One of my former colleagues needs a new liver.
The problem is, in order to be eligible for an immediate liver transplant a patient must be very high up on the waiting list and practically at death’s door. She is not there yet, although she has suffered terribly with this condition for many years. More than 17,500 people are on the waiting list in the United States.
There is, however, a way for “living donors” to give someone a portion of their healthy liver. The donor’s liver regenerates; we can actually lose up to 75 percent of that organ and it will grow right back. The recipient, in turn, grows a virtually new liver from the piece he or she was given.
My friend’s hepatologist works out of the University of California, San Francisco, and I decided to research the procedure on the UCSF website. It turns out that it is no walk in the park for the donor. The potential complications are severe and could even be life-threatening. The postsurgical pain is brutal – worse for the donor, in fact, than for the recipient. Recovery takes a week in the hospital and many months afterwards, and some donors suffer from pain and complications for life.
Strongly shaken, I closed my eyes and tried to assess the degree of courage I had. To what length would I go to save a life? What amount of pain and potentially life-changing discomfort could I imagine going through? And for whom?
I was thinking about friendship on my recent ’cross-country train trip. I’d met an older woman in the observation car, a mentally and physically strong widow who went to the gym every day and kept up with politics and had a plethora of art-related hobbies and was taking the trip by herself to visit her daughter in Florida. “I’ve gotten along just fine living alone,” she said, “and I’ve kept myself healthy, but this year I lost my best friend, and that’s what kicked me hard in the gut.”
It was the third time I’d gone back East, by rail, to the beautiful state of Maryland. Three of my friends happen to live in the Baltimore area, which is both fortunate and unfortunate. Fortunate for me that they happen to live within 60 miles of each other. Unfortunate that they’re not in San Francisco any longer. They weren’t West Coast people in the first place, but they’d all ventured out to the Bay Area for a time, shortly after college. Eventually, and for varied reasons, they made their way back and settled in Maryland. All of their departures broke my heart.
So, on the first day I ride the train back from Baltimore, I cry. It’s become a tradition.
There is little in the world that I value more highly than friendship. It probably even irritates a few people who may, in fact, consider my persistent loyalty and sentimentality to be an unwanted annoyance.
I’ve always longed to enjoy the “Cheers” or “Sex and the City” dynamic with a few really close friends – that is, a group of people who get together on a regular basis, rain or shine, at a preordained spot, over coffee or wine or a meal. But that is not to be. Almost everyone I know has moved out of San Francisco, or left the Bay Area or the state entirely. So I jealously take note of the small group of retired bearded gents who take up the same table at my neighborhood Peet’s Coffee every day. Or my high school teachers who meet once a month for a sandwich, half a century after they worked together. Or my father-in-law’s high school and college buddies from Shelbyville and Georgetown (KY) who get together like clockwork. In fact, he told me that he has eight different groups, from different parts of his life, that he sees on a regular basis for lunch. They’re all in their eighties, by the way. “And normally I don’t even eat lunch,” he recently told me. “I have to take care not to spoil my boyish figure.”
So, what qualities do I look for, instinctively, in a friend? The ability to laugh. Shared values. Kindness. Intellectual curiosity. A complete lack of arrogance or pretense. A strong respect for older people and institutions. And most importantly, the willingness to listen. I have to admit, I’ve jettisoned a few “friends” over the last few years because I suddenly realized, after many decades, that they’d never listened to a word I’d said!
And to further escalate my demands, I prefer that people not only listen but also respond.
Lest I start getting too serious, let me give you an example of someone who listens to my tedious minutiae and follows up, which is the critical thing. One day this summer I was at the ballpark with my attorney friend Char. Char has been a bandmate of mine off and on for many years now. And I don’t think she would mind my saying that she has virtually zero interest in baseball, so when we go to a game I have to occasionally (and discreetly) shift one eye to the field if I have any hope of keeping track of the game at all. Char is an example of one of the world’s greatest conversationalists. The topics range from the ridiculous (“Paula, would you kiss so-and-so if you were the last two people on the planet and stuck on a desert island?”) to the less so (“Char, for the love of God, please explain emoluments to me”).
(By the way, if there were only two people left on the planet, why would they have to be stuck on a desert island?)
