It is day 0. Transplant day. I am not usually the superstitious type but I got out my grandfather’s lucky silver dollar and am carrying it with me today. It can’t hurt. Right now James is at UC Davis Medical Center hooked up to an apheresis machine, staying still while they take many, many millions stem cells out of his body. (Update: I misunderstood and misstated the number of stem cells being donated in the original version of this post; they’re actually taking five million per kilo of Brad’s body weight, and as of this writing they think James’s donation is on track to produce twice that amount.) This should take about six hours, if all goes well. After that, somebody will whisk this alive, life-saving matter to a lab for conditioning and counting and then it will be delivered to Brad sometime in the evening—the aim is to do it around 6pm, but hospital time moves slowly and the all-important shift change looms at 7, so I’m betting on 8pm. By all accounts the stem cell transplant itself is severely anticlimactic, but I want to be there anyway.
Last night before I went to bed I looked at Twitter and saw a tweet saying the user had seen that David Bowie had died but that it might be a hoax, the account might be hacked. I went to bed not sure if it was true and woke up to social media awash in tributes, links to songs, pictures of Bowie, in all of his many ever-changing personae. (One of the most arresting of Bowie’s physical characteristics, his two differently colored eyes, has sparked speculation that he may be a genetic chimera, though online sources say that the difference is due to a paralyzed pupil.)
I never know quite what to say about, or how to mark, a celebrity death. Today, though, I thought of Bowie’s wife and family—I had not realized he had a daughter so young, just 15—and of the privacy with which he surrounded his death from an unnamed form of cancer, and I thought of the enormous range of his songs, which I put on many a mix tape in my teenage years. Yes, they were actual cassettes. I was born in 1972, the year “Suffragette City” (probably my favorite Bowie song) came out on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars; “Let’s Dance” was a staple at our junior-high dances; and I remember “Space Oddity”—though it came out far earlier—played over and over after the Challenger disaster. And of course it was the poignant, sorrowful story of Major Tom trapped in space that first popped into my head this morning, its isolated tragedy of overreaching science seeming somehow uncomfortably close to the bizarre microscopic, interior magic of stem cell transplant.
But Brad’s is not, will not be, a Major Tom story. He is floating in an isolation chamber, high above our neighborhood, but there is something we can do, something the doctors are doing, today. And we hope it will wreak a Bowie-like transformation in him (maybe with less makeup if Brad’s past tastes are indicative of anything, but hey, if he gets better he can do whatever he wants). Bowie the chameleon was the master of reinvention and transformation. His death is doubtless a deep, abiding, and very private grief for his family, and I hope I don’t disrespect or lessen that when I choose to take a symbolic meaning from his fame and its story. May the stem cells Brad gets today, and Brad himself, be just as good at reinvention and rising from the ashes as was twentieth-century pop’s greatest chimera.