Like a distant constellation, my CAT scan only glowed with a scattering of malignant stars. So dim compared to the first images—four months earlier—terrifying in their blinding brilliance.
I walked the three blocks from our house to the cold, north shore of the San Francisco Bay. Waiting for the phone call from my beautiful Ukrainian oncologist—known affectionately by her staff as the 007 Girl—I was weak but happy and expected good news. I sat on a flat slab of rip-rap and gazed across the silver blue water. To the south, lights began to dot the fuzzy skyline of San Francisco and the bridges that spanned the bay. My cell phone rang in my pocket and I smiled.
“Hello, Mrs. Keller?”
Dr. Greyz had never called me anything other than Mrs. Keller, but the starched way she said my name this afternoon alarmed me. Suddenly, I didn’t want to be Mrs. Keller.
Bird Island was just off shore. It seemed so close, but I’d never been out there. It was a long way to swim, further than it looked.
“I’m sorry. Neither of your brothers’ can donate their stem cells. They aren’t a match.”
I swallowed hard against the panic rising in my throat. Pelicans drifted towards the open water of the Pacific.
“What do we do?” I whispered.
I’d thought that getting the donation from one of my brothers would be the easy part.
“We will search the international database for an unrelated donor.”
My jaw tightened. The transplant of a non-sibling’s stem cells was dangerous. My body might reject the transplant, or the transplant might reject me. In either case, I would be the victim. But I didn’t have a choice; if I wanted even a chance at survival, a donor had to be found and fast.
The onslaught of treatment had currently eclipsed the cancer. But what good is remission in a lymphoma that spins back in a single-minded orbit to retake what it once nearly destroyed?
“We will find someone.”
I took in and then let out a long breath. “I have another brother.”
“What? A third brother?” Dr. Greyz sounded stunned.
“But I don’t know where he is.”
“Oh. Find him.”
“He dropped out. He’s off the grid.” I wasn’t sure if she understood “dropped out” or “off the grid.”
Raw wind made the bay choppy. I pulled my pink knit cap further down my bald head. Today, in the hesitant winter sun, the water looked like rippled slate. I hadn’t seen Johnny, my youngest brother, in thirty years.
Without a new immune system…” Dr. Greyz trailed off.
“Even if I could find him, he might not be a match.”
“We won’t know until we test him.”
“I don’t even know where to start.”
“You try and we will search the database.”
I was beaten before I began.
Strong currents swept flocks of tidal song sparrows further from shore. I stood in the gathering dark. The blackened silhouettes of bare liquid amber branches were backlit by the setting sun. Bands of silver, gold, and blue shimmered in the choppy water.
Truthfully, after all this time, I was afraid to find him and be preyed upon yet again by our shared heartbreak. And even if I could find him, would he be a match? Again, unlikely. Would he want to see me? Would he agree to help? Maybe not. Too many cruel memories. Just because you love someone doesn’t mean you can bear to be in the same room with them.
Fifteen Months Earlier
Like many others, I found the lump in a steamy shower.
Hot water thrummed against my back and I raised my right arm. Wattle drooped like pizza dough. I held it up; it fell back down. Definitely not Michelle Obama triceps. I sighed then placed a hand over my obstinate belly, a gibbous moon affair. I pushed it in; it popped right out. Despite sporadic dieting and occasionally resisting that second or third glass of wine, the tummy bulge had moved in, loved the location, and was not going anywhere. Good God, my husband thought it was sexy. It made me feel tubby and old. Add to the wattle and waist creep, “noun dropage:” the charming inability to remember names of Presidents, relatives, books, countries…. Who was the President after Gerald Ford? Ford? He was a President, wasn't he?
Massaging a bar of lavender soap into suds, I washed my face and breathed in the scent of farmers’ markets in summer. My soapy fingertips slid down my neck then stopped at what felt like a bump. I pressed at it, just under my jaw. Hard, tiny, and painless. A jab of fear made me frown. But I felt fine. Nothing to worry about. Just a swollen lymph node that would soon disappear.
Outside the dewy glass door, our rescue dog, Spirit, an aging, overweight Shiba Inu, lay on the bath mat waiting but not watching me. I loved her and it broke my heart to think about how before we’d rescued her, she’d been repeatedly kicked and beaten. One of her litter mates had been kicked to death. Now she backed away to avoid being touched but oddly enough enjoyed licking water off my wet calves after a shower.
After a beating, her puppy skin must have been bruised and welted.
I touched the lump on my neck—a round, raised welt.
While the swelling made me feel unattractive, I accepted that—like the tummy bulge—I’d have to live with it. The lump was small enough that my husband didn’t notice; with my hair down, it was hardly there at all.
I felt healthy, sagging skin and all, for another year.
Susan Z. Keller
M E M O I R