Queer Rock Love

A Family Memoir


Donna Koonce

A Few (More) Words About Breasts

Dear QRL Readers,

The beginning of this post bears a superficial resemblance to the previous post, but fear not. This is a much-expanded version that delivers sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, trans history, romance, surgery, Donna Koonce, go-go girls and havin babies. Thanks to everyone who wrote asking for more! xoxox

As a chronicler of queer family life, there are two topics I have studiously avoided: breastfeeding and my wife’s chest surgery.

It has not escaped my notice that both of these topics have to do with boobs.

All my life, breasts have been vexed. As a fourth grader under the influence of Judy Bloom, I waited vigilantly for signs of “development.” In the absence of any mammarian swellings, I was too embarrassed to ask my mother for a bra. I was afraid she’d ask the obvious question: “what for?” My best friend, the frighteningly precocious Susie Patterson, smuggled 29AA hand-me-downs to school. She delivered the goods under the watchful eyes of the cafeteria ladies, and I hastily shoved the mass of straps and padding into my Muppet Movie lunchbox…and proceeded to forget about them, until later that night, when I heard my mother shrieking with laughter as she unpacked my lunch.

By the time I reached high school, I was furtively searching my health textbook for information about the outlying age range for breast development. Was it possible that I was just a late bloomer? Are you there God? It’s me, Paige. I’m not asking for a miracle. I’m just asking for a B cup.

Eventually I realized that a late-adolescent growth spurt was not going to materialize. I purchased a Maidenform padded push-up bra. In Speech class, I memorized a section from Nora Ephron’s classic essay, “A Few Words About Breasts.” I played my flat chest for laughs, but the words resonated more than I wanted to admit. Like Ephron’s narrator, I believed that breasts were the magical badge of femininity. My A-cup assets made me slightly uneasy – not just about my attractiveness – but about my identity.

My wife’s experience was quite entirely different. By age thirteen, it was clear that Katy had inherited her mother’s legendary rack. And since she refused to set foot in the lingerie department, Katy was at the mercy of her mother’s taste in bras. Thus, throughout the low-slung seventies, Katy sported Jayne Mansfield-style bras that launched her boobs up and out, like minor planets orbiting her chin.

It was not a style that complemented a softball uniform. Or a basketball uniform. Or any of the other sporty ensembles that might otherwise have offered androgynous refuge for a budding butch. In the context of Katy’s broad shoulders and chiseled jawline, the bullet bras made femininity seem like awkward and unfortunate drag.

Throughout her teen years, Katy’s parents enjoined her to “Lose some weight.” Have a stomach ache? “If you lose some weight, it would feel better.” Sprained your ankle? “You need to lose some weight.” A hangnail? “Lose some weight.” Looking back at old pictures, it’s clear that Katy didn’t really need to lose weight. She was a natural athlete who played multiple sports. “Lose some weight” was her family’s way of expressing discomfort with physical difference. They couldn’t very well tell her to stop moving and looking like a linebacker with boobs – they had no language for gender nonconformity. They might have known words like “butch” or “dyke,” but their implications would have been unspeakable. Weight became the focal point for the desire to fix a body that refused to be fully feminine.

Her parents, especially her mother, would live to regret it. When Katy was nineteen, she moved to Hollywood. She stopped wearing bullet bras and began wearing tight long-sleeved leotards under her clothes. At first she favored the leotards because they flattened her chest. Later she needed the leotards to cover her track marks.

When Katy came home to Texas for a visit, her parents were ecstatic. “Finally,” Donna wrote in the family photo album, “a size 6!!!” It’s easy to understand how she was beguiled. In photographs from that era, Katy looks skinny, even a bit gaunt. But she also looks comfortable in her body, more congruent, confident, and even sexy. Katy told her parents that she had discovered a remarkable new diet medicine. In fact, she had discovered a powerful means to androgynize her body: crystal meth.

The tale of Katy’s addiction is a long story in itself – one that I will delve into elsewhere. When she was homeless, hungry, living in her car and cheap motels, her mother came to fetch her from Hollywood. Even then, Katy wasn’t ready to give up on speed and the relief it afforded from dysphoria. She clung to it until she realized that the drugs had changed more than her body – she had become a person whom she did not like or respect – and then she quit.

By that time, Katy’s parents had changed too. Katy had come out as a lesbian when she moved to Hollywood, and her family had accepted the news with love and grace. “You know,” her dad said one day, in his deadpan East Texas drawl, “that k.d. lang is a lezben.” They were less attached to having a particular kind of daughter and were simply glad that she had survived. Thus, when Katy gained back weight and boobs, she was able to convince her parents to pay for a partial breast reduction.

* * * *

Katy’s mother, Donna, was a lovable narcissist. It grieved her that Katy didn’t treasure their shared hereditary abundance. Still, to her credit, Donna did accompany Katy to nearby Galveston to meet the plastic surgeon, Dr. Ted Huang.

“She’d just like a nice B cup,” Donna informed the doctor, making a suggestive cupping gesture with her hand.

“Mom! I want to be flat,” Katy corrected. “I want people to look at me and say ‘that girl is so flat!'”

Katy had no idea that Dr. Huang was affiliated with the Rosenberg Clinic, one of the oldest gender clinics in the South. She’d never heard of genderqueers or transmen or transgender community; she had no idea that there were other people who felt the way she did.

Apparently, Dr. Huang did not feel compelled to enlighten her on these points. But he did remove eight pounds of breast tissue from Katy’s chest. The breast reduction didn’t leave her totally flat, and it didn’t resolve her feelings of gender dysphoria, but it did make living in her body a lot more bearable.

* * * *

Katy performs with Raunchy Reckless.

The first time I saw Katy, she was wearing a prosthetic plastic man-chest with perfectly molded pecs and sculpted abs. It was 1999, and Katy was performing with Raunchy Reckless and the Amazons, a Xena tribute band/queer performance troupe whose motto, “keep the dream alive,” was literalized in outrageous mythological costumes that transformed private fantasies into fabulous public realities. Katy’s character was called “Koonce the Vulgar Viking,” and she sang a catchy song about her masculine physique:

All the girls love it,
While the scrawny boys want it.
Don’t you wanna touch it?
Don’t you wanna touch it?

Despite its chirpy surf-rock style, “Manchest” never seemed like kitsch to me, and Katy’s costume never exactly read as drag. In contrast to the bullet bras of Katy’s youth, the man-chest looked comfortable, and it seemed clear that she would have worn it all the time if she could have gotten away with it.

We didn’t meet that night. I didn’t even know Koonce the Vulgar Viking’s real name. I was standing in the back of the darkened room, feebly trying to sell t-shirts to support the grassroots youth organization that I had created with my sister and a bunch of other riot grrl-inspired feminists. I hadn’t come out yet, and the crowded club – packed with sweaty, dancing, libidinous queers – filled me with longing and despair. I had no idea how to make this thing inside of me, my queerness, visible.

* * * *

A year later, I was on stage before a live audience of sweaty, dancing, libidinous queers. In my continuing quest to shed my straight-girl image, I had volunteered to go-go dance at a Valentine’s Day dance party at Gaby and Mo’s, a ramshackle coffeehouse with a tiny stage that served as Austin’s main lesbian art space.

With my silver hair and black tights, I was dressed like my small-breasted fashion idol, Edie Sedgwick. I felt that I didn’t have a good enough go-go dancer body, and, as I ascended the homemade plywood go-go box, I began to feel painfully self-conscious. I had thought that I wanted queer visibility, but now I wished I could just fade into the woodwork. The room became a blur of bright lights and loud bass beats.

Suddenly, someone was saying my name.

“Paige, do you want me to fix that spotlight? It’s shining right in your eyes.”

S/he wasn’t wearing a full beard or a plastic man-chest, but I knew immediately that it was the Viking from Raunchy Reckless. I also knew that this person, with his or her butch chivalry, was the sexiest thing I had ever seen. And s/he knew my name! I had a crush so brutal and instantaneous that my face blushed and I could barely speak.

“No,” I mumbled, turning my face away from the spotlight and the directness of Katy’s gaze. “It’s okay.”

Katy shrugged and walked back to her friends. My heart skipped a beat. I had blown my chance! And now I had to dance all night with that stupid light shining in my eyes.

* * * *

Later that week, on February 18, 2000, The Austin Chronicle ran one of its first major stories about trans issues. The previous year, on January 8, 1999, a young transwoman named Lauryn Paige Fuller had been brutally murdered. As the murderer’s trial approached, it was a watershed moment, a time when terrible violence forced the city to take a closer look at itself. The story quoted a local therapist named Katy Koonce, who spoke about the dire lack of services for transgender youth.

I felt a particular connection with Lauryn Paige because we shared a name. I scoured the news for details of her life. When I read The Chronicle story, I made a mental note to contact this Katy Koonce to see how my grassroots feminist organization might be able to connect with young transwomen.

