I believe there is a reason for everything; nothing happens by accident. For this reason I pay great attention to my neighbors mail when it mistakenly finds its way into my mailbox. Usually it is only another catalog, we all get the same ones: Pottery Barn, LL Bean, J Crew, and whatever computer Warehouses, but last week I opened my mailbox to find a newsletter from the Bone Marrow Donor Program. The newsletter wasn’t addressed to me, but to my neighbor, Blake Koh.
I have lived in the same apartment for five years. For four of those years, Blake Koh has lived above me. In that time I have seen more of his mail than I have of him, which has led me to to develop only a sketchy profile of the man: he is interested in the arts, has an IBM compatible computer probably running Windows 95, and he may be a bone marrow donor. I have often though Blake Koh might be a man with a temper, because of the screaming matches that drop into my kitchen and consciousness from the apartment above; however, a screaming match takes two, and my impressions of Mr. Koh’s roommates, Monica and whatever that short haired guy’s name is, lead me to believe that it is not an argument, but a rehearsal I hear, some type of late night scene work taking place above me.
Living in New York City, I’m accustom to the idea that most of the people surrounding me have theatrical aspirations. I call them my neighbors, but the people I bump into in the halls and stairways of my building are more likely acting like neighbors.
I’m interested in bone marrow donation. I’m interested in biological donations of any kind–it all has a kind of Eli Whitney interchangeable parts novelty to me. Here I am, a functioning human being, but I carry spare parts and fluids that could be useful to someone else.
I wondered if my neighbor was an actual bone marrow donor, or if he had gotten in touch with the agency to research a character for a play he was working on. I thought to ask him, but after four years, we hadn’t grown beyond the chance nod in the hallway. To ask about the very marrow of his bones begged for a greater intimacy than we had developed.
I sat with a bicycle grip in my hand, squeezing and relaxing, pumping a pint of O+ into a plastic bag. I have been a regular blood donor since high school. Wanda, the phlebotomist at the local hospital knows me by name. It was something like flirting, each time she led me through the pre-donor interview–the questionnaire of communicable diseases and sexual history. Every six weeks or so she would freak out my old roommate Frank with what he called her vampire-like phone messages, “Someone called asking for your blood,” he’d say. “Tell her not to do that.”
Just days after my interest in bone marrow was piqued by my neighbor’s newsletter, The New York Blood Center sent me a new donor’s card, on the top of which read, “The Gallon Club.” “Congratulations,” the enclosed letter read. “You have contributed gallons to the community’s blood supply.”
Gallons? The only substance I’m able to think about in gallons is milk. I imagined the refrigerated aisle of the supermarket stacked with those rounded plastic containers–gallons of blood.
The thought of this got me a little woozy, but at the same time made me feel delinquent in other areas. I was gripped with acute bone marrow envy. If my blood was good, surely my marrow would be good too. I imagined they’d want my marrow so often, they’d tap a catheter into my hip that would spring and bounce at my side like a car’s wire drag marker. But marrow wasn’t enough, I wanted to give more.
I made a list of items I could donate. I shared the list with a friend.
“OK, you could probably get by with one lung,” my friend agreed, “and yeah, I’ve heard of skin being grafted to burn victims, but don’t you think a retina is a little too generous? Why don’t you stick with blood, and marrow, and stuff that will replenish itself, you know, like sperm.”
“No thank you,” I said. “I like to keep track of my genetic material.”
“No, really,” he said, “I’ve heard people get paid for sperm donations.”
“Get paid? Get real!” I said. “I can’t even give it away.”
“OK,” my friend comforted me, “no sperm, but what is this one?” he pointed to the list. “Does that say toes?”
“Toes are important for balance,” I explained, but I don’t think I need five on each foot.” I realized if I kept my big toe, my middle toe and my pinky toe, that is, the piggy who went to market, the piggy who had roast beef and the piggy who went wee, wee, wee, wee all the way home, I should be able to keep my balance and donate four toes to someone who needs them.
“Paul,” my friend protested, “there is no doubt you could live without them, but who could possibly use them? They’re toes!”
Other friends expressed the same concern, and I found it embarrassing. I wasn’t embarrassed for my overwhelming enthusiasm, nor for my friends’ lack of vision, but in realizing my friends didn’t know me very well. At least, they didn’t know my toes.
I have small feet. If my toes were like other toes, like everybody else’s toes, I would wear a size 8 shoe, maybe a 7 1/2. But I don’t. I wear a size 11. My toes aren’t like everybody else’s toes; they’re special.
My big toe is roughly the size and shape of a 100 watt light bulb. I had to wear socks any time I went near my nephew Raymond, because he was afraid of my big toe until he was 8 years old. Anyone who sees it is moved to speech. “I’ve never seen a toe like that,” the simpler say. “I have heard such a toe is a mark of great intelligence.” I don’t take what they say to heart, except to realize people see my big toe as a supernatural gift–an omen of prophesy.
The big toe is a keeper. I wouldn’t feel right giving it to anyone, for with the big toe goes big responsibility, but other toes, the toe who stayed home and the toe who had none, I would willingly sacrifice.
Everyone from medical experts to the man on the street would realize the folly of a toe transplant–my losing a toe so someone else might gain one, but the condescending smirks would soon leave their faces when they realized my intentions–my toes can be used as fingers.
I sat at the kitchen table at my mother’s house eating sandwich cookies with milk, a treat usually enjoyed after donating a pint of blood. My brother Michael and his family, his wife Cyndie and their son Christopher, were visiting from Florida. A family friend stopped by to see them, and we talked about her recent kidney transplant.
She said the hardest things to get used to were how her appetite and hair color have changed since the operation.
“Is that the worst part of it?” I asked. “I mean, once something changes the color of your hair, I’d guess it’s pretty well integrated into your system.”
“I’m in pretty good shape,” she said. “If my body did- n’t reject it right off the bat, my chances are pretty good. But, it’s not unheard of for a transplant to stop working after a few years.”
“Really?” Spotting my opportunity, I tried to curb my excitement. “If you want, I’ll drink nothing but water and cranberry juice. If you need a kidney, you can just give me a call.”
“Hey!” Michael barked.
“What?” I asked.
“Don’t go offering your kidneys around; I might want one.”
The relationships in families and friendships are complex and can be described in many ways. One of these ways, I just realized, is like an attic room or a basement where we keep scraps of wood and the half broken things we use for spare parts.
I have the skin, the blood and the marrow in a replenishing supply. Michael has dibs on my kidneys–this leaves a retina, a lung and four toes.
Act now, while supplies last.
Paul Hawkins – August 1998