Twelfth Night

As Brad has been faithfully tracking, today is Day -5 on the transplant calendar. (I’m largely holed up at home today, not going into the hospital; I have a slight sore throat and they are very strict in saying that nobody with any illness should visit.) Below is the tracking poster taped up in his hospital room; all those inscrutable acronyms represent different lab results for the things they’re tracking daily, above all the all-important WBC, or white blood cell count, which represents his levels of immunity. (The handwritten ones are treatments he’ll receive; TBI, for instance, is total body irradiation.) The nurses do their best to make this somber daily slog festive and colorful. I can’t say I’m exactly sure why an excited frog represents transplant day, but I can’t object to it, either.

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By another way of reckoning, today is also the twelfth day of Christmas, also known as Epiphany. (The word comes from the Greek for “reveal.”) January 6 is the day in the ecclesiastical calendar that the Magi showed up from the east, bearing their gifts, and thus a traditional time for gift-giving in Christian cultures—though this custom has moved entirely to the frenzied unwrapping of Christmas itself, and survives only in the longest of all Christmas carols, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” with its onslaught of gifts (364 in total, by the time all the days have been counted).

Calling Epiphany Twelfth Night, or observing it at all, is so thoroughly forgotten that I find a lot of people confuse the twelve days of Christmas with the latter half of Advent, and think the song represents a countdown to Christmas. I was raised attending an Episcopal church, and the liturgical calendar (noted, at services, on the black sign up at the front that also displayed the numbers of the hymns we would sing) would note many seasons by counting after the holiday, as is done for the feast of Epiphany. (On January 6, I remember our church hosting a Christmas tree bonfire, one of many remnants of pagan light-festival celebration that linger in Christmas observance, and a reminder that all traditions layer, accrete, morph, and change.)

Brad’s brother James arrived here in Sacramento last night, and today he meets with the transplant team at the Cancer Center to get the shots he must give himself to boost his stem cell production before donation next Monday. Like the Magi, he came from the East (though the journey was less arduous, I hope), bearing gifts: in his case, millions of stem cells. We’d rather have those than all the gold, frankincense, and myrrh that could have fit in the overhead compartment. I’m also really glad he is bringing stem cells instead of partridges, drummers drumming, or swans a-swimming.

Aside from the carol, Shakespeare’s play is the other most familiar Twelfth Night reference in our culture, or at least familiar to Brad and me. Brad has been writing about it for a wide-ranging academic book project he’s been working on. I’ll let him tell you about the book if he wants to, but I’ll just say that when I went into the hospital on Monday, the table in his room was covered thickly with cut-up bits of paper, notes that he is rearranging into his manuscript. It was the first day of radiation, and he was feeling well enough to work (after the anti-anxiety medications wore off, that is). Slips of paper, books everywhere, a welter of ideas bubbling into a coherent whole: That’s been his method of writing for all the two decades I have known him, and seeing him at work, even in a hospital gown and with an IV of saline fluid dripping into his chest, was both cheering and reassuring.

I confess I haven’t read Twelfth Night in years, but it’s a quintessential Shakespearean romantic comedy, full of cross-dressing and mistaken identity and seemingly hopeless love triangles and tangles that dissolve, like magic, into pure happiness at the play’s end. But all the lightness has a somber undergirding: the play is also a story of siblings, separated by a disastrous shipwreck and thinking each other dead. Sebastian’s rescuer says he was “snatch’d one half out of the jaws of death.” Our small individual catastrophe is no shipwreck on the shores of Illyria, and we certainly know Brad’s Twelfth Night hospital stay is unlikely to involve any frothy comedy of mistaken identities or love triangles. But we hope it will snatch Brad out of the jaws of death—and seemingly magically resolve to reveal two healthy siblings and a happy ending.

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