There was only one stipulation – a point of no-contention – by which the pertinacious reed of my will would give itself over to the annals of science: The transplant would have to wait until my sister graduated Medical School. I had been vigilant by the sloping banks of an erratic on-demand schedule and grit my teeth when I had to make accommodations. I always tried to apple-polish my way to May 12th to remind my transplant team that they had indeed, at one point, agreed and therefore, there was no going back on their word. For a few tumultuous days, doubt crept into family discussions, poisoning the waters of firm will and resolution. As the initial conflagration gave way to embers, we had all transformed into hirelings, eager for the fruits of our labor to manifest in wage, recycling days and incapable of separating one from the other. Soon, a few weeks before the appointed date, like all events in the family of import, the thrall of fervor had ignited our passions with a bright flame. We marched towards the dying sun eager to see family and friends in the glorious sun-bleached land of Las Vegas.
This story had to begin here because we had not realized it until her name was called on stage: in front of us, a new creature shook off the ashes of her old life and was reborn as a sibylline baby bird, which revealed in oracles, the birth of itself. The phoenix was no mirage and no simulacrum: it was what she had always promised she was and was going to be.
Somewhere along the line, in uncountable days, perhaps watching too closely or not watching at all, we had failed to replace the image of the little girl of many years hence. Fiesty, vivacious, and ever attracted to the sun, as if she was its only parhelion, we had taken for granted the transformative power of fiery testing crucibles. Somewhere along the line she had gone to war against herself and she had come back with the Gorgon’s head emblazoned on her chest as aegis. So as she was enrobed with a title of honor, a title that meant something, we could no longer ignore the baby phoenix. With misty eyes and heartfelt “started from the bottom…now we here!” chants, I could feel a recognizable pride well up within me. After all, wasn’t I the one who had been closest to her and had been there to see most of what my family had not seen? And yet, this unveiling was as new to me as it was to everyone else.
This Scylla violently lashed out against me. I remember being trampled underfoot by its overwhelming grip, until I realized that just as the phoenix is born through the sum of many pointless, irrelevant, mostly forgotten days as tiresome and testy as they were, we were not getting through the short 3-day weekend without a great push of perseverance. It was no easy task managing family and friends, especially when they were both on opposite sides of Vegas. The zephyr’s that came down from an always forgiving sky, perhaps in acknowledgement of the baby phoenix parhelion who was driving us around at pace here and there, gifted balls of energy that we did not have. Perhaps in recognition of an ashy rebirth, the sun forgave our sins in the desert and we somehow made it to the airport just barely, on time.
I remember passing out without packing for the 6 am flight the next day: there is no Scylla without Charybdis. The great maelstrom heaves and puffs like a creature of torment, blasting from its whirling nostrils molten snot that singes the water and burns black bellowing wisps into the sky of perdition. All that lies ahead is uncertainty. All that lies before it is doom. In truth, for anyone who has been stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea, there is no lesser of two evils. Like a venomous, uncontrollable ritual, we are channeled by the overwhelming peristalsis, all in single file, through the hell-mouth of choice and imperceptible logic. Moving steadily from one point to the next, as much as we like to believe that choice dictates, the consumed eke through the bowels of a greater salvation, consuming to be consumed.
Max Weber believed that tall-poppy syndrome was a zero-sum game. Let me be the first to say, I don’t care, because the frailty of the human form is not limited to its biology. Somewhere along the line, the great terrors that manifest in my head as mythical creatures dissolved in the rhythm of perpetual motion. One step in front of the other, whether on Pelotons or $10/month gym-membership stationary bikes, we are moving forward, a la Red Queen, because that’s all we can do. I am more than willing to give up my share of prestige to save the neck of a high achiever who truly deserves it. I don’t think it’s my humility, but instead, my needless commitment to logic that brings me to this conclusion. After all, how can I not look at Scylla behind me enslaved by the immortal will of the fire princess, the absurd hero that refuses the rock of her imprisonment and continually overcomes her fate by giving in to it, and not be awed? German Satirist Dieter Nuhr astutely recognized the fallacy of humanity: most of what we believe to be acceptable behavior is nothing but a social construct. Social constructs, like the word implies, are imaginary and so as the days passed by leading up to today, all I could think was: “Where is Charybdis?” and “What happened to Scylla?” It is the frailty of the mind that prints recognizable images upon the interpretations of the stress its biology must endure. For better or worse, whilst everything was happening, it seemed liked nothing at all was happening until I ended up in the ICU the day before my transplant.
I have to give a special thank you to Varun, Chai, Amar, Neets, and my parents who helped me make it out of the ICU as I suffered through serial migraines. The headaches were bad enough that I resolved to crawl through them on my hands and knees, if my Dad’s head massages did not work. The one thing I remember yelling at the void was: “Don’t you take my mind from me, cursed Charybdis! Take anything else but the vehicle of my being!” Perhaps this is why Odysseus found Scylla the lesser of the two beasts. The headaches were debilitating and they shut me out of the greater world. I was not able to work. I was not able to think. I was not able to write.
