I wrote the column below 11 years ago, for a personal essay assignment in a magazine writing class. It was both one of the easiest and most difficult pieces I’ve ever written. I cried when I wrote it, I cried when I read it in class, and I’m crying now. (What can I say, I’m a Hooley.)
It’s hard to believe that we lost Bobbie 10 years ago. I’ll be thinking of her today when I drink my Budweiser — not Bud Light — at the baseball game. This Bud’s for you, Aunt Bobbie.
And cancer still sucks.
(By the way, remember that this was written in 2000, so the numbers are a bit off.)
One hundred people comprise my mother’s family: 15 brothers and sisters, 37 grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren, husbands, wives, and long-time loves.
Last October, my grandmother and her daughters, including my mother, assembled on Cape Cod for a rare weekend together. My Aunt Ellen, often the organizer, made baseball jerseys, complete with numbers, for the clan. The women wore them everywhere that weekend, including to church. To outsiders, the shirts might have appeared to be inconsequential team jerseys.
But in a family that stems from nine sisters and six brothers, everyone’s a number. That weekend, my mom’s shirt bore the number 10 — she’s daughter number 7 and child number 10.
Four months before the “Hooley Girls Weekend,” doctors diagnosed my Aunt Bobbie, otherwise known as number 1, with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. By the Columbus Day trip, she was between her fifth and sixth rounds of chemotherapy. Before Christmas and the birth of Bobbie’s seventh grandchild, doctors declared their drugs a success: My aunt went into remission.
But just two months later, the cancer returned. This time, a bone marrow transplant was deemed the best treatment option. Our family began testing the theory of strength in numbers. One by one, my aunts and uncles each donated five vials of blood to be screened as possible matches to Bobbie’s bone marrow. (Non-identical siblings have about a 25 percent chance of matching.)
Three weeks later, the doctors announced the results. Out of the 14 brothers and sisters tested, my mother provided the lone perfect match. With the call from the transplant team, my mother became one of the 5,000 people who donate bone marrow to a relative each year.
The transplant was a simple procedure. My mother spent about an hour in the operating room and returned with six small holes in her lower back through which the surgeons collected a pint of marrow. My aunt received the transplant through a catheter in her chest. Later that afternoon, my mother watched Oprah, and in her germ-free room, my aunt ate dinner with her daughter.
My grandmother, along with several of my aunts and cousins, spent the day at the hospital, shuttling between Bobbie’s room on the 14th floor and my mother’s on the 22nd. They listened to my mother describe how my Uncle Owen, still the baby, said he’s transferring his title of “favorite child” to her. My Aunt Bobbie suggested that my mother remove the zero from the back of her baseball jersey, thereby transforming her number 10 into a number 1.
Laughter filled the room after both stories, but beneath the giggles lay the truth. Numbers identify our family, but the experiences, the memories, and the bonds we share define us. Thirteen years and eight siblings separate my mother and my aunt; my mother is closer in age to Bobbie’s daughters than to Bobbie herself. Somehow, despite the numbers, the blood that sustains them is identical.