“Please be aware that most stem cell donors and patients never meet.”
The Guide for Potential Unrelated Donors, OneMatch Stem Cell and Marrow Network. Canadian Blood Services.
There’s a message on the machine when I get home from work. A red and flashing number 1. A rainy Thursday in May. I slide the balcony door open to cool, wet air. Still in my work clothes, hospital dress code. I take a deep breath. Across the apartment building’s parking lot, on the front lawn of Canterbury High School, the maples are wet and shining.
The starburst of self-doubt explodes inside my chest. Again. Can I manage this new job? Do it well? Surely the Director doesn’t like me. The heat radiates to my throat. My stomach fills with churning, unfamiliar waters. A wave of awkward and then of clumsy and then of side-glances from strangers. Undertows of I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m nauseous.
In my galley kitchen, I poach an egg. A bowl of chick peas. Golden olive oil. Fresh parsley, chopped. I stand at the counter and eat. I imagine my two year old at Daddy’s for supper. Is she watching TV? What did he cook for her? Did he help her wash her hands?
We’ve lived in this apartment for a year. I like that she visits Daddy, but prefer her here. Where I can see her. Where I can pull her onto my lap, twirl her curly hair around a finger, kiss her neck. I lull myself with a song, a ballad, an old cantada about home. Here we are. There is no more pleading or wondering. The missed calls, the closed doors, the silence, the brick wall, the tension in his face: all behind us. I take a sip of Shiraz.
The message. I listen to it twice, straining to hear. A young man speaks English from somewhere far away. Static. Dead air. The March of Dimes? Scotia Bank? I can’t make out the words. I try again. I jot down a 1-800 number and a question mark. I leave the note on the dining room table. I delete the message.
I slip off my tweed pants, my pleated blouse. The sound of rushing bath water is like pulling curtains on a noonday sun. I’ve saved this jasmine blossom bath bomb since the weekend. Since dishes and laundry and swimming lessons and story time. I float and suspend in the soaker tub. I watch the green and pink tornado swirl above my breasts. It smells like honey, like mimosa.
I close my eyes. I don’t know it yet but that blinking symbol, that distorted voice played back: this is the first sign of you. A far-away, barely audible bell sound. I don’t know it yet but there it is, your beating heart.
I get the call that September, on a bright Saturday afternoon. I sit at the Wild Oat, a cafe in the Glebe. I watch people walking by: running strollers, re-usable shopping bags, light jackets. I shake cinnamon over my latte. I wait for a pedicure appointment at a spa nearby. I have time to take the call. I’m admiring the archway to The Fourth Avenue Baptist Church across the street when my mobile rings.
A representative from the OneMatch Stem Cell and Marrow Network. A cheek swab I sealed in a Ziplock bag years ago is a match. The closest match among others. A possibly perfect match.
You need a stem cell transplant. Likely bone marrow, maybe peripheral blood. More tests to be run. Tests for infectious diseases, confirmatory typing.
I take a sip from my cup.
A case manager from the Canadian Blood Services office in Ottawa will contact me for an information session, an interview, further assessment. She will coordinate a work-up, more blood work, a physical exam, and an ECG.
Do I wish to proceed?
I read the sign across the street:
Sermon: Give It Away!
All Are Welcome.
I see a baby in a stroller with a string of brightly painted wood shapes strung around its neck. A rubber soother in its mouth.
I hear the clink of forks on dishes, running water.
I lick sugar off of my top lip.
“Yes,” I manage. “I would like to proceed”
I finish the call and for the first time, I come to know of you. You spring forward. I sit in the cafe and imagine you. There you are, hazy but materializing on the bench across the street, by the bus stop. Waiting. Waiting for me to finish the call. Waiting while I gather my bag. Waiting while I get my coat on.
An hour later, on a leather throne high up, under soft lights, there are hushed voices. My feet are bare and soaking in a milky, oily bath. I talk to the woman sitting in front of me about new jobs, her dog, my daughter, break-ups, the weather.
I read and re-read the same sentence in a novel, over again. I pick a polish the colour of Abrusco grapes, of a Cabernet franc, of blood. I close my eyes and invent you. My match. My best match. You’re a formation at this point. An outline. A frame. I can’t make out your details. You’re a smoky, opaque grey.
Where do you live?
What part of the world?
What do you do on a Saturday afternoon?
What do you take in your coffee?
Who are you?
