I sit on a slab of rip-rap at the north shore of the San Francisco Bay expecting the call from my gorgeous Ukrainian oncologist—known affectionately by her staff as the 007 Girl. Pelicans glide towards the vast, open water of the Pacific. My aging, overweight dog plays a wary game of tag with the salty tide. The restless winter air is heady. I’ve had no chemo for two weeks, and my body is stronger, cleaner. I’m certain of good news.
My cell phone buzzes in my pocket.
“Yes, Dr. Greyz. I’m excited to talk to you.”
“I am sorry, but neither of your brothers’ stem cells are a match.”
My hand is clenched around the phone. Of course, I’d just assumed that Tom or Randy could save my life. That they would be a match. Today, in the late afternoon sun, I pull my black wool coat in closer. As if tired from having heard it all before, the ancient waves collapse at my feet. How can this be happening? I’ve asked myself that question so many times in the last four months.
“And there is no match in the international database. I’m so sorry.”
My eyes follow the pelicans headed out to sea. 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…”
Not a match: the lone sock left in the dryer, the jigsaw puzzle piece that doesn’t fit, the incompatible DNA. I breathe deeply and plunge in.
“I have another brother.”
“What? A third brother?” Dr. Greyz sounds stunned.
“But I don’t know where he is.”
"Find him. You must.”
I shift around on the cold slab of stone. I am too ashamed to tell her that I haven’t seen or spoken to my youngest brother Johnny almost thirty years. And why. To tell her that he dropped out. He’s off the grid. I’m not sure if there is a Ukrainian translation for that.
It pains me to remember what a smart kid he was. He loved biology and read all the time, his thick glasses sliding down his nose. He could have been a botanist, a professor, a biochemist. Grief-stricken at what had been beaten out of him, I blamed myself that I had not been able to better protect my little brother from our mother’s abuse.
She accused Johnny of being rebellious and secretive. As a teenager, he hid snakes in his dresser drawers. He grew marijuana in the garage until she discovered the reptiles and the plants and threw him out, just days after he’d graduated high school. He moved to Huntington Beach. We didn’t see each other after that; but I called and wrote. He responded occasionally.
Johnny surfed and got high. Seems that he dealt. He shocked me by talking about drug deals with people who lived in the sordid shadows. I couldn’t listen to the details. I loved him, but his life depressed, frightened, and alienated me. I no longer knew who he was. Johnny had disappeared into a world of back alleys and dangerous characters. Thirty years later, at fifty-five, I had disappeared into a world of cancer.
Dr. Greyz has never been the bearer of good news. Not her fault. Four months ago, 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. Bigger than the septicemia that almost killed me. Bigger than the steroid-induced psychotic break. If I can find a donor, radiation will erase the last malignant spots 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. Maybe I could have changed things but didn’t try hard enough.
“I hoped we might be almost done,” I say.
“You must find him.”
“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, and my heart swoops in my chest.
I am back at the beginning. At the very beginning.
1959. 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 was angry and didn’t want us around. She locked us out of the house and told me to take my brothers and go 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. Enchiladas with green sauce. Fried eggplant. The forest fire that killed Bambi’s mother. 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.
“I think there’s a park down here.”
“No,” Randy screamed, trying to pull his hand out of mine. “I wanna go home.”
“We’re locked out.”
“I wanna go home.”
“Come on. We have to find something to do.” 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.
“No.” 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.
“If we go home, you’re going to get us in big trouble.”
I pulled him to his feet and we turned around. 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.”
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. When 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 to do. 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.
Johnny didn’t speak until he was four. I never saw our mother touch him in affection, kiss him. For years, I stood in front of him to protect him from her blows.
My dad wasn’t around much and when he was, he was drunk. Even though he never hit us, I became so afraid of him and his rages that I couldn’t look him in the eyes. My mother put up with him until she was done. My dad 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