Blood Brother: A Memoir
Published in the Argus Courier, October 21, 2021
In new memoir, long-lost brother returns to save sister’s life
In times of need, we have the proverbial assurance that “blood is thicker than water” — but what if you can’t find the blood?
That was the challenge Susan Keller, a former professional medical writer, faced 15 years ago when diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma, a rare blood cancer. The disease was in its final stage. She was likely to die within three years. Only an immediate bone marrow transplant might save her.
She turned to her two brothers, but neither was a match for the operation. As recounted in “Blood Brother,” a memoir published this year, the thoughts of the former Petaluma resident turned to a mysterious third brother, Johnny, who had disappeared 30 years earlier.
The youngest of the children, the boy had left home at 16, driven away by an abusive mother whose husband had abandoned the family when Johnny was four. While cruel to all the children, Keller’s mother was especially abusive to Johnny because her husband had forced her to have the child, who she openly admitted she did not want.
“When he was a toddler, my mother tied Johnny to his crib to keep him out of her way,” Keller explained in the April issue of Psychology Today. “When she beat him, I tried to stop her, but still a kid myself, I couldn’t do much. Her treatment of Johnny and the rest of us made me hate and fear her.”
Keller remembered Johnny as the brightest of the four children. He could read college-level science textbooks by age 10, but his mother constantly assured him that he was worthless and would never achieve anything.
Years later, desperate to find Johnny, Keller, her husband Daniel and her brothers began searching social media for him, but without success. Eventually, they heard about a database that published contact information without notifying the person involved.
Johnny’s contact information was there.
Keller currently lives in San Rafael. She and her husband bought their first house in Petaluma, where their daughter was born. She would later receive much of her medical treatment in Petaluma.
Johnny turned out to be living nearby — in Lake County — but a world away. He was raising chickens and geckos, growing cannabis and living a free-spirited, if somewhat precarious, life off the grid. With trepidation, Keller called him and explained the situation. He immediately agreed to be tested as a possible match for the transplant.
Johnny turned out to be the brother who could save his sister’s life.
When Keller and the long-lost Johnny first met after 30 years of not seeing each other, they embraced and she cried. The bearded man before her wore a worse-for-wear, tie-dyed T-shirt and was missing a front tooth.
Keller was not surprised by his appearance. She had always feared that he would end up poor or worse. But she soon realized that despite some hard times Johnny had grown up a kind and gentle man remarkably free of any animosity about his childhood.
Keller had always carried a burden of guilt for Johnny’s childhood, feeling that she could have done more to protect her little brother. But to her surprise, she found that he remembered her as someone who had done a great deal for him.
The transplant was only the beginning of a year-long medical adventure for Keller, harrowing at times, magical at others. By the time she had received the diagnosis, there was so little hemoglobin in her blood that a heart attack was imminent.
“But I had magnificent visions, beautiful ones,” she said. “I wondered if this was the foyer to death. The peace and loss of ego was profound. I didn’t exist anymore — I was part of everything.”
The feeling was a bit like going home, she described.
“There was no fear. The blood pulsing through my body was the same energy that pulsed through everything around me,” she said. “I felt ruthlessly okay. I cannot say that I am ready to die. I am not. But if my lymphoma comes back, I will remember those vivid images.”
The second near-death experience was blood poisoning resulting from chemotherapy.
“The chemo killed my white blood cells, so I had no defense against infection,” Keller said. “I became very sick and spent many days receiving antibiotics and morphine.”
This period was marked by powerful questions about her mother and father, questions she had never asked herself before. Reflections on these questions compelled Keller to begin writing her memoir.
Over the course of the ensuing decade Keller wrote “40 or 50 drafts” of “Blood Brother.” If she had simply recorded the medical experience, the book would have been nothing more than journal entries. But the health crisis precipitated a deep investigation of her family’s past, the end result of which was forgiveness.
“To go down that path you have to ask what were your parents’ lives really like,” she said. “They may have been in more pain than I realized as a kid. I began to see my parents more as injured, even ill, than as villains.”
Writing the book was never easy, forcing Keller to look at years of trauma she’d tried to forget. But she feels the effort was worth the pain.
“Writing ‘Blood Brother’ changed me,” she said. “In delving into the story of my childhood — and why my youngest brother vanished — I began to see the complexities of my parents’ lives. As children, we don’t have the capacity to understand nuance and underlying conflict. We only feel the results.”
Writing about family secrets is always risky, of course. Because both of Keller’s parents are dead, she felt relatively free. But regarding her brother Johnny, she felt no such freedom.
“I considered carefully how he would feel about it,” she said. “I told him I’d written a book about our family. Could he approve it before I went forward?”
Johnny read several drafts and fully approved of the book. Keller is directing half of the book’s revenue to her brother.
“It’s another way to return something to him,” she said.
The book even includes passages written by Johnny, offering his side of the story of reuniting with his sister, the bone marrow transplant experience and their childhood.
These days, Keller, a decade-and-a-half past her original diagnosis, is doing well. She’s retired and receiving antibody infusions every few months to give her immune system a boost. Her book has resulted in an invitation to speak to the entire medical staff at Stanford Medical Center, where the transplant took place. She has also been asked to speak about “writing and healing” at Dominican College in San Rafael.
“I’ve been working on a novel for several years,” she said, “but right now I’m focused on marketing ‘Blood Brother.’ I want this book to help people. So many people get a dire diagnosis, but miracles can happen.”
When the book’s publisher, Touchpoint, told Keller they planned to release it under their “Faith” imprint, she was startled. A lapsed Catholic, she did not think of her memoir as a spiritual book. But she quickly realized that it contains “a lot of musings on faith, the afterlife. Writing it opened new dimensions for me. Maybe I’m more spiritual than I thought. I feel I’m less judgmental now, more accepting of the possibilities.”
More information on Keller and Blood Brother is available at susankeller.com. The book is available from Touchpoint, Amazon and other book sellers.