Updated: Nov 21, 2022
I am a chimera.
In the tissue of my body lives the ancestral DNA I was born with. Forty percent Indigenous Andean, 40 percent European, 20 percent hazy strands.
In the cells of my blood live the DNA that grew from the bone marrow gifted to me by a stranger.
In mythology, a chimera is a terrible fire-breathing hybrid creature, composed of different animal parts. In genetics, a chimera is a single organism composed of cells with more than one distinct genotype. In everyday life, chimeras are people who possess two sets of DNA.
I was transformed into a chimera in 2016, six months after my doctor called at midnight, as I lay in bed with my sleeping teenage daughter by my side. In the shock of that moment, I learned that I had leukemia, a fast and deadly cancer. Within hours I would need to go to the hospital to start intravenous chemotherapy. Hospice was my other option. By morning I was in oncology intake, saying goodbye to my terrified daughter.
I entered my hospital room with an applied Zen practice and three intentions. My first intention was to waste no time or energy wishing this wasn’t happening. My second intention was to practice gratitude, joy, and kindness in every possible moment. My third intention was to believe that, in community, my daughter would find the inner strength needed to live without me for months, and possibly forever.
In that sanitized room on the 8th floor I created a sanctuary, with flowers (artificial, as my weakened immunity required), art and art supplies, pretty lights, and books. All day I infused the suffocating hospital air with eucalyptus and lemon scents from an oil diffuser. I laughed and talked with everyone from the oncology residents to the 3 am cleaning crew. As one nurse told me, “We all love coming in here!”
Six weeks into my hospital stay, the drugs and I had killed the cancer. For most people, such remission marks the victorious end to their oncological journey. But, in my case, as the tearful doctors explained, the cancer had already damaged my seventh chromosome, leaving my DNA encoded, irreparably, with instructions to begin reproducing leukemia again in weeks.
To stay alive, I would need to kill off the damaged DNA in my blood, and grow healthy new DNA through a bone marrow transplant. My being would need to be rewoven beyond imagination.
I am grateful to science for my rebirth, for my reprieve from what was, until very recent history, a certain death.
I am grateful for imagination and story*, which make science possible.
I am grateful for my ancestral DNA, that was with me at my birth.
I am grateful for the “stranger” DNA, for the unknown ancestors who were always my distant family, out there before I knew I needed them.
I wish for all of us the chance to become chimeras, to become beings who possess the wisdom of the past and who metabolize an expanded capacity for transformation. And, to quote Norma Wong, this is not a metaphor.
I believe that putting birthing at the center of everything – our culture, our politics, our economy – is core to this. I am deeply honored and inspired to support community birth center leaders who are transforming lives and places, against all odds. In the words of my Birth Center Equity teammate Marinah V. Farrell,
“The truth is that every sustainable economy has always been grounded in community birthing. We need to reclaim and repair what ‘economy’ means, to move toward ‘beloved economy’ where what is valued is human growth and relationships.”
In her reflections on the extraordinary pace of ecological and human destruction we are currently witnessing, Grace Lee Boggs asked, “What time is it on the clock of the world?” My sense is that it’s pretty close to midnight.
Let’s not waste time or energy wishing this wasn’t happening.
Let’s practice gratitude, joy, and kindness in every possible moment.
Let’s believe that, in community, we can find the inner strength we need to transform.
*“The story of leukemia--the story of cancer--isn't the story of doctors who struggle and survive, moving from institution to another. It is the story of patients who struggle and survive, moving from one embankment of illness to another. Resilience, inventiveness, and survivorship--qualities often ascribed to great physicians--are reflected qualities, emanating first from those who struggle with illness and only then mirrored by those who treat them." - The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee.