At work, the headline appeared on my social media: “Man with amazing beard in desperate need of a kidney.”
I closed a political talk tab and read the heartbreaking plea. The wife of the man with the incredible beard asked the universe to send someone to donate a kidney and save the life of her husband.
“So dear friends and strangers (whoever is kind enough to read this),” he wrote, “we need a kidney. It’s an incredibly wild thing to ask.”
I didn’t know any of them, but I clicked “share,” the same way I do when the local animal shelter is looking for adopters, or when someone is raising money for people affected by a natural disaster. Would the stars conspire and answer this call?
Maybe or maybe not. Either way, I felt like he had done my part. She was 34 years old, living in inner city Philadelphia, and in all my years on this planet she had only spent time in the hospital once, when I came out of my mother’s womb. However, my boyfriend David, with whom I shared an apartment, was the type who would want to check himself into the ICU for a toothache.
It was easy for me to put together all the reasons why I was not an ideal living donor candidate. I was in an existential rut like the one I had been in years before as a college student while studying psychiatrist and philosopher Dr. Viktor Frankl. Back then, he would regularly throw unanswered questions at the other students like, “I mean, really, what’s the point?”
Along with my chosen outfit (black pants and a ribbed onyx turtleneck), all that was missing was the cigarette and a beret. At the end of the semester, I decided that I would not return to my senior year. I moved to a small seaside town and reread Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” on the beach with the seagulls.
However, with what I had been feeling lately, I had begun to consider that it wasn’t some existential fear coming back to haunt me, I was simply unhappy in my relationship. Deep down, she still loved David, but on more than one occasion her arguments with him had sent pillows flying off the sofa.
“I’m moving to Italy!” I would scream, back from a recent trip there.
“Penalty fee!” he would say. “Go crush grapes in Tuscany!”
Of course, I wasn’t destined to live as a wealthy, independent winemaker in the Chianti countryside, but I was still fatigued in my job as an executive assistant in the hospitality industry. It was my belief that I was destined for greater things; He just hadn’t figured out what those things were yet.
The pattern remained the same through the summer and fall: I went to work, I came home, I imagined I was somewhere else. David and I spent part of our September vacation on the shore, where I sat on the sand, watching the tide rise and fall, trying to locate what was missing.
November finally arrived and with it, my mother’s birthday. She decided to celebrate at a spa in the Poconos with her best friend, leaving Kenny, my stepdad, home alone for a few days. Kenny had endured a series of spinal surgeries over the past year, so I offered to walk his 140-pound French mastiff every night until my mom returned later that week.
I arrived around 5 pm to a dark house and Kenny was lying on the couch, unable to sit up straight because of the pain.
“Julia?” she called her. “Are you?”
At that moment, the little voice that we sometimes hear, the one that is more right than wrong, was present, soft at first but growing louder: “Something is very wrong.”
It took some convincing, but Kenny eventually agreed to go to the ER, where we learned he was in septic shock.
“It’s the kind of infection that speeds up quickly,” the doctor said. He had attached to the hardware on his back and had spread throughout his body in a matter of weeks. “He would have died in 24 hours if you hadn’t brought him.”
Kenny immediately went through several surgeries, almost falling on the operating table. My mother and I lived in a fog, white-knuckling through most of her most life-threatening procedures and gulping down Ativan when we couldn’t take it anymore.
It was then that the memories of my father’s death began.
I was standing in the upstairs bathroom of my apartment, examining myself in the mirror, my eyes and head throbbing in unison. I saw myself at 16, sitting in the car with my father. He had just picked me up from my job as a restaurant hostess and we were making the 10 minute drive back to our house. My father was not a man of many words, and I can remember numerous walks with him that were silent, including this last one.
When we reached our entrance, I ran inside, closed the door to my room and went to bed. The next morning I got dressed, ate cereal, and left for school without saying goodbye. It was early in the day when I was called out of class and asked to take my belongings to the principal’s office, where my mother’s co-worker picked me up and broke the news to me on the way to the hospital: “I don’t know. how to tell you this Your father is dead.
At just 46 years old, he had suffered a sudden cardiac arrhythmia. During the previous years, he had been unemployed and assumed the role of a stay-at-home father. I can’t say that he was prospering; an injury prevented him from doing the physical work he loved, carpentry and furniture making. But every morning she made breakfast for me and my brother, drove us to school, and ran all the necessary errands. Still, he often seemed aimless, watching TV alone or looking out into the backyard.
Kenny began to slowly heal from the infection, and I thought of this stranger who needed a kidney, and I heard that little voice again: “Maybe I’m the person the plea was about.”
Now it was December. Almost six months had passed since I saw the post. I decided to get tested as a potential donor and found that I was a promising match for the man with the amazing beard. Then I navigated through all the obstacles: the fear expressed by David and family members, endless physical and mental exams, the uncertainty of having a kidney in the future.
However, it was the Covid-19 pandemic that scuppered our original surgery date of March 2020. For months, it was unclear when we would be able to reschedule or if the recipient would survive the wait. But at the end of July, I was recovering in the hospital, sedated but sleepy, celebrating a successful transplant.
“It’s pretty incredible,” my surgeon said at my bedside. “As soon as his kidney attached, he immediately started producing urine. We rarely see that kind of result.”
There is room for the possibility that my problem was never an existential routine, or travel withdrawals, or problems in my relationship. Perhaps it was an inner emptiness, unable to be filled by the loss of my father, growing larger by the guilt and shame I have felt for 21 years.
A lingering ache in the dark from wishing I had done something more, said something more, been something more before my father left us. He was desperately searching for a purpose in this world, longing for an escape, but ignoring the root of it all: the need for love. The love of my father and, ultimately, the love for myself.
Donating a kidney, giving a part of oneself, brings us a lot in return. He brought me closer to my father. He helped me understand his own struggle to find meaning. And while much was left unsaid between us, the loss has irrefutably shaped who I am. I am proud to carry that part of him with me forever.
In Judaism, there is something called “bashert,” a Yiddish word that David’s sister once explained to me. “Bashert,” she said, “is the belief that there are events destined for a higher force to happen in the universe. What is meant to be.
I guess some might compare it to destiny, and some might say it’s the life you’re destined for. If I were back in psychology class, we would be discussing Frankl’s theory: that it is not the meaning of life in general that gives us depth, but the specific meaning at a specific moment in a person’s life. I never would have imagined that donating an organ and saving a stranger’s life would give so much meaning to mine. How to remove something internal would help fill that void.
And perhaps, it was never a search for meaning. Instead, it was a creation, not only for my own life, but also for my father’s.