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Fiction didn't come easy. Lesser spent two years churning out "hundreds and hundreds of pages" that didn't satisfy. Then her youngest sister got sick. "I put aside that book. I put aside everything," Lesser says. Maggie's long-dormant cancer had suddenly spread, and she needed a bone marrow transplant. Out of three older sisters, Liz was her perfect match. This surprised them both, given their frequently thorny relationship.
"I didn't know much about marrow. I knew the word, that it's the deepest thing inside of you, inside your bones," Lesser told her audience at the Kleinert/James. "When bad medical things happen, I turn into Dr. Internet. I learned everything I could about marrow and stem cells. Cells are dying and being replaced every minute. The stem cells in marrow become whatever your body needs."
As she researched, she learned that a marrow transplant involves harvesting healthy stem cells from a donor to replace the patient's own. "If Maggie survived the chemo, two scary things could happen: Either my cells would attack her body, or her body would reject them. Those words, attack and reject, sounded a lot like what siblings go through."
For decades, Lesser's work at Omega had focused on the mind-body connection; her sisters had dubbed her "the woo-woo member of the family." Was there anything she and Maggie could do to heal their relationship before exchanging blood? Marrow: A Love Story details their attempt at "a soul marrow transplant."
It's an astonishing book, describing both sisters' journeys (excerpts from Maggie's journals appear as "Field Notes" alongside Elizabeth's text) and opening out to include all of us, exploring how to be true to ourselves and connect to others in ways that move beyond ingrained patterns of attack and rejection. In many ways, it's that book about authenticity Lesser wanted to write all along.
"Maggie struggled mightily to present her authentic self. She put everyone else ahead of herself," Lesser says. In one of their soul marrow therapy sessions, Maggie says, "I spent so many years trying to be someone else; trying to be what I thought I was supposed to be, or what someone wanted me to be....Let me tell you, it's an exhausting way to live. But the cancer stripped me down. Nothing left to lose, as they say. So this year I said to myself, fuck it, no apologies, I'll just be who I am."
And it worked. Maggie continues, "I wanna tell my kids this. I wanna tell them not to care so much what other people think. Not to be afraid of saying what they want, what they need. I wanna say, don't dim your light; don't live small. You're not damaged goods, you don't need to be fixed. Just be who you are—'cause that's what the people who really matter want anyway. The truth of who you are."
Though the bone marrow transplant was successful, Maggie's cancer came roaring back; she died a year and a half ago. "It went wonderfully and horribly, like a lot of things in life," Lesser says. "I don't think I'll ever have a more profound, beautiful, and sad experience. But mostly beautiful."
Despite her medical struggles, Maggie called that last year—the one she lived with her sister's cells filling her veins—the best of her life. As with Broken Open, Lesser wonders how we can grow, connect, and live our lives fully without waiting "until we get clunked on the head." She brings this inquiry to a galvanizing TED Talk, "Say Your Truths and Seek Them in Others."
The truths Lesser learned from Maggie's life and death continue to ripple outward. "The body of America right now is in full attack and rejection mode," she observes. Maybe a national soul marrow transplant—learning to move beyond perceived differences—will give us new hope.
Lesser has often been asked why she writes. "I have the mountain climber's answer: because it is there," she told the rapt audience at the Kleinert/James. "For me the 'it' is human life. The dark, difficult, joyous parts of life, that's my mountain. And I climb it by writing."