My left kidney has resided in my mother’s lower right abdomen since May 19, 2003. I gave her this gift about as happily as one can after agreeing to let a surgeon remove a vital organ for no other reason than to give it to someone else.
What I struggle with is that I had to do it at all.
This exchange occurred more than two years after my mother, then 68, went into sudden and unexpected kidney failure. I watched her endure months of life-sucking dialysis, depression, almost constant nausea and more hospitalizations than my father and I could keep track of. One night in the ER too much fluid in her lungs nearly killed her. I felt helpless beside her as an eerie gurgling, crackling sound emanated from her chest.
She was withering away. I cringed when she undressed. “Auschwitz,” I’d whisper in desperation, a plea for her to eat.
My mother — who just months earlier was a healthy, energetic artist who tended to her llamas and horses — was a shard of who she was, mentally, emotionally and physically. Dead in a way.
A transplant was really her only option to regain her life. But Michigan, where we live, has one of the longest organ wait lists in the country. Five years on average before a match, or a compatible kidney, becomes available from someone who died. A lot of people don’t make it five years. (By contrast, Ohio’s wait is about two years because — gruesome as it sounds — they have no helmet laws.)
Among the 200,000 Americans in the U.S. that the National Kidney Foundation says have chronic kidney failure and need dialysis to stay alive, in Michigan there were 2,261 people waiting for transplants in 2006 yet just 571 were performed in 2005, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.
For my mother, the outlook was even grimmer. At her age, even if she did match someone, she’d likely be passed over for a younger candidate on the list.
It was a lot of pressure on me. I was her only potential living donor. But what if I didn’t match?
And who would help my father, ironically another victim of kidney disease, someday if not me? A few friends offered to do it but were too old or had health problems. A couple of family members expressed interest but they just didn't work out.
My intensely private mother even allowed my aunt to post a plea for a living donor to her church bulletin while I scoured the internet for altruist donors. Amazingly, I found a Seattle woman who would, ostensibly, be a backup.
But what I really wanted to know as my mother’s drama became my own, was where were all the kidneys from people who died, people who no longer needed them? Why aren’t they donating them to people like my mother? They don’t need them. It seemed so unfair.
I was told once by a doctor in the transplant field that if every viable candidate who died donated their kidneys, there would be no list. That was maddening to hear. I’ve also heard that in some countries organ donation is mandatory, or at least part of the system, unlike the U.S. where you have to opt-in. Those countries have no wait.
But how to get someone to agree to donate their organs after they die? No one wants to think about that. I certainly didn’t before this.
People don’t want to think about death, much less dying too young. And it’s a strange thing to contemplate. “Someone will be cutting out my organs and putting them into someone else?”
And scary. “Maybe the doctor won’t try to save me because he has a favorite patient who needs my kidney?” Scenarios like at rare and mostly myth.
You also hear of people selling their organs to ready buyers. I understand the desperation.
Some think it’s against their religion. It’s almost assuredly not, from Muslim to Buddhism.
For my part as a living donor, I didn’t take it lightly. What happens when you only have one kidney? Fortunately, nothing. I take no medicine or do anything special. Many people are born with one kidney and don’t even know it. We really don’t need two but it’s nice to have a spare. It’s amazing that we can even do this. I still wish it wasn’t necessary.
You see, in 2001, my father told me he had kidney disease, too, inherited from his mother. His brother died from it but my father always thought he’d been spared. He discovered his fate a few years earlier never telling me because, after all, I had a 50 percent chance of having it and there’s nothing you can do.
Of course, I lucked out or could not have donated a kidney to my mother.
But now as I watch my father do dialysis I feel helpless. I know his chance of getting a transplant.
My earliest memory of hating my hair — or at least feeling let down by it — was when I saw my best friend's big fat ponytail. I knew her from kindergarten through fourth grade, when, thankfully, she moved, putting me out of my misery of constantly comparing my hair to hers.
When she wore her hair in a ponytail, the diameter looked to be at least as big a bratwurst. Mine? I was lucky if my ponytail was thicker than a pretzel rod.
I have always had fine, thin, curly hair. Hers was thick, chunky, straight. She had these perfectly straight bangs that sat neatly above her eyes. That hair would haunt me for years, and those bangs, I finally stopped trying to emulate them. Bangs — straight ones at least — were not my thing. Or rather, not my hair’s thing.
I see pictures of myself now from grade school with wavy wisps you could practically see my forehead through, and wonder, “Why did I bother?” And in that same moment, I want to hug my little self and say, “Sweetheart, why do you feel so inadequate. You are beautiful just as you are.”
I still have to tell myself that.
I have come to accept my hair — better, at least — the older I’ve gotten. But that’s been a challenge. You see, as I’ve gotten older, along with my maturity and self acceptance, my hair has gotten even curlier and, detestably, frizzier. No one likes the frizzies.
So as I put hope, often fruitlessly, into products and curling irons and just the right round brush, I still resent not being able to wash my hair and just go. Out. With it wet. Oh, what freedom.
