Written at 1:00 a.m. several months ago.
I am sitting in the dark at Peter’s dining room table next to the shadow of a wine bottle I drained at dinner (it was four nights in the draining, for the record) and next to the wildflowers Peter picked for me after rock climbing today. I want to be asleep, but I’m not. I can’t figure out how.
My dad goes in for a liver screening tomorrow. Or whatever it’s called. Something about making sure he’s eligible for a liver transplant, which we’re supposed to assume he is, and probably some other things about knowing what his best source is for liver-getting, and what considerations there are for him, for a donor, etc, etc, etc.
I don’t know. I’m having a hard time holding on to essential information.
My brain—like Los Angeles—has been cloudy since December. I had some unexpected personal challenges. Then my dad had to undergo what the doctors referred to as a “high-risk surgery,” which led to the out-of-nowhere, what-the-hell-is-happening necessity of my oldest brother flying down to Texas at the last minute to go over business affairs with my father.
The surgery was a success. My dad got better. I recovered from my personal challenges. The clouds parted over L.A. They moved in again. My dad went back into the hospital. He came out and was weak. Then he was stronger. The sun streaked through. He was still doing relatively well but needed a transplant. Which the doctors think is totally doable.
And my mind, like L.A., wavers between warmth and wind, gentle sun and wispy-but-steel-colored clouds.
This is the routine.
In one moment, I learn my dad has only two years without a transplant. I tell Peter this. He asks me how I’m feeling, and I can’t believe how okay I am.
Two weeks after, Peter asks me what Phil’s and my writing schedule is this week, and I cry because my dad needs a liver transplant.
I’ve barely touched this blog because I’ve been swamped, and also because my mind can’t do it. I can’t hold a single thought for very long. I can’t focus on a theme. I can’t make sense of anything.
I can’t do what I usually do where I lay every part of my heart out on the table to examine, analyze, label, define, and share. I keep my heart right in my chest, because I don’t trust that it’s stable enough to survive dissection.
I have never doubted my own heart like that. Peter says gently, “Well, your dad has never been this sick before.”
I don’t know how to write about my dad. No idea. I’ve tried and I can’t do it.
A couple days later.
My mom says it sounds like the doctors won’t want to use a living donor.
That’s a thing that happens—live donation, I mean—because the body is a breathing miracle. They take half the liver out of a living person, then both donor and recipient lie around for a few weeks while their half livers regenerate.
I’m a blood match. I could theoretically do it. But my mom says the doctors expressed concern that he’s too old. If that’s the case, he has to wait for a cadaver liver. And that’s going to be a while.
Suddenly I’m angry and exhausted and feel robbed of the one thing I could at least pretend to control.
After another day.
I drop Other Abi off at the airport and drive back toward her house with her dog in the backseat. My phone rings. Mama Wurdeman. I never let my parents’ calls go to voicemail—not right now—but I know she won’t talk to me while I’m driving. So I let it go. At a stoplight, I play the message on speaker.
He’s eligible for a living donor after all. She’s going to bed, but if I’m interested, she has more information for me and I can call her any time tomorrow. I drive through the intersection, the green glow of the traffic light sliding up the windshield. I repeat the news about my dad to Other Abi’s dog, even though he just heard it.
Two hours later, I’m sitting on the stoop of the fireplace Other Abi doesn’t use, staring at the red, chipped polish on my toes as I explain to Peter over the phone that my entire world feels delicate right now.
“In all my life, my father has never been fragile,” I say. “I knew he was mortal. But this is a whole other thing. If he’s fragile, it must mean everything is fragile. That’s how it feels. Like anything that matters to me could easily fall apart at any moment.”
I tell him about my mom’s voicemail. Tell him my liver is back in play.
“That’s big,” he says. And I’m glad he said it, because it feels big.
Then the next day.
My mom tells me everything she learned about living liver donations in a gently unbiased tone. She’s being careful. I can tell she’s being careful. She’s giving me space. “It’s a big decision,” she says. “And it’s entirely up to you. No one holds you responsible for Dad’s health. You should only do this if you really think it’s the right choice.” Before we hang up she gently suggests I limit the amount of time I spend spiraling through my own thoughts.
“This is such a big decision, it could be really easy to over-think it. This isn’t a decision for inside your head. This is a write-it-out decision. Maybe ask Phil or Peter to talk it over with you.”
I know I’m going to do it. But I know I have to do it right . . . do all the steps first. Make the calls, ask the questions, draw up the most lopsided pros and cons list of my life. (Pro: My dad suffers less and lives longer. Con: I experience pain, fear, and inconvenience.)
Plus I need to digest, and there’s time, because I can’t commit until Dad is officially listed, anyway.
Plus I need to find some clarity. I still haven’t had a clear head since November.
Two days later.
Peter picks me up at 7:30 a.m. for a trail cleanup project at Echo Cliffs. We’re doing repairs for wildfire damage. It’s an area where he loves to climb, an event run by Access Fund and sponsored by his climbing gym.
