The Days of the Years

Shared at Beth Jacob Congregation | Mendota Heights, MN
7 JAN 2016 / 9 TEVET 5777

I received my first blood transfusion, of A- blood, on December 16, 2010 the night before I was diagnosed with Acute Myelogenous Leukemia -  2,214 days ago as of this Shabbat. January 7, 2017. 

Or we could say:  315½ weeks ago.

Or: 72¾  months.

Or: 6.06 years.

In truth, it’s the years I keep track of now. To work out the exact number of days took some calculation. There was a time, though, during which I counted each day. Day by day. Every day. So far, there hasn’t been a single day since in which I have forgotten that. 

In Vayigash (Gen. 47:8), Pharaoh meets Joseph's father, Jacob, and asks: "How many are the days of your life?" In the next verse, Jacob responds: "the days of the years are . . .130 years..." 
Asking a child how old they are is a fairly common social practice in our day. I suppose it’s possible that asking an elder their age might have been a common social practice for Pharaoh.

Possible. Plausible? 

Not only that, Joseph is a key player in Pharaoh’s administration and an intelligence official of sorts, right? Pharoah knew Jacob was on his way. Mightn’t Pharaoh have already had someone look into the details of Joseph’s family?

German Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offered that what Pharaoh is truly asking is: "How many days have you actually experienced living," as opposed to merely existing. He wrote: "When one counts by years, one does not reckon any more the days. It is only with a few select people that each day is full of importance and is considered by them as having a special meaning. A really true human being does not live years but days. . . . Similarly in the great psalm of Moses. . . it says at the end: ‘Teach us to count our days!'  Thus Pharaoh, too, says here: 'How many are the days of your life?' In these words, he reveals the deep impression which the whole appearance and dignified behavior of Jacob made on him." And Jacob’s answer, “the days of the years are 130” . . . Jacob counts them. Every. Single. Day. And all of the years.

I respectfully disagree, but only in part, with Rabbi Hirsch. Not in his assessment of Pharaoh’s question, which is fascinating, but in his assertion that one could not count by years and at the same time reckon the days. 

I have some personal experience counting time. That first blood transfusion was 2,214 days ago, 6 years and just a few weeks ago, today. It was among my first experiences as a cancer patient. After that first transfusion, I had 35 more. And, 2,068 days ago I had a bone marrow transplant. 

A bone marrow transplant is received by a patient in much the same way as a blood transfusion. It arrives in a bag, is hung on a pole, enters through a port, and finds its way into bones to set up shop and start making blood. In bone marrow transplant world, the day I received my BMT – my bone marrow transplant – that day gets a special number: Day Zero. 
Then the patient, the caregivers, the care team, everyone starts counting the days and praying that the new cells will graft and make blood and be a cure.

And here I am. My donor’s marrow is now also my marrow, and his blood is also my blood. And I am cancer-free on Day 2,068, here, with you, to think about the days of the years of Jacob’s life together. 

What do I know of my marrow donor? German, like Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, but unlike him - not Jewish. He was 32 when he donated, and is 37-years-old today. And me? God willing, the days of my life will be 42 years next month. Getting older – What an amazing gift that is. 
I nicknamed him – my donor - Valinor through treatment. Valinor, the “undying lands” Gandalf called home. (Any Lord of the Rings fans?) 3 ½ years ago I learned his name is actually Ralph, and that he was married and had a child born around the same time as my transplant. He and I were a perfect 10/10 HLA match, but had different blood types. With his marrow my bones now make A+ blood. That is all I know of him. I wonder what he thinks about me, or if he thinks about me. I have thought about him every day for about 5 ½ years.

I know even less about the donors of my 36 blood transfusions.
I know most of them have A- blood like the blood I was born with.
I know a few of them have A+ blood like I do now.

That blood is what kept me alive from December 16th, 2010 through September 2011. 
It is among the reasons I am alive now.

Could any of those donors have been any of you? It’s certainly possible. 
I also think about you. Every day.

Every two seconds someone in the U.S. needs blood. 30 people each minute. About 43,200 people each day. Red blood. Platelets. Plasma. The average red blood cell transfusion is about 3 pints.

I hear this year at the Beth Jacob Blood Drive there will be a Classical Music Happy Hour from 9:30 to 10:30 or so. I hear that Dave and others have worked with the Red Cross to address wait times, and are hopeful that things will go even more smoothly this year. That’s wonderful. But I also know you will sign up as soon as you can after Shabbat not because of the music, or the ease of donating, but because you’ll be thinking about those 30 people a minute whose hope hangs on you.  

When speaking to Pharaoh about the days of the years of his life, Jacob described his days as hard and unhappy, and fewer than those of his fathers. Jacob’s life was hard. A lot of it was unhappy. And it counted. It didn’t count only because without him we wouldn’t be here together today talking about him. It counted because he counted. All by himself – as himself. The way each of us counts – however we count the days of our years.

Often marketing materials for organizations like Be the Match and the Red Cross and Memorial Blood Centers and the Leukemia&Lymphoma Society share images of smiling kids, vibrant-looking adults with their arms around their babies and children, a euphoric couple dancing at their wedding. Sometimes that’s what bone marrow transplant and blood transfusion patients look like. Sometimes we look like an older single man whose kidneys were damaged by treatment and who never had children. Sometimes we look like me – doing so well, really well, in so many wonderful ways and struggling with graft vs. host disease, other invisible chronic health issues, and with medical PTSD, anxiety, and depression. And sometimes we look like my young friend Sammy, (z”l) who also had leukemia and who was 8 when he received his last platelet transfusion – a transfusion that gave him the day he needed to get home so he could die more comfortably in his own bed surrounded by his family. 

We all count. And so do each of the days of all of our years.

I don’t usually talk about the hard stuff when I am encouraging people to commit to donating blood. I’m very aware that under 30 people are signed up so far for the Beth Jacob blood drive, and common wisdom of American culture is that hard stories might deter people from giving. But we Jews are - in so many ways - counter-cultural. And the reality is, we know that in the moment they are receiving your blood donation, the person on the other end of your donation is having a hard day – and so are the people who love them. You, by being a blood donor, have the opportunity to join them in it. To meet them where they are – wherever they are. And to help them count another day. It’s no guarantee, but . . .God willing, that day will become days, and those days months, until one day they can look back and count the years. 

I tell you, with complete confidence, they will be thinking of you when they do. 

To those of you who can give blood and have, who do, who will give at the Beth Jacob drive . . . and those who can’t give blood and will instead volunteer or support others who can: Thank you. 

Thank you for being the reason that I’m standing here counting this day.

Good Shabbos.