Four Marriages and One Kidney

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Words || Emma Kocbek

It’s a social faux pas to have only a single eyebrow, one that I have laboriously avoided since I was 13 and had my first waxing consultation. Human bodies have countless other pairs. Two eyes, two arms, two legs. A set of lungs, two ventricles of the heart and a couple of ears.

But there’s plenty of pairs that you can do without. You really don’t need a boyfriend/girlfriend; a solid piece of mum advice that is often ignored. Plenty of people have glass eyes and prosthetic limbs. Van Gogh’s body was physically sound with only the one ear (his mind was a different matter).

My dad is familiar with pairs, and the absence of them. He’s on his fourth marriage but he’s also missing a kidney. Technically, you don’t need two kidneys for most of your life. One fully functioning bean shaped organ can shoulder the load, at least for a while. But when it starts to slow down, that is, starts working at less than 10 per cent of its full capacity, you need some medical intervention.

Ideally, what you really want is a whole new kidney to make the pair complete. A perfectly healthy filter to make sure your fluids and salts are regulated in your body. But, with so many people on the waiting list for organs and donation rates not where we need them, there’s a pretty long queue.  

My dad got lucky with the organ lottery, which is why he is alone in ICU, recovering from a transplant, when I go to visit him. His kidney pairing was rounded back out to a solid two, thanks to whoever it was that decided to opt into organ donation for when they passed.

As I walk through the ward of the hospital, my Nike’s squeak on the floor; they’re half a size too big and I’m shuffling awkwardly to avoid toppling over head first. When I get to his room, Dad motions me over, two arms open wide. Organ transplant is no minor surgery; seeing him lying there, alive and awake, makes me sob.

“I’m okay honey, you should be crying if I didn’t wake up,” he says. Not surprisingly, this doesn’t help.

I shuffle around the machines crammed into the tiny room, careful to avoid treading on the tubes that are dragging on the ground, and reach the side of him that seems least crowded by medical mechanics. With careful practice, I lean over and plant a peck on his cheek. I want to hold his hand, but I’m nearly 20 and I’ve forgotten how to do it.

Down by the end of the bed a bag of fluid is connected to a tube that curls up and under the covers, snaking its way into my dad’s body. I know that there is a plastic tube jabbed into him somewhere, maybe more than one; the foreign material pressing into his flesh. I suddenly have visions of tearing it from his body; yanking it away and sprinting to the car with my dad limping behind so that we can make a quick escape. Even in my head I can see the impracticality – paying for parking alone will take at least five minutes, and he’s been pumped with so many drugs he wouldn’t make the greatest partner in crime.

My dad is no stranger to this experience, of laying alone hooked up to machines that do the work that his body can no longer achieve. He’s spent countless nights in the back bedroom of the house with a dialysis machine and an iPad full of documentaries to keep him company when he can’t sleep. The bedside table is covered in painkillers and cords to make sure his body can get him through the night.

Just like I leave him at home, I leave him at the hospital, tucked in blankets and medications, his new kidney sheltered from the outside world and his own immune system. After an hour of seeing him I walk back out the front doors and towards my car. I stand at the pay station and feed a tenner into the machine, silver coins that make up my change clanking in the metal tray, reminding me how little time I spent with him and how much of a rip-off hospital parking is. The doctors say that the transplant will change his life, one day he’ll wake up and realise how much better he feels. But for now, my dad lays in his bed, in a drugged haze. I will go home and wrap myself in my doona while he lays beneath stiff hospital sheets, the occasional beep from a monitoring machine and the night-shift nurses keeping him company.