Editors' note: This is the continuation of Paige's story about her mother-in-law.
In spite of her love for me, my mother-in-law, Donna Koonce, disrupted my wedding.
It was a balmy July evening in Austin, Texas. The elegant oak trees and simple pine plank fences were strewn with tiny white lights. More than 150 people had gathered for a backyard ritual designed to acknowledge our friends and family, our queer village and social support network. Twenty of our most special people were seated on the patio behind us, with Donna on the front row.
Our celebrant was Gretchen Phillips, singer, songwriter, and inveterate marriage skeptic. Katy and I had needed to break through a lot of resistance to convince her to unite us in unholy matrimony. Now, just as Gretchen was about to deliver the words she'd crafted for the occasion, Donna stood up and grabbed the mic. There was a gasp from the audience. "Your turn is coming," Gretchen admonished. Donna, undeterred, pointed to the sky. Then she spoke, slowly and Southernly, into the microphone.
"I. Want. You...to look at that Moon!" Thus instructed, the entire audience gazed skyward and gasped again. A giant silver orb, a spectacular full moon, was shining its blessing on our nuptials.
Eight years later, I was hurrying back to the hospital in Lake Jackson. It was day six of Donna's hospital stay. Her blood pressure had never returned to normal after the bypass and her vital organs were failing. The surgeon had offered the possibility of exploratory surgery, but cautioned that Donna was unlikely to survive another procedure. The family thoughtfully declined. Now the nurses said she wouldn't last another night.
I had taken our son, Waylon, to stay with friends and was anxious to rejoin the rest of the family. Stuck at a stoplight, I felt something looming in my peripheral vision. The moon. It was a spectacular golden dinner plate pasted on the sky. I texted Katy: "look at that moon."
Back at the ICU, Katy held Donna's hand and told her about the beautiful spring moon. Then she spoke with the nurse. The doctor had given permission to stop the blood pressure medicine that was Donna's last artificial tie to life.
When I arrived, Katy stepped out of the room to call her brothers. It was the first time in six days that I'd been alone with Donna. With everyone else gone, I didn't feel self-conscious about taking her hand and putting my face next to her ear.
"Donna," I said, "it's Paige." I had to try to project over the sound of the respirator. "Thank you for always being so sweet to me," I said. "Thank you for always loving Waylon like he was any other grandchild," I sobbed. And then, just as a wave of emotion was swelling inside me, I felt something equally strong and real emanating from Donna. Her emotional response hit me like a tidal wave. Her presence was so strong, I was almost reeling, but I stood my ground and stayed in close.
"I learned so much from you," I said. My throat was tight with emotion. "It's Paige," I added. "I know you might not recognize my squeaky voice." But, even as I said it, I knew she knew me. "I love you and I'll miss you."
Still touching her arm, I sat back down on the stool by the bed. The fullness of her presence had subsided now, but I could feel it resonating inside me.
Katy came back from calling her brothers. She took her mother's hand. "I just called Phil and Blaine, Mommy. It's okay, you can let go if you need to." She kissed her mother and settled in to wait.
It was hard to look at Donna's beautiful face disfigured by swelling and tubes. We stared at the blood pressure monitor, which produced a new reading every 15 minutes. Katy busied herself by making sure her mom still had the crumpled tissue that she habitually clutched for comfort.
There was little sign of change until the heart monitor began to beep. We watched the lines on the screen grow slower and farther apart. Donna did not labor or rasp. Because she had a DNR order, the nurses walked calmly into the room. One put a stethoscope to Donna's chest. Then she handed it to the other. They agreed that the last heartbeat had happened at 12:13 am.
Except for the screaming of the heart monitor, the difference between life and death was barely evident. Then the nurses turned off the respirator and she was still. The respiratory therapist came and rolled the machine away.
I waited with Katy until her brother Phil arrived. Then I stepped outside to give them some time alone with their mama. Phil's wife was in the hallway and we made small talk. Donna was gone, but the intensity of our moment together was so great that she didn't feel all the way gone to me. The body in the room seemed insignificant now, because a small part of her spirit had migrated to my heart. I can still feel it right now, as I'm writing these words. It fills my chest and buoys me up.