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Be grateful

By Lawrence Henry
web posted February 4, 2002

In 1975, when I was 27, my kidneys failed, and I started dialysis treatment. I entered that experience, I wrote some time later, the way some men enter prison. I thought I deserved it.

It could have been worse. Early in my treatment, which lasted six and a half years, I made friends with one of the attending doctors at my dialysis unit, Leslie Dornfeld. Leslie was Harvard-educated, prickly, brilliant, egotistical, and great fun between temper tantrums. I interviewed him for a book after getting a kidney transplant in 1981, and after I was healthy again.

"You're lucky your kidneys failed in 1975," Leslie told me. "Just a few years earlier, we were rationing dialysis. We would have taken one look at you - single, unemployed, drug abuser - and we would have said, 'Too bad.' Treatment was reserved for men and women who had children and jobs. And that would have been that."

On dialysis, my failing health rallied - up to a point. You're never really well on dialysis, and you progressively get worse. A dialysis unit takes casualties like an infantry platoon. Somehow you condition yourself to overlook what's happening all around you, as people die or get crippled by the exigencies and accidents of treatment.

At age 27, I still somehow fancied myself bulletproof. Now, one incident looms up in memory, more significant than any other, for how lucky I was. I had bought a motorcycle and learned to ride it - just barely. I was cruising along the Pacific Coast Highway, completely absorbed in myself, when I approached the stoplight at the bottom of the Santa Monica Ramp. It was green. Somehow I knew it was about to change.

I thought only of how I could demonstrate my motorcycle's braking power. Sure enough, the light turned yellow, a scant 100 yards in front of me. I braked energetically and came to a stop. I didn't look behind me.

A semi trailer truck roared around me on the right, swerving into the next lane. That poor truck driver. I'm sure I scared him half dead. If the right lane hadn't been empty, if he hadn't had the reflexes to swerve, I would have been obliterated in an instant.

It's more than 25 years later now. On a recent morning, I woke up next to my wife, in the early morning winter dark, in the afterglow of a wonderful dream. In the dream, Sally and I had been talking with a famous man, to whom I had been introduced and referred for a possible job - a wonderful job.

The interview had gone beautifully. "Well," the man said, getting to his feet and extending his hand. "You're everything everybody promised you would be. Come back in a month."

He walked us to the door of his office.

"My secretary has to keep her guard up," he said. "If she balks at putting you through when you call, just remind her with this phrase: 'Be grateful.' I'll remember who you are."

I woke up with the phrase "Be grateful" ringing in my inner ear.

Together, Sally and I got our two sons up and dressed and fed. Sally drove off to work, and I drove the boys to school. Behind the bare branches of the season, the big, graceful houses of our town beamed light from kitchen windows as families fed their kids. Parents warmed up cars in the driveway, plumes of exhaust smoke rising in the chill air. Middle school children, bundled up, walked the sidewalks with their backpacks and their musical instrument cases.

A long time ago, I heard someone say, wonderingly, as she contemplated her transformed life and looked back on the brink of hell where she had once lived, "You can't get here from there." But she did, and I did, too. I had very little to do with it. It was grace, pure grace. And it still is.

Lawrence Henry is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.

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