Sandra Cohen
Sandra Cohen
Intelligent, funny, a bit weird
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On not donating bone marrow

Of course I want my life to have meaning. I want to do things that matter. But I'm afraid I have nothing more to contribute to the world, not even my marrow
The Cohen women: alas, none of us could donate. (courtesy)

About two weeks ago, I received a phone call from “Be the Match.” This organization is part of what used to be known as the National Bone Marrow Registry.  I was so excited! I was a preliminary match for an older woman in the NY area. They sent me the first round of forms to fill out (and it was very long!!), and I did so almost immediately.  In the midst of a dip in mood, this match, this idea that I could help someone live, seemed to loom large as a way of making meaning for myself. I may not be writing; I may not be speaking… but this… this I could do. I wanted to do.

The fact that they found me was impressive — and lucky. I no longer work at the work phone number on their registration. And I no longer have the home phone at all. I registered 24 years ago, in September of 1997. This was not long after I had my daughter; that new baby is now 24 years old and mostly launched. So much has changed since the time, so long ago, when I had my cheek swabbed and the results put on a list somewhere, in an old computer whose operating system is likely no longer working.

But I live in the same house as I did in 1997, and my cell phone was the same. So, they needed little assistance in finding me. I told the lovely woman on the other end of the phone that I would be delighted to donate, that it would be a mitzvah (a commandment, a good deed, Gd’s will, what have you). She laughed and told me that my name (Cohen) had sounded Jewish. “Yes,” I told her. “I am not only Jewish; I’m a rabbi.”

Later in the week, I discovered my sister, who lives in Pittsburgh, was also a preliminary match. She, too, eagerly filled out the forms and waited.

Alas. She and I were both not candidates to donate marrow — she, because she has angina; me, because almost 20 years ago, I had a stroke. There was no going around the rules; there was no way for me to protest: “I’m fine now!! We fixed the hole in my heart years ago.” The answer was no.

Between the time of the first phone call, asking me to donate, and the second, saying I could not, I spoke with two people about the call. Each asked me if this was something I really wanted to do. And their questions crushed me. “Of course, I want to do this,” I replied (or something like that). And inside my addled brain I wondered, “ Do they think I wouldn’t do this? To save a life? Some minor – or even major — inconveniences are nothing compared to how much my marrow could help!

Given my mood (and how long I have had this mood!), this opportunity felt like a me’chayah, a way of infusing life into my soul. Like most people, I want my life to have meaning; I want to do things that matter, that help others. I see my friends dedicating massive amounts of time to create a better world, through political action, through organizations devoted to all sorts of causes (caring for the ill, building Jewish communities, working on climate change, making life better for those with few resources… I could go on and on), and by simply changing the life of individuals (teachers, volunteers, people who work with youth, the disabled, the hungry). And what, I say to myself, have I been doing?

Viktor Frankel speaks of making meaning where one is. There is always something to be for which to be grateful, and there are always opportunities to act in meaningful ways, to help others, to, as the Gemara in B’rachot teaches, to bless over the bad as one does over the good. The sugiya continues: Why does the Shema say to love Gd with all one’s might/ me’odecha/ מאודך? Because one should love Gd בכל מדה ומדה — with every middah/measure that Gd metes out to us.

But this is so hard to do. I count my friends and family: they all love me and treat me with care and kindness. Why do I still feel lonely, unseen? I have all the blessings in life that anyone could need: sufficient money, good healthcare, a home and food, books galore. And yet…

I want to feel grateful; I do. But all I can think is, “Look at all these blessings in my life — what kind of horrible person doesn’t feel gratitude, doesn’t feel like this is enough?” It should be enough. But it is not. The problem is internal, not external. It’s not my life; it’s me.

I have not written anything (aside from this) for a few months now. I find I am missing my “voice,” my sense that I have something to say, that others might like to read. I’ve said it all. I am afraid I have nothing more to contribute to the world.

But I am trying. I reach out to friends, and they/you are there for me. Amazing. My husband takes exquisite care of me; my daughter, whom I adore, begins every phone call with “Is now a good time, Mama?” She does not yet understand that, aside from when I am actively teaching a class or in a doctor’s office, “now,” whenever she calls, is a good time. She is my delight.

And so, I wrote this. It took four days and excruciating effort to type word after word, to find a sentence, to a make a point (and I’m unsure that I have a point!!). For those of you out there suffering, silently or wailing loudly, I see you. I hear you. I get your pain, just as you may understand mine. But we are not useless. Our lives have meaning. Telling our stories may help others feel less alone; speaking about mental illness may change stigma and viewpoints and the world.

Or not. But if I can help one person, with my bone marrow or with the marrow of my hurting self, that would be enough.

About the Author
Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado.
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