I know what you’re thinking. And sure, I could do that now. Go out with it wet. So what if my hair dries curly. Who cares? But I’d be torturously self-conscious. Almost sick-to-my-stomach self-conscious. Because I know you’d look at me funny, find me unkempt, hair askew and disorganized. I know you would.
I know it.
We live in an era where beauty is measured by media images, and perfectly managed ones at that. Apparently most American women pray at the altar of Jennifer Aniston, goddess of the flat-ironed look. I read that somewhere, that she has the most enviable hair in America. And you know what? It’s naturally curly or at least wavy. But how often have you seen it that way? Rarely. She wears it straight.
Virtually every bombshell beauty we celebrate has tame hair — Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, Cindy Crawford. Sure, Farrah Fawcett was a goddess — and in her day I adored her — but even her hair was smoothed, tamed.
When was the last time you saw a corkscrew curly, frizzy-haired Nicole Kidman? Even most African American beauties — Halle Barry, Oprah, Tyra Banks — wear their hair smooth or straight. Where are the afros?
So when I see a naturally curly celebrity embracing her true hair, I have hope: Sarah Jessica Parker, Kerri Russell, Julianna Margulies, Virginia Madsen, Minnie Driver. These are my peeps! Take that you stick-straight bobs.
But it’s rare. And there is a message there. No one really wants curly hair. Not like mine.
This is what I’ve come to learn:
People see straight hair as sleek, sophisticated, no nonsense. Audrey Hepburn.
Curly hair — not the big smooth rolling Miss America curls, but really corkscrew frizzy curly — equals unkempt, sloppy, wacky. Throw in some freckles and red hair and you are really in trouble. Little Orphan Annie. Bette Midler. (Even she’s gone blond and straight these days. I can’t blame her.)
It’s so much more… Acceptable?
Look at Chelsea Clinton. She was that awkward child with wild hair. (Snicker.) She had no style. Now’s she coifed. Controlled. Put together.
I’ve read that “bad hair days” for women are a more serious psychological challenge than people would guess. I could have told you that.
I remember waiting at the end our driveway for the school bus, ruing those dewy, foggy mornings as they undid all my hard work smoothing my hair just yards away in my bedroom. Just a slight bend in my bangs, an ill-placed curl, would ruin my self confidence. Why? I’d wail inside as if I’d contracted the plague. I’m better now, thankfully, but only after years of distress. A humid evening when I had a party to attend would fill me with anxiety.
Oh, I know people always give lip service to curly hair. “You’re lucky. Do you know how many people pay for hair like yours?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this from hairdressers, some of whom have convinced me to let my hair dry under the sun lamp. No matter how hard I try to explain how curly it is, I usually hear: “Oh, it really is curly.”
Even friends give lip service. “I wish I had curly hair.” Liars. They don’t really want my hair. They want a tamer version of my hair. They want to go swimming and sit on the beach while their hair dries into nice acceptable waves.
I want that too.
I have a friend who, whenever I complain of frizz, likes to pipe out: “Product.” I want to punch this friend.
God I hate that word. As if without “product” I’m worthless. No good. That’s like saying you have to wear makeup to be beautiful. I like makeup, I like product. But I do not want to be dependent on it. And, because I have the unruly combination of very curly and very fine hair, too much “product” weighs it down. Even with product, if I let it go naturally, it’s a fluffy mass that overtakes my head with bangs — really layers I wear off to the sides of my face — that shoot up like Kramer’s from Seinfeld. Gah!
I think I have hair only a mother could love, at least in its natural state. And she’s seen it really curly. I’m amazed how much she loves it.
I think she’s insane.
In fact, outside of my immediate family and my husband, I don’t think anyone has seen my hair totally air-dried. This is how vain and insecure I am. For this I am a little embarrassed.
Even with my husband, it took years before he saw it au natural. I probably allowed it in an effort to challenge his love for me. As if to say: Take a good look because this is me. Go ahead: Laugh. Gasp. It’ll just confirm everything I have felt all my life. I will be humiliated. I will be rejected. I will be laughed at. Openly. I knew it. Damn it. Damn you all.
Instead, he acted nonchalant. It was like I was pointing out an ulcerating boil on my face and all he saw was a tiny red bump. He even said: “It’s cute.”
I still think he’s crazy.
Unconditional love. That’s it. He and my mom. I’ll just never believe it.
And my poor mother. I’m sure she withstood more whining than she cared to hear. For once, just once, I wanted to know what really thick, smooth hair was like. So, somehow, I convinced her to buy me a wig when I was about 10. This was not some toy wig, some kid wig, some Halloween costume wig. This was the real thing. It was auburn, probably human hair, and came down to little below my shoulders. I even kept it on a Styrofoam wig head stand that I drew a face on.
I don’t think it gave me what I was looking for. Somehow I thought this would make me feel better. But once I had it the thrill was gone. I’d put in on, realize I wasn’t going to wear it out, and still have to deal with my hair.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m lucky to have the hair I have. I’ve seen people with far less hair than me and hair that’s far more unruly. Few people would realize how much I fret about my hair. It’s not worth it. I’m slowly understanding that.
