Definition of “anticlimax”: my trip to the lab last Monday for blood tests to determine if I can get to the next stage of being a possible bone marrow donor. I barely slept on Sunday night. It made no sense; this isn’t a competition, the result will have no impact on my health, and it’s just a few vials of blood. Ordinary. But symbolically it felt like a whole lot more.
The lab was a small, dismal room in an office building. The staff consisted of one woman doing double duty as office manager and phlebotomist who seemed to move at the speed of light from shuttling people in and out of the crowded waiting room to staring, Zen-like, at everyone else who complained about the wait. “They told me to be here at 8! It’s now 9! Harummph!” I had put an “away” message on my email, so reminded myself that I was in no rush even as the minutes ticked away.
Finally it was my turn. “Is this your first time here?” she asked.
“Yes,” I answered, bending over the counter so I could lower my voice. Because there was no buffer zone at all between the Front Desk of Inquisition and the rest of the waiting room, we had spent the morning inadvertently learning about the medical conditions of all our fellow patients. Although I was proud to be a possible bone marrow donor, I didn’t think it was anyone else’s business.
“Bone marrow test? Did they send you a package? Oh, wait, here it is!” she yelled from under the desk, loud enough to be heard in New Jersey. “Room 2.”
Room 2 was the size of a closet. I sat down and she opened the FedEdx box, extracted a stack of documents and vials wrapped in bubble wrap, and gave me a form to sign. I didn’t even feel the needle go in, and suddenly five vials were filled and shoved back into the box. She handed me an envelope with my name and “Thank you! [smiley face]” written on the front. Inside was a brochure reiterating much of what I had learned online (minuscule odds of being chosen, up to two months before you’ll hear back, etc.).
And that was it. I walked out into the rain back to the bus stop, and attempted to put it out of my mind. (But I was reminded again this morning when I noticed a nasty bruise in the crook of my arm.)
Another observation about this potential bone marrow donor thing. I don’t think I fully conveyed, in the last post, my overwhelming feeling of surreality (is that a word?). Perhaps if the woman from the registry had sounded a little hysterical—but her voice, although cheery, was way too calm. I hung up the phone and yearned for Superman to burst in through a window and bellow the message through a megaphone.
I realized, later on, that I’m used to sudden bad news. I’ve had a lot more experience with it. The phone call about an unpromising lab test, or a death—I know, as do most adults, that feeling of being punched in the stomach, robbed of breath. I understand the recovery time involved, during which you live in a world devoid of color or music where everything is muffled, grey.
Bad news arrives quickly more than it grows into being. Even situations that devolve over a long slide, starting out bleak and ending up dire, usually feature one moment when the bottom seems to fall out entirely. One second there’s hope, then it’s gone. The length of time in which hope is nurtured doesn’t necessarily make it any more true or enduring.
But joy takes its time. Rarely does true love appear at first sight. Birth requires pregnancy; marriage, engagement. Great happiness generally grows out of many instances of smaller happiness, and they add up until one day you realize that things are really wonderful. I guess the preliminaries to joy aren’t always all happy—but there are still preliminaries. Joy does not generally sneak up.
So I think that’s why this potential bone marrow thing has been so disarming, in the best possible way. One minute I was a normal person, and the next—a normal person who might be able to save a life. I feel completely unworthy of this honor, which I know makes no sense. We are all our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.
I got a phone call on Wednesday afternoon. “You registered with the National Marrow Donor Program in 1999,” said the woman on the other end. “We’d like you to know that you matched to be a bone marrow donor,” she continued in a cheery voice.
In 1999 I had just joined my synagogue, and knew only a handful of people. A member urgently needed a bone marrow transplant, and a drive was organized. I had never paid much attention to that sort of thing; I was pretty self-centered, but was beginning to learn what it really meant to be in a community, to step up and do my part. So, with no small measure of self-congratulation, I showed up one evening and got my cheek swabbed. I remember the moment clearly, because I struck up a conversation with the woman who took all my info. I asked if she was a member. Yes, she answered, and told me her name; she was the wife of the former rabbi, and I was very embarrassed not to have recognized her. She laughed—you’re new, no big deal! A pleasure to meet you. Is everyone here so nice and gracious? I wondered.
For a few years I got an occasional newsletter in the mail from the registry, but that stopped after awhile and I completely forgot about it—until the call on Wednesday. (I didn’t believe her at first, and figured it was some weird telemarketing scan.) I was utterly shocked and ecstatic, but don’t yet know if I can donate; blood tests tomorrow will determine the answer. The odds of a non-family-member getting to this stage are about 1 in 20,000, and for those matches, 1 in 12. According to the NMDP website, www.marrow.org, most donors match with a number of people at first, but further tests are needed to find the best choice.