My neighbor is no longer his old predictable self. Yesterday he came home as an improved version of the original fellow I used to know.
He had had a bone marrow transplant and was now rebooted to version 2.0. All of his blood was now made by an anonymous donor. Even his blood type, which was once A negative, is now A positive. That also applies to his view of life. He had had a deadly variant of leukemia and maybe a few months left to live. Now there is no trace of the disease.
“Today I am 125 days old,” he tells me. That’s the exact number of days that have passed since the stem cells from an anonymous donor marrow first dripped into his vein at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Although he is not a believer, a team of nurses gathered at his bedside to bless the new stem cells. He thanked the anonymous donor with a short speech, in between his tears.
He sent me a photo of this bedside ritual. A small, pale man lost in a large white bed. He didn’t have much hair to start with, and what he had left had fallen out because of the chemo. The small red bag hung above him, carrying all of his hopes.
A few days later I visited him on one of two floors reserved for transplant patients. I was asked to wear a mask and gloves for fear of germs I might carry. My neighbor tried to be cheerful, talking on and on, trying to make me laugh. The shock must have been visible on my face.
I walked out past many rooms with transplant patients, young and old. This hospital does about three hundred transplants a year. There was a solemn atmosphere. Here both the patients and the medical staff test the limits of human capacity. Outside in the street, amid all the hustle and bustle of New York, I stood still and gently sent up my blessings, like blowing seeds from a dandelion.
Right after his transplant, though, I lost all contact with him for a couple of weeks. His silence was disturbing. Alarmed, I asked his family and they told me he was on the cutting edge between life and death. Then I received an email from him with a picture of his granddaughters in their summer dresses.
He told me that he had almost lost heart when the young man in the room next to him had died. He couldn’t talk for a few days. My neighbor is 75 — husband, father and grandfather; this boy was at the beginning of his life. My neighbor wanted to exchange his blessings for the one the boy would never have.
After seven weeks he was allowed to move to an apartment near the hospital, available especially for transplant patients. His tough exterior had slowly disappeared, replaced by gratitude. It was as if he saw everything for the first time. His legs were as thin as matchsticks, but he dragged himself to the window and pointed to a slice of blue sky above the skyscrapers: “Look, how special.”
A few months later, he is sitting in his own chair at home again for the first time with a glass of his beloved Chardonnay in his hand. I ask him what he has learned. He tells me that he felt as if the devil had taken him to the bank of the River Styx and said: “Look over there. Now you know the land of the dead. You can turn around and return to the land of the living. “
He did that. And he doesn’t look back.
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her memoir, “Saving Charlotte,” was published by W.W. Norton in 2017. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.