The night David Bowie died

I'll never forget the night David Bowie died.  Not because of super-fandom (although I do love him - who doesn't?) but because it was the night my sister had a heart transplant.  My first, and I hope last, all nighter watching time stand still in a hospital waiting room.
I write not only because it's cathartic (trite but true) but mainly to document.  I'm terrible at keeping a hand-written journal, although I have many blank ones stashed around the house. I've noticed that as I am aging (and drinking) I continue to forget the details of the journey.  So this is my testimony.  No preachy life lessons - although the ones that stemmed from this night are countless - simply some of the details I don't ever want to forget.  Not all of them, but many.  No existentialism (is this a thing?  It is, right?) shiz either, like how Genine and Bowie probably had a chat in some parallel world that night.  One moving on, the other not quite ready.  That would be so corny to write about . . . although that totally did happen.
So here it is, my story, of the night David Bowie died.
It began on a Sunday morning.  Two out of the ordinary things happened the night before.  One, I had stayed in and two, I talked to Genine on the phone for quite awhile.  Without completely dissecting our relationship - the phone call was out of the ordinary (and what I consider a gift) because we weren't BFFs-talk-on-the-phone-every-day-sisters.  We didn't have a lot in common. But we loved each other. Very much.  Aaaand the fact that I didn't have a hangover maneuvering through the next day's events is perhaps an ever bigger gift.  No, really.  It is. (Genine could never quite tell when I was being sarcastic, either.)
It began with a phone call from my mother saying they thought they had a heart for Genine.  Let's just say I am the opposite of calm, cool, and collected in any sort of emergent situation.  I was frozen. "What do I do?"  My poor mother.  She literally needed to tell me to put one foot in front of the other.  As if she had nothing else to worry about.
I live on the North Shore of Boston and Genine had been living at Columbia Presbyterian hospital in NYC waiting for a heart for 3 months at this point.  I, for some reason, had never gone over the logistics of what I would do when this day came.  After I stumbled through the initial phone call with Mom, my gut reaction was to call Genine's best friend Cheryl, who also, Thank God, lives in the great state of Massachusetts.  She said, without hesitation "Can you get yourself to my house? I'll drive you."  Later I would learn that when she took my call she was enjoying a glass of red wine and a bubble bath at 10 AM (supposedly there was a very long run in the freezing cold rain involved beforehand).  Just one of the many reasons my love for this woman would increase tenfold this day and the days that followed.
I had the girls solo (Horseface was working) so I texted my friend Lindsay and she did what Lindsay does. She showed up. She also completed a stunning 'All About Me' board with Charlotte for her 'All About Me' day at school.  She had a slight advantage being a kindergarten teacher by trade but the poster was no joke. And the fact that my then 7 year olds had zero clue that their mother was losing her shiz at that moment was the biggest favor of all.  Grateful.
I left.
I got myself to Cheryl's house.  Like a true mom of four, she had the minivan gassed up and plenty of snacks . . . that she would offer repeatedly over the course of the next 18 hours.
Here began what would be the first of many 'Toyota talks".  We took turns talking a mile a minute or  we sat in silence as we both were too afraid to say the words out loud 'What if we don't get there in time to see her before the surgery?' and 'what if she doesn't get the heart?'
We watched the weather do some funky stuff.  One of those late afternoons that goes from a dark Armageddon sky to the most beautiful sunset you've ever seen.  Live from the Merritt Parkway.
Everyone was posting signs of beautiful rainbows all over the city on social media. We would take it as a sign. Signs made us feel better.
Guess what happened next?  We got there in time.
We were both shaking as we handed our IDs to the gentlemen working the front desk.  Elevator.  Hallway.  We walked into her room.  There was my mom and my nephew playing cards, my Dad, and Genine.  (Her husband had gone to put some of her things from her extended stay in the car).  Yep, there she was with her sweet smile and hoarse little laugh - both stunned and unflappable at the same time.  Bravest girl that ever walked this planet.
Anyway, we had some time together.  Cheryl said "Let me leave you guys alone" and Mom said "Don't be silly, you're family."  Truer words were never spoken.  If she hadn't been family before that night she certainly was after.
I'm not sure how much you know about transplants, but you don't know if they are really happening until the last minutes.  A LOT has to fall into place for it to actually go down. So as we were visiting we literally did not know if she was going in for the biggest surgery of her life, or if it was a false alarm.  At the time, the latter seemed the cruelest.
We were getting conflicting reports.  They weren't sure if it was happening.  There was confusion amongst the nurses.  Phone calls and raised voices - all of them fiercely protective of Genine.  I can say in confidence, she was the favorite of everyone who ever cared for her.