What happened next strains the limits of plausibility. And yet, it’s true.

A few days after I danced at the Valentine’s party, I was due to begin group therapy. It was something I had been thinking about for a long time, and I’d met several times with the therapists who led the group, to make sure that the group was right for me and that I was right for the group.

When it was time for my first group session, I arrived early. Outside on the street, I smoked a cigarette and gave myself a pep talk. Being part of a group would be good. It would help me learn to deal more directly with my emotions. I would gain self knowledge. Hoo-fucking-ray.

I stubbed out my cigarette and gathered enough courage to go up the stairs and into the therapy office. The door was open. Some people were already sitting in couches and on chairs. I took a seat close to the door and glanced nervously around. No one spoke. In the unforgiving light of self-consciousness, my prospective peers looked like they’d been photographed by Diane Arbus. I began to have doubts. What was I doing with all these crazy people?

Suddenly, a majestic figure came barreling down the hall and through the office door. Head tilted, long hair falling forward like a shield – it was the Viking person. And s/he pointed straight at me.

“I know you,” Katy said, plopping into the chair next to mine.

* * * *

Group therapy is an odd place to meet your future partner. Long before we ever went on a date, Katy knew that I was a depression-prone approval-seeker with an addiction to vintage clothes. She knew that I was divorced, that I was ambivalent about my academic career, and that I tended to smile and joke when I was hurt or angry.

I knew that Katy was a former drug addict with hepatitis C. I knew that her anger could command a room, but her vulnerability could take my breath away.

We bonded over body issues. I had grown up in a family of unrelenting dieters. Katy’s mom had warned her never to wear white shirts or horizontal stripes. In response, Katy wore oversize men’s shirts with outlandish patterns. They were calculated to distract the eye and disguise her body. I longed to run my hands down her back, to explore whether she was wearing a binder or an undershirt or nothing at all, but group rules forbade physical contact.

In one of my earliest group sessions, Katy was agonizing because she had been misquoted in the Austin Chronicle story on Lauryn Paige. Suddenly, it dawned on me: Katy from group = Koonce the Vulgar Viking = that smart Dr. Koonce (that was how I thought of her) from the newspaper. But Katy was mortified, because the story had bungled the distinction between sex and gender and sexuality.

To be fair, it was an era with a pretty steep learning curve. New language and new identities were proliferating. Although she used a feminine name and feminine pronouns, Katy also ran a support group for transmen. I guessed that she was moving toward transition, but that her own identity hadn’t quite caught up to the available options.

We saw each other once a week for an hour and a half, in a room full of other people. At the end of six months, I took a teaching job in Pennsylvania. Despite the fact that I was moving across the country, despite the fact that we had never been alone together, never kissed, had never even hugged, I felt strangely confident that we would end up together.

I was almost equally sure that Katy would eventually transition. At the time, I didn’t realize that Katy’s baby clock was ticking faster than her gender clock.


As a chronicler of queer family life, there are two topics I have studiously avoided: breastfeeding and my wife’s chest surgery.

It has not escaped my notice that both of these topics have to do with boobs.

All my life, breasts have been vexed. As a fourth grader under the influence of Judy Bloom, I waited vigilantly for signs of swelling in my chest area. My best friend, the frighteningly precocious Susie Patterson, smuggled 24AA training bras to school for me in her lunch box. She could afford to be generous; as Susie never failed to remind me, she had moved on to bigger (and implicitly better) sizes.

By the time I reached high school, I was furtively searching my health textbook for information about the outlying age range for breast development. Was it possible that I was just a late bloomer? Are you there God? It’s me, Paige. I’m not asking for a miracle. I’m just asking for a B cup. As the years passed, I hitched my hopes to any old wagon, grasping at stories of short boys who grew an inch or more after age 18.

Eventually I realized that a late-adolescent growth spurt was not going to happen. I purchased a Maidenform padded push-up bra and learned to make light of my plight. I was a budding thespian, and my signature monologue was Nora Ephron’s “A Few Words About Breasts,” which begins like this:

