Every year the Duke Adult Bone Marrow and Transplant Clinic hosts a reunion of transplant recipients. They asked my son (and donor) to speak this year, my first reunion. It was an amazing event, and it was so amazing to meet folks who were celebrating transplants from 25 years ago. Following is the text of my remarks.
How do I say thank you to someone for saving my life? How do I say thank you to my son who spent his first day of college face down on a table as Steel needles extracted bone marrow from his pelvic bone? Or, who years earlier, when he was only thirteen had to help his father up the stairs when I was too weak to make it on my own?
How do I say thank you to my younger son for caring and supporting me when all I could give him for nearly half of his life was worrying about cancer – would it kill his father? Would it return? Why did I have to be without my parents for months? Why did my dad miss my concert? How do I get close to a man when I’m told a virus I got at school could put him in the hospital, or worse? How do I thank my son for not breaking when at 10 after weeks of celebrating the end of chemo, I had to share the news that the cancer was back, the chemo was back, the pain was back, the fear was back?
How do I say thank you to my wife who hourly took my temperature-every hour on the hour-to make sure I was ok, or awoke as I cried out at 3 am convinced I was suffocating during a panic attack? Thank a woman who clearly married me for my good looks, for sweeping up the growing piles of hair on the bathroom floor, and the dinner table, and the car…surprising us both how much hair I actually had to lose? How do you let your soulmate know that the only thing worse than bone shattering pain of Neulasta is knowing her feeling of helplessness watching you hurt? How can you thank her for all the times she crawled into bed to hold you, and let her know her love, her touch, her simple presence was stronger relief than any opioid?
How do I thank a mother and stepfather who uprooted their lives to care for my family when I could not? A mother who would sit by my chemo chair and talk about how as wife and mother she recovered from my father’s death, and how we live a good life. And a new father who financially helped a family linked by love instead of DNA.
How do I say thank you to nurses who cheered me on and an instant later threatened to take away my nausea meds if I didn’t walk every day or who shared stories of soccer and beer, and who never, never, never made me feel any less dignified, or worthy or human? The nurse practitioners who made the first Sunday off from treatment feel like tropical vacation or who, while she wouldn’t promise I would be home for Thanksgiving, made it happen? Thank the physical therapist who came to me on the worst day of the transplant when I hurt, couldn’t keep any food in my body, had just finished another three hour infusion of magnesium and had moved from my resting bitch face to my “I swear I will cut you face” and cheerily asked if I am ready to hop on the bike? Or the doctors who have given me a chance to meet my grandchildren one day- a day far far into the future?
How do I say thank you to those who are no longer with us. To my fellow cancer patients who fought and fought who were worthy and loved and still died. Thank them for sharing their final days with me and who brightened as I improved even as they slipped away.
How do I say thank you for those whom the South invented the phrase “bless their heart.” Folks who earnestly offered healing through crystals or remote regression therapy to right the injuries I received in the womb or who were convinced juicing was the cure. These folks deserve my thanks because while they may offer crystals or essential oils or, and I’m not making this up, beet juice, what they are saying is that you are loved, and you are important and the universe should heal you.
How do I thank the colleague who covered that work trip or the neighbor who brought over the meal or the prayer circles or those who lit the night or those who mowed my lawn or the personal trainer that helped you gain 8lbs of muscle or those that sent me a card every month just to say that I mattered?
Words ring hollow. And though not one of these people ever expected anything in return and were happy to give, guilt rises. Guilt because I can never repay the debt I owe. Even though none of these people ever expected pay back, and rather than seeing it as a debt, saw it as a reward-a chance to fulfill a mission, or took joy in giving, or paid forward a kindness they had received. And still, the guilt rises and I must find a way to give back, to absorb this love and sacrifice and find joy.
And so, I choose as my thank you to see cancer as a gift. I choose to see cancer as a harsh light that shines on the love I have been given. I thank cancer for the pain that cramped my muscles and screamed in my very bones because I now know the relief of a gentle hand and a loving embrace. I thank cancer for the fatigue so deep it trapped me for hours in the dark because when I woke up there was my wife to walk with me in the sun. I thank cancer for the nausea that sought to starve me because I now know what it is to be nourished by a neighbor’s meal. And I thank cancer for seeking to devour me from my marrow because it introduced me to the man my boy had become. A man who without hesitation said, “anything you need dad.”