Getting to the Marrow of Who We Are

My younger sister Maggie was a renaissance woman—a no-nonsense nurse practitioner in a rural Vermont community, an accomplished artist, a mother and farmer and beekeeper and maple syrup producer. And she also was my stem-cell double, something we discovered when her lymphoma roared back into her blood after a long remission and she needed a bone marrow transplant in order to live. 

We were thrilled and also dumbstruck when it turned out that among the siblings, I was the one whose cell tissue perfectly matched Maggie’s. There are four of us in my family—all girls, each with a role given during childhood. I was the one with her head in the clouds. Maggie was assigned to the ground. She was the dependable, practical girl and I was the cosmic explorer. “Earth to Liz,” was a common refrain. As we grew, we changed. But the brand stayed put. It didn’t seem to matter that I had cofounded one the nation’s most respected adult education centers, or that I’d published several books, or raised three sons—my sisters always seemed surprised that I had acquired basic skills to navigate human existence. Family roles are hard to shake. 

Before having my bone marrow harvested and transplanted into Maggie’s bloodstream, I read up on what Maggie would face after transplant. The gravest dangers were of cell rejection and attack—Maggie’s body might reject my cells, and my cells might attack Maggie. Both reactions could kill her. Rejection and attack: those words had a familiar ring to them. Although we had always loved each other with that fierce sibling kind of devotion, we also had gone through periods of rejection and attack. Close in age, yet far apart in temperament and beliefs and career and lifestyle choices, I wondered if perhaps Maggie and I needed to do something prior to the transplant to teach our cells how to get along once my stem cells took over producing all the blood in Maggie’s body. 

So I suggested that we do a “soul marrow transplant” along with the bone marrow transplant—that we revisit our childhood and follow the threads of rejection and attack throughout our years of sisterhood. That, in the presence of a therapist, we dig into the marrow of our relationship; that we offer each other honesty and explanation and forgiveness; that we uncover an unconditional kind of love that would penetrate deep into our cells and give the transplant its best chance of working. I fully expected Maggie to reject or attack that idea, since she had a skeptical, bemused attitude about anything that smacked of therapy or spirituality. 

But Maggie loved the idea of a soul marrow transplant, especially when I likened the soul to the sap in the center of a maple tree. Maggie was a connoisseur of maple syrup. She revered everything about it—the syrup itself, the process of making it, and the maple tree in all seasons. In summer as the tree spread its green canopy over the yard, in the fall when the leaves turned to fire, in the winter when the dark, twisted limbs scratched against the grey sky, and in the spring when the sap ran beneath the rugged bark. And in the center of the tree’s solid trunk, the sweet liquid—the sap that when boiled down becomes maple syrup. 

And so two years ago my sister and I visited a therapist and tapped the veins of truth within us. We got down to the marrow—past the old hurts, and childhood myths and roles, and the scars left by rejections and attacks. We used the heat of that session to turn the whole story of our sisterhood into something pure, something sweet. And by the time I had my marrow harvested, and then when it was transplanted into my sister’s body, there was nothing left between us but love.

My sister lived for a year after the transplant. She said it was the best year of her life. The act of digging deep to heal our relationship gave Maggie a newfound courage to live from her most unapologetically authentic self. It confirmed for me something I had always suspected: The best way to live is to get down to the marrow of who we are, to refine it in the heat of daily life, and to turn it into a gift for others. I think we can do that even when we’re scared or sick. Even when we are dying. You don’t have to wait for a life-and-death situation to offer your marrow to another person. We can all do it, and we can do it now. There’s a chance that by cleaning up your story with one person the healing will ripple out and make a difference in a world hungry for acceptance, understanding, and love.