At our game this summer, Char mentioned that when she saw Springsteen with me two years ago, it was a life-changing concert for her. I think she actually said “life-changing.” Swoon! I started yammering on about how I was in the middle of a years-long process of listening to, cataloguing, notating, and rating all of my Springsteen bootlegs. My end goal, I told her, is to come up with “The Definitive Bruce Show,” with the best live version of each song I feel worthy of inclusion.
What I didn’t mention, because who on earth would care, is that I’ve been obsessing all these years about what format to use for the final output. CDs? (but there would be multiple CDs, and who but me listens to them anymore?) MP3 disks? (but would they play in precisely the order I decree?) Anyway, I didn’t mention my obsession because who cares. No one.
“By the way,” Char responded immediately, “what format are you going to use for this project?”
This is why Char is a gem.
When I arrive on the East Coast, I’m typically met at the train station by my friend Ellen, whom I met when we worked together at a nonprofit political think tank in San Francisco. Ellen came from a huge East Coast family, went to college in Oberlin, shared my undying love for Springsteen when we were young, introduced me to a host of terrific Oberlin and Jersey guys, drank profusely with me throughout the 80s, lost her husband at a way-too-young age, works in book publishing in Washington, D.C., lives in a lovely home in the country, and still amuses me with her opinionated, broad-based, funny takes on all of life’s variables, from the profound to the mundane. We like to rave about how cool we are. Springsteen’s gorgeous ode to friendship – “Bobby Jean” – always reminds me of her:
We liked the same music, we liked the same bands
We liked the same clothes.
We told each other that we were the wildest,
The wildest things we’d ever seen.
We have so many laughs. I’ll never forget the day I finally came out to her, in 1984, after years of friendship. I was absolutely terrified that that would be the end of our carefree years of running around town together. This is how she reacted:
“Well, if I’d known that all along, I could have become your plaything and you could have been my sugar momma!”
After a couple of days with Ellen, I check in for a week at a hotel in downtown Baltimore, just a few blocks from my friend Julie R.’s apartment.
I’ve known Julie for more than 25 years. When we first met in San Francisco, she claimed – at the time, at least – to be an anarchist. And she’d been “warned” by a mutual friend that I was – at the time, at least – a Republican. I’m sure we both did an inner eyeroll. All these years hence, I think I can accurately assume that we’ve both been pulled a few degrees towards the middle.
Julie had more contradictions than anyone I’d ever met. I knew that she had formerly rocked a mohawk and had been arrested in a variety of political demonstrations, yet she was earnestly, by degree and trade, an accountant. An aficionado of the punk scene and devotee of Iggy Pop, she had painted obscene epithets on her bedroom walls back home, yet her inner core was sweet and sensitive. She wore black. She was a serious introvert. She refused to eat any green foods or anything crunchy. She laughed easily. And she played the guitar like Keith Richards.
Julie and I had a band called Three Hour Tour for many years, but eventually she headed back to Maryland where, among other things, the cost of living was a lot lower. A few years ago, to my unending admiration, Julie courageously decided to completely raze her career path and go into physical therapy. It required getting into a school with very specific requirements, following a point system I never understood, and the first time she applied she was rejected. Most of her friends and family responded in the same way: that she just needed to be patient and try again the following year. My response, by contrast, was abject anger. “What?! What kind of so-called school is that – that would reject someone clearly smarter and more qualified than any other possible applicant? Are they blind??!” I was aghast, outraged. She later told me that my response was the one she liked best. (And she got into that idiotic school the next year.)
We typically keep in touch via phone conversations that can last for hours. She also frequently sends me envelopes full of newspaper clippings about topics ranging from baseball (she’s an avid sports fan) to music to Maryland history and lore. (Using the U.S. Mail! Who does that anymore?)
A few years ago, for Christmas, I bought Julie a book called The Doctors’ Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignac Semmelweis. Yes, it sounds odd. But I had seen it on her Amazon wish list and, knowing her broad range of interests, I didn’t think too much of it. It turns out, though, that she’d put the book on her list so she could remember to buy it for her sister, who does medical research. After she opened my “gift,” she was too polite to tell me that I had made an idiotic mistake until I forced the issue when I asked her how she was enjoying her wonderful new book on childbed fever.
