“I’m sorry. Neither of your brothers’ stem cells are a match.”
I sit on a slab of rip-rap at the north shore of the San Francisco Bay hearing but not understanding my oncologist. The restless winter air is heady. I’ve had no chemo for two weeks. My body is stronger, cleaner. I pull my coat in around me.
“And there is no match in the international database. I am so sorry.”
Tom or Randy, neither a match? I’d just assumed. Pelicans glide towards the vast, open water of the Pacific. How do they know when to turn around and come back? I am so confused.
“Can we look again, in the database?”
“If there is no one now, the chances of a match…”
How can this be happening? I’ve asked myself that question so many times in the last months. I breathe deeply and plunge in.
“I have a third brother.”
“I don’t know where he is.”
“Find him. You must.”
I’m too ashamed to tell her I haven’t spoken to Johnny in almost thirty years. And why. He was a smart kid. Loved biology. Read all the time, his thick 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 plants and threw him out, just days after he’d graduated high school. He moved to Huntington Beach. I called and wrote. He responded occasionally.
Johnny surfed and got high. Seems he dealt. I couldn’t listen to the details. I loved him, but his life depressed, frightened, and repelled me. I no longer knew who he was.
Dr. Greyz has never been the bearer of good news. Not her fault. She diagnosed me with a rare, aggressive, and frequently fatal lymphoma. After months of grueling chemo, I am 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? So many cruel memories. I should have done more.
“He could be anywhere, or nowhere.”
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. I stand. My heart swoops in my chest.
I am back at the beginning.
Tom, Randy, and I stood at the side of the four-lane highway, the heat making the cars speeding towards us from both directions look wavy and far away. Our mother had locked us out and told me to take my brothers and find something to do. Being locked out again was bad, but not as bad as the morning my dad took a big knife into the boy’s room and sliced up the cotton belt that my mother used to tie the baby into his crib. It wasn’t as bad as having nothing in my lunchbox but a leftover baked potato, wrinkly and cold. Or sitting in a chilly swimsuit for a couple of hours because my dad forgot to pick me up from the pool. Those were worse.
I held Randy’s hand. Tom leaned into me. I was eight, the only girl, Tom six, and Randy four. I looked left and right and thought the break in the traffic would give us enough time.
“Okay,” I yelled.
Yanking Randy’s hand hard, the three of us darted across the super-heated asphalt. His little legs could barely keep up. A car honked, then another. Randy and Tom panted, their faces red and splotchy. The glare of the sun made all of us squint. Sweat dotted our upper lips.
“Let’s go this way,” I said pulling Randy down a narrow street with no sidewalks.
“Why?” asked Tom.
“Maybe there’s a park down there.”
“No,” Randy screamed, trying to pull his hand out of mine. “I wanna go home.”
“We’re locked out.”
“I wanna go home.”
I pulled him harder but Randy’s hand slipped out of my damp grasp. He threw himself onto his belly and pounded the blacktop with his fists. The toes of his scuffed shoes slammed into the asphalt as he continued to scream.
He howled and beat the pavement. Tom looked scared. I wiped my upper lip with the back of my hand and hoped no one could hear him. Randy was famous for his tantrums and when he threw one, he got his way.
“You’re going to get us in big trouble.”
I pulled him to his feet. We waited a long time for an opening in the stream of cars before we ran. By the time we got home, both the boys were crying.
I banged on the locked door, “Let us in.”
“Stay outside,” our mother yelled.
“It’s too hot and there’s nothing to do.”
The baby wailed from inside the house. He always seemed to be crying.
When they brought him home from the hospital, he didn’t have a name. We called him Baby. The afternoon the social worker telephoned, needing his name for their records, I pressed the receiver against my belly and shouted to my mother barricaded in her bedroom.
“The hospital is calling. They need a name for Baby.”
“I don’t care.”
“What should I tell them?”
“Call him Johnny.”
John was my father’s new name. I didn’t know why he went from Bill to John. Calling her new son Johnny was not a nice thing. Perhaps the name was meant to remind my father of the night I’d seen him on top of her. As he held her down on the kitchen table, my mother yelled at me to run for our neighbor. I was too terrified and humiliated to move.
Even though he never hit us, I became so afraid of my dad and his drunken rages that I couldn’t look him in the eyes. My mother put up with him until she was done. He had to choose: his wife and kids or Gordon’s Gin. He left her with four shell-shocked children and never enough money.
S. Z. K e l l e r, Author