Rubber Ducky Memories
I walked into the guest bathroom this morning and saw my grandson’s rubber ducky sitting on the edge of tub. Memories of a smaller tub and a similar rubber ducky floated into my head.
January 3, 2003—Pedro had eaten his breakfast one painstaking bite at a time. I had braved the San Francisco fog and walked to the local Starbucks for something better than hospital food. Neither one of us ate much, though, because anticipation ran through our veins faster than the IV pump could deliver Pedro’s morning meds.
Transplant day had arrived! For two torturous weeks in November and December, Pedro had given himself Neupogen shots in the stomach each night. In the morning, he would check in to the cancer ward on Eleven Long of the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Parnassus campus. For four hours he would sit in a chair hooked up to an apheresis machine that would collect stem cells from his blood and pass the blood back into his body.
In the late afternoon, the lab would count the number of stem cells collected, and the doctor’s office would call to let us know how whether or not Pedro would need to return the following day. We couldn’t leave San Francisco until they had collected enough stem cells. The process dragged on, day after day. While he sat in the apheresis chair, I would scramble to find another cheap hotel or change our plane tickets one more time.
Most people spend 4-5 days in the apheresis chairs. But after all Pedro had gone through to get to remission, his body took longer to produce stem cells. After a month of rest, we had returned to the hospital right after Christmas for one last round of chemo.
First, We Kill You
The doctors had explained the transplant process in simple terms. “First, we give you enough chemo to kill you,” the intern explained. “Then, right before the drugs kill you off, we infuse you with stem cells. They act like smart bombs and repair everything that’s wrong with you.”
Despite the high doses of chemo, Pedro’s energy remained high. He played his theme song each time a doctor came in to visit, and we watched funny movies to pass the time the day before the transplant. We also had our first visit from a hospital chaplain (awkward, to say the least). But nothing could contain our underlying river of joy.
Finally, the nurse pushed through the doorway with a strange cart that held an open tank of water on top. “Transplant time!” she chirped. A rubber ducky floated serenely in the pool of water as it sloshed with the cart’s movement. “Your stem cells are frozen,” the nurse explained, “and we thaw them out and warm them up a bit in this bath before we pump them into you.”
We bobbled our heads, too excited to say much.
“And now you’ll have TWO birthdays,” the nurse exclaimed. “Don’t forget this one, Pedro,” she cautioned. “Imagine, you can have two cakes per year!”
Within twenty minutes the room smelled like slightly rotten grapefruit. “I see you prepared for the day,” the nurse said with approval when she saw me give Pedro his first stick of gum.
The chemical used to preserve the stem cells (DMSO) left a grapefruit-garlicky taste in his mouth. Because of his facial paralysis, gum chewing (any kind of chewing) didn’t come easily. But it didn’t matter. Soon, the nightmare of cancer would end and Pedro would experience rebirth.
Of course, after the transplant, healing took time. Lots of time. Pedro didn’t pass from circling the drain to riding his mountain bike again within weeks. Each sniffle and ache sent us running back to the doctor to make sure the stem-cell transplant had worked.
We held our breath at each checkup, and for an entire year he received chemo treatments straight to his brain. He had to get immunized all over again, on the same schedule that babies and toddlers experience.
Pedro studied up on super foods and antioxidants in an attempt to resist relapse. Only to discover the scary way that too much chocolate can act as a vaso-restrictor and mimic his original symptoms.
We celebrated each milestone with caution. But deep down, we knew that those stem cells had done their job. Pedro had received healing the day that rubber ducky floated into his hospital room.
The whole process reminded me of another kind of rebirth. The one where we confess our sins and ask Jesus to take control of our lives. The transformation from circling the drain in sin to mature Christian takes time, too.
We make mistakes. We have to go through a relearning process similar to the immunization process. We doubt the efficacy of our salvation. We want to wrest control from our Savior and do things our own way. Others might look at us and question whether or not we are really saved. But deep down, we know we have experienced rebirth.
The rebirthing and regrowth processes take place at a different rate for every
patient sinner. We find the key to happiness when we dare to internalize Psalm 51:10, “Create in me a purse heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”
The Message that’s Better than any Rubber Ducky
We don’t have to act as doctor, nor nurse, nor stem cell. All we do is ask, and God will do the recreating within us. I read The Message translation this morning, and it stuns me with its beauty:
Soak me in your laundry and I’ll come out clean,
scrub me and I’ll have a snow-white life.
Tune me in to foot-tapping songs,
set these once-broken bones to dancing.
Don’t look too close for blemishes,
give me a clean bill of health.
God, make a fresh start in me,
shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life.
Don’t throw me out with the trash,
or fail to breathe holiness in me.
Bring me back from gray exile,
put a fresh wind in my sails!
Give me a job teaching rebels your ways
so the lost can find their way home.
Commute my death sentence, God, my salvation God,
and I’ll sing anthems to your life-giving ways.
Unbutton my lips, dear God;
I’ll let loose with your praise.
Transformation happens when we sign up for the process. The process might prove painful and have many dark nights of the soul. But transformation will take place.