In the cool, afternoon slant of the January sun, I sit on a slab of rip-rap. I wait at the north shore of the San Francisco Bay for Dr. Greyz, my drop-dead gorgeous Ukrainian oncologist—affectionately known as “The 0-0-7 Girl”—to call. I expect good news. For a change.
Four months earlier, the first time she walked into my hospital room, my husband’s face went slack. He stared at her, then sheepishly turned away, only to stare back at her blue eyes, high cheekbones, perfect skin, and broad smile. Dressed in expensive-looking shoes, probably Italian, a cashmere sweater, and narrow slacks, she reached her warm and dry hand out to mine, which was damp and clammy. My face puffy. Whatever illness ransacked my insides, my outside became more frog-like every day. I wore a faded hospital gown and nubby brown hospital socks. Healthy and twenty years my junior, “The 0-0-7 Girl” and I could not have been more different.
From that September day on, Dr. Greyz has rarely been the bearer of good news. Not her fault. My diagnosis: an aggressive, and frequently fatal, lymphoma. After surviving rounds 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.
Done with chemo, for now, my body is stronger, cleaner, the puffiness gone.
The restless winter air is heady.
I finger a pewter tealight holder inscribed with, “All shall be well.” Given to me by a friend, I carry it as a talisman, in pocket or purse; still, things have not gone very well. Now perhaps we’re turning the corner, taking the fork in the road, bouncing back. I reel off all the perky phrases I know as I wait and toy with the cold silver in my hand.
Dr. Greyz’s name lights up the screen of my 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, drop the pewter into my lap, and pull the knit cap farther down my bald head.
“And there is no match in the international database. I am very sorry.”
My brothers—Tom and Randy—neither a match? Of course, I’d just assumed.
The water swirls below 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 don’t think, just say, “I have a third brother.”
“Another brother?” She sounds breathless.
“I don’t know where he is.”
I’m too ashamed to tell her that 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 sock drawer. Grew marijuana in our garage storeroom that he’d hooked up with a grow light 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 flora and fauna and moved to a communal house in Huntington Beach. I called and wrote. He responded occasionally.
Johnny surfed, meditated, and got high. He dealt. I hated hearing the sordid details of his day-to-day. I loved him, but his life depressed and frightened me. He was no longer the little boy I’d tried to protect from our mother.
Right now, in this fading blue January afternoon, my lymphoma is mostly in remission; but it is a brief armistice 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 if I can find him, will he agree to be tested? Want to see me?
“He could be anywhere, or nowhere,” I tell her.
Did he survive back street deals, addiction, overdose?
“Find him. You must.”
Lights begin to suggest the fuzzy skyline of San Francisco and the bridges that span the bay. Strong currents sweep flocks of tidal birds farther from shore. A pair of pelicans glides towards the vast, open water of the Pacific. I’m so confused. 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