My in-laws came for a visit last weekend. We usually see them every 4-6 weeks, but thanks to various winter storms, it had been more than two months since our last visit together. When they come out to see us, we often spend Saturday at our house and Sunday morning we go to a diner for brunch before they make the long drive back to Pennsylvania.
Last weekend I was acting as a host for a prospective grad student. I spent Saturday running around the chemistry building, answering questions about the department and the city, and trying to be helpful and informative. I took my recruit from one faculty appointment to the next, manned the group poster alongside my labmates, and went to dinner with the recruits. I also tried very hard not to be The Jaded Grad Student, which I have been falling into a lot lately.
It was a full day, from breakfast in the morning to drinks and mingling in the evening, with a bunch of running up and down stairs in between. While my recruit was meeting with faculty, I tried to make bite-sized progress on my thesis, though it’s hard to get very far in 10- or 15-minute increments.
I arrived home after my in-laws had left, but the usual plans for brunch had been made. Sunday morning we met at the usual diner and had our usual catching-up chitchat. We exchanged hugs and good wishes and then headed back to our respective homes.
Recently, while talking to someone about my progress on my thesis, I mentioned going to Sunday brunch with my in-laws, and that we hadn’t visited in months. They said “But you’re so busy! You can have brunch with them twelve times after your thesis is done.”
Well, no. I totally disagree.
Three years ago this March, on a Saturday evening at home (after a chemistry department recruiting event), my husband got a terrible phone call: his father had had a massive heart attack. We waited an hour or two to learn more. All that “more” meant was “things look dire.” We drove to Toledo to pick up my husband’s grandmother, and headed for western Pennsylvania.
About two in the morning, we got to the hospital. No improvement. Nothing to do but wait. We went to my in-laws’ home, and though we closed our eyes, nobody really slept.
Early in the morning, we were back at the hospital, listening to a clatter of equipment whirring and chirping to save his life, while a doctor told us that it was no use. They said he probably wasn’t going to make it. They told us to say goodbye.
My father-in-law is – aside from the heart attack – a healthy man. He was a wrestler in high school and years later is still very conscious of what he eats and how active he is. Just that afternoon, before the heart attack, he’d been out for a long walk with his wife, something that was routine for them.
Heart attacks are classified by where the causative blockage occurs. The type my father-in-law had is nicknamed the "widow maker." The paramedics who rushed to his home spent a very long time trying to revive him.
So we stood beside his hospital bed and sobbed for what felt like hours. And then something amazing happened: he lived.
The room suddenly overflowed with activity. Doctors and nurses began swapping tubes and wires and getting him hooked up to a portable unit so he could fly to a larger hospital in Pittsburgh. We followed by car and spent the next week shuttling back and forth between the house and the hospital.
We could visit for only a few hours in the day, in short segments, and only two or three at a time in the room, and only if we put on masks or gowns or gloves, or whatever combination of protection the doctors decreed that day. I had been preparing for my candidacy exam, and had a stack of references with me, but my laptop was left at work, so I wrote out my candidacy proposal by hand. Draft after draft I scrawled out onto yellow notepads with a ballpoint pen while I shared a solemn waiting room with a changing cast of sleepless, red-eyed strangers.
At the end of the week, my husband and I returned to Michigan, even though my father-in-law, now in an induced coma, still breathed and bled through a massive contraption beside his bed.
I passed my candidacy exam that Wednesday.
My father-in-law regained consciousness some time in the next week. It was several months before he recovered. Months later, someone from his neighborhood saw him and exclaimed "I thought you were dead!" They'd seen the paramedics on the lawn, pounding on his lifeless body, forcing the reluctant heart to keep doing its job.
It’s been three years, and he’s still thinner than before. He’s even more cautious than before about what he eats and how he exercises. And now we all remember that any Sunday brunch could be our last together, and that we can’t put that off. Life is too damn short.
I missed a visit with my in-laws on Saturday so that I could help my department recruit new students.1 How could I possibly miss brunch on Sunday, too?
My thesis is important to me, but this week it was more important for me to visit a diner and talk about the weather. Because there might not be another chance.
1: My recruit has emailed to accept the offer of admission!