After some revitalization, I normally sprang back up to my usual self unlike what most of these pictures portray. It always perks me up to indulge in philosophical banter, and I was blessed to experience the terrain before me without angst or concern for the big day that loomed, mired in uncertainty more than surety. I am eternally grateful to Chai and Varun for their help and assistance in moving me back from the ICU to my own room.
I don’t think I even saw the cells in the bags that were being transfused. I heard the fuss around me as pangs of pain shot through my head: “It’s so clear! We can’t even see them!” Indeed it was a sight to behold. Both my veteran transplant nurses Ufouma and Rahel (seen above) had never seen such a clear bag of modified stem cells. This story is worth telling so I will segway for a quick minute.
During the transplant build-up phase, I became the first patient on the protocol to try a new drug that released the stem-cells into the bloodstream so that they could be collected via apheresis. The significance of this revelation meant widespread changes in the protocol such that all the transplant patients after me (I’m sorry!) had to wait a few more months for the protocol to be amended to include this wondrous contribution to their quality of life (You’re welcome!). On average, bone-marrow harvests yield 3-6 million cells (Forgive me if the numbers aren’t exact, I’d appreciate any and all fact-checking as long as it’s correct!). The first time they used the drug to collect them via apheresis, my yield was 11 million. Not only did they receive more than enough, but the number of viral copies for transplant ended up being ~5+. On all the protocols including the original French clinical trial, this was the first time they received such astounding numbers on both fronts. This high yield is quite possibly the reason for the clarity of the cells (most other cells with lower yields tend to be yellowish in color). But the reason why I pushed fervently to get this format of stem-cell collection included on the protocol was because: no more painful, nasty, horrible, bone-drilling stem-cell harvests! Not only is the yield higher, but you also don’t have to deal with the pain? “Sign me up!” is what I hoped the future transplant patients would say! I was immensely annoyed when they told me that I had to wait a few months till the protocol was amended to include this test drug, but after going through all the bone marrow harvests/biopsies AND going through the apheresis harvest, I’m happy I waited!
I remember thinking to myself: “Isn’t it ironic?” First I get caught up in a fainting spell which leads to a code being called on me. Then I awake in an ICU and have a great time relaxing the day before my transplant. On the day of my transplant, I’m fully functional and immersed in conversation and the generosity of friends who traveled all the way from NYC to see me. Then, when the big moment arrives, I am sidelined once again by a headache so annoying that I only squint at the goings-on around me and do not even get to see the cells that would ignite a rebirth within me. Just as the small bags quickly infuse into me through gravity’s pull alone, the headache begins to slowly fade and I feel the cells overwhelm my bones as they rush into my sternum and ribs. At first the feeling is warm but quickly turns into unease. I think to myself: “Oh God I’m going to die! It’s too fast! It’s too much!” The swarming cells make me feel like I can’t breathe and I’m afraid to complain to my nurses but I let them know anyway. They slow the infusion down with the second bag and I feel much better.
They had warned us that the transplant was no grand event. It was fairly innocuous and not worthy of much fanfare. We had not planned anything and honestly, the day was only made quite special because of Varun, Chai, Amar, Neethi, Mom, and Dad. I did not expect anyone to be there, but I am, from the bottom of my heart, truly grateful for everyone who was there with me on transplant day.
Thank you for the very cute Whole Red Blood Cell. It is indeed a very apt avatar of the reborn me! I couldn’t feel anything but happiness. I was glad to get it over and done with not because I was waiting eagerly in anticipation while counting down the days, but because my parents were waiting eagerly in anticipation as they counted down the days. I was happy that it was low-key because that’s how I am. It reflected my character more than I could reproduce for you here, in images and words. As a lonely solipsist, I was happy to, finally, see the weight fall off my parents’ minds. It had harangued and plagued them for so long that I felt happy for them more than I did for myself. Perhaps somewhere in that reflection is the seed of the new rebirth just as all those multicolored days led to my sister becoming a doctor. The colors of the day were pastels, but in memories and recollections now, they appear to me in a roseate light.
In all honesty, the only colors that mattered that day were the colors of FERRERO ROCHER!
Just as I thought that there was no other way to celebrate a new birthday, except through card games, word games, and lots and lots of chocolates, the nurses of the transplant wing, with Ufouma as vanguard, sing me happy birthday, present me with a rich chocolate cake and insist that I celebrate two birthdays a year!
I am presented with gifts and I am presented with indescribable emotions. Many, many thanks (again) to Amar, my sister Neethi, Varun, and Chai who went over and beyond my limited imagination and ignited a joy I did not expect to feel – for myself. Somehow through all of their generosity, I found myself happy to be, a la Descartes. Somewhere along the line, all the confusion evaporated and revealed the clarity beneath. For someone who had been toiling with the quandaries of the mind, the iniquities of the soul, the trepidation’s of humanity, the ages of decay, and the cycles of white-washed days, I was jump-started and finally awakened, slowly, to a new waking life.
I am not one who invests much stock in surprises, but on this day, it was the unusual mix of unexpected events that truly elevated my spirit. There could not have been a more joyous occasion. In the unexpected, I found a reason to smile.
I am beside myself in awe of the many ways I got to celebrate a day I thought would be lost in uniformity.