I sit on a slab of stone at the north shore of the San Francisco Bay and wait for the call from my drop-dead gorgeous Ukrainian oncologist, affectionately known as “The 0-0-7 Girl.”
The day Dr. Greyz—the 0-0-7 Girl—walked into my hospital room, my husband’s face went slack. He stared at her, then looking sheepish, turned away. Then he looked back. That’s what we do when we encounter a truly beautiful person. We stare. Feel apologetic, embarrassed. Then have to look again. Her blue eyes, high cheekbones, perfect skin and smile. She reached her hand out to mine. Hers was warm and dry; mine was damp, clammy. My face was puffy. Whatever illness was ransacking my insides, I was becoming more frog-like every day on the outside. She was dressed in expensive shoes, probably Italian, a blue cashmere sweater, and narrow black slacks. I wore a hospital gown and nubby brown hospital socks. Her hair was thick and wavy; mine was droopy, unwashed, and thinning. Healthy and twenty years my junior, we could not have been more different.
From that first day, Dr. Greyz has never been the bearer of good news. Not her fault. It didn’t take her long to diagnose me with a rare, aggressive, and frequently fatal lymphoma. After surviving four months of ghastly chemo, a drug-induced psychotic breakdown, and a blood infection that should have killed me, I’m sprinting towards a last-ditch effort to save my life: a stem cell transplant from one of my brothers.
She hasn’t pumped any chemo into me for two weeks; and now, sitting here on the bay, my body is stronger, cleaner, the puffiness is gone. The restless winter air is heady. I'm feeling optimistic as I gaze out over the silvery water trying to decide which of my two brothers I would prefer to be my donor.
Her name lights up on the phone.
“I am glad to have got you.”
Even her quirky Ukrainian syntax is attractive.
“I hate to say, but neither of your brothers’ stem cells are a match.”
I wince and pull my knit cap further down my bald head.
“And there is no match in the international database. I am very sorry.”
I pull my coat in around me. My brothers—Tom and Randy—neither a match? Of course, I’d just assumed.
The water laps at my feet. The tide, so predictable, outlasting us all.
“Can we look again, in the database?”
“If there is no one now, the chances of a match…”
I never imagined it would happen like this. I inhale deeply and plunge in.
“I have a third brother.”
“Another brother?” She sounds breathless.
“I don’t know where he is. No one does.”
I’m too ashamed to tell her I haven’t spoken to Johnny in almost thirty years. And why. A smart kid, he loved biology. His face always in a book, his glasses sliding down his nose. He could have been a botanist, a professor, a biochemist. As a rebellious teenager, he hid snakes in his dresser drawers. Grew marijuana in the garage until our mother discovered the reptiles and the weed and threw him out, just days after he’d graduated high school. He packed up his plants and animals and moved to a communal house in Huntington Beach. I called and wrote. He responded occasionally.
Johnny surfed and got high. Seems he dealt. I couldn’t listen to him relay the sordid details. I loved him, but his life depressed, frightened, and repelled me. I no longer knew who he was.
Right now, my lymphoma is mostly in remission; but it is a brief respite after which even bigger guns will be leveled at me. If I can find a donor, radiation will erase the last malignant points of light on my CAT scan; and chemicals will dissolve my immune system. If I want to live, and I do, I will have to find Johnny.
Truthfully, after all this time, I don’t know how I feel about seeing him. There is fear, guilt, shame, maybe even aversion. And even if I can find him, will he agree to be tested? Want to see me?
“He could be anywhere, or nowhere.”
Did he survive back street deals, addiction, overdose?
“Find him. You must.”
In the gathering dark, lights begin to suggest the fuzzy skyline of San Francisco and the bridges that span the bay. Strong currents sweep flocks of tidal birds further from shore. A pair of pelicans glides towards the vast, open water of the Pacific. How do they survive out there? How do they find their way back? I stand. My heart swoops in my chest.
I thought I was near the end but I am back at the beginning.
S. Z. K e l l e r, Author