Word came today that my friend Barbara Seranella died yesterday awaiting her third liver transplant. She was 50 years old. I last saw Barbara in October, when Wendy and I drove her with us to the SCBA awards dinner in Los Angeles and though we lived only a mile from each other here in La Quinta, I didn't get an opportunity to see her again before she went to Ohio to get on yet another list for a liver. The day we drove her to LA was an ebullient one for her -- her cell phone rang somewhere in the middle of the Inland Empire with good news: A doctor in Iowa thought he could get her onto a new plan that would avoid a third transplant and bring her back to good health. The three of us did a little cheer that afternoon and it was clear Barbara didn't care if she won or lost an award that day, she'd been given something better. Some time between then and now, of course, things changed and the last time I heard from Barbara, two weeks ago, she was in Ohio hoping for a transplant again, but still making plans to do an event with me here in the desert in April.
Barbara was a kind and tremendously generous person who graciously gave me advice and guidance whenever I asked for it, which was often, and who treated both Wendy and me with the utmost tenderness. We will both miss her terribly.
The best way to celebrate a writer is with their own words -- these were Barbara's in an essay in the LA Times on December 31st:
I HAVE DEDICATED every shooting star, broken wishbone and blown-out birthday candle to the same thing during the last year: I want my health back.
You see, I have been chosen. Don't get too excited or wish that it could have been you. I'm one of those people in the midst of a "courageous battle," the kind you read about in the obits once the battle is over (read: "lost").
In the summer of 2005, I had two liver transplants. The liver is a huge organ in the right front of your trunk. I didn't always know that. Now I know where my spleen and my inferior vena cava are and what bile ducts do. I know that the liver stores vitamins, minerals, iron and sugar. It also keeps hormones at their correct level, regulates cholesterol and produces blood-clotting agents. All in all, it's pretty important, unlike my gallbladder, which the surgeons lopped off and tossed.
My scar from the first operation is impressive. Picture a Y-incision made during an autopsy, only mine is inverted. There is a straight line over my sternum that splits into an upside-down peace symbol or a Mercedes-Benz emblem, depending on your perspective. The right half of the incision is longer and ends with a Nike swoosh. I also have numerous indented holes, left by tubes. They look like gunshot wounds. Some day, that might be the tale I tell.
The second transplant came only three days after the first. Death was imminent, I'm told. I wasn't really there, so it's all hearsay to me. I saw no bright lights. I didn't hear anyone calling my name. No tunnel to speak of. I didn't know I was in a hospital, much less in East Los Angeles. I thought I was in a ski chalet or Redondo Beach. When asked, I told the doctors that Jimmy Carter was president. They corrected me.
When I awoke, my body was skin on bone, no muscle, no fat. I remember thinking that they would give me the rest back on checkout. My skin was a remarkably deep yellow, like that woman Goldfinger killed by spraying her whole body with gold until her pores clogged and she suffocated.
Yes, I was a Bond girl.
"Do you know how lucky you are?" my mother asked.
If I could have spoken, I would have asked her to run that down for me because I was having trouble seeing it. The next day she held up two boxes of thank-you notes. "I thought we'd get started."
Later I found out about all the prayer chains people started for me that spanned the globe. I was blogged about, with constant updates. I was eulogized without having to actually die.
I won't bore you with all the complications, but the longest stretch I've gone without being in the hospital since then is five weeks, and I've had another surgery on my liver. I know the entire staff of USC University Hospital's sixth floor, and most of the fifth. They know me well enough to get my jokes. We hug when we part.
These days I exist in a state of grace. I don't get angry; there is no one I argue with. Nothing is a big deal. I'm not worried about my career or signs of aging. I feed the birds and watch them eat. In my lack of hustle, mysteries have been solved. I've figured out how to use the fabric softener and bleach dispenser on my washing machine. There are these written pieces called "directions." What a wonder they've turned out to be.
I can go to the store, shop, drive home and put away the stuff. After weeks of walking in the pool and swishing my arms, I can swim again. I'm writing.
I have gone through my house many times, each time finding more stuff to give and throw away. In all my organizing, I've rediscovered what I like to do, what makes me happy. I love tools and fixing things. I have so many projects lined up that it is a bother to stop and eat.
My friends and extended family call and e-mail me. I still get cards. I have a handicapped placard, so I always get good parking spaces. People visit. I am blessed with good friends and family. I also see a side of strangers most people don't, acts of incredible kindness and compassion. A hotel concierge in Marina del Rey recently refused the tip I tried to give him.
"You just get well," he said.
I have been e-mailing a psychologist in Alabama who specializes in people with chronic pain and illness. I told him that I was going through another round of immuno-therapy with interferon. The last time I took the drugs, the side effects were so horrendous that I swore I would die before I went through that again.
"Yet here I am," I wrote him, "sticking that needle in the fleshy regions of my body once a week. It's amazing to what lengths we are willing to go."
He wrote me back. "The fight is not optional. It's designed. You have been chosen." He also spoke of his own chronic pain since the age of 23 and said that he considered it a blessing. "At 61, I am more alive, more aware, more in tune than people half my age. Life is about relationships. Nothing else carries on. Nothing else transcends. YOU are connected to more people than most people can ever hope to be."
So I am the lucky one. Odd as this might sound, I wouldn't change a thing. I earned my suffering and the wisdom attached.
That said, I am ready to carry those lessons forward into the future. Please Mr. Wizard, I want to go home. I am ready to be healthy again. I am having another transplant soon. It will restore my health. I will no longer have yellow eyeballs, or hippopotamus legs. I will have the stamina to stay awake all day and play with my friends and my dog. I will travel and not need a wheelchair. I will be a sightseer in my own town and take walking tours of Los Angeles. I have never seen the Watts Tower or Disney Hall. I will go treasure hunting at the beach and maybe try to learn salsa dancing.
Oh, the places I'll go and the things I'll do. I can't wait. Bring on the new year.