4. Perfection

On Thursday I learned that I am indeed a perfect match to be a bone marrow donor to a perfect stranger, a woman. As proof that God really does have a sense of humor, and good timing, I got the news in a voicemail message left on my phone at the exact same instant I was having blood drawn at my doctor’s office during a routine checkup. (As the events at Sinai demonstrated, important pieces of information are most effectively delivered with special effects.) I heard the phone buzz and for a second thought—as I had every time over the past month and a half when seeing caller ID from this particular area code—is this it? “It,” I already decided, was no. The odds were too high (about 1:20,000), and how chutzpadik to assume I was perfect? Besides, I didn’t want to get all excited and then be disappointed.

But then I stood on a windy street corner and called back, and heard yes. I was both surprised and not; I guess a little part of me concluded all along that I’d be the one. On Friday I received a big FedEx box containing a million papers to read and sign and a DVD explaining the procedure, an oddly charming glorified filmstrip complete with earnest doctor without any acting ability as narrator.

If all goes well and I pass the physical, I’ll be donating PBSCs, peripheral blood stem cells. They carry the ability to generate new blood cells, and until recently could only be harvested from bone marrow, a surgical procedure involving pain and a hospital stay. A newer method, still experimental but now the most common way to donate, allows these cells to be extracted from circulating (“peripheral”) blood. For five days the donor is injected with filgrastim, a.k.a. granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (G-CSF) a.k.a. Neupogen, a drug to stimulate stem cell growth, and then undergoes a procedure where all the blood in one’s body—a few times over—is filtered to remove stem cells, and then returned. Out one arm and in the other.

Assuming I do pass the physical, the procedure won’t take place until July or later because of a drug trial the recipient is on. In the meantime, she has to stay both sick and healthy enough to make a transplant appropriate, a scary balancing act.

We study Torah to understand Rashi, remarked the rabbi at services on Friday night, and not the other way around. We don’t live in a black and white world; midrash helps us interpret daily life, and does indeed count as much as the original text. This week’s parasha, Emor, for example, says that the high priest must be perfect in every way. Does this mean that those with disabilities are forever flawed, less than holy? What about the rest of us? So we can choose to interpret Emor as fundamentalists, text to be rejected wholly or observed blindly. Or we can see it as a challenge from God: look beyond the surface, discover how to connect words of Torah to the realities of here and now.

“What’s the text of your life?” is an awfully heavy question, added the rabbi, and we can spend our entire lives searching for the answer. But “What’s the midrash for today?”—that’s a little more manageable. Think about the context and meaning of your actions, he suggested, and if they don’t ring honest and true—discover a new midrash.

I sat speechless for a few seconds after he said that, as if cold water had been splashed in my face: wake up! We can try to steer and influence, but so much that happens in our lives—health, world events, love—is out of our control. And how we respond to these events is up to each of us alone, and no one else.

So the donation might not happen, even though I’m a match. What’s my midrash for today, in that case? How can I understand this accident of birth and tissue type that might allow me to save a life—or watch God dangle the possibility so closely but then take it away? What if I donate and the recipient still dies? (A little knowledge, especially from the Internet, is a dangerous thing; last night I read that transplants often fail for people with this woman’s condition. But it wouldn’t take place unless there were some chance of success, right?)

A friend pointed out that no matter what, whether or not the process goes any further, I’ve given someone hope. Maybe that’s the best blood of life, and the real definition of perfection.

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