The morning is thick and foggy. The rock and trees are charred, but after a uniquely wet winter, the wildflowers are relentless and the grass is uncommonly green. We hike to the climbing area, and in the fog, the world looks like it stops a few yards ahead of us. There is no mountain range; only the single hill we stand on. No city views. No ocean. The ruddy path we walk stretches ahead for fifteen feet then evaporates into nothing.
The group stops at the top of a steep creek bed. One of the leaders explains that the long scramble we’re about to do is only suited for climbers, not the lay hiker. He explains this with the assumption that we’re all climbers. Peter walks on ahead and I hesitate.
“That was a whole speech about how I don’t belong here,” I say.
“What, you’re not a climber?” he says. And I follow him down the creek, scrambling over rocks and boulders, occasionally crab walking where he steps gingerly, fully upright.
At the bottom, it’s beautiful. So beautiful I resent having to describe it now, because it isn’t going to work. Giant, red-brown boulders and witchy tree limbs and the trickle of the creek tracing a rugged line between the hills. The shadows of ash and the emerald-purple-orange of stubborn, dogged life.
We learn to build steps with rock and pebbles and dirt and a tool called a McLoed. We leave early to walk Other Abi’s dog, and at the foot of the creek bed, I stop. The ascent looks steep and rugged.
“This isn’t the way I came down,” I say. Peter tells me it is, nodding to the single chain at the foot of the creek bed that—in theory—prevents climbers (not lay hikers, mind you) from tumbling down into the valley. I remember the chain. I don’t remember this long slab of rock leading up the hillside. I don’t remember it being so steep.
But I’m down here now, and I have exactly one choice.
I try not to glance beyond the chain at the rocky valley. I try not to look directly up to measure the steep slope of the climb. But I’m aware of both. Everything around me makes my skin prickle, makes panic rise in my gut like a dust devil gathering momentum. And my quads have been trembling for twenty minutes, my knees bent in on themselves a couple times, and I’m at the foot of this thing in street sneakers. I have to get out of here and I don’t even trust my own body.
But I’m still down here. I still have nowhere to go but up.
So I climb. I ask Peter to say encouraging things.
“You look fine,” he says.
I laugh. “Oh my god.”
“You’re doing great, I mean,” he says. “You got this. You’re strong. You just built steps out of rocks.”
“You’re right,” I say. “I did do that.” I keep scanning the rock face for “hands and feet,” which is what Peter always says to do. “Look for hands and feet.” I’m sure I’ve given him attitude about this advice, because I understand how upward mobility works; I just rarely love the footholds available to me. But in this moment, I get what that advice is meant to do. It’s about knowing that you’re making a deliberate choice, not just grabbing blindly at anything. It’s about giving yourself something to trust. Finding something—anything—to grasp offers more reassurance than you’ll ever feel clinging frozen to the side of a mountain.
So I keep looking for these god-forsaken hands and feet. I find them. I am still afraid (“shit shit shit shit it’s fine I’m fine”), but less afraid than I was, because I’m moving.
When we reach the top, I do feel strong. I feel like my legs are going to crumble beneath me, but I feel strong at my core. Not my physical core. My . . . spiritual core, I guess.
Most of the fog is gone. We can see other hills now, but still not the city, still not the ocean. It’s a tall order to want to see everything at once, anyhow.
That night I stand in Other Abi’s kitchen with Peter, slicing tomatoes as he grills asparagus. I ask if I can list my fears about the liver transplant.
“Yes,” he says. “Tell me your fears.”
“I’m afraid of all the medical stuff. I’ve never been through anything like that before, and I know that’s a privilege, and it’s a privilege to choose major surgery, but it’s still unknown and I’m still afraid. I’m afraid of anesthesia. I’m afraid of waking up in the middle of surgery. I’m afraid of waking up afterwards and being alone and not remembering where I am. I’m afraid of pain. And of being lonely while I spend six weeks recovering in Dallas where my only friends are my parents. I’m afraid I’ll do this thing that should be meaningful and loving, but then I’ll just be sour and unpleasant because I’m homesick and everything hurts. I’m afraid of losing momentum on all the things I worked so hard to build this year.”
“That all makes sense.”
I cut into an avocado. Hold one half in the cup of my hand and slice grid lines into its flesh.
“But none of those fears is worse than the fear of doing nothing.”
Two days later.
I sit at my desk filling out a living liver donor questionnaire. Later I’ll tell Peter that my forms are in . . . that—as long as I pass my own transplant evaluation—I’m definitely in it now.
“You got this,” he’ll say.
And I’ll tell him it’s easier now. That I’ll probably be scared again, but it’s less scary now that the decision has been made, now that I have things to do and a mission to accomplish. Now that I’m scanning for hands and feet. Finding something to grasp. Pushing upwards.
The climb is scary, but nowhere near as scary as standing at the bottom, curating a collection of fears.
I flip through the donor form. Page 1. Page 2. Page 3.
On Page 5, they ask why I wish to become a living liver donor.
My pen hovers over paper. They only offer two lines for this response. But then, I realize, that’s less than I need. I still don’t know how to write about my dad. But I’m not sure anyone needs a thorough explanation from me anyway.
Completely out of character, I answer an emotionally loaded question in one easily diagrammable sentence.
The recipient is my father.