A short story about life from the perspective of a transplant patient. Written by Cadence Grace for CBC short story competition in 2020.
The last few days of my first life weren’t really so bad. I called it the honeymoon. My heart was still filled with hope and determination as I wandered the quiet halls in circles before retiring to my small room to laugh loudly at stand-up comedy specials.
Those good days gave me a dangerously false sense of security, allowing the belief that I would be lucky enough to walk through the war-zone ahead of me unscathed. As the poison pulsing through me began to accumulate, I knew there was no turning back. I imagined weaving myself a bullet proof vest of love that covered every inch of my body; warm, protective and impenetrable. The honeymoon would be over soon.
I could hear the yelling, but I couldn’t open my eyes. She said my name over and over, rapidly tapping on my legs and then more urgently on my face.
“Wake up, Wake up!”
From the darkness that drowned me, I wondered if this was the end. It was definitely the end of the honeymoon. I felt my limp body being lifted, as one voice became two, then three and suddenly I awoke into a cacophony of loud alarms and panicked faces. Cold sweat poured off of my body and I began to shiver as my eyes blinked away the blackness.
“We thought we had lost you there for a minute,” said one of the faces, looking relieved. “You really scared us.”
I was scared too; actually, I was terrified. She pulled a warm blanket up to my chin and handed me a kidney basin before joining the others in rapid, hushed conversation. I tried desperately to stay awake as faces floated around me, fingers poking and prodding my body under the dim light of the machines. Dawn was almost here and soon I would be surrounded by family who would help me count down the final hours of my life. I let my heavy eyes close, drifting off into dreams of all that I had planned for when my second life began.
There is a system for a second life- an order of sorts. The first day is called ‘Day Zero,’ and each day you survive counts up with a plus. The beginning of mine was mostly a blur, filled with the indescribable fatigue of a fresh start. I could manage to open my eyes for only seconds at a time, while my still hollow body clung fiercely to the bed like it would never rise again. I felt like a helpless baby growing in the womb, only my womb was an air-sealed room and I was permanently attached to a pole covered in bags and buttons that hummed like a high-tech umbilical cord.
Somewhere between Day +2 and +10, amongst an endless sea of nausea, needles and pills, the old me faded away forever and in its place like a slowly rising tide, I was reborn by the blood of a stranger.
A few months before ‘Day Zero’, I struck a deal with a saviour for my second life. His long, white coat billowed angelically while his quiet but stern voice outlined the main points of our contract. I could walk away and face certain death, or I could sign on the dotted line for a fifty percent chance to live again. Envisioning a coin flipping endlessly through my mind, I struggled to pay attention to the fine print as I skimmed through the mountain of warning-filled pages. Heads or tails?
The decision felt easy given the options before me. Like a wide-eyed performer being offered their first major role, I scrawled my name quickly on the final page, clinging to the rare opportunity in front of me with all my might. I would be one of the lucky ones.
I had barely begun to settle into my second life, when shortly after Day +60, the devil came to collect.
At first he knocked gently and I would quietly pull the covers over my head pretending I wasn’t home. As the days passed the knocks grew louder, and he began to slip small reminders under my door of the debts he was now calling due.
I had already made a handful of payments that seemed substantial to me, but had not satisfied him in the least. I summoned my strength when he took all of my hair. I bit my tongue hard as his burns danced across my body; singed skin peeling away from me like it was as disgusted with my damaged body as I.
Each time he came to collect he wanted more and I wondered how had I so easily agreed to these terms. I was happy to be one of the lucky few that got a second life; but it began to feel like I was drowning in a deep sea of unimaginable debt, gripping on to gratitude with the desperate hope it would rescue me.
Second lives come with a second set of genes and when mine began to attack my body I tried my hardest to stay calm while a war raged between the chasm of old life and new. The slow tide had turned into an unforgiving cascade of waves and like a friend turned foe, the very blood that had bore me new life now threatened to destroy it in a cruel myriad of ways. I had been warned about this, in the fine print.
Sores and blisters webbed my savagely dry mouth and my stomach angrily rejected all food. I returned to the safety of the ‘womb room’ for several weeks to try and manage the destruction. I watched painfully as so many others got the wrong side of the coin. Conflicted with guilt for so greedily complaining in the midst of their loss, I tried to remind myself that my situation was temporary. The war would end. I would still be one of the lucky ones.
My saviour said the only thing that would rescue me was time, but I struggled to be patient. Each week I would pay him a visit; sometimes many. Inside ever-changing white rooms he monitored the progress of my second life, while doing his best to comfort me as I confronted the mounting costs of the contract. He assured me I had made the right decision and told me he was proud I ended up on the right side of the coin. I tried to be proud too.
The weeks stretched on and the war within me continued; my body refusing to accept it had entered a second life. As though under the direction of an experienced general, the army of new DNA inside my bones grew stronger and more unpredictable by the day. Leaving a trail of endless damage in their wake, they would appear in one place only to move suddenly to another. I felt trapped in the trenches, certain I would eventually become a casualty but hoping time would rescue me.
It is day +315 of my second life. I have almost survived a full year of darkness, debt and war. Most of my battle scars are unmistakable and I often hide to avoid the gaping stares of both friends and strangers. I should be proud, but instead feel a confusing sense of shame.
In my first life I was a musician; a doting wife planning a future family. Attractive, fit, outgoing and intelligent I carried an endless amount of confidence and optimism. In the midst of fulfilling my greatest creative dreams, my heart felt full and my path and potential seemed clear.
In my second life, I am a jobless, hairless, barren body with a broken brain, carrying nearly eighty new pounds of flesh. Each day I push through perpetual uncertainty, filled with the fear a land mine will end up beneath my sore and swollen feet. I am hopelessly lost. So disconnected is my sense of self, I am certain each mirror I pass is actually a window, showing me the distorted view of a round faced stranger, watching my every move.
I continue to make interest payments on my contract, while the devil waits patiently in the wings for me to default. I fantasize about a future that even slightly resembles the one my first life held.
I pray for the sadness, anger and grief to fade into acceptance; for my body to accept the selfless gift of a stranger. On the worst days, when the debt seems insurmountable and the war feels never ending, I allow myself to wonder if I should have walked away. Has the outcome has been worth the cost?
In the silent beauty of the early morning sun and the comfort of my husbands arms; In between the peacefulness of rain and magic of music, the answer always quietly awaits me. Each moment, mile and breath; holds a value that cannot be measured. Built with blood and bone, courage and hope; I am forever grateful for my second life. So I will keep moving forward one day at a time, counting up with plusses. I am one of the lucky ones.