Once again, a phone call in the middle of the day as I sit at my desk. I recognize the number; my stomach drops. This can’t be good. Two weeks ago, unable to wait a second longer for an update, I emailed the donor center. “We have no news about a delay in collection,” they answered. So I began to count down the days, imagining what DVDs I’d watch during those hours when I wouldn’t have use of my hands. I began to smile all the time. Suddenly it didn’t matter what else happened in the world; life was good.
I pick up the phone: a familiar neutral but cheery voice. “I’m so sorry, but your recipient had a relapse.” Catch-22: the illness has to be grave enough to require a transplant, but not so bad that the process will kill her. It’s not cancelled, however, just postponed to some unknown time. Am I still interested in donating? Of course. Thank you, we’ll keep you posted.
I knew this might happen—the possibility was mentioned on every sheet of donor literature I received—but I still feel horrible. I want her to be OK. I want to fix her. I have no idea who or where this woman is, whether she has a family, kids, is nice or mean, hopeful or desperate. All I do know is that God is being very annoying. I have something she needs—but now, all of a sudden, she can’t receive it. I guess life often works this way; we love someone but they’re not ready to reciprocate, or we possess talent but not means. But in most cases we can find tools to help us change and discover how to accept those gifts. In this instance, the recipient and I are both powerless. All we can do—all I can do—is be grateful that science and circumstance brought us this far, and that the story is not yet over.
When I first matched, I wondered what I might learn from the experience. Patience is one of those things. Life progresses in due time according to a hidden schedule, and will happen when it happens. (I had been afraid to take a vacation—i.e., what if I got hit by a car? But that could happen while crossing the street any time at all. I now have plans, and know that my stem cells will be happier as a result.) The most unexpected thing I’ve learned, however, is about names. I wanted to include this unknown woman in my prayers, yet was uncomfortable doing so. I didn’t want to feel too attached, and set myself up for unnecessary pain—what if she died? Or survived, but never wanted to meet?
But I couldn’t remain detached. Like it or not, we’re connected; I can’t pretend otherwise. But just as I had been unable to articulate my awe and joy at the start of this process, I also was unable to formulate a prayer on her behalf. Here was my chance to escape from powerlessness, but each sentence I tried to whisper seemed to lose its glue and scatter into random words.
Friday night in the middle of services, I suddenly knew what was missing: a name. I might never learn it, but she has one, and it’s hers alone. It gives her dignity, and proves that she’s a person and not just a collection of symptoms. I understand why, for legal and psychological reasons, the bone marrow people can’t tell me what it is, but I can no more ignore its existence than the profound connection we already have.
Names in Judaism are mystical and powerful, and many people assume a new one one during illness in order to trick the Angel of Death. They’re like scaffolding to support and identify our uniqueness to the rest of the world. Praying for this woman without using her name felt like trying to grow ivy without the wall, nowhere solid for the the leaves to climb.
It came to me a little later in the service: Bracha (blessing) bat (daughter of) Sarah. That’s all I need God to hear: please send blessings. Also, a reminder of the blessings that her existence has already brought me. “bat Sarah” because I assume she’s Jewish, since we share ancestors somewhere down the line. If not, I trust that God will insert the proper appellation. I guess it’s pretty chutzpadik for me to name a total stranger, but we all have alternates for different situations: nicknames, “mom,” “dad.” This one is for talking about her to God, nothing else.
The moment I discovered this name, I felt like a physical weight had been lifted from my chest. I can focus once again, after two days of sadness and a whole month of being self-absorbed. Her name will remind me that everything good, bad, and ordinary, is also a miracle. Until the good part of that miracle takes place, please include Bracha bat Sarah, whomever she may be, in your prayers for healing.