Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Missed Her, My Sister

This is how God works: Of all the copies of HOUR Detroit magazine Jacqui Thomas could have picked up that day to peruse – and they usually stack pretty high in beauty salons and doctor's waiting rooms, which is where I'm convinced most Detroiters actually read the thing – she happened to grab the May 2012 edition.

She really didn't want it. "Is this all you have?" she asked her stylist before going under the dryer. "Yeah, that's it," the hairdresser apologized.

She flipped casually through the pages until she stumbled upon a story titled "Dramatic Journey," the first-person account of my kidney transplant, accompanied by a full-page shot of my big mugging grin. She read it. Jacqui was delighted, then relieved, then, slowly, enraged. She leaped on Facebook as soon as she could find a keyboard, determined to track me down and get some questions answered.

You see, Jacqui Thomas is my biological sister.

And we hadn't spoken in nearly 30 years.

A little backstory might be needed here. (Ya think?) I was adopted by a wonderful older couple in Spring Lake, Mich., virtually when I was still in the womb. My equally wonderful mother, Josephine, lived in nearby Muskegon. She already had two children, was trying to scrape by as a single mother, and was pregnant with me.

The absolute last thing she needed was one more mouth to fill. The McFarlins, H.G. ("Mac") and Caribell, agreed to make me their son almost sight unseen.

They were as wise as they were big-hearted. To make sure I never anguished over the question "Where did I come from?" and because we lived so close, my parents made certain I knew about my birth family as soon as I could comprehend the dynamic. We often shared Thanksgivings and Christmases together. Every summer, Jacqui would spend part of her vacation at my house or I would visit hers. We grew up together, albeit by long distance.

To further the irony, both Jacqui and I eventually settled in Detroit. We lived no more than 10 miles apart. I was writing for one of the city's major daily newspapers, The Detroit News. I won't go into detail about the factors that caused us to be estranged, except to say that working for a big-city paper can give the impression that one has more influence, income or connections than they actually do. Whatever the reasons, the most important takeaway here is that I was wrong.

Allow me to repeat that: I WAS WRONG. Nothing, or no one, should come between you and your blood. Life's too short. I was petty, I was hurtful, I clung to my ill feelings like a rescue inhaler. How foolish. Please, if you are holding any animosity toward a relative, stop it. Just quit.

At any rate, this incredible, wild kidney ride I've been on since 2008 has produced yet another positive outcome. Jacqui dispatched an impassioned private message to my Facebook account, expressing pain and indignation that I didn't even bother to ask if she would donate a kidney to me. "I never thought you disliked me or the family so much you would never contact us to see if we were a match," she wrote. "Come on! Do you really hate us that much?"

Actually, the thought did cross my mind numerous times while I was on the transplant waiting list. But I kept imagining how that conversation would go:


"Jacqui? Hey, sis, it's me, Jimmy!"

"Jimmy? I haven't heard from you in years! How are you?"

"Funny you should ask. I know we haven't spoken since the '80s, sis, but do you happen to have any spare organs lying around?"

Pride goeth before a transplant. But that blessed occurrence, the fateful flipping of a city magazine, was the catalyst that inspired a reunion.

My sister, Jacqui Thomas, and me. I'm on the left.

We met one bright Saturday morning in Detroit at what locals call "Anita Baker's restaurant," the IHOP near downtown. It had been so long that I wondered if I'd recognize her, and apparently Jacqui had the same concern: my friend John Mason, the media personality and PA voice of the Detroit Pistons, was sitting in a booth by the door. Jacqui took a long, hard stare into his face before spotting me deeper in the restaurant.

Our conversation was fast, light and surprisingly warm. I think both of us subconsciously had decided to put the past behind us and begin afresh. What a great day!

Thanks to my crappy kidneys, I have a sister again. And a brother, Lionel, too, if I can manage to journey to West Michigan and reconnect with him. What's more, I discovered that through Jacqui alone I have two nieces and two nephews who have 17 kids between them!

If it's God's will that I ever need another transplant....