While we hold our secrets close to our hearts, sometimes they slip out. Five stories
Almost 49 years ago, I was privileged to participate as a donor in a sibling kidney transplant. Today, these transplants happen often. Then, it had all the elements of a good sci-fi movie.
Our situation had the component of additional stress because at the same time, our father was hospitalized with a life-threatening health crisis.
There we were, three family members in the same hospital, each on a different floor. Our remaining sister worked in the hospital and our mother was torn between the loyalties to each individual family member; the challenge of yet another litmus test in our Holocaust survivors parents’ lives.
A powerful scene, if you can possibly imagine it.
We told no one about our surgery until the last possible moment. Even telling our other family members was difficult.
Reaction was swift and the news of what was about to transpire spread even faster. That’s the thing about secrets — they don’t stay that way long. Though we knew I was going to do this, I waited until after the final test results to tell anyone. After we told my mother-in-law, I suddenly began to hear from family and friends from all over the United States who called and stumbled their way through conversations. This kind of procedure was unheard of (our insurance company actually initially deemed it elective, the same way they would a nose job!). No one knew what to say.
Perhaps the most trying incident that occurred happened the night before surgery when a well-meaning friend called me to ask if I’d conferred with any rabbinic authority in regard to what was about to happen. I said that I hadn’t. They inquired as to why, and I assured her that I didn’t ask a she’ilah because I didn’t have one.
I was later told that the leading Rosh Yeshivah in our city felt relieved that he hadn’t been consulted. He remarked that he honestly didn’t know what he would have answered.
Yet, at no time did I feel hesitant about what was about to happen. Nor did I question the decision that I’d made. Perhaps that can be attributed to my foolish youthful belief in my infallibility. I think that it’s more likely attributable to the strength of the element of faith with which we were raised.
There are often times when we’re not sure of our decisions. Years, however, have allowed for perspective. In speaking to a potential donor I sometimes whisper in their ear the one thing that no one else will tell them. I promise them that they will sleep at night. That’s quite a statement. What happens before or after is in the hands of the Ribbono shel Olam — The Master of the Universe.
Life moves on, and after a few months of under-one’s-breath whispers, my fifteen minutes of fame was up and our story faded by the wayside.
Or so I thought.
Fast forward five or six years…
Sitting at our Shabbos table with young children who have no filters can be interestingly unpredictable. Every Shabbos we would ask our children how their week in school was, and in one of those rare moments of truth, our oldest son, Yitzchok, piped up nonchalantly, and shared that he’d been sent to the office this week (not an unusual occurrence).
We asked him why. Yitzchok matter-of-factly told us that he had been sent to the office for punching his classmate Ezra in the nose.
“And why did you punch Ezra in the nose?” inquired hubby.
“Because he said Mommy had given her sister a kidney. Please pass the potatoes.”
Hubby looked at me. I looked at him. We gulped.
At the time of my surgery, our three children were two, three, and four years old. We certainly had no reason to talk to our very young babies about it. And we had never, until then, had a reason to bring it up. In retrospect, exactly how would you start that conversation with children who are more interested in toy airplane pieces than body parts?
How were we to know that just that week one of their teachers mentioned that he knew a parent in the class who’d donated a kidney to their sibling? He left it at that, and the comment went right over our Yitzchok’s head (whose father taught accounting), but not Ezra’s (whose father was an urologist). Sure enough, Ezra went home to ask his father about it. His father, the doctor, told him about the surgery, so Ezra came back to school the next day and promptly told Yitzchok, whose immediate reaction was to punch him in the nose.
There are certainly things about one’s life that go from secret to somewhat-more public knowledge at warp speed. I’m just not of the opinion that I have to be the one spreading the joy. I’m happy to support the work being done in transplant education. You just don’t need my name on the poster to make the point.
The reasons are many. Not every tale has a storybook ending. There are many who may not be able to donate a kidney and the reasons why belong to them and them alone. Not every wish or heartache should be shared.
And what of the feelings of the recipient himself? Some secrets deserve to be respected — and carried alone.
Our transplant happened on Shushan Purim, during the season of hester panim, over forty-nine years ago. That’s almost three times chai — and neither the season nor the numbers are lost on me.
In the ensuing years, I’ve been blessed with children and children-in-law who treat me with more kindness and respect than I deserve. I’m overwhelmed with the bounty that G-d has bestowed upon our family.
My sibling, the recipient, is a spouse, parent, and grandparent. Our father, who was so ill at the time of our surgery, lived to see his child regain health, and then was called to the World of Truth. I felt this timing was a gift.
The blessing of life is indeed both a wonder and a challenge. My purpose in writing is not to share personal anecdotal family secrets. Rather, it’s to share what it feels like to participate in the mitzvah of “u’vacharta bachayim, choosing life.”
At times, when I’m asked to speak in confidence to a potential donor, I always begin with the ice-breaking comment, “Don’t beg. I’m not going to show you my scar.”
But I wear it with humility.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 732)
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