I got sick in June, 1979, on a Friday the 13th.
As a 14-year-old, I knew the day was supposed to be unlucky. But I didn’t really feel cursed. Not when the docs diagnosed me with juvenile diabetes. Not when they said I’d have to give myself two shots a day. Not even when I saw mom cry for the first time, as we sat in the parking lot outside the doctor’s office.
I understood it a few days later, watching a TV documentary about the Galapagos Islands. The narrator explained how Charles Darwin came up with his survival-of-the-fittest theorem on a visit to the islands and its thousands of indigenous residents. Iguanas, parrots, penguins.
But the animal that caught my eye was the great sea turtle, the icon of the islands (which are named after a specific breed of tortoise). With a little luck, the narrator said, a tortoise could live to 50, 60, even 100 years. More.
For some reason, 50 stuck in my head. It just seemed so old. That’s a half century. Grown-ups are that age. Parents are that age. Why, I’d even bet some people in their 50s are…grandparents.
But I must have somehow, finally realized the Friday the 13th curse. I remember asking myself, for the first of many times: “I wonder if I could live as long as a sea turtle.”
It’s not an easy age to reach, the narrator said. Not even for the sea turtle. It had to survive the beach scamper from sandy egg to surf. If they avoided the birds, hatchlings had to survive the sharks and seals who love baby turtle soup. But if it could reach adulthood with its shell intact, the narrator said, a sea turtle can enjoy a long, fruitful life. Like, a half century fruitful.
So I began a countdown to a goal that seemed as unreachable as dunking a basketball. Fifty. Thirty-six years away. Five lifetimes, it seemed. As a boy, dad would say I was so impatient that I’d ask “what’s next?” five minutes after arriving somewhere.
And for so long, 50 did seem unobtainable. I was a shitty diabetic who could not accept that, overnight, I wasn’t allowed Bazooka, Starburst, Hershey bars. So I ate them with my friends, afraid of standing out.
I quickly succumbed. By the time I was 30, I’d had 17 eye surgeries. My kidneys were failing. I went on the transplant wait list for a new kidney and pancreas. Then, 50 didn’t sound so far off. Forty did.
But, at 35, I got the call that Samuel Flegel, a 17-year-old who was brain dead from a motorcycle accident, had come to save me. My perfect genetic match, he joined me in January 2000.
Suddenly, 50 wasn’t such a fantasy. And the years initially flew by as my new body broke into a sprint that took me to Australia, Japan, Mexico. 15, 14, 13, 12, the years peeled.
Five years in, the nausea came. Perhaps to remind me that Father Time and Mother Nature are still here. Not vindictive, but merciless. A divorce, a move, a resettlement accounted for the years, though they seemed to move slower. Nine, eight, seven…
Ten years in, and the engine truly felt sputtered. I watched hatchlings who should have long outlived me die in the beach scamper. Samuel. Libby, the first friend to offer to be tested as a viable donor, died in a motorcycle crash. Michael, who was tested and ready to donate a kidney, died of a brain tumor. Dad’s sudden death in his sleep made me wonder if I were meant to see the marathon tape.
The years were slowing to molasses. Four..three…two…
But something inside me awakened. Perhaps it was Michael. Or dad. Or a confluence of losses that made me realize how many people wanted me to get there. Who offered their bodies to see it so. That there were so many hatchlings, including the one I carry, who would never have a chance to outlive the great sea turtle. But they wanted me to.