Tonight as the waning moon floats between shelves of cloud – the stars liquid and alive – I will whisper, ‘I am still here.’ A bittersweet offering, but one I cast into the world as a call to arms.
With each passing year, I harvest guilt, siphoning off grief as I pick the fruit and plant more seeds for the following year. As I stand under the beating sun, I divine my contrition and cast myself as an apostate, as a modern heretic; nothing but a taker. These aren’t empty postulations. In fact, they are very real, for I’ve watched most of my friends die, and I watch now as others are dying as they wait for a donor that may never come. I should be dead, and be dead many times over, but I am not. Thoughts like these catch my untrammelled breath, lodging like a barbed pip in my throat.
When I listed myself on New Year’s Day, I wasn’t ready for you because I was afraid, but I soon became too sick to evaluate the risk. You kept your first caretaker – a beautiful redhead – breathing for twenty-two years. Yes, I know who you came from. That door was opened long ago, and it is one that can never be closed, never mind how hard I push. For 234 days I was tethered to oxygen tubing like Major Tom on a space walk, until I was cut loose and given new breath.
I think of my family, my friends and my lover in footholds of despair as we braced for the most terrifying, yet exciting news of my life. Then comes the horrible realisation that one family has had to say goodbye to a daughter, sister, wife and friend, while I was given a chance to resurface. It is a notion that can sink a person even with the best of intentions to live.
I have imagined my surgery thousands of times over – of being sliced under my breasts from armpit to armpit, my sternum and ribs lifted so surgeons could drop their fists into my chest to pull out my native lungs – sticky masses, black and Lilliputian, like little lung caricatures. My lungs are curtly dropped into a plastic bucket, and then the magic happens: you’re plucked from your watery grave of preservation solution, slippery as a placenta. Busy hands usher you into my empty thoracic cavity in a highly choreographed animation of fingers, clamps, retractors, clips, wire and sutures.
Twelve years on I was still tweezing the ends of old suture that had pushed their way to the surface of my skin, as though wanting amnesty from my beating heart. I would look at these tiny black slivers of silk under a magnifying glass and confide, ‘you’re a part of me’, keeping them until I felt strong enough to let them go. Closing my eyes, I would blow them away, never to be seen or touched again. Another part of me gone; my life in a perpetual state of mourning.
I don’t know why I am still alive. Is it luck or chance or something to do with planets aligning? Is it compliance? Am I one of the lucky ones whose immune system is unusually strong, or were you and I such a perfect and indomitable match, that failure was never an option? It’s impossible to say.
I have my doubts that we will be here in another 18 years, although my doctors assure me that there isn’t any reason why I won’t. There may come a time where I need a third set of lungs, but I hope that’s not the case because I’ve grown rather fond of you. In fact, I loved you from the start, even though you tried to kill me.
When you think about it, we’ve had an odd relationship. Where I shook the hand of death, you peeled me away from the death grip I was beginning to see as a friend. The first fortnight, we fought bitterly. I rejected you, or perhaps it was a mutual renunciation. Whatever the case, it was an education in terror and pain we both swiftly learned from, and we never fucked with rejection again.
That’s not to say we’ve haven’t had our fair share of shit. Cancer wasn’t one iota of fun, and you’ve gifted me lungfuls of air when I’ve sobbed through seemingly impenetrable sadness.
The scar under which you lay is now a pale pink seam of refuge, like still water beneath a bridge.
I love all five lobes of you equally, and I will always be your biggest champion. That you must know. Every year, just before (y)our transplanniversary, the weals of scar that have hardened into runes on my trunk begin to itch. I scratch, but it is so far beneath my skin that it cannot be touched. When ‘the itch’ presents, it’s as though you are trying to tell me something. It never fails to make sense, but not before I have scratched my skin until my breasts and that tender seam of scar are raw and streaked with blood.
I acknowledge that my life date is your first caretaker’s death date. The day she died, I returned to life, and ever since I have been making my way all slipshod through a special kind of purgatory. I needed to suffer before I felt worthy enough to commemorate my new life with you, and for many years, I have marked this day timidly, humbly and with a quiet voice. Maybe next year will be different.
And so today, there was no grand celebration. I chose to commemorate you and your original caretaker the best way I know how – by living my life. I enjoyed an ordinary day at work, because I’ve long preferred the beauty of the ordinary, because within that realm of normality, that’s where I chance upon the extraordinary. Ordinary doesn’t have to be mundane or insipid. That I can get out of bed, feed and dress myself, pull on my boots, go to work, and walk around the hospital visiting patients (an ironic reflection of my own life), double back to the bookstore, have a coffee and share a meal with my family is a day meaningfully and well lived.
Tonight I will light you a candle. The flame will thicken in the cool winter air, and I will give myself pause. I’ll sit on my balcony as a retrospective of the last eighteen years plays across grey hems of cloud, and then I will go to bed with a grateful heart.
Last month when I was beach combing, I found a miniature set of you. Two lungs, the structures of a heart and even the intricate plumbing of the carina of trachea. I held it against my ear and my ears filled with the gentle rush of waves pitching over pebbles.
I listen to you. There’s rarely a rumble. You have held the line and kept me anchored to this life and for that, I owe you everything.