I’ve even had my good share of compliments. Genuine compliments. I have good hair days. Even in high school, when I wore my hair blown out with smooth curls, one friend, with super straight, incredibly flat hair, always loved my hair, the body it had. Of course, I told myself, “Yeah, but she doesn’t know I’m a humid rainstorm away from total disaster.”
I do find ways to put it down no matter what. Last year at a friend’s grandmother’s funeral, one of the grandchildren, a pretty and precocious child of about 10, called my hair “pretty. It’s fluffy.” I felt immediately self-conscious, knowing that fluffy is really just-this-side-of-becoming-frizzy.
Actually, some days I do think I have pretty hair. I’ve learned to style it, and use good products. But mostly what’s changed is my attitude. And it’s not simply accepting my hair. It’s more than that. I actually see myself more like my mother probably does. I’m not quite there, not by a long shot, but I’m getting there.
I’ve even seen photos of myself when I know I was agonizing over my hair. And I think, “You look fine.” Sometimes, even: “You’re hair looks pretty.”
And I wonder about all the time I’ve spent crucifying my hair — myself — when I could have been more loving to myself and putting my energy somewhere more productive.
I look back now on how I thought all my problems would be gone when my best friend's hair moved away — how I’d hoped the self-inflicted mockery of my hair, the hair that didn’t measure up, would leave with her, too.
Of course, it didn't. Over the years there were more girls with "better" hair. More than I’d ever have imagined back then.
But of course there would be. Someone always has nicer, longer, straighter, prettier hair.
It took me a long time to figure that out. And to figure out that no matter what, I would forever have this hair. And it was a waste of my precious time to hate it, to wish it was different.
I still have to remind myself of this. But I sure have more self-acceptance.
Interestingly, I’ve been chatting with some elementary school classmates since they contacted me about a reunion. My old best friend's name came up. They think they found her.
Great, I half-thought. I guess I’ll have to see if that old comparison still stacks up.
But I don’t think so. I’ve got a lot more going on now than just my hair.
I'm not a perfect person. Far from it. But I am a good person.
Still, friends are often surprised when I tell them I went though a little phase of shoplifting when I was younger.
The loot I was after was mainly cosmetics. I was coming of age and bedazzled by all the pretty colors and packages and products. I still am.
But back then, I wanted to try them all, possess them all. Of course, that would be expensive.
Now, shoplifting is usually not about fulfilling a real need. I imagine for some, stealing food is about feeding your kids when you have no money. That's about survival. I can almost excuse that.
But for most people, shoplifting is psychological. It fills a void. I've read that shoplifting is often linked to depression. I know I struggled with those feelings as a kid so I'm sure it had to do with that, and maybe even provided some excitement. After all, it's also classified as an impulse disorder, and for me it was a fix.
I'd do it, get a high, then ultimately feel worse. Guilty. Disgusted. I'd often have to rid myself of the objects just to get some relief. I didn't do this that often, but even once was too much.
I'll never forget one time at the local drugstore when I was around 12 or 13. I was out with my mother, who was at another store at the time.
As I eyed the goods, I tightened the cord around my hips on my pink cotton windbreaker, zipping it about half way up so I could use it like a shopping bag. I remember thinking how ingenious this was.
Up and down the aisles I went, amazed at how easy it was to imperceptibly slip in a lipstick here, a mascara there. I was on a roll.
Then I got to the car to meet my mother.
I felt such guilt. I couldn't stand it. "What did I just do?" I thought. I had to confess.
"Mom, I took all this stuff," I wailed as I opened my jacket, revealing probably a couple dozen items. Even I was amazed at how much I had.
"Take it back right now," she told me sternly.
"I can't! I can't! Please don't make me, please don't make me," I cried.
I was mortified and could not imagine walking into that store with all this stuff to tell the manager what I'd done. It was shame more than punishment that held me back.
"Please, please just take it back for me," I begged my mother.
I was intractable.
Now you might disagree with my mother but she did walk that stuff back into that store. I don't know exactly what she told them. And I'm not sure I learned quite the same lesson had I taken it back and faced them myself.
But do know that shoplifting is a serious problem. And thank god I never had a serious problem. I did stop.
Still, I was hanging around with some bad influences for a few years. One friend and her sister practically made a sport of it.
I remember being at the Limited a couple years later with them. We were in the dressing room and they were fully planning to take an item or two. When they encouraged me to do the same, I was staunch. I would not. Could not.
"I can't," I told them. "I promised myself I'd never do it again."
And then the thought occurred to me:
"Now, if you want to take it for me…."
Okay, so I appropriated my shoplifting to them, at least that one time.
But I did get over it. And I'm lucky I never got caught.
I would never do that now. Although these days, some friends might argue I still have a wee bit of a problem. On occasion, I grab extra Sweet & Low packets from coffee shops to use at home. And I do have a thing for those individual peanut butter and cream cheese containers. I can only find them at hotels and cafeterias.