S. Z. K e l l e r, Author
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 remembered those faint points of light as I walked the long block from our house to the cold, north shore of the San Francisco Bay. Just days into the new year, the boxy white float, wrapped like a present with a wide red ribbon, still supported the small green Christmas tree and bobbed around in the shallows. Over the years, I’d come to expect this gift from no one to everyone. People would stop along this wide stretch of bay, get out of their cars, and photograph the bright little tree; moms and dads wearing woolen scarves and parkas, pushing strollers, pointed out the cheerful conifer to their bundled-up kids; but the holiday was over and the annual gift in the shoals would soon be gone—disappearing as quickly as it had appeared.
I sat on a flat slab of rip-rap and gazed across the silver blue water. To the south, lights began to illuminate the fuzzy skyline of San Francisco and the bridges that spanned the 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. 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.
“My news is not the very best. I am sorry, but neither of your brothers can donate stem cells. They are not 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.
Today, the cancer had been eclipsed. 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. Uncertain if I should go on, I said in a rush, “I have another brother.” Four words sounded like one.
“What? A third brother?” Dr. Greyz sounded stunned.
“But I don’t know where he is.” I felt defensive, hopeful, desperate, as if I’d just stuck my neck out to the cosmos.
“Oh. Find him. You must.”
“He dropped out. He’s off the grid.” I wasn’t sure if there was a Ukrainian translation to “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 or heard from Johnny, my youngest brother, in thirty years.
“Without a new immune system…” Dr. Greyz trailed off.
“Even if I could find him, he’s probably not a match.”
“We won’t know unless we test him.”
“I don’t even know where to start.” I was sorry that I’d told her.
“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.
Walking home, I realized that I was afraid to find my brother and be preyed upon yet again by our shared heartbreak. And even if I could find him, would he be a match? Would he want to see me? Agree to help? Maybe not. So many cruel memories. Just because you love someone doesn’t mean you can bear to be in the same room with them.
I looked up. A few stars began to appear high overhead shining down on all of us.
One Year Earlier
Our marble shower filled with steam. 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 erratic 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. At fifty-four, it made me feel tubby and old. Add to the wattle and waist creep, “noun dropage:” the charming inability to remember names of Presidents, movies, books, countries…. Who was the President after Gerald Ford? Ford was a President, wasn't he?
I glanced out the window in our shower to the wooded hillside beyond. Summer was not yet over, and the gaudy flowers of the teeming French broom made the trails look like a crisscross of yellow brick roads. My husband had spent years of Saturdays attempting to eradicate the invading broom but, despite his heroic efforts, it continued to kill more and more of the native coyote brush, juniper, and manzanita. Nothing stopped it.
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. There was something, a bump a couple of inches under my left jaw. I pressed at it. 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, perhaps along with the tummy bulge.
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, the lump was small enough that my husband didn’t notice; with my hair down, it was hardly there at all.
I felt healthy, droopy skin and all, for another year.