grimaces. It wasn’t a testament to my golden voice – which is good, but not golden; it was simply a testament to the soothing power of friendship and human touch.
As if she didn’t have enough challenges, Donner contracted a MRSA infection while in the hospital, so she was placed in isolation, alone except for all the machines doing the work her body had ceased to do on its own. Visitors, who had been sparse from the beginning despite Donner’s incredible contributions to the community and the multiple non-profit organizations she had rescued with her skills as a bookkeeper and her willingness to work with those who were willing to learn from her, became even more rare, since a prerequisite to a visit meant donning a mask, suit and gloves. The other Wendy and I were the only regular visitors, save for her brother, who came and stayed as long as he could each time. Her eldest daughter, a teacher, made the trip from Maine a couple more times. She stayed in our home, and we became friends. Even in her illness, Donner had given me the gift of her daughter’s friendship. During those many lunches, I had heard stories of Donner’s children and grandchildren; during those two months, I was able to put faces and personalities to the characters. It was a gift of love from a friend with whom I had become very close.
We all knew the end was drawing near as the world welcomed July. Knowing she would have no visitors on Independence Day, I drove to spend the evening with my friend. Little did I know she would present me with one final gift. As I sat in Donner’s room, suited up in mask, gloves, and gown and looking far more like a medical professional than anyone would ever imagine of me, I began to sing for her. The sun had set, and the darkness began to fill the sky when suddenly we heard a loud series of popping noises followed by crashes. Glorious streams and fountains of fireworks skittered across the sky, exploding into dazzling colors over the river below.
From her room on the third floor of the hospital, Donner and I had the best seats in the world for a pyrotechnic show the likes of which I’d never imagined. I held her hand and thanked her for sharing hundreds of lunches. I thanked her for being my friend, even when I knew our personalities were so different. I thanked her for silly things, like making me never want to smoke or drink Slim-Fast in my life, for putting water into the liquid soap, and for making me laugh so many times I’d lost count. It was an evening of gratitude, and I didn’t have trouble finding reasons to be grateful until the fireworks had ended and the air in the room was filled with gratitude.
Before leaving, I sang one more song to help Donner know that she would be with me always, in my heart, and on my mind. I tried to channel my own inner angel and, while I couldn’t give it full voice because of the setting, I held my friend’s hands and sang, “Think of me. Think of me fondly when we’ve said goodbye. Remember me, once in a while. Please, promise me you’ll try. When you find that once again you long to take your heart back and be free. If you ever find a moment, stop and think of me.” Though I don’t expect Donner was ever a fan of The Phantom of the Opera, as I was, choosing Johnny Cash over Andrew Lloyd Weber. When I finished the last lines, “There will never be a day when I don’t think of you,” I knew it was our final goodbye. I kissed Donner on the forehead through the mask and slipped quietly out of the room. She died not long after.
A few months later, a small box arrived from Donner’s daughter. It was forest green and contained a delicate gold necklace with a single golden teardrop, accented by a small diamond stone that glistened like a real tear. I wear it often, especially on days when I feel I need a boost of confidents, and I cherish its importance to me and the way it reminds me of my Donner, whom I have no doubt watches over me and takes her job as a guardian angel very seriously.