Thursday, November 25, 2010

964. Grateful

(Written earlier today en route to a wonderful holiday celebration.)

"I am grateful: for the enormous hearts of friends; for all the words that seem to find my eyes at just the right times; for my niece and how she can make food out of love, and vice-versa; for the solid roof over my head; for the way rain caresses the streets of my city; for cats, in general; for the ability of strangers to suddenly find each other and become one; for the miracles of science; for the fact there there are no miracles, because life in general is just one, big, amazing invention; for the blood in my veins; for the love I’ve been given and the love I have to share."

Above, my contribution to the Shine The Divine Gratitude Quilt—see here for beautiful words about why we're lucky to be alive. My day began with a little holiday breakfast with friends, and I'm now en route to my niece's new home for a magnificent feast. (I'm not particularly grateful for two hours on the train next to a woman who is talking on her cell phone in a really loud voice--about, unsurprisingly, her recent hearing test. But this wouldn't be a Jewish blog without some kvetching, right?). Thanksgiving was never a big deal when I was a kid, and always a bit depressing. I became inured to the cycle of feeling jealous and certain the whole world had better families than mine--followed, after reaching the stage of complete misery, by shrugging it off and acknowledging that things weren't so bad, after all. When I was really little, we went to my Aunt Lil's house for turkey and decorating the Christmas tree. Aunt Lil was my mother's very Catholic best friend from a childhood as part of the only Jewish family in a tiny Queens neighborhood (eventually plowed under by the BQE). I had a very Catholic best friend back then, as well, despite living in a massively Jewish neighborhood, so assumed this interfaith experience of Thanksgiving was de rigeur.

Then my parents divorced, and Thanksgiving turned into dinner at my (related by blood) aunt and uncle's. Sometimes we went out to eat, and other years did nothing at all. I don't remember much about those occasions, aside from one really depressing time at a steakhouse chain in the mall a few months before my mother died. I'm amazed, in retrospect, that she had the energy to go anywhere at all; I wish I had understood the extent of this sacrifice at the time.

But I've come to realize that my checkered holiday experiences have left me in better shape than others I know who now find themselves without family, for whatever reason, and remain stuck at the miserable part. I feel for them—but also want to slap them like Cher in Moonstruck: "Snap out of it!" Today is one of the few Thanksgivings of my adult life that I'll spend with more than one actual family member. Many past dinners took place at restaurants with wonderful friends I'll miss very much tonight, where we ate vast amounts and felt free of traditional tsuris. We live in a family-centered culture, and even in this modern era of new and fluid definitions of the word it sometimes feels like those of us without a large assortment of relatives have second class status. I know a number of people who are ashamed to admit having nowhere to go on Thanksgiving. (I hasten to add that I know more who are role models for how to reach out with strength, humor and compassion during even the crappiest of circumstances.)

So I do my best to make Thanksgiving into an occasion to share gratitude with friends--nice if they happen to be family, but equally wonderful if not. Meanwhile, about an hour away right now from some delicious food, and the loud woman just got off--a reason to be doubly thankful.

Monday, November 15, 2010

963. Student

Back to my wonderful student. I don't have much experience around kids, let alone teaching them. Awhile back I tutored a little boy, a second grader, through a public school reading program. The few personal details I was able to extract suggested that his parents were wealthy and way too busy; they bought him a room full of books but never sat there while he opened them, so he rarely did. He and I spent our time reading together, me correcting him on words while encouraging him concentrate and get excited by the stories. And he did, eventually, because I think I was one of the few adults in his life who paid this kind of attention.

I hope he learned something during our partnership, but I know I did, or more accurately, re-learned: how to think like a child, a combination of infinite patience and thoughts moving more quickly than the speed of light. I tried to remember this when preparing for my new chanting student, who could not be more different from the little boy. She's quick and focused and fascinated by a million different things, all supported by her deeply involved parents. She studies more than I ask, and is bummed that her portion isn't longer. She's also learning faster than I can teach her, and asks questions harder than anything I could come up with. Although someone else will be helping her write her d'var Torah, we've also started to study the parasha together (Shoftim), at her request. Once again, I'm pretty sure I'm learning more than she is, which I'm beginning to think is the whole, unadvertised point of teaching.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

962. A note!

So I sat down to get this blog back on topic and write about my new student, a little girl preparing for her Bat Mitzvah next fall—the first non-adult I've taught—and how brilliant and quick she is, with a beautiful, strong voice that belies her tiny stature, and an almost scary ability to remember tunes as soon as she hears then (or maybe all kids are like this, and it's just we adults who are a little slow?)—when suddenly:

A note! From my stem-cell recipient!