One month later, I move into my new home. When I first saw it with the realtor, empty and sparkling, it was like I’d been there before. I fell in love with the crab apple tree in the front yard, with the fireplace, the lush front garden, the bay window, the space on the hardwood floor for my daughter to fill.
On a weekend that October, I pack up our belongings. Weeks have passed since the call in the cafe. As I lift boxes I wonder if there is a mistake, a mismatch, a complication. My family members help me unpack dishes, sweep floors, make food. My daughter tantrums. I fill out forms.
The very next day, a busy Monday at work, the Ottawa office calls. The date of the donation is set. A bone marrow extraction. December 18, 2014. A Thursday. Day surgery.
The end of this call is a careful review of a form that will be couriered to me in the next 24 hours. Once signed, a commitment to donate. I learn that it will trigger a series of procedures for you. That you will undergo high-dose chemotherapy and/or radiation in preparation to receive my stem cells. I understand that if I change my mind past this point, without a transplant, you will not survive.
The call ends. I return to my work without hesitation. I don’t waver or pause. I’m focused, energized. I lock my office door and stop to think of you.
What did your first home look like?
Do you live there still?
Who lives there with you?
Who do you think about before you fall asleep at night?
On my drive home, the doubts in my mind are many: how I’m doing as a parent, can I write anything good, my job security, whether I’ll move on to love someone else. They are not about you or about this. Of this I’m certain. It’s the one thing I know I can do.
On December 12th, in the early morning, I visit the Pre-Admission Unit at the General hospital for pre-operative teaching and an anesthesia assessment. The anesthesia resident is tall and thick and handsome with curly dark brown hair, sea-blue eyes and a Scottish accent. I want to pet and curl up into his shawl cardigan sweater, an oatmeal-coloured wool with suede elbow patches. I want to fall back into the water of his warm voice, his gentle encouraging tones. I ask him if he’ll be attending my surgery, not only because he is beautiful but because he is funny and kind.
After an exam he tells me that I have a “reassuring airway”. I’m flattered. As if he’s told me I’m ravishing, sexy, a fox.
“Thank you,” I say.
I’m happy he’s happy. For the first time in years I feel that dancer twirl and somersault on my chest. That familiar choreography, those footprints. The music in my ears turns up a tiny bit: a sultry tango, a funky bass, even some R & B.
I tuck my hair behind an ear as he marvels at the amount of marrow that will be extracted: one litre. A Pepsi bottle. He asks me if I’m aware of this, if it’s something I’ve consented to.
“Mmm, hmm,” I say.
The dancer undulates down my belly and on to my lap. I fold my hands there and focus. I keep myself from smiling, relieved to be flush again, after all this time. I’m happy about this quickening, a desire still alive and crackling in my fingers, down my legs.
The assessment is complete and I have an hour before work starts. I stop at the Second Cup cafe at the bottom of the escalators. I order a cappuccino and flirt with the young barista. I sit at a table and linger over the cloudy creaminess. The line-up around me grows: white coats, warm jackets, scrubs and suits. I wonder if you’re one of them, looking at your phone, ordering a drink, waiting for a friend. I project you into the chair across from mine: female with straight brown hair. Your blazer is draped over your shoulders. Your fingers are curled around your cup, nails shaped and coloured perfectly in a mulberry hue. My imaginary friend.
In my mind’s eye, I ask you,
Are you dating anyone?
How do you meet new people?
Ever go online?
Do you prefer it when things move fast? or slow?
Think you ever would again?
It’s five minutes past eight in the morning on the day of the surgery. I’m wheeled on a gurney to the hallway outside the operating room. I’m shaky. The porter leaves me there. A nurse from the BMT team comes down the hall to greet me. She asks a few final questions. A repeat of the past assessments already conducted. Questions about risky behaviour and infectious disease. This time there is a new and unexpected query.
“Have you ever had sex with someone from Africa?”
I pause. “Yes.” My daughter’s father, although 22 years in Canada, is of Gabonese origin. Africa.
She stops the interview, looks down at her clipboard. I swallow, worried that this is grounds to cancel the extraction. Worried that you won’t survive. We are both confused.
“Have you not been asked this question before?”
We continue. With her clipboard under an arm she pushes me through the theatre doors.
Have you ever had sex with someone from Africa?
I close my eyes against the bright overhead lights and there he is. There he still is. There are his eyes, large and round. His lips. The crease in his brow. His shapely arms. His muscular thighs in soccer shorts. His smile. There it is. It’s beautiful.
