THE BLOG
04/24/2013 08:30 am ET | Updated Jun 24, 2013

A Conversation With My Bone Marrow on Her 10th Birthday

Ben Rubenstein

"I suck at being an adult," I said to my bone marrow while we ate our breakfast today: oatmeal prepared on the stove top with ground cinnamon and sliced banana.

"Don't be so hard on yourself," my bone marrow replied. "You're a good host, except when you refuse to buy me push-up bras to impress the boy bone marrows."

Ten years ago today, on April 24, 2003, I received my umbilical cord stem cell transplant to treat myelodysplasia, my second cancer. My bone marrow donor was an anonymous girl, so my blood has two of the same sex chromosome, XX, instead of XY.

I have reared my bone marrow as my child, and my only complaint is that she's a brat. She is also a prodigy, teaching herself advanced calculus when she was four. Usually we bicker, but sometimes we have real conversations. It's complicated.

Her birthday today led to self-reflection. "I try so hard to do what adults are supposed to," I said to her. "Succeed at my job and hobbies, contribute to my 401(k), look out for my friends and family, reach out to people who seek my strength and guidance, and stay healthy. But when I scroll Facebook and all I see are pictures of weddings and dogs and babies..."

"Don't talk about Facebook," Bone Marrow interrupted. "Mark Zuckerberg didn't even respond to my letters asking to allow bone marrow profiles. I'm so pissed about that."

"Sorry, I didn't mean to stir things up. It just seems that is really what adulthood is about, and I know nothing of it. And here I am feeling all mature for buying my first car last week. I'm getting so far behind it is scary."

"You'd be better at being an adult if you just bought me that bra...Dad, you're getting pretty deep on my birthday. I'll keep listening so long as you don't pour yourself a triple vodka straight up like last month after your nightmare with the John Travolta zombie. You know how that vodka messed me up."

"Not as much as zombie Travolta affected me." I continued. "Cancer brought out my hyper-driven compulsion. I wanted to be the most resilient and strongest patient. I wanted to be superhuman. After cancer, I wanted to be the healthiest and strongest survivor. And do you know why? It's so I would never have to worry about cancer recurrence, because no matter what happens I'd know that I did everything I could, and I could live without regrets."

"Unlike Zuckerberg's regret," Bone Marrow said under her breath.

"But everyone resented me because of my health!"

"Like my push-up bra resentment," Bone Marrow mumbled again.

"Ethan, my friend of 25 years, admitted that he only recently understood why I'm a health freak, and that it used to irritate him. Imagine what my dates or new friends think? Mel and I went out three times and had a blast, laughing for hours. And then I ordered a salad and discussed my health perspective after she asked, and I ruined it all. She hated that about me. You remember her, don't you? Yeah you do--your jealousy was unmistakable."

"Don't get incestuous on me, Daddy -- that wasn't jealousy, it was animosity because she only ate half of her burger. Ugh, so wasteful."

"You don't get it, Bone Marrow. She ate half because I made her self-conscious, and she couldn't look at me the same after that. I always thought I had to hide my diseases and limp, because nobody would accept me because of them. It turns out that's often not true, and that's a beautiful thing. But I am now going to hide my health and other quirky pieces of myself. I have to start marketing myself better."

"You mean like 'New Benjamin'? How'd that work out for 'New Coke'?"

"That was in 1985 and I don't even remember that, Bone Marrow! Your mind is amazing. I would love to meet your creators someday... I guess they're sort of my creators now, too?"

Bone Marrow finished her oatmeal and licked the bowl clean, leaving no waste. Sometimes I wonder if she adapted aspects of me, like efficiency, but I'll save the nature vs. nurture conversation for another breakfast. She cleared her neutrophils to speak. "Let me get this straight: are you saying you want to become less healthy?"

"No. Listen to my latest physical: total cholesterol, bad cholesterol and triglycerides are below the normal range; good cholesterol, pulmonary function and my heart's blood-pumping ability are above the normal range. I'm not supposed to be this healthy on paper, but I am, and I'm never going to change my healthy lifestyle."

"Vodka is healthy?" Bone Marrow said out loud this time, though I ignored her.

"What I'm saying is my healthy lifestyle turns people away. Remember Talie, before Mel? I could feel our connection and how well we fit, but I suspect Talie couldn't see herself in a life with me. I am like a fading novelty."

"So you just want to hide, not change?" Bone Marrow asked.

"Precisely. I'm used to concealing cancer things that are much less concealable, so it shouldn't be tough. Hiding goes against my principles, but sometimes principles can be bent."

"I'm glad we had this conversation on my birthday," Bone Marrow said. "Now, listen to me and my decade of wisdom. Imagine you're on a retractable bed with white sheets, in a room with white walls and floors. Across from you is a whiteboard tracking your number of vomits. Next to you are ice chips -- basically the only thing you'll eat for the next month -- and containers to track your urine.

"Your nurse brings me to you in a small bag for your transplant. Hopefully my cells become your own and multiply. Maybe in two months you can leave this room; in a year you can be around other people; in five years your baby immune system -- or rather, I -- will no longer cause you to get constant colds; in eight years your allergies will calm and your disgusting eczema will disappear.

"My point is that you have grown up so much relative to the time it took to recover from me. Maybe it's ok for you to suck at being an adult despite you trying so hard. Maybe buying your car is the first big leap. Maybe 'normal' adulthood is lame and not for you, anyway--normal people don't talk to their bone marrows. Maybe it'll all come together once you buy your bone marrow a push-up bra."

I looked at Bone Marrow with twinkling eyes. She's so bratty and smart and compassionate. I grabbed the heavy, glossy white-wrapped box with the silky red bow from under the table and handed it to her. "Happy birthday, Sweetie."

Bone Marrow delicately unwrapped the package without tearing a single edge. On first sight of the gift her red blood cells twinkled.

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