Almost five years ago, I donated peripheral blood stem cells to a woman with acute Leukemia. My stem cell donation allowed her to overcome the Leukemia with a new immune system. I had become part of the Bone Marrow Registry several years earlier when my then boyfriend was battling Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I never thought I would be called and eventually be someone’s match. In fact, the chances of a donor actually going on to donate stem cells or bone marrow is less than 0.2 percent.
A year after the transplant, Rachel, my recipient, and I, received each other’s names and contact information and began corresponding with one another. We met in person for the first time about 2 years ago. Rachel is a loving, caring, intelligent woman, and I connected with her immediately. And in fact, now that Rachel actually has my immune system in her body, we are quite literally connected! When we met, she brought me a mason jar full of colorful slips of paper and photographs. She had asked her friends and family to write a message to me so that she could gift me with this jar when we met. This is the best gift I’ve ever received. This gift allowed me to see that my decision to donate stem cells extends beyond Rachel to her entire community and everyone she comes into contact with. Even people that didn’t write messages to me, like her first grade students in Brooklyn, were brought to life to me via the stories and messages of others in the jar. And that’s how I think of them – they are people in the jar, that I don’t know, but that I’m nevertheless connected to in some way. I have affected these people and they have affected me.
This past weekend, I thought a lot about loss. One of the greatest actors of our time died tragically, which, as it always does when someone in the public eye passes, prompts others to reflect on the connection they felt to this person, even if from afar. But prior to hearing that news, I’d been dealing with loss of my own (more on that soon), and I decided to take the mason jar down from its shelf and read the messages of Rachel’s friends and family. Reading the messages in the jar always manages to broaden my perspective, to help me understand why I’m here. As I read the messages, I decided to transcribe them all into one document. Writing helps me integrate ideas and thoughts into my subconscious. There was one message in particular that was longer than the rest, and extraordinarily effusive about Rachel. It was written by a dear friend of hers named Lauren A.
Rachel and I hadn’t talked in a while, so after I was done with the messages in the jar, I called her up and we caught up. Rachel mentioned that she recently lost a dear friend to cervical cancer. I asked what her friend’s name was – maybe she was in the jar? Sadly, it was Lauren A. Lauren was not yet 33 years old and was a designer and illustrator. Of course, I didn’t know Lauren, but I feel quite connected to her soul via Rachel. Actually, we are all connected to her. You are connected to her by reading this today. It may be a little bit easier to comprehend that this is true when there is a loss – if you believe as I do that the spirit or soul exists separate from the physical body. I think it’s why my friends Abby and Ted Leviss are comforted when people who they know and who they don’t know light a candle for their baby boy Max who we lost in July 2011. It’s why the tendency is to collectively bond when we lose someone – someone we know or someone we don’t know. Because really, we are all connected.
And so I’m wondering – what are the ways we can feel connected to each other, not just within the framework of loss, but while we’re here on earth? How can we feel connected to the people that we don’t know, that we are nevertheless deeply connected to?