Sunday, March 28, 2010

915. The Sandpit

Speaking of dismal places in New York, most of them are not. This is a brilliant animation that captures the soul of New York, the light and life that emerges even in the most ordinary of city places:

The Sandpit

914. Why

In college we had a joke that the definition of the word "anticlimax" should be the Yale school song, "Bright College Years," which ends:

"... for God, for country, and for Yale!"

I have a better definition now: my trip to the lab last Monday for blood tests that will 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, I know; 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, a small room in an E. Side office building, was rather dismal. 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.)

At services this Shabbat the rabbi spoke about questions. Not just once but twice is Passover described in the Torah as a day when children ask, and parents must explain. It doesn't say "if your child asks" but "when": questioning is an integral, essential part of Judaism. Yet with regard to my possible donation, there is little point in asking why my tissue type might match some stranger's, because there's no answer; the situation just is. The image of God I imagine in this case is like a parent: "Because I said so."

Or maybe we're all asking "why" and petitioning God constantly, like the Israelites pleading for freedom, only we don't know it. God hears our unspoken desires to connect, to fulfill our purpose as human beings by reaching out to other human beings, and figures out clever ways to make this happen even when we're not paying attention.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

913. Preliminaries

Another thought about this potential bone marrow donor thing. I don't think I fully conveyed, in my last post, my overwhelming feeling of surreality (is that a word?). Perhaps if the woman from the registry had sounded a little more excited, or used the phrase "earth-shattering odds"—but judging by the tone of her voice, I might as well have won free dry-cleaning. Her affect did not match the content of her words. I hung up the phone and yearned for Superman to burst in through a window and repeat the message.

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. Even the suddenness of winning the lottery usually comes after many failed attempts. 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 know that my body is on loan from God for the duration of my life. I hope and pray that maybe God will decide to use part of it for this purpose—and if not mine, than a part from one of God's other works of art.

912. Choice

It's been awhile, but I'm still here (and chanting). I've been doing a lot of writing, but not here—mostly for my great class, which is now over for the semester, alas. If you hear about a day with more hours in it, please send it my way.

Meanwhile, 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, customer-servicey voice, as if she had a long list of people to call and tell potentially life-changing news.

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. The rabbis exhorted us over and over from the bima to take part. 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 part of 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 that part 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 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,, most donors match with a number of people at first, but further tests are needed to find the best choice.

At services on Friday night, the rabbi spoke about the difference between Pesah and the Yamim Norai'im. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we choose God; we pray that God recognizes this. On Pesah, however, God chooses us. As we commemorate the time when God led us to freedom, we're reminded that God also gave us the strength to lead ourselves out of many other kinds of mitzrayim, narrow places. But we don't always see that we have this choice. First we need to open our eyes, and then decide to take action.

Whether or not I make it to the donor finish line (I many not hear for months), I think this amazing event is a reminder from above that I have the power, and choice, to do my part to help others out of mitzrayim, as well—through tzedakah, kindness, awareness that we all share space on this earth and need to look out for one another. On Shabbat morning, the rabbi connected the sacrifices described in Leviticus, which we began to read last week, to the current drive to live lives closer to the earth (i.e., The Omnivore's Dilemma). Behind either task is the desire to become more integrated, whether by joining the act of worship to the animals and objects that surrounded the Israelites on a daily basis, or joining the business of daily life (holy, in its own way) to the earth that nourishes us. Both, ultimately, help connect us to one another. Everyone was required to bring sacrifes to the Temple; no one person alone could fulfill the commandment. And if you want to become a locavore, you need the help of a nearby farmer and CSA.

Fulfilling either mitzvah requires cooperating with and helping your neighbor. Being a potential bone marrow donor is the same. The more people who choose to join the registry mean a greater chance that someone's life will be saved—and it is no sacrifice at all to join.

(Meanwhile, I don't know how I'll be able to concentrate on anything at all until I find out whether or not I can donate.)