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Alyson Renaldo: I was feeling scared, not heroic, donating kidney to my mom

“A child is for spare parts,” I consistently joked, after promising to help out mom. Yet here I was. Frightened.

Alyson Renaldo gave her mother Cheryl Gittens (in red) her kidney. Two months after the transplant, both are grateful and healing well.


Alyson Renaldo gave her mother Cheryl Gittens (in red) her kidney. Two months after the transplant, both are grateful and healing well.

Hero. A laudatory word launched in my direction since I donated a kidney to my mother in December 2017.

I’ve responded to the praise with a nervous, but polite, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, but if you say so” smile — a trick honed as a child when mom’s old acquaintances would drop by and say, “I knew you when you were a baby!”

Hero? Me? Rather unlikely.

The morning of the transplant, I sit awaiting surgery, holding my IV pole, tears cascading down my cheeks. The only moment in my life that eclipses this in intensity and confusion was the loss of my cousin to a car accident.

“What the devil am I doing here?” I think to myself.

What if something goes wrong? What if mom’s body rejects my kidney? What if I wake up and mom doesn’t? Every tear houses these questions.

Every tear houses these questions.

Alyson shows off her surgery scar as mom looks on.

Vince Talotta / Torstar News Service

Alyson shows off her surgery scar as mom looks on.

Is any of this picture revealing a hero? Um, no. I’ve seen heroes. They’re strong, magical, Black Panther-esque, have theme music, and are sure of their every step. You see it as the camera zooms in for a close-up to reveal the steely resolve in their eyes. One can see only tears in mine.

Growing up, my mother was always managing these inexplicable “stomachaches.” She worked full-time, paid a mortgage, was mother and father to me, then lay in bed, next to a rarely touched bowl of soup broth, waiting for the discomfort to pass. Mom is not demonstrative (undoubtedly a coping mechanism). How much she hurts would rarely be evident, particularly not to a child completely dependent upon her.

Years later, I return home from university for the Christmas holidays and am greeted by a woman with a pumpkin face. My knees buckle. “It’s not as bad as it looks,” chuckles the pumpkin — in my mother’s voice.

“Mom!?” I bellow.

Western doctors have finally determined that her kidneys have been ravaged by an undiagnosed infection and it is too late to save them. Mom was on high doses of steroids, with one side-effect being a seriously swollen face.

For the first time ever, I realize that mom is mortal. I had no idea. It rattles me to my core.

“What can we do?” I ask, trying not to shake.

“Well, later, in maybe 10 years, the doctor says I may require a transplant,” she responds calmly.

“Well, then I’ll be the donor,” I blurt out.

“Well, then I’ll be the donor,” I blurt out, meaning every word and with unwavering commitment from then until now ... but having never really thought about my decision until this morning, 20 years later, waiting for surgery (mom managed to hang on to her own kidney function for 10 years longer than doctors predicted).

I suddenly remember all the hospital release forms I signed explaining measures if I “bled out,” or if they “nicked my bowel,” or — my personal favourite — “if my life was in danger.”

I’m completely overwhelmed. Further, I feel like a coward and a fraud. For years, mom had resisted my help. “I’m not doing it. You have your life to live,” she’d tell me.

“A child is for spare parts,” I consistently joked. Yet here I was. Frightened.

Unexpectedly, my spirit (not my mind, as it was experiencing all kinds of fragmentation)remembers that heroes in movies are fictional. True heroism requires one to push through their fears, not through their certainty.

When I am summoned to walk to the operating room, I move like lightning, but shake like a leaf. “Who will take care of my Cabbage Patch Kid doll if I don’t make it?” I wonder (the strangest things crossed my mind right before surgery) ... Ah, my childhood doll, sitting on a chair in my room, ever wearing a smile — albeit a plastic one.

Hopefully, on the other side of all this, the woman who supported my every move could live without aid of a machine and we would both emerge from this procedure.

I was doing all I could to get us there.

Suddenly, I am in post-op. My cousin, Alexander, is holding my hand. Soothing my fears. Telling me mom is fine. I relax for the first time in months and the healing begins.

Working Kidney Mummy is a little over two months old now. She’s doing well. No infections or setbacks. Her body accepted my Christmas gift. (I threatened not to give her anything else, but did, because a kidney would not have been cute under a tree).

Now, Mom and I look at each other like, “What did we do?” Reflecting on what is now a fond memory.

It should be known that I didn’t do this exclusively for my mother, as our relationship has deepened beyond that. I did it because it was the right thing to do.

I found the courage to help and she found the courage to accept it, and out of that combined effort came something good and possibly even heroic.

Alyson Renaldo has written for The Huffington Post, The Root and Metro Canada. She is an actor, producer and writer for film and theatre. She serves as director of communications for the 100 ABC project, as well as an English professor at Humber College.

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