Published by: TouchPoint Press
Release Date: August 17, 2021
I had it all—or thought I did—until the fatal lymphoma.
At 55, I was happy in my marriage and at the top of my career. I awoke one morning with what I thought was a kidney infection. My shocking diagnosis: Mantle Cell Lymphoma, fatal, unless I received a bone marrow transplant.
Blood Brother tells of my struggle with this devastating blood cancer and my desperate search for the one person in the world who might save my life—Johnny, my brilliant, off-the-grid, tripped-out brother who’d vanished thirty years earlier.
Blood Brother is the story of curing an incurable cancer and of the inexplicable events that led to finding a man who never wanted to be found. It also explores what it means to forgive, the definition of family, and how to embrace a glorious second chance at life.
IN THE COOL WINTER SUN, I sit on a slab of limestone at the north shore of the San Francisco Bay, one long block from my home. I wait for the call from Dr. Greyz, my oncologist. The seaweed smells briny. The rocking movement of the green water comforts me. The crown of Mount Tamalpais is shrouded in clouds. It could rain tonight. In my pocket, I toy with a pewter coin inscribed with the words, “All Shall Be Well.” In my other hand, my cell phone buzzes. It’s Dr. Greyz.
“I am glad to have got you.” Her quirky Ukrainian syntax is, as always, amusing, but her words are clipped. “The news, it is not the best.”
I release the coin.
“I hate to say, but neither of your brothers’ stem cells are a match.”
I pull the knit wool cap farther down my bald head. This cannot be true. They’d volunteered and wanted to help. I’d assumed that one or both of them would be able to donate stem cells. There was a fifty-fifty chance. Tears well up in my eyes. Feeling shaky and vulnerable, I wrap my wool coat around me.
“And there is no one in the international database. I am very sorry.”
“Can we look again? In the database?” I ask.
“If there is no one now, the chances of a match…” She pauses, then sighs.
Evening lights begin to illuminate the slate-blue skyline of San Francisco and the bridges that span the bay. Outgoing currents sweep flocks of tidal birds farther from shore. I stare at them until they become little more than specks in the restless water.
“What will we do?” I ask.
“I am so very sorry.”
Without a bone marrow transplant, my chances are not good. I might not have a chance.
“I really thought…” I begin. Then, in my shock and disappointment at this shattering news, I blurt out, “I have a third brother.”
“Another… another brother?” Dr. Greyz sounds stunned.
“I don’t know where he is.”
I am too ashamed to tell her that Johnny and I haven’t spoken in decades.
And after all this time, I don’t know how I feel about seeing him. There is guilt, discomfort at our years of estrangement, maybe even shame. And if I can find him, which is likely impossible, will he agree to be tested? Want to see me? Do I deserve his help?
“He could be anywhere, or nowhere,” I say. “I haven’t seen him in thirty years.”
I struggle to stand. The tide pummels the riprap below my feet. After months of punishing chemo, I thought I’d come so far. Now, I’m back at the beginning.
“Find him. You must,” says Dr. Greyz.
If I want to live, and I do, I will have to find Johnny. But how? I have no idea.
HOT WATER PELTS MY BACK on a stunning, late summer morning. I stretch my neck toward my chest and sigh in pleasure. I adore hot water. My soapy fingertips slide down my neck then stop at a bump a few inches under my left jaw. I press at it. Hard and painless. A jab of fear makes me frown. What is it?
Nothing clearly, just a swollen lymph gland that will quickly disappear.
Placing a hand over my obstinate, rounded belly, I push it in; it pops right out. Despite sporadic dieting and occasionally resisting that second—or third—glass of wine, the tummy bulge has moved in, loves the location, and isn’t going anywhere. Good God, Dan, my husband, thinks it’s sexy. It makes me feel tubby and old. Add to my expanding waistline is what I call, “noun droppage”—the charming inability to remember names of presidents, books, movies, and countries. Who was the president after Gerald Ford? Ford? He was a president, wasn’t he?
Like my chubby belly, noun droppage, and now this thing on my neck that has a shape and size, a location, and a hard feel under my fingertips, I’ll have to learn to live with it. Still, I am not comatose and—a couple of months after first noticing the lump—I mention it to my gynecologist.
“I have a thing, like a knot, on the side of my neck.”
“I have a lump. It might be getting bigger.”
Without a glance, he waves his hand. “You’re just fighting a virus, or something. Don’t worry about it.”
Granted, necks are not his area of expertise, but I accept—am even relieved at—his latex-glove brush off and continue to ignore the little nuisance. With my hair down—the way I always wear it—the lump is hardly visible.
A year later, in September 2005, other symptoms—that I can no longer ignore—indicate that something is very wrong.
Like shortness of breath.
On a recent Sunday, Dan and I begin a two-mile walk. I’ve hiked the slight but steady uphill trail dozens of times with little effort. But after less than twenty minutes, gasping for breath, I have to stop. Not just to rest, I’ve already done that twice, but to turn around and go home. This is like Pavarotti pushing himself away from the table without finishing his Primi course. It just doesn’t happen. I rationalize that my fatigue is because of the pesky little virus, “diagnosed” by my gynecologist, or menopause (boy is that a catchall!), or a funky biorhythm day.
Beside the inability to breathe with any activity, I have night sweats. That symptom gets handily dumped into the menopause bucket. I attribute agonizing leg and foot cramps to too much exertion. (Which is ridiculous, since I can’t exercise.)
On the morning of September 15, 2005, I wake in damp, tangled sheets. Turning to dislodge my leg, a searing pain shoots up my back. I gasp, breathe, then ease my feet onto the carpeted floor. Dan has already left for work. Wincing as I stand, and holding tight to the bannister, I make my way downstairs. In the kitchen, I brew a cappuccino and head to my home office.
Along with the back pain, I type my other oddball symptoms into Google. In a nanosecond, the results flash onto my computer screen: a kidney infection. A quick trip to the doctor, a bottle of antibiotics, and I’ll be fine. I down three aspirin and call to make a same-day appointment.