Of course the news was delivered via a cell phone message from the bone marrow people on Wednesday afternoon, same day and time as always. I guess Wednesdays are when they leave momentous messages. I'm at a client's office at that time, and answer only when I see that number on Caller ID—which for awhile was happening every week. This time the phone was in my bag, and I didn't notice the message until I was halfway back home. I ducked into a doorway and listened. Call me, said the woman who'd given me all the news since day one, and I'll read it to you before I send it to you! I ran the rest of the way and called, out of breath.

I had no idea my recipient could get in touch before a year had passed. I recall references on other blogs to letters received, but the chronology was vague; I assumed they came after a year. But in fact both donor and recipient can exchange notes at any time, as long as they remain anonymous, via the agency that facilitated the transplant.

It was a beautiful letter, full of thanks. My recipient is a real person, and my stem cells are now doing their work in her body. It actually happened; I haven't been dreaming these past 6 months; I have her voice, in writing, to prove it. She has a family, people she loves and who love her, and the goal of getting well in time to take part in a life cycle event next year. She received a transplant before that didn't work. I am her second chance and, in clear, strong handwriting that I saw today when I finally held the actual note in my hands, wrote that she couldn't find enough words to express her gratitude for my gift of life.

Ecstatic, astonished, overwhelmed, I exhaled the biggest ever sigh of relief... but a small part of me wasn't surprised. For some reason I always imagined her as having grown children and a big family, as the note implied, perhaps because I didn't want to think of someone so gravely ill as being at all like me, who have neither. Or that it was too sad to envision her all alone during this struggle. I had harbored a secret wish that she was nice and friendly, afraid of the opposite: that she coped with disease by becoming bitter, shutting off, and would never want to know me.

It's still very early, less than a month after the transplant. Bracha is nowhere nearly out of the woods, and all I know about her condition is that she has enough energy to write, which seems like a good thing. I'll get an official update in a few weeks, and then I'll answer the note. The next update after that will be in April, or perhaps I'll get a letter in reply. Even if I don't, I now feel like God has done God's job—and quite well, at that—for this phase of the adventure.

Monday, November 08, 2010

961. Storybook

So—back to the topic of this blog, sort of. Last week I led two shiva minyanim, both for a dear friend whose mother had passed away very suddenly. Despite the shock, this family was able to speak and let others into their grief—functional, unlike some others I've encountered who were completely frozen in pain. My friend shared wonderful stories of traditions that created memories and a foundation for everything that followed in her life; her words invited us all into that warm and loving place for a few minutes. It was a little gift of a kind of childhood for which I didn't yearn back then, but only later on when I figured out that other peoples' lives were different from mine: trips to new places, laughing crowds, patterns and rituals that continued with the expectation of never ending.

I would not change the way I grew up for the world. Yes, there was yelling and death and a small, often contentious little unit of us that never travelled further than the Bronx Zoo, but also a lot of love amidst the strife. It was rarely expressed in a storybook way, with big holiday dinners or group sing-alongs (although I'm working on an essay right now for my writing class about songs my father sang to me when I was really, really little, some of which have been re-appearing in popular culture and dredging up long-forgotten Russian melodies from the dustier parts of my brain). But I knew with certainty that my parents, aunts, and uncles, for the brief period I had them, had hearts bigger than the universe, and I was in the center of them all.

My friend's siblings span the spectrum of Jewish observance: far right, middle, and disdain for the whole business. And in their grief, differences became more powerful than all they shared: the outer two factions would not help those of in the middle (my friend and I) form a minyan. They found enough people on the nights I led, but not the others. This caused everyone a lot of pain, although not enough to cross boundaries of observance. Which would have been a betrayal of memory and tradition as well, I guess, so it really was a no-win situation. It also reminded me that even storybook lives have their torn pages.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

960. She jumped!

Whew. It's taken me a while to catch my breath after the donation. Physically, it was over when it was over and all I had was a big bruise on my arm. But the emotional bruise was bigger; as expected, I felt adrift. But I was secretly sure that expecting the feeling would fortify me against it. Not so. Suddenly there was nothing to do but... nothing, no more anticipation, no needles to stick myself with, just waiting to find out what would happen. And the possibility that, worst case, nothing would—a month would pass, and another and another, and "my patient" wouldn't be ready for the transplant.

But last week I got my monthly check-up phone call from the blood center, along with some very good news: "the product was infused" last Wednesday. Whew! Suddenly the whole adventure seemed scarier than even a really, really big needle: she jumped off the cliff, no turning back. And part of me jumped with her. I was taken back to the surreal feeling of that very first phone call: how is it possible that my cells can rebuild the immune system of a stranger? And how in the world can part of me be inside someone I don't even know? But it is. My friends keep reminding me that they're prime, healthy cells, and so have a excellent chance of fulfilling their purpose. I can only hope and pray, and try not to let good or bad fantasies of what might happen get in the way of living with the kind of patience and strength I imagine my recipient must have learned over the course of her illness, and the waiting for last Wednesday.