I have to begin with a few words about androgyny. In grammar school, in the fifth and sixth grades, we were all tyrannized by a rigid set of rules that supposedly determined whether we were boys or girls. The episode in Huckleberry Finn where Huck is disguised as a girl and gives himself away by the way he threads a needle and catches a ball — that kind of thing. We learned that the way you sit, crossed your legs, held a cigarette and looked at your nails, your wristwatch, the way you did these things instinctively was absolute proof of your sex. Now obviously most children did not take this literally, but I did. I thought that just one slip, just one incorrect cross of my legs or flick of an imaginary, cigarette ash would turn me from whatever I was into the other thing; that would be all it took, really. Even though I was outwardly a girl and had many of the
trappings generally associated with the field of girldom — a girl’s name, for example, and dresses, my own telephone, an autograph book — I spent the years of my adolescence absolutely certain that I might at any point gum it up. I did not feel at all like a girl. I was boyish. I was athletic, ambitious, outspoken, competitive, noisy, rambunctious. I had scabs on my knees and my socks slid into my loafers and I could throw a football. I wanted desperately not to be that way, not to be a mixture of both things but instead just one, a girl, a definite indisputable girl. As soft and as pink as a nursery. And nothing would do that for me, I felt, but breasts.

While my adolescent self was not particularly athletic or rambunctious, Ephron’s essay resonated more than I let on. I believed that breasts were a magical badge of femininity. My A-cup assets made me slightly uneasy–not just about my attractiveness–but about my identity.

Katy as a teenager. No doubt this picture was posed by her mother, the inimitable Donna Koonce.

My wife’s experience was quite different. Katy inherited her mother’s legendary rack. And since she refused to set foot in the lingerie department, Katy was at the mercy of her mother’s taste in bras. Thus, throughout the low-slung seventies, Katy sported Jane Mansfieldian bras that launched her boobs up and out, like minor planets orbiting her chin.

It was not a style that complemented a softball uniform. Or a basketball uniform. Or any of the other sporty ensembles that might otherwise have offered androgynous refuge for a budding butch. In the context of Katy’s broad shoulders and chiseled jawline, the bullet bras highlighted femininity as awkward and unfortunate drag.

More later…

(Special thanks to Katy for digging up this picture and letting me post it. Despite the fact that she finds it slightly mortifying. I think the transgender butch shines through, don’t you?)

My Mother-in-Law

When Donna Koonce went into the hospital, I kept telling everyone that “Katy’s mom” was having bypass surgery. I didn’t want to give the state of Texas too much credit for recognizing my relationship to this extraordinary woman.

By the time Donna was moved to the ICU, I needed the shorthand of “mother-in-law.” I spoke the words into the intercom, and the nurses buzzed me into the locked ward. (Every time I said, “I’m here to see my mother-in-law,” I had to remind myself that I wasn’t fudging: Katy and I are legally married–in California and the eight other states that recognize our marriage. But that legal status is pretty theoretical when you’re stuck in a small southern town.)

Donna Schley Koonce.jpg

Now that Donna is dead, it feels strange to use a stuffy matrimonial label to describe her. For one thing, she was terribly vain and would not abide any appellation that made her sound old. (Her own grandchildren were forbidden from using the dreaded G word.) For another thing, saying “mother-in-law” inevitably reminds me of our first wedding and how Donna Koonce, grand southern diva that she was, nearly derailed it.

Donna’s presence, and her disapproval, could be formidable. In 1981, when Katy came home for Christmas with a “friend,” her mother “accidentally” discovered their love letters in Katy’s bag. Donna called the girls to the living room, where she presided over the house from a throne-like velour recliner. Trembling, Katy and her girlfriend awaited judgment on the couch. Mom stared the girlfriend down.

“Do you love her?” she asked, finally.

“Yes,” said the young woman, sneaking a glance at Katy, “I do.”

“Well, good,” Donna answered, taking a drag on her cigarette. “You better.”

This was the era of panic over the new “gay cancer.” Only three years earlier, Anita Bryant and her minions had campaigned to remove anyone who supported gay rights from positions in California public schools. Donna’s husband was a high school football coach–a position of considerable visibility and social standing in small Texas communities. The Koonce family lived on the Gulf Coast, in Lake Jackson, a historically segregated community for white employees of Dow Chemical. But even a “chemical corridor” town like Lake Jackson was cosmopolitan compared to the place where Donna was raised: Carthage, Texas, near the notorious Piney Woods of East Texas.

As its ancient namesake might suggest, Carthage is located in one of the more violent parts of the Deep South. The names of other East Texas cities resonate with histories of racial discrimination and terror: Paris, Tulia, Jasper. So how did a privileged white woman from Ku Klux Klan territory come to unquestioning acceptance and support for her butch lesbian daughter? I’ve thought about this question a lot, and I have a few answers: she was extraordinary, she was full of love, and she didn’t give a fig for what other people thought.