During our week in Baltimore this time we toured the Bromo Seltzer Tower (much more interesting than it sounds!), visited the Peabody Institute Library, frequented any number of charming Baltimore taverns (although one drink puts Julie under the table), walked 40 miles (at Julie’s insistence, of course – she’s a long-distance runner) to find the 49ers game at one such tavern, saw an Orioles game at Camden Yards, went through Baltimore’s fantastic African American History Museum, watched a Lynyrd Skynyrd documentary, embarked on a self-guided literary walking tour (to which Julie had made her own personal additions), sought out all the best Maryland crabcakes around, and played music nearly every day.
One day, Julie and I drove out to her parents’ house, in her home town of Thurmont, to work out with her mother and other ladies of, shall we say, an advanced age. More advanced than mine, to put it one way. Julie has been a certified personal trainer, and she really loves older people, so she enjoys torturing putting the screws to the ladies and forcing them to keep up with their exercises. She’s coerced them into getting together regularly at her mom’s house for strength training and conditioning, and on her rare days off Julie drives out there and makes sure they’re not shirking their commitment. Then, after their workout, they all tell stories and scarf a bunch of doughnuts.
Julie has always loved older people. She arrived at work one day recently to find one of her elderly hospital patients crying hard. Julie asked what was wrong, and the woman (let’s call her “Dottie”) said that she couldn’t find her beloved stuffed animal. It had gotten misplaced somehow and Dottie couldn’t bear the thought of going on without it.
“Honey,” she sniffled, “I didn’t sleep one minute last night because all I did was cry and pray to God that He would bring my teddy back.”
Her plight was not taken seriously at all by the nursing assistants. But Julie would have none of that nonsense.
Over the years, Julie’s tendencies toward steely introspection have softened into a gentle, universal, empathic kindness. Most of us mellow with age, I suppose. In any case, the stuffed animal situation sent her into action. During one of her spare moments (God forbid she do this on company time), she whisked herself down to the hospital laundry in hopes that somehow the animal had been caught up in her patient’s bedding. Sure enough, there it was, perched on a shelf. Julie brought it back to the ecstatic woman, who then proceeded to tell everyone within earshot about “that white woman who was so kind to me.”
“You would have thought I was some kind of saint,” Julie told me, unassumingly mystified.
It’s become a tradition that, when I visit Baltimore, Julie and my friend Lauren and I play a gig in a small café called The Village Square. I’m a drummer, and obviously I don’t lug a drumset across the country with me on a train, nor would the café tolerate the noise, nor would it fit well with the folk-acoustic style music we play. So I accompany my bandmates on the cajon (box drum).
(For those of you not on Facebook, a link to one of our songs is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OoxZDnREiCQ. Notice that I had no idea when the song was supposed to end.)
Lauren worked for a short time with Ellen and me at the think tank in San Francisco. A native of Chicago, she is a wickedly brilliant writer (and editor) on a variety of topics, mostly related to politics and the arts (oh, and did I mention that she was the speechwriter for the U.S. Secretary of Defense for three years?). Anyhoo, she has a beautiful voice and plays a deft guitar and those qualities, accompanied by her encyclopedic knowledge of American folk music and singer-songwriters in general, are what she brings to our little trio, Transcontinental Railroad.
I like it when friends champion each other’s passions. Julie has always known how important my blog is to me and continues to mention it in conversation. She says she appreciates that my writing “covers a lot of ground.” Well, that’s a nice way of putting it. Someone else once said that my blogs are “too long and have too many facts.”
Friends can also help nudge us in better directions. Julie, of course, is always touting the value of exercise and checking in to make sure I don’t spend all my hours sitting on the couch eating clam dip. She’s also recently been chastising me for not seeing enough live music. So I’ve got a couple of shows lined up in the near future. Lately she’s started nagging encouraging me to take piano lessons, which I haven’t done since I was seven. “For God’s sake, do things out of your comfort zone,” she keeps telling me. Hmmm. Staying firmly in my comfort zone is actually one of my life’s goals. But deep down I know she’s right.
