FITCHBURG — When she learned that the mother of the man she had married needed a kidney, Erica Arsenault immediately volunteered to find out if she were a compatible donor.
It is something anyone might do for family.
Except Dorothy Wolferseder was not family. Not anymore.
Her son, Scott, and Arsenault had been divorced for years. They had maintained civil relations, raised two boys, but no one — not Scott, not Dorothy — would have expected that Arsenault would be the one to step up and make such a sacrifice for her former mother-in-law.
The three of them scrunched together on a couch in the Fitchburg house of Erica’s former sister-in-law recently, living proof of family bonds that survived the pain of divorce — and family bonds restored.
Scott Wolferseder, 49, a police detective in Leominster with a crushing handshake and a ready smile, sat in the middle and recalled how his ex-wife explained to him why she did it.
“Because of the hurt that she caused, not only myself, and our two boys, but the hurt that she caused my mom,” he said. “And this was her way of . . . ” — his voice started to shake — “to make it right.”
Scott and Erica married in 1993, and they divorced eight years ago. The sons, now 18 and 17, live with Scott. They did not share why they had split up, except to say that Erica had been the one who left.
“Hindsight being 20-20, I’m not perfect, she’s not perfect, I’m not going to go into details,” Scott said. “We know who went wrong.”
“It does take two people but I would probably take more of the blame,” said Erica, 42. “You learn more as you grow older.”
Erica had been very close to Scott’s family. Dorothy helped her pick out a wedding gown and bought the diamond engagement ring that Scott gave Erica when he proposed.
She considered Erica a daughter. Both Erica and Dorothy described the early days after the separation as a rocky road. But they remained close, just as Erica remained close to her two former sisters-in-law.
When Dorothy went on dialysis in the summer of 2011, she assumed she would wait for a donor for years. Her daughter, Shelley Dupré, put out a request for a donor on her Facebook page.
“The minute I saw it on Facebook, I called the number,” Erica recalled.
In January, she found out she was a match.
“She called me, and she said ‘Mom, we’re a match,’ ” said Dorothy, 73. “I really couldn’t understand why she would subject her body to this.”
“I was astonished,” Scott said. “Of all the people.”
Erica had to explain her choice to her husband, Eric, 32, whom she married two years ago and with whom she has a 4-year-old son. Eric Arsenault is in the National Guard and expects to be deployed in Afghanistan next month.
“He was supportive,” Erica said.
Erica is trim and looks fit. She has given birth and has had her wisdom teeth removed; otherwise, she had never been in surgery.
Her job in the receiving department of the Leominster Home Depot required her to be active. She knew this would change, and she was willing to take the risk.
The National Kidney Registry, a Long Island nonprofit that facilitates kidney donations, says the donor surgery has a mortality rate of three in 10,000.
“I didn’t even think about whether I should do this,” Erica said. “I never thought of not doing it.”
The surgery took place July 10. It was successful. The morning after, Dorothy’s alarm went off, the one that had reminded her to go to dialysis. She ignored it.
“It was such a freedom to be able to shut that alarm off and know I didn’t have to go,” she said. “Erica gave me life. I feel reborn.”
Scott had a hard time after the divorce. Still, he says, “No bad feelings, that’s all been buried.”
Erica felt fine after the operation, but earlier this month doctors discovered an infection that will keep her out of work for a few more weeks.
When she does go back to work, she will need a new, less active, job at Home Depot, too.
Still, she says, “I wish I had four kidneys. I’d donate them all.”
No one in the room can tell this story without pausing to hold back tears.
“Who would’ve thought,” Dorothy said.
Then she paused and caught her breath.
“Who would have ever thought.”