Then they decided to prep her even tho we still didn't know if it was happening (the heart was en route).  So they rolled her on out of that room.  The only thing we knew about the heart, by the way, was that she had to sign off on it because at some point the previous owner (that's not a medical term) had been incarcerated.  We joked about Genine coming out more of a badass then she already was.  Complete with tats, ready to kick some ass.  We joked but we were scared.  And it was written all over our faces.  Randy, oh Randy, was this big tall beautiful black man that had been waiting on Genine's floor for a heart and a liver for a year.  (Part of what determines transplants is size).  We had heard all about Randy from Genine.  They had become fast friends.  Anyway, Randy had come into the hall to wish her luck and saw our terrible poker faces and said 'This is a good thing, a really good thing." as he flashed his pearly whites.  A smile, and sentiment,  I will hold onto forever.
(P.S. We found out months later, as Genine was still battling in the hospital, that Randy got a heart and a liver and as far as we know is home a new man!  YAY!)
I don't really want to write much about being in the prep room and saying goodbye except for the lovely nurse who had heard about Genine from the other staff.  She goes "Everyone is all like 'she's soooo niiiiice.' and I'm like 'I need her medical history.'" Ha.  Typical.  Nicest ever.
So we went to the waiting room - STILL not knowing if it was happening - for probably, yeesh, it seemed like an eternity, but maybe 20 minutes.  It's maybe around 8:30 PM at this point. And then the nurse came running out in scrubs and looked at my mom and gave two thumbs up.  "It's a go."  And she vanished through the steel doors.
And for one of the only times in my life I witnessed my mother lose composure.  And it was brief, man, it was brief.  She simply hugged me so hard at that moment and breathed a very short-lived sigh of relief that she must have been carrying around with her for 45 years and said 'What a long road it's been'.  Then she quickly wiped away her tears and we ordered pizza.
And then we waited.  And waited.  And we said "I can't believe she got a heart." And waited.  And ate some snacks.  It was like the movies where they show the clock ticking on the wall.  Except without the part where the clock keeps skipping forward an hour or two. As time went on, tensions ran higher.  All the while with the same news headlines on repeat. Until about 1 AM when the news announced that David Bowie had died.  We watched as they showed people holding vigil at his apartment, a mere subway ride away.  We had a laugh later on that we should have gone - we had time, we just didn't know it.  What was supposed to be a 5-6 hour surgery, lasted 12, all in.  It was 10 before anyone came to tell us what was going on.  Literally.  Zero information.  My poor mother.  It was a Sunday night and eerily quiet.  No hospital staff to be found.  Just other people like us.  Waiting.  Trying to sleep with their uncomfortable thoughts in their uncomfortable chairs. Ugh, Genine loved David Bowie.  We wouldn't tell her when she woke up.  She would be too sad.
Then finally he emerged.  The brilliant pediatric heart surgeon who had operated on my sister for 10 hours.  The man who had taken her very own damaged heart out of her body and replaced it with someone else's, a new healthier heart.  I'm still in awe that any of this is possible!  He was brief.  He was tired.  Saving lives is exhausting.  He said it was complicated, there was bleeding, but it had gone well.  We could move downstairs to another waiting room while they closed her up.
We couldn't even.  WHAT WAS HAPPENING?!  A new heart.  Sigh.
It was another 2 hours of waiting in that waiting room.
The same headlines on the news playing again . . and again.  "Late Breaking News: David Bowie has died."  We were like, ummm, that's hardly late-breaking news.
At around 7 AM there was finally life in the hospital.  Business as usual.  It was bizarre,  again like the movies, like a flip of a switch, time had frozen and now was unfrozen. While people had slept soundly through the night, David Bowie had died and Genine got a new heart. NBD. A bustling Monday morning in one of New York City's largest hospitals. We walked to the cafeteria to get coffee and I almost got run over, like a hundred times. My sleep-deprived self was no match for this crowd.  I was no match for any of this.
What came next is too much to write, too much to share tonight, on the one year anniversary of the night David Bowie died.  Perhaps too much to hold onto for the rest of my years. And now the night of Obama's Farewell Speech. Coincidence? I think not. The audacity of hope. Things really went to hell in a handbasket in a year, didn't they?

But I'll tell you one more thing about January 10th leading into the 11th of 2016 - I've had the song 'Heroes' stuck in my head pretty much ever since.

I still believe in heroes.  We just have to believe in heroes.

RIP David Bowie 1/10/2016
RIP Genine Zavala 4/16/2016


  1. Words have failed me through this experience, I'm so glad that I have yours. Thank you.

  2. This is so beautifully written. You captured a moment in time so perfectly. xoxo

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