For the last six months, I’ve lived in a house on the very edge of the Curtis Park neighborhood in Denver. Curtis Park is a historic neighborhood – big trees, old victorian houses – and its southwestern edge touches right up against downtown. My block is the gray area, the in-between zone that’s not quite neighborhood, but not quite downtown either. On my side of the block it goes: house, house, tech company, house, homeless shelter.
A year ago, this house where I now live was just an anonymous house. Maybe I’d walked past it before. Just a little, brick, nondescript house that I’d never given a second look. Maybe I even parked in front of this house, years ago, while I went to a baseball game. Now, it holds and knows so much about me: my books, my people, my phone calls, my late nights, my dog.
The version of this house and this neighborhood in my memory from before I lived here are so different and so foreign. Before I did things here and filled these buildings and these spaces with memory and meaning, this was a different place.
Think about where you live now: your apartment or house or even just your neighborhood. Do you remember the first time you were here? Before it was your home? How distant is that version of your home from what it is now?
Even if the structures haven’t physically changed much since you moved in, we make the places we inhabit what they are by inhabiting them. Even when I leave this house, I’ll never be able to walk past it again the way I once did, before I left my prints all over it. Spaces are important, but especially so when we fill them with our lives. The sense we have of home is often just as much activity as it is edifice; it’s the walls that have heard our conversations and held up our important photos.
Last December, a local public radio station hosted a storytelling event, “There's No Place Like Home: Storytellers On The Residences That Shaped Them.” It offered many takes on a broad conception of the word home. There’s a story of a family vacation gone awry, of hospice care in a Chicago apartment, of a dog making a home, of a house purchased twice by the same woman, and more.
I told a story of being a random match for a girl in need of a bone marrow transplant and how I eventually invited her and her family to visit my childhood home. It’s different from what we often talk about here at Landed – this isn’t a story about the brass tacks of home purchasing, but about the way we make a space into our home, and how that carries through the rest of our lives.
Visit KUNC Radio to listen to my story about meeting my bone marrow recipient and her family, or read the amended transcript below.
It’s 2012. I’m on a trip with my middle school students to California. We’re driving down the 101, and I have a seventh grader sitting in the passenger side next to me. She’s using my phone to navigate. So as I’m driving, through tons of California traffic, with a bunch of 12-year-olds, my phone rings and the seventh grader answers it. I assume it must be the other teacher with the other car full of 12-year-olds, but when she hands me the phone, I say hello, and the person on the other end says that she’s from the National Marrow Donor Registry. I can’t believe that I’m being asked for money while I’m driving with a bunch of middle schoolers, so I tell her, no, I’m sorry I cannot talk right now, and I hang up.
So we get back to Denver, and I find that I also have a letter and an email from the National Marrow Donor Registry. I learn that they were not calling to ask for money, they were calling to ask for bone marrow.
This is because six years earlier, as a freshman in college, a friend and I had eagerly visited every single booth at the activities fair. One of the booths belonged to the National Marrow Donor Registry. They told us, “Just swab your cheek with this Q-tip, give us your contact info, and you’ll be in the registry!” We figured, “Sure, why not?”
Six years later, I find out that my cheek swab might be a match for someone in need of a bone marrow donation. They told me there were some blood tests to do to see if I was the best match, so I did them. They told me they wanted to do a full physical and a chest X-ray, so I did those, too. And then I get a call confirming that I was, in fact, a match. And they ask if I want to go forward with the process, and I think, Sure, why not? I figure, I’m 24, healthy, I have enough time off… and if I ever need a bone marrow donation and am lucky enough to have a match, I hope they’d say yes, too.
So I start the process, and I start getting a lot of mail from the registry. They’re sending me information about how the process works, how many people are in need of bone marrow transplants, and in all their information there are these glossy photos of recipients and donors together – smiling with their arms around each other.
Even before I’d seen the glossy photos, I had started to wonder about who my bone marrow was for. But there’s a lot of confidentiality, so the only things I was allowed to know were age, sex, and illness. My bone marrow was for a 10-year-old girl with severe aplastic anemia, which basically means her bone marrow had stopped doing its job of making healthy blood cells.
So even though I’m not allowed to know anything about her, of course I wonder about her. I wonder about how she is and where she is and what she likes. Is she a dog person? Cat person? Does she like music? Skiing? Video games? It feels like a really long way off, but the registry tells me that, if the transplant is a success and both parties give consent, then a year after the surgery, they’ll exchange our contact info.
The week after Thanksgiving 2012, I had the bone marrow extraction surgery. Under general anesthesia, they used a big hollow needle to make a couple holes in the back of my hip bone to extract approximately 5% of my bone marrow. For a few days following the surgery, I stayed at my parents’ house, like a little kid home sick from school. I laid on the couch watching TV, and I let my parents make me soup and ask me many times if I needed anything.
After the surgery, I started having periodic check-ins with the registry. They asked me for updates on my health and gave me updates on hers. They told me she’d received the bone marrow. That it hadn’t been rejected. That it still hadn’t been rejected. And then, finally, that the transplant had been deemed a success.
Early on I had decided that I would give the registry consent to share my contact info with my recipient’s family. I felt like whether we got in touch or not should really be their call. About a year and a half after the transplant, my mom was visiting me in New York, where I had moved for grad school. She and my boyfriend, Matt, and I were out to dinner, when I checked my phone on a trip to the bathroom. I had a new email with the subject line “Bone Marrow Donor.”
It was from Joe, who was writing to thank me for my donation, which he said had saved his daughter Ashley’s life. He asked that I reach out, and he gave me his phone number.
Back at the table, I immediately showed the email to Matt and my mom. It seemed sort of incredible, to suddenly have an email from this family I had wondered so much about. We were curious to know anything more about them, so we Googled their area code. It belonged to a little southeastern corner of Texas, right up against Louisiana. The only other clue we had was Joe’s email address: RedneckDogGunHunter@an-email-service-provider-that-is-not-gmail.com
Joe and I started a back and forth. He sent me photos – a picture of Ashley’s first ponytail after losing all her hair from the chemo she needed before the transplant, one of him and his wife at his employee Christmas party, a picture of Ashley and her older brother standing in front of The Alamo. He told me how she had missed two years of school but was working hard to get back on track with fifth grade.
The other thing that happened is that Joe and his wife friended me on Facebook, which offered a whole other way of (sort of) getting to know them. There were photos, posts about football and hunting and fishing, memes about motherhood and wine. There were a lot of invitations to play Facebook games. And then there were posts advocating for more prayer in school, against stricter gun control, about the war on Christmas.
Then I got a new email from Joe. He told me that Ashley had decided she wanted to meet me. At first, I suggested they come visit me in New York. They’d get to see the city, visit some museums, eat good bagels. But Joe had no interest in that, and in the end it seemed like it would be nice to introduce them to Denver, Colorado – my home.
In June of 2015, Ashley, her older brother, her parents, and her grandparents drove from Texas up to Colorado to meet me. Their first night in Colorado, we had dinner at a restaurant my mother had carefully chosen the way that you carefully choose something for total strangers – not too fancy, not too casual, lots of options.
It was a little awkward, her family with mine out at dinner, people from very different worlds brought together through a bone marrow match. Joe carried the conversation, and later, my mom told me that Ashley, who had been mostly silent at dinner, kept stealing glances up at me from her burger when I wasn’t looking.
A few hours after dinner, I got a text from Ashley. It said, “Hey Paula, this is Ashley. I just wanted to thank you for giving your bone marrow to me. I am glad to have an older sister now! I meant to tell you earlier, but I got too shy.”
The next day, we have them over for a BBQ in my parents’ backyard. My dad goes out and buys an assortment of Colorado craft beer for the occasion, Matt smokes a brisket all day, and my mom and grandma are making sides and appetizers and lighting citronella candles in the yard.
Ashley and her family arrived with some things of their own. For one, they brought a cooler full of Michelob Ultra. And then they announced that they had brought me a special gift from their home: 10 pounds of Boudin sausage, a specialty they’d driven into Louisiana to get. I wished that the pamphlets provided by the registry has counseled me on this possibility: “What to do if your recipient’s family brings you ten pounds of sausage, but you’re a vegetarian.” I thanked them, let them know I was a vegetarian, and made a joke about how happy my family would be to bear the burden.
We sat on the back patio, eating, and Joe told the whole story of Ashley’s illness – how, for so long, they’d had no idea what was going on, no idea how to help their daughter. He talked about the doctors that stuck with them, determined to try everything, the long trips back and forth from Houston, the diagnosis, the search for a match. And as he was talking, it was impossible not to empathize with him and with what his family had been through.
This trip was not about politics or religion. It was about Ashley. This does not mean there’s not a laundry list of things we disagree about – there is. And empathizing with what they’d been through, especially what Ashley had been through, was not an endorsement of everything her parents had ever posted on Facebook. That just wasn’t what the weekend was about.
At one point, Joe, my dad, Ashley’s grandpa, and Matt were standing and talking in the yard. Ashley’s mom and my mom were talking, and Ashley’s grandma was talking with mine. Ashley’s brother was texting with his new girlfriend.
With everyone else occupied, I asked Ashley (who’d already told me she was a dog person) if she wanted to come inside to meet my parents’ dog, Meg. Of course she did. I warned Ashley that Meg was a very terrified dog, which explained why she had been hiding since Ashley’s family arrived. I told Ashley not to be offended if Meg just cowered and hid in the corner.
But when we got into the family room and we sat quietly on the floor, Meg slowly crept out to sniff Ashley and say hi. We pet Meg for a bit, and then Ashley showed me some pictures from her phone: a picture from her Make-a-Wish trip to Disney World, a picture of their family dogs, and a picture of Ashley laying in a hospital bed with a full IV bag beside her. “This is the first time we met,” she told me.
When we decided to plan the visit for Colorado instead of New York, of course, I thought it would be great to show them my home – the house where I grew up, the mountains that I loved. But it turned out the best thing about showing them my home was showing them the people I loved the most. If Ashley’s family had just come to meet me in New York, they couldn’t have gotten a full picture of who I am. They had to meet my family for that part.
For a long time, I thought my decision to donate bone marrow was made possible by my health and my time off, really. But I have since realized there was no way I could have done it without the support I had at home. Sure, it had been helpful that my parents had cared for me at their house post-surgery, but it was also the things they’d done two years later – that they’d picked the right restaurant for dinner, that they’d hosted a BBQ in their backyard. It was that Matt had spent 10 hours smoking a brisket, that my dad had carefully chosen a bunch of craft beer they didn’t drink. It was that my grandma gushed about her grandkids and listened to Ashley’s grandparents gush about theirs.
With all of that, our families had left room for Ashley and I to go and sit on the floor, and pet a dog together.
Want to learn more about Paula and the rest of our team? Read our bios here.