The idea never crossed my mind until the afternoon I stood folding laundry and heard a woman on the radio telling the story of donating a kidney to someone she didn’t know.
I had turned 50 the week before. I didn’t think I cared about this milestone, but then I had an epiphany: At last I was turning an age that would impress trees.
In the weeks leading up to my birthday I kept telling everyone my tree theory, so I felt truly seen on the day itself when my beloved presented me with a bread board made from a slice of tree trunk. Dark and glossy, with legible rings and rough bark intact, it had a split — a crack in the wood that curved from outer rim to a little knot in the heart.
I’d met my beloved three years earlier. At first we were friends, both of us sorting through recent breakups. Then we began studying Torah together, wrestling over bits of text. Not just Torah, secular books too, and movies and paintings and philosophies and constellations. Sharing questions and interpretations, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in screeching discord (like the time I said, “Poor Tolstoy, he takes himself too seriously,” and almost severed our friendship for good).
We were forever coming together and diverging, always in motion. Before I met him, I had developed a bad habit of ceding desire to others. I had put my body and mind too much at the disposal of other people, allowed them authority over me. I had become adept at exercising my will to negate my will. An ugly habit; it still fills me with shame.
But now I found myself 50 and free — free to claim myself. And fit. For most of my life, I hadn’t really noticed the privilege of good health. I didn’t go around on a daily basis thinking, “Jackpot! Another day of not being sick!” But time had increased my awareness of how many people live with injury and illness, how uncommon it was that I had never suffered anything more grievous than having my wisdom teeth out. It had come to seem an embarrassment of unearned riches.
Then there was the fact that two of my children were already out of the house and the youngest was in his last year of high school. Soon I wouldn’t be needed for day-to-day mothering. On top of that, I have an academic job, which means several months of paid discretionary time each summer. All of which added up to the recognition that I had a surplus ability to be more useful. In the weeks surrounding my 50th birthday, this sense of surplus, and the question of how to channel it, built in me like steam in an engine.
When I heard the radio story about becoming an altruistic donor, it seemed an answer. I folded the last pair of socks, went to the computer and looked up kidney donation. I was uncomfortable with the phrase “altruistic donor,” which implied a lack of self-interest, when it was perfectly clear to me that I had great self-interest: It would make me feel good to be of use in this way.
I came across an alternate phrase: non-directed donor. Not only was this objectively descriptive (the kidney would go to whomever needed it rather than to a designated recipient), it had a more proper emphasis: Instead of highlighting the motivation of the donor, it focused on the trajectory of the organ.
I liked this better. Satisfied that I was being honest with myself about the role my own desire played in the decision, I applied to become a non-directed donor.
I did this without telling anyone. Not even my beloved. For three weeks, in between filling out the online form and passing an initial telephone screening with the donor center, I kept my intention to myself.
Only when I got an appointment to go in and meet with the donor coordinator did I tell my beloved, and then I did not say, “I’m thinking about doing this thing. What are your thoughts about it?” No. I told him I had decided. All I asked was that he accompany me through the process.
He took a breath, held my hand, asked questions and said yes. I could see he was a little rattled, but I thought he just needed to get used to the idea. I didn’t realize then how much I had hurt him.
The process began in earnest with scans and labs, a psychiatric evaluation, meetings with medical specialists, literature to review and a day of urinating exclusively into a big plastic jug. All the while I felt invigorated, almost giddy with my own sense of agency. Five months elapsed before the tests were completed and I received word I had been approved. I just had to sign the papers to get entered with the national registry, a kind of matchmaker service for organs.
My beloved came with me. He took a breath as I signed, held my hand, asked questions and continued to say yes — yes with his presence, yes as he walked beside me, yes to accompanying me on my journey. But he was still hurt, both that I had made the decision alone and that I had withheld it from him those first few weeks.
I explained that really it was my decision, my desire; that it was important for me to own this choice without seeking approval and without apology. And yet I saw how the hurt lingered. And this time I was the one who was a little rattled.
The registry found me a match. A surgery date was arranged. My beloved took me to the hospital, kept me company, helped me change into a hospital gown, gave me away to the orderly who wheeled my gurney. The kidney was removed from my body and sent on its journey, destination unknown.
All we learned was that the transplant was successful. As for my own journey, my beloved accompanied me every step of the way. He breathed with me through recovery, held my hand when I was in pain, walked laps with me around the floor, asked questions about home-care and said yes: yes with every bowl of broth he made me, yes with every load of wash he did, yes with every hour he spent away from his work, yes with every rumpled, exhausted, ready smile.
And when I was well enough, we finally fought.
“You hurt us,” he said. “When you decided this alone.”
“But it was honest,” I said. “I needed to be free to decide on my own.”
He nodded sadly. “But you hurt us.”
There is a phrase in the Bible that talks about the relationship between Adam and Eve. It usually gets translated “helpmate,” as in, “I will make a helpmate suitable for him.” But the Hebrew, “ezer kenegdo,” may better be translated as “helper opposite” or “helper against.”
In other words, it offers the suggestion that a true partner is one who can oppose us, challenge us, spar when necessary. What makes a good sparring partner? Trust. Trust that the other isn’t pulling any punches. And trust that you’re both in the ring for the same reason: not to hurt each other but to grow.
Here’s what I understand now, nearly a year later: I really did need to make the decision alone. It was selfish — but for me, healthily selfish, a fierce reclamation of authority over my body and mind, and even more fierce: a way of honoring my desire.
And I really did hurt us. By insisting on my journey, not ours, I created a rift. By not including my beloved in the decision, I made him feel distrusted.
The surgery left me with four laparoscopic scars that are barely visible and one big scar that remains vivid. Most Fridays I bake challah for shabbat dinner. While it’s cooling, I set the table, put the candles in their holders, pour wine in the kiddush cup. When the bread is cool, I put it on the tree slice bread board, with its crack that runs from rim to center. The crack is about the size of my scar, the big one from the incision where they slid the kidney out.
I don’t think about the kidney often. I sometimes think of the recipient. I feel immense gratitude toward this person whose need made it possible for me to fulfill my desire to be of use. In this sense we are partners, the recipient and me.
And my own partner? He and I never stepped out of the ring. He was no more deterred by the rift than he is by my scar, which lies not so much between us as before us: a challenge we face together as we continue to spar, learning new steps, getting our timing down, trusting each other with more and more of our weight.
Leah Hager Cohen teaches writing at the College of the Holy Cross. Her latest novel, “Strangers and Cousins,” appears in May.
Modern Love can be reached at email@example.com.
To hear Modern Love: The Podcast, subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music. To read past Modern Love columns, click here. Continue following our fashion and lifestyle coverage on Facebook (Styles and Modern Love), Twitter (Styles, Fashion and Weddings) and Instagram.