Jason Ohler | June 16, 2015
My good friends want to see my scar.
They feel comfortable not hiding their very understandable curiosity. They know it’s going to be huge, and it doesn’t disappoint. It stretches from arm pit to arm pit, riding the contour of my chest like a ski slope. It looks like a huge smile, or a mustache, or a clam shell, from which the medical term “clam shell incision” gets its name. Without any prompting from me, many of my friends have watched a bit of Youtube to familiarize themselves with the lung transplant procedure. Like me, they are traveling byways of human endeavor they never knew existed. Most had never heard of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis before it bloomed inside my lungs. I know I never had.
My rounds began in Juneau, Alaska, my devotional home, where I have lived for over three decades. I wanted my community to be the first to know that I managed to hang on to life despite the odds.
My trip there was my first plane ride post transplant. My first journey into the clouds. So good to leave the earth. Every time I cut through the gentle blanket of clouds that protects Juneau from the sun, and watch the mosaic of blue, green and white emerge like an apparition amid smoke, I think “I’m home.”
Juneau is my vista, my foreground and background. It’s where the ocean rides the shore, blurring the lines between land forms and waterways that are always in play. Their intermix creates a portal to elsewhere that’s so close I can walk up and step through it. Best not to test that. Not yet, anyway.
I set a long table, served dinner to my friends, and responded as best I could to the questions and the disbelief. I had no idea they could do this – did you? (I suppose, but I had never thought much about it. I didn’t have to.) What hurts? (Lots, just depends on the day.) When did you find out? (That I could either get a transplant or suffocate within my own body? Awhile ago. It took me awhile to believe it. Then it becomes a waiting game. You have to be so sick that the hospital will actually deem you worthy of new lungs.) Does your insurance pay for it? (So far, but any day I expect to receive a registered letter that begins “We regret to inform you that there has been an error in our calculations…”) Do you have take a ton of those immunosuppressant pills? (Yes, except to me the word “pills” now has two syllables – PEE-ills. That way I develop more of a relationship with them.) We read The Long Trek Upstairs about what life was like for you when you were on intense oxygen. Your wife Terri truly is a saint. (More so each day.)
The next round was a family reunion in New Hampshire. Blood relatives were able to confirm the lack of my demise. No wiffle ball game for me this time. Or kayaking. But lots of continuity. Lots of careful hugs so as not to crush my new body parts.
Genes everywhere. And friendships that would exist without them given enough serendipity. Aunt Priscilla, the last remaining member of the great war generation, provided the hub. The rest of us were spokes. As one person said to me, “I’m worried what happens to the world when her generation is gone,” afraid that the great compass would die with it. Every story she told cemented the cracks of a universal foundation. Her storehouse of family facts, seemingly disconnected, formed an invisible web, roots beneath the surface, that held the earth together.
My parents were buried at a cemetery in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, not far from where we held the reunion. The three sons, (Rick, Mike and I) and our families paid homage with flowers, children. As we headed out someone said, “Have fun at the cemetery!” Not a problem. For us, solemnity and celebration mix quite naturally.
Old-style tombstones, crooked, mossed and windblown, rise like blunted spires out of the ground. Some are centuries old. Names and dates are chiseled into the stone in an English shorthand that predates modern dialect.
But our newer, family plots are marked by unpolished rocks, the size of small wagons. They bear gold and black plaques made by machines that identify the more recently departed. We discuss whether sitting on them is okay and decide it is as long as we know who is buried beneath them. Besides, I’m tired. Thanks to all my medication, I usually am. And my parents are happy to have me rest on their bones. Amazing how they continue to support me, wherever I am, they are.
I love how the simplicity of an ancient cemetery cuts through the noise. I go, of course, to sit and think, and remind myself that I will never be half the person either of my parents were. A third would be an accomplishment. I visit their burial grounds in order to re-set my sights and make peace with my failure.
But I also go to find one particular grave stone. It’s the same one I love to visit every time I come. Rick and I check the map on the barn built in the 18oos and manage to locate the plot. It belongs to a woman named Sarah Averill who died on Oct. 16, 1881, at 89 yrs. 5 mos. & 5 days. Her inscription reads “She done the best she could.” Beyond that, what else is there?