“Extraordinary” is shorthand in our family for Donna’s tendency to behave like minor royalty. When Donna went to the bank to make a deposit, she refused to deal with anyone below a Senior Vice President. If she made reservations for a restaurant, she asked to speak with the manager before dropping her own name: “Dhis is Donna Koonce, do you have a good table for me tonight?” If Donna sent you to the Kroger for a cut of meat, she’d remind you to “tell ’em you’re a Koonce.”

If a Koonce was gay, then, by Donna’s logic, gay was good.

She didn’t really care what other people thought, just as long as they were paying attention. As a forty-something mother of three, she wore mini-skirts and go-go boots and Angie Dickinson wiglets. At the Junior Civic League variety show, she played Mae West, but threw in some Sophie Tucker jokes for maximum shock value. On the golf course, she was known as “Dirty Donna” for her foul mouth. “Goddamnit, Donna,” her introverted husband would say at the end of a party, “it’s time to go home.” “Oh shit, Phil,” she’d habitually reply. “You go on home.”

She loved a lengthy public prayer. Before any family meal, she’d gather kids, grandkids, friends, and spouses into a circle. When everyone had joined hands, she’d begin, “Lord, thank you for allowing us to be together once more.” And then, depending on her mood, she would go on, mentioning those who were absent, those who had come before, those whose financial foresight to invest in natural gas had paid for this meal we were about to consume. The length and superciliousness of the average Donna Koonce prayer could cause respectable grown-ups to be seized with fits of giggles. If anyone dared to make eye contact across the prayer circle, it was all over.

For private prayers, Donna preferred moonlight. When the moon was full, she’d slide on her house shoes and shuffle out to the moist swath of grass behind the house. There, with a Carlton 120 in one hand, she’d unload her troubles to a personal god–a confection of Father, Son, and pagan moon goddess. She prayed for all her many grandchildren (including the ones conceived outside of marriage, who occupied a special place in her heart). She prayed for patience with her husband. She prayed for the social life of her cross-dressing neighbor. For the success of her housekeeper’s daughter’s quinceañera. Most of all, she prayed for her adult children, that they would find peace and stability before she had to leave them.

Saying your prayers to the moon is pretty risqué stuff in a town where the Baptists still believe that Methodists go to hell. But Donna wasn’t shy about it. If the moon was particularly big and beautiful, she’d come inside, pour another drink, and then call friends and family. It wasn’t unusual to hear the phone ring at 11 pm. “I want you to go outside and look at that moon,” she’d evangelize. Then she’d fill your ear with everything she’d been praying about–especially if it had to do with you. Just in case her intercession with the moon didn’t work, she was going to take the earthly opportunity to let you know exactly what she thought you should do with your life.

As you might imagine, I was full of trepidation the first time I met Donna. I’d heard stories of previous girlfriends who’d suffered Donna’s frank appraisal–which grew more frank throughout the evening as Donna consumed her customary cocktail–scotch and water in a 24 oz styrofoam cup. At the time, I had 3/4″ hair that was dyed old-lady silver. I wore round black glasses that made me look like a raccoon. I was nerdly. I could not pull off a convincing “y’all.” I had never tasted gumbo with oysters. I was a Yankee.

I could tell you that we bonded over the crossword puzzles that she completed every day. I could say it was Donna’s gumbo or her cornbread dressing, which I ate with relish and appreciation. Or our shared love of vintage fashions from the 1950s and 60s. But the truth is, it felt like she loved me before any of these things.

It’s a cliché to say that your in-laws make you feel like one of the family–and yet, that’s exactly what Donna did by being herself. I still remember the first time I saw her get into an argument with Katy. It all happened so quickly; one minute they were talking about taxes and the next minute they were digging into buried reserves of anger and reproach. I wanted to melt into the couch. “That’s it,” I thought, “the visit’s ruined. We’ll have to go home.” But while I was mentally packing the suitcases, mother and daughter had moved on to some lighter topic and were once again enjoying each other’s company. I couldn’t believe it. Watching them taught me about myself, how unrooted I was, how every little storm could make me feel like I’d been felled.

Although I found Donna’s emotional volatility a bit scary, I learned that I could trust the authenticity of her emotions. When she hugged me goodbye at the end of a visit, I could honestly feel the love flowing towards me. It wasn’t unusual for her to cry a little and to tell me how very, very grateful she was that Katy had found me. “Thank you, Darlin,” she’d whisper in my ear. “Thank you.”

In spite of her love for me, Donna Koonce disrupted my wedding.

PaigeandDonna.jpgIt 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.

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