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. She also was my stem-cell double, something we discovered two years ago when her lymphoma roared back into her blood after a long remission and she needed a bone marrow transplant in order to live.
In many ways, Maggie and I were very different: I am a head-in the-clouds writer; Maggie had her feet on the ground. Yet among the four girls in our family, I was the one whose cell tissue matched hers.
Before having my bone marrow harvested and transplanted into Maggie’s bloodstream, I read up on what Maggie might 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 our own rejection and attack. Close in age, yet far apart in temperament, beliefs and career and lifestyle choices, I wondered if perhaps Maggie and I needed to do something to bring us closer together.
I suggested that we do what I called a “soul marrow transplant”—that we revisit our childhood and follow the threads throughout our years of sisterhood, and that we dig into the marrow of our relationship to offer each other honesty and explanation and forgiveness. In doing so, I hoped we would 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 the idea, since she had a skeptical, bemused attitude about anything that smacked of therapy or spirituality. But she loved it, 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 was the sweet liquid—the sap that when boiled down becomes maple syrup.
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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 the scars left by our 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 actual 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. She said the act of digging deep to heal our relationship gave her a newfound courage to live from her most unapologetically authentic self. It confirmed for me what I have always suspected is the best way to live—to get down to the soul 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. And you don’t have to wait for a life-and-death situation to offer the marrow of yourself to another person. We can all do it, we can do it now, and 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 love.
Elizabeth Lesser is the co-founder of the Omega Institute and author of Marrow.