“There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. ‘Such bad luck,’ they said sympathetically. ‘Maybe,’ the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. ‘How wonderful,’ the neighbors exclaimed. ‘Maybe,’ replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown off and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. ‘Maybe,’ answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. ‘Maybe,’ said the farmer.”
I’ve always had issues figuring out and navigating the ideas of chance, luck, fate. For instance, as I went through the college application process, I was convinced that there was only one place for me. Spoiler alert: That place was not the University of Michigan. And after a gruesome college application process that seemed to keep kicking me while I was down, I finally decided on the University. Though impressive and honorable, my choice left me disappointed and disheartened. With what felt like years spent on a perfect application and resume, it didn’t feel right to end up at a university that wasn’t my dream school.
However, experience has only furthered the idea that luck is much more complex than the college application process. One night, my stepdad and I were discussing the intricacies behind the concept that everything happens for a reason. He had shared a story with me, further complicating my seemingly never-ending struggle of trying to come to conclusive beliefs pertaining to luck, fate and chance.
In 2014, my stepdad was led to believe by his aches and high fever that he had the flu. He called his doctor the next morning and went in for a brief examination later that afternoon. The doctor instructed him not to go home, but instead straight to the emergency room because he had been presenting the classic symptoms of appendicitis. He was rushed into surgery that night. Apparently, there are a few ways to remove an appendix. Commonly, doctors make a large incision near the appendix and remove it in one piece by cutting it out. Another method is through a laparoscopic procedure. There are two methods to this procedure: the first method is one in which tubes are inserted through two or three small incisions and the appendix is either cut up into smaller pieces and removed, enclosed in a net and removed in multiple pieces, or the second method in which the appendix is enclosed in a plastic bag and removed in one piece. In either method, the bag or net is then pulled across the abdomen and taken out through one of the small incisions. Many surgeons have a preferred method, either by means of the net or plastic bag, when operating via laparoscopic procedure. When performing the approach on my stepdad, his surgeon, luckily, used the plastic bag approach which completely enclosed his appendix upon taking it out. After sending his appendix to a lab following the removal, it was discovered that his appendix was full of cancer. It was never actually appendicitis.
A week later when my stepdad went for his follow-up visit, his surgeon told him the shocking news: “For whatever reason, you’re very lucky, because I removed your appendix enclosed in a plastic bag, and consequently, none of your cancer cells were able to spread through the abdomen. Had I used the net approach, I would have been dragging the cancer cells straight across your abdomen, causing them to spread.”
Was that because of mere coincidence? Was this luck? Or was it for some greater purpose that was for my stepdad to seek out?
I found myself asking these questions again more recently. As the summer of 2019 was coming to an end, my mom was diagnosed with leukemia. This diagnosis resulted in my mom needing a bone marrow transplant by the end of the year to save her life. The chances were not in our favor. The likelihood of getting a perfect match, which is what my mom needed to survive, is roughly 0.3%. The likelihood of a child of the person in need of a transplant being a perfect match is about 1%.
Yet against all odds, my mom received news that they had found a perfect match.
My sister and I were both only half of a match, meaning the likelihood of our donation being a success was slim to none. This means my mother was one in 300 to receive a perfect transplant from an absolute stranger. My family felt so lucky. And now, her donor Annie feels far from a stranger. It feels as if we were brought together through unfortunate circumstances and were meant, in a near unexplainable way, to meet.
Annie got swabbed to be in the bone marrow registry through Be The Match 20 years ago when she was 18 years old as an undergraduate student at Dartmouth College. There was a drive set up in what I imagine was Dartmouth’s version of The Diag. After being in the registry for 20 years, Annie got a phone call from Be The Match in late September 2019, letting her know that she was a preliminary match for a 52-year-old woman with leukemia — my mom. After getting further blood testing and a physical, Annie was able to donate her bone marrow and subsequently save my mom’s life.
Whenever I tell the story of my mom getting her transplant, I always say “We (my family) are so lucky,” or I get the response, “Wow, you are all so lucky.”
Does everything happen for a reason? Can these questions be asked in even the most unthinkable and traumatic of situations, when other families in similar situations didn’t experience the same stroke of chance as mine?
After a little over a year of reflection, I have come to terms with this series of events. I feel so fortunate that we got a perfect match. On top of that, I now have this person in my life who overlaps so fiercely with everything I am a part of — academics and personal interests. Is it a stroke of luck or coincidence? Have there been other lucky aspects in my life where I just haven’t been paying attention?
Ultimately, I realized that there does not always have to be a reason for everything. Though everything may not happen for some greater reason, possibly, everything happens for an opportunity. An opportunity to merge my family with Annie’s, through something of both great sorrow and great joy. An opportunity to get to know the kind person who entered a bone marrow registry 20 years ago, and still actively chose to donate to a complete stranger, decades later. An opportunity to find out she is from a U-M family — her mom went to the University as an undergraduate student in the class of 1976 (and wrote for The Daily, even!), along with her brother in the class of 2007 and Annie, too, who received her MBA here. What a weird connection — a coincidence? Fate?
Upon finding all of this out, I started thinking about how in life when we are dealt a really tough hand of cards, it sometimes takes getting through it to be able to see what was gained from it. See how we have grown, see how we were shaped by an experience and see how we are prepared for more difficult decks because of it. While I want to make it clear that I am not grateful for the origins and thick of the experience, I do recognize that some things I am grateful for came out of it. I take pride in both how I, along with the rest of my family, grew from it and the people I got to know because of it.
I think deep down I continue to ask myself these questions and grapple with them because I am endlessly trying to find a justification for this horrible thing that happened to my family. Because I am not religious, when analyzing the ideas of, chance, luck and fate, or the common rationale of “everything happens for a reason,” I am left to myself on how I view the world. During difficult times like this, I try to ask these questions to find something to lean into or something to believe in to justify or explain this incidence for a larger purpose.
How I view the world has been shaped by my experiences and will continue to be shaped by my experiences. So even though in the moment, it may seem like the end of the world, I know I can look to the “maybe” moment of what could come out of it.
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