I am on my back on the operating table. To my right is a nurse. His eyes are green and bright over his mask. He wears a colourful cap over his hair. He speaks to me directly, touches my arm, tells me about what’s next. Directly in front of me are three other nurses. They are silent, masked, far back. I don’t know why they are there. To my left, behind me, is the anesthesiologist and his resident. They introduce themselves. They set up an IV in my left arm and I start to sing Born To Run. To myself, silently. Bruce Springsteen. I know all the words.
To my right, there are two surgeons that I recognize from past clinic appointments. I can tell them apart despite their gowns and masks. One has smiling eyes. One is taller. The taller one speaks. An introduction, an opening. He reviews the procedure about to take place. I take a deep breath. He is like a conductor, his orchestra behind him. He is like a football coach introducing an important play, a strategy. Everyone there pays careful attention. That’s when I zone him out.
I take a deep breath and there is my daughter. I project her onto the ceiling above me. There she is in her navy blue bathing suit. A one-piece with white polka dots. Her lustrous hair has expanded, engorged into a wet crown of curls. She’s wearing a royal blue life jacket. Her thin and muscular legs. Barefoot. She’s standing on a mini diving board. Her swimming instructor Jeff is treading water in the pool beneath her, ready to catch her. She looks up at me in the stands and waves, smiling. “Hi Mommy! Look at me!” The oxygen mask is on my face. The nurse counts my breaths. I close my eyes. She jumps in the water.
I open my eyes in the recovery room and hear a nurse to my left telling a story. Her daughter has a Christmas concert this afternoon, at school. She’s arranged with the clinical lead to end her shift early so that she can be there for it, hear her daughter sing, take pictures.
I find it difficult to talk, to smile just a bit, to communicate with her. I try to use my eyes, my hands. Everything is heavy, frozen. Something the weight of a basket of pears is sitting on my chest. I don’t like it. It feels like I can’t breathe. But I can. I know I can. So I focus on that: my breath and her story about the Christmas concert. I ask her about her daughter and try to tell her about mine. This is the first time I’ve found it difficult to smile, to nod, to make eye contact, to connect with someone I want to connect with. It’s like I’m under water. A wall of thick water between her and I.
It’s the most afraid I’ve been this day. The effects of the anesthesia have tricked me. I believe I can’t breath, can’t talk, won’t make it back out to my daughter. I want to push through. But instead I focus on my breath and think of you, waiting. Somewhere.
My father drives me home from the hospital. He is 79 and strong, tenacious, a bull. He stays and waits for me that day; he doesn’t eat lunch, he pushes me out to the car in a wheelchair.
I recover in my parent’s home for longer than I expect to. Twenty-four hours turns into three days. My daughter stays with Daddy.
My mother prepares yourvalakia, a traditional Greek meatball soup in a white lemon-egg broth. It’s hearty and fragrant. The iron-rich ground meat is held together with puffy white rice. There are flakes of parsley. I dip a hunk of baguette. I eat two bowls.
I watch Greek satellite TV: black and white movies filled with music, Christmas cooking specials, bright and loud game shows, the news.
There’s blood on the beige and brown velour couch I’m lying on. The one that has sat in the family room since I was in high school. I’m surprised to find the incisions on my lower back are bleeding. I’m embarrassed.
I lie down on my front in a bedroom upstairs. My father removes my bandages, cleans the incisions, and applies fresh dressings. My father, almost 80, with a bottle of rubbing alcohol and cotton batten. My mother stands behind him with a towel, looking over his shoulder. I put my head down onto my arms and close my eyes. I think to myself: this is the last time that I’ll need them in this way. The last time I’ll be in their care recovering, dependent.
I take my pain medication. Before I fall asleep in the twin bed, a small pull-string lamp to my side, I wonder about you: who is caring for you, who your parents are, if they are with you, standing over your bed, watching you sleep.
On Christmas Day I spend four hours with my family. We eat around two rectangular tables covered in red and green cloth poinsettias. There are green salads with dried cranberries, lemon-roasted potatoes with oregano, a turkey. There is a large tray of moussaka, a bowl of rice pilau and platters of spanakopita and tiropita made by hand.
We drink white wine and Dr Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas plays on the widescreen TV. My daughter runs around from chair to chair and lands on my brother-in-law Rocco’s lap. Her favourite, her crush. My father is jealous. There is Stella, my sister’s miniature schnauzer. My daughter eats feta cheese and Kalamata olives and bread rolls and nothing more.
My nephew, visiting from BC, gets up for seconds and there is an empty chair. I imagine you there with us, sitting, listening to my brother talk about work, watching my sister make espresso at the stove in a Bialetti, meeting my niece’s teacup poodle.
Later, you would join in on our Secret Santa gift exchange. You might sit beside my father and listen to stories about his doctor appointments. You would surely enjoy the dessert table. Maybe you wouldn’t like the noise, the children, the dogs, the loud voices, the Christmas movies in the backdrop. Or maybe you would.
I dream. You and I sit across from each other at a walnut-brown harvest table. Everything around us is covered in snow, except the water. The Ottawa River flows beside us. We sit under a weeping willow tree near Mooney’s Bay beach. It’s winter but we are not cold. There are platters and plates of food. A feast. There is a mulberry coloured wine in a voluptuous crystal decanter. Two full and fat wine goblets. White linen napkins.
The dream version of you is radiant, resplendent. You have thick, dark brown hair, a deep maroon pea coat. You use your hands when you speak, gesturing. You tell me stories about home, your family, the sea. We eat roasted eggplant and dip chunks of homemade bread into saucers of olive oil, hummus, baba ganoush.
You pour us sparkling water and ask me about love, art, music. The dream-you has dark brown almond-shaped eyes, skin the colour of toffee. You are taller than I am, with long elegant fingers. Your legs are crossed under the table.
We stab heavy silver forks into large bowls of green salad: mesclun, arugula, parsley, red cabbage, slices of leek and raspberries. We share a platter of cheeses, fat purple grapes and walnut halves. We lick our fingers and watch the ducks glide by on the still un-frozen water. The snow falls off the willow onto the table from time to time.
I tell you stories about work, a crush, my ex. You suck on the pit of an olive and tell me about your mother, the neighbour you admire secretly, your dog.
We watch kayaks glide along the river behind you. There is no one in them.
We raise our glasses for a toast:
To our health!
Stin ygeia mas!
We pass between us a bowl of strawberries and wild blueberries and spoon clouds of whip cream from a frosted glass bowl. We eat the berries with our fingers. We look up at the Canada geese flying overhead and I ask you:
“Was it painful? The transplant.”
“No,” you reassure me.
You pick a blueberry off of my plate.
“Did it hurt?” you ask me. “The extraction.”
“No!” I wipe a crumb off the table. “That was nothing.”
The harder part was knowing but not knowing. The grey spot. The black hole. The soundproof wall of anonymity. The shapeless shape you took.
“I wondered if you were OK,” I tell you in this dream. “If you were cold, alone, comforted or sad.”
You smile and squeeze my hand near the end of this dream. You pour me another glass of wine. We sit and drink in silence as night falls on the water.
At my parent’s home on New Year’s Day we cut into a vasilopita. A traditional New Year’s cake commemorating St Basil, the shape of a full moon. It’s a buttery, sweet white cake, orange-scented and dusted with powdered sugar.
A slice is cut for every member of the family with a long serrated knife. There is a coin somewhere inside, a shiny piece of good fortune, ready to surprise us. To fill someone’s new year with luck and brightness.
I pour myself a cup of coffee and break my slice in two. There it is. A silver coin wrapped in wax paper. It’s mine. I’m the lucky one. I smile and call out to my daughter.
Later at home, I wrap up the coin and my piece of vasilopita in layers of cellophane and foil. I put it in the freezer and we head upstairs for bath time.
Two months later, on a cold and grey morning in March, a reminder pops up on the computer at work. I close my office door and call the Case Manager at Canadian Blood Services. I’m permitted to inquire about your well being. She answers the call on the third ring and I take a deep breath. You lived. The transplant itself was successful, she said.You lived for three months post-transplant, until recently, when your disease took you. You didn’t survive. I end the call and there is numbness. A tingling in my hands and feet. A stillness.
That evening at home, at supper time, before I pick up my daughter, I pull out the piece of vasilopita and warm it in the oven. I set the table with some butter, a silver knife with a ceramic blue handle, two of my favourite dessert plates and mugs for tea. Two napkins.
The piece is already in two. I eat my half of the sweet slice and wish you luck. I sip my black tea and toast the year ahead, grateful. For you, for the day, for my daughter. I drop a golden cube of sugar into the cup and imagine you, in the airy space. On the other side of the thin wall. I’m sorry. As I finish my slice, I’m sorry. As I sip the last sip I imagine you in the chair beside me: clear, defined, solid. There you are: you are you, you are me, you are anyone, you are everyone.