As the years go by, I’m realizing that the nature of my friendships has become wildly varied. Some friends are good for a laugh, but nothing deeper. Some are extroverts who can make any moment fun, and they serve a special role for me because often I live too closely bottled up in my own tiny anxieties and can’t always see the forest for the trees. Some were friends from long ago but are now Facebook acquaintances, and we keep abreast of each other’s lives but never talk; still, I enjoy knowing they’re doing well. Some share the unbreakable bonds we formed at a particular moment in our lives, like high school classmates or bandmates or teammates. Some are former lovers, and I’ve kept in touch with almost all of them (okay, there aren’t very many, but still).
Each kind of friend represents a lovely trinket in a box of treasures. We have to appreciate them for whatever role they play in our lives.
But the gold nuggets are hard to come by. They endure. “We carry each other’s history,” as songwriter Carole Bayer Sager says. We see each other through all of our relationships, moves, job and career changes, perceived slights, setbacks, right turns and wrong turns, hangovers, regrets, embarrassments, illnesses, failures, triumphs, moments of beauty and creativity, and moments of sheer vulnerability.
True friendship is a very, very rare connection. Sometimes it develops very slowly over the years, sometimes in fits and starts, and sometimes in an instant. However it begins, its nurturing takes care and commitment. If you take it for granted, it can slowly and imperceptibly trickle like sand through your fingers until one day you realize it’s gone. But if you make an effort to sustain it, you will have a lifelong gift. Hang on tightly.
The day before I left Baltimore, we played music together, this time without the pressure of preparing for our gig (which had been, of course, a triumphant success). I like the language of musicians. It’s unspoken, based on a shared affinity. It’s like a secret code.
After we finished playing, we were talking about something health-related and I told her my story about living liver donations. She, of course, was very attentive.
I thought about the people most important to me. I thought about the history we carry. I thought about how life without Julie R. would kick me hard in the gut.
I looked up at her. “Julie,” I said sincerely, “if you needed it, I would gladly give you a piece of my liver.”
THIS BLOG POST IS DEDICATED TO JULIE’S MOTHER,
NANCY JAYNE CARBACK RIFFLE,
5/12/37 – 10/30/18
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
“[This summer] has been rather boring. Besides getting my one suntan hour every day, I am making a cassette of my favorite songs. Most of the time I am outside. We are in the middle of a Frisbee fad. We play tag with them, war with them, or else we line up along the curbs and throw them at a poor kid who runs the gauntlet down the middle of the street.”
“We went to a surprise party for Judy Czarnecki today. It was supposed to be mixed, but only one of the 15 guys showed up. But it was fun. Mom bought me some good plaid western pants and a gold blouse to wear. We sat around and talked, and even had a séance and levitated and stuff.”
“All we did today was sign yearbooks. I always write really good things in other people’s books. Most of them are funny. But everybody always writes really clutzy stuff in mine, like how smart I am or ‘you’re a nice girl. Stay that way.’ Aauggh! I could just scream!”
5/31/71 [Memorial Day weekend]:
“Saturday we worked all day, and Sunday we went to a late mass, which wrecks the WHOLE DAY. So I thought Monday we could do something I like, maybe get some kids together and go down to play ball at Noble [School] or Piedmont Hills. But I guess I expected too much. We went fishing and (you guessed it) caught nothing. And they force me to go, which makes no sense at all. Why, why, why? I can see it all now – if I forced them to go to rock concerts on their free days. No way, man, no way.”
“We lost in A-league softball today and Andrew Hill [High School] got the championship. We both were undefeated. Now, being objective, I can sure criticize the plate and base umps. They were boys from their school!”
“What a dream I had last night! First I had a wierd [sic] short one about Bruce Tambling trying to teach me how to play the drums on a set that must have cost 25 cents. But then I dreamed that we were going to go fishing up this mountain that looked like granite and had roads like glass. There was water all over the roads. Reports came in that 52 people had died already, because their cars had slipped off the roads and plunged to their deaths. So I begged and pleaded that we wouldn’t go and everyone was all mad at me and I kept saying, ‘But don’t you see? People are DYING!’ When I woke up I was in agony, and my heart was on the verge of exploding. Why do I always have such terrible dreams?”