Last week my partner Wendy and I traveled out of town, and stayed at a friend’s house. After, Wendy wanted to thank our friend by text, but I was mortified. How impersonal! I said. We should phone. Wendy disagreed. Calls were intrusive. No one talks on the phone anymore. Email? We hemmed and hawed. How could we best express the depths of our gratitude?
A few years ago I crashed my experimental plane, and, among other things, decimated my left ankle. Emergency room surgeons shuffled the shards of my tibia and my fibula into some sort of order, the medical equivalent of sweeping a deck of cards that has fallen onto the floor into a jumbled pile. More surgeries were needed, the doctors said; even then I’d probably walk with a cane for the rest of my life.
My one hope was a cadaver bone.
The surgery was performed. I was told to wait and see if the bone, which was really a boney paste that had been fashioned into a tibia, would take. I was also handed an envelope. Inside was a short template for a thank-you card.
I was too doped-up to understand, but my twin sister, who was taking care of me, explained. The thank-you card would go to the cadaver bone donor’s family, if I chose to write it.
The guidelines were strict — no information that could identify you was allowed. In turn there was a number instead of a donor name. The card would be mailed and scrutinized by a team as strict as British censors during World War II. Only after it passed muster would it be sent on to the family.
Our well-trained WASP heritage reared its coiffed head. Of course you’ll write it, my twin said. Of course! I shouted through my morphine haze. The surgery may have been a miracle of medical technology but it also relied on one of our oldest traditions — a gift from one human, though dead, to another. And gifts mean Thank You cards.
But it’s one thing to thank Granny for the crisp five-dollar bill sent at birthdays, and quite another to write to the grieving loved ones of donor 145366668—-X. Just follow the template, my twin said. You don’t have to write a lot.
But of course I had to write a lot. The cells of the family’s loved one were now entwining with my own. So I agonized. Was I worthy of this bone? I had ignored a technical issue in my plane, and then flown it on a turbulent June afternoon. I was rash and stupid. Would the family approve? Definitely not.
Thank you, thank you, I said a million times in my head. But I couldn’t get it on paper. Too little said wasn’t enough — I would seem stingy and unappreciative. But too much wasn’t allowed. It didn’t help that my brain was dark and foggy with painkillers and regret. I was stuck.
So I abandoned the task, much to my twin’s horror, and my own shame. As the months passed, and my bone and the donor’s bone knitted together like old friends, I pushed the Thank You card, now even more relevant, into the back of my addled mind, until I forgot about it altogether.
Until recently, that is. Wendy and I finally agreed on flowers, sent to our friend’s office; I realized I had to dig up that card. After all, I didn’t have to decide whether it would be an email or a text or a phone call. The donor organization already knew that a handwritten card was in order. All I had to do was give my paltry mortal thanks as best as I could, for the most generous gift ever.
Caroline Paul is the author of “East Wind, Rain” and “Fighting Fire.” Her latest book is “Lost Cat, A True Story of Love, Desperation and GPS Technology,” an illustrated collaboration with Wendy MacNaughton.Tags: Downtime,Tech Culture,Uncategorized