There are people who come into your life and fill such a big space in your heart that no matter how far away you are from them, or how long it is since you have been together, they are always with you. This is about my friend Donna, in St. Louis, and her daughter Carla. Donna is lying in an intensive care unit tonight, and they are saying that there is no hope, and will likely not live through the night. My heart is breaking.
I met Donna and Carla in the fall of 1998. Charles, Amanda and I had recently moved to St. Louis from Kansas City, and started attending mass at St. Margaret of Scotland Catholic Church. Carla was in the choir which I joined to give me a little time out of the house on Wednesday nights and make some friends. Carla has this incredibly magnetic personality and we were drawn to each other immediately. She was young, incredibly funny and stylish in a very eclectic gypsy girl way, and has the most incredible singing voice of anyone I have ever heard. She fell in love with my little Amanda, who wasn't quite a year old yet, and introduced me to her mom, Donna. She said that her mom was the babysitter for almost every kid that had ever lived in the neighborhood forever, and lived across from the church.
Anyone who has ever met Donna even once will never forget that contact. Donna is a bubbly, outgoing, wickedly funny, and profoundly in touch with her inner child. She loves Tweety Bird. She loves musicals. She is witty and sweet. Kids love her. Everyone loves her.
She is an utterly devout member of her church, in fact she is the lady who stands at the back of the pews before Mass and hands out the hymnals and church bulletins.
Most of all, Donna was the most loving mother that has ever lived.
Donna married later than usual for the time. Her family had really tried to keep her at home, I don't know why. She worked a job downtown, and met a wonderful man, Carl. They would spend lunch hours together, take the bus to the zoo, surreptitiously dating until one day they simply took the bus to the courthouse and got married. She told me of how they kept this a secret for a while, and she continued to live with her family. I don't remember exactly how it happened, but eventually the marriage was revealed, and she and Carl got their own place.
They had a son, Chuckie. He was born with a heart problem and died within a few weeks. Donna talks about Chuckie often, always with a smile on her face, about what a beautiful son he was, and how much his daddy and she loved him. She told me the story of the funeral mass, and how as she was leaving the church and getting into the limo to go to the cemetery a butterfly fluttered around her and landed on her shoulder. She brushed it off, but when she arrived at the burial the strangest thing happened...the same butterfly landed on her shoulder, she really believed it was, and sat there for the whole graveside service. Tonight I believe she was right.
Donna and Carl had another child a couple of years later, Carla. Carla was a beautiful little girl who filled her parents with so much hope and joy. She was adorable personified, and trust me on this, she still is. They enjoyed four utterly wonderful years together, but sadly Donna and Carla lost Carl suddenly to a heart attack. This loss was unfathomable, and Carla and Donna clung to each other.
Being a single mother is a difficult job. Donna wanted nothing but the best for her little girl, so she did everything she could to earn enough money to put food on the table and save for an education. She cleaned the parish's school to help offset tuition for Carla, and eventually started taking in kids. This vocation was her true calling.
While Donna worked hard to care for the children, Carla worked hard to get good grades. Carla's great gift to this world is her voice. The first time I heard her sing a solo was our first practice for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, when she sang "Oh Holy Night." I was so dumbstruck by her voice that I stood there with my mouth hanging open, unable to sing, and weeping. She has the purest, cleanest, and sweetest voice; there is nothing forced, false or contrived about it.
Donna was the proudest mother in the world, and loved to hear Carla sing, whether it was at Mass or in a musical. Charles and I took Donna to see Carla in her college production of South Pacific, where she completely stole the show as "Bloody Mary." The three of us had such a wonderful time that night.
On most weekends Donna and Carla would come have dinner with us either Saturday or Sunday. We usually grilled out. I was pregnant with Sarah, and it was just a wonderful time in our lives. Donna and Carla were the only family we had in St. Louis. They were at all the baptisms, the birthday parties, all the family events. When Sarah was born, they were there. When our house became infested with fleas a week later, they were there...or rather we were there, they took us into their small apartment, all four of us, and let us sleep. Donna took care of Amanda and my newborn Sarah for free while I tried to sleep.
Donna cared for all four of my children at various times. My youngest, William, is two months older than her grandson, Noah. Noah was a big baby, and at birth was the same weight as my 2 month old, 11 and a half pounds! He was a fantastic, happy baby. I haven't seen him since he was very little.
We moved back to New Mexico. The last time I spoke with Donna was Thanksgiving Eve. We talked about the kids, and Noah, and how happy she was. I told her that I wanted her and Carla to come visit me in New Mexico, that they would love it here, and she had to take a vacation, and she really wanted to come. I feel so bad that I didn't talk to her again.
Today Charles called me at work. He said that a mutual friend called, and that Donna was in very bad shape. She had gone in to open heart surgery for 16 hours and was not expected to make it, that she had been transfused with over 70 units of blood, and there wasn't much hope. As soon as I got home tonight I called that friend, and she told me that she had gone into triple bypass surgery, and they had found a, get THIS...butterfly, she said BUTTERFLY...in her heart. I don't know what that really meant, but butterflies were very important to Donna. To me, butterfly just made sense. To me, it seems that Chuckie is with her.
She said that they couldn't figure out where she was bleeding from, and after 16 hours they had to stop the surgery. Donna is in ICU, her chest open because they have to keep draining the continual bleeding. She has had over 100 liters of blood, and she is not expected to live through the night.
All I can do is cry. My friend told me that Carla had gone home to shower and change, and maybe get a little rest, but that she wanted me to call her. I did, and she is so lost. That is all she could say, she is so lost. She said Donna had gone into surgery with such a great attitude, that she had complete faith in her doctors, and that her nurses were so HOT! This is so typical, this woman is so positive. She told Carla she would be fine and would talk to her after the surgery. Carla and Noah are going to be all alone.
I told her that she would always have us, and I know that isn't any comfort at this point, but it is all I have. I wish I could go right now and be with her through this, but it is not possible.
This is all I can do, to tell people about Donna, and what a remarkable woman she is, and how the world is going to lose a big chunk of kindness tonight. My only consolation is that she and Carl and Chuckie will be together again.