Thoughts While Awaiting a Liver Transplant

by Penn Goertzel

This is an excerpt from a book manuscript called "Fun Juju, Bad Juju" that deals with Penn's experiences while waiting for a liver transplant.   Copies will be available at the Memorial on September 23. The table of contents is appended to this file. Ted.

juju 31 and 32 -

31- Missing It

I’d be a very big liar if I didn’t admit, to this day, that I miss drinking alcohol. It isn’t something I think about every hour on the hour, or something I have to fight against like alcoholic people do, but I loved drinking, and I miss not sitting down with a glass of beer or wine and having fun with people.

I used to be thought of as a real fun, perhaps even exciting, guy. Now, the words that I hear being used to describe me are most often "thoughtful," "interesting," or "sweet." Not that I have anything against being thoughtful, interesting and sweet, but quite frankly I miss fun and exciting part.

In one of my plays, a character who was on a health kick and had quit drinking, found himself on a quite boring date with a woman who was overly serious about lifting weights and keeping her aging body in shape. They talked about drinking, and the guy said, "It’s not like I don’t miss drinking sometimes. For better or for worse, it does guarantee two or three hours of a fairly good time."

Following are a few statements that I remember being said to me when I was first in the process of going completely sober, both here in Seattle and in Chicago. It isn’t as if these people didn’t like me and wanted to give me a hard time, it’s just that they really like to drink and people who like to drink enjoy people drinking with them.

    * "I know a man who’s waiting for a liver transplant. He takes a glass of wine every now and then."

    * "You’re going to trade in your liver on a brand new one, and you’re worried about drinking a couple of beers?"

    * "We’re stuck here for four hours. You’re gonna grow bored out of your mind unless you have at least a couple of drinks."

    * "What’s this no beer shit?!"

    * "The host and hostess spent a lot of time and money buying the perfect wine for this meal."

    * "You don’t seem like the same old G-man I used to know."

    * "Well, I’d love to have a few, after coming in to Chicago for an afternoon and that. But I don’t want to drink alone."

    * "There’s all this evidence now that having a couple drinks a day is actually healthy."

    * "A Fourth of July party, and you’re not drinking any beer?!"

    * "Herbtea!?"

31- ZEN

One nice thing about not drinking has been feeling able to devote more time to my interest in Zen Buddhism. I was raised a member of the Society of Friends, (Quakers), but it never meant that much to me. I like the Friends a lot, but overall they’re just plain too healthy and "good" a group of people for me, especially when I was younger.

Later on in life, I felt a new appreciation for the Quakers or the more liberal Society of Friends. Although I didn’t consider myself a Quaker, I felt a pride in that background when I learned that the Quakers always believed strongly in social change, and were some of the most important people in improving the care given mentally ill people in mental hospitals, and the designing prisons to rehabilitate criminals, not simple make them suffer.

The Quakers, I discovered, were very important in establishing the famous Underground Railroad- the secret path slaves in the south took to escape North to their freedom. They were also just about the first American group to try to smuggle Jews out of the USA before Hitler could stuff them into his gas chambers during World War Two. And they worked hard to help Japanese people from Hiroshima and Nagasaki who suffered severe burns or radiation sickness after the USA dropped atomic bombs on them in WWII.

(Although my parents were pacifists, and had worked in a Japanese Relocation Center during World War Two, it always interested me that the decision to drop the atomic bombs in Japan was one they weren’t very much against. My parents, like everybody, knew what devoted and rugged soldiers the Japanese were, and if the USA had to take Japan island by island, the death toll would have been unbelievably high. They did believe, however, that President Truman might have first dropped an atomic bomb on a deserted island to see if that scared the Japanese into surrender, instead of dropping the first one on Hiroshima. And, they figured, why did we drop two bombs? Hiroshima would have been enough to force a surrender. However, all in all, they were glad President Truman made a quick and very final end to the war.)

As I grew older, perhaps in my early forties, instead of feeling superior to those who were religious, I found myself wishing I had a religion I could believe in, and a group of people to meet with on Sunday’s, etc. I still remember distinctly my buddy Larry Koontz and I sitting in his ‘57 Oldsmobile at the local Foster Freeze one Sunday morning. Larry and I were hung over, talking about the girls we’d hussled that weekend, and how much beer we’d drank. A couple of cars drove up and out popped a couple of families, including a couple of boys from Buena High. They were all dressed up, obviously coming from whatever church they attended. Larry and I couldn’t help but laugh- we felt so incredibly superior to the "goody goodie" kids.

I’d always liked to do Zen meditation, ever since I read some books about it in the early 1970’s. Although I’m totally bored by the Buddhist theories of reincarnation and karma, which strike me as nothing more than a pile of wishful thinking, such topics aren’t discussed at most Zen temples, and I’ve never had anybody get mad at me for not following the age old Buddhist line.

When Toni and I split up, I found myself going to a Buddhist Temple in North Chicago which they’d done a beautiful job of remodeling, going to Tuesday night training classes and eventually becoming a member of the temple. I really liked it.

There were a number of reasons I suddenly became a Zen buddhist, after all those years. For one, I wasn’t hungover on Sunday morning, and it didn’t seem at all hard to be somewhere at ten in the morning every Sunday. I felt quite unhappy for losing Toni, who I loved a whole lot more than any other woman I’ve been with, and the meditation helped me deal with this pain. I needed to find some interests that didn’t involve drinking. And being a bachelor, it wasn’t much fun to hang out in my house on Sunday mornings, reading the paper and generally having a good time.

Also, although this never was that big deal to me, since I sincerely am not a person who cares a lot about money, by breaking up with Toni I’d gone from living in a family that had an income of well over two hundred thousand dollars a year, to living by myself on a Chicago Public School’s salary of about forty thousand dollars a year. Not living with a top notch, corporate lawyer had it’s drawbacks, and I must admit I missed our beautiful, vintage condo and the Saab 9000 I piloted around town. Both were complete works of Art. (There wasn’t any question that Toni would get the condo and Saab- I couldn’t afford them anyway.)

In any case, it felt good to go to the Zen temple and associate with people for whom the desire for wealth was a human evil. And it makes me sad I’ve never found a temple in Seattle I like nearly as much as my temple in Chicago. And after I more or less permanently damaged my right leg when I didn’t take care of that blister, getting into the Zen meditation posture is one activity I can do without.

So, I meditate at home in a soft chair, and read a lot about Zen. I still have hopes that after a successful transplant I’ll have the energy to perhaps find a temple to join.

32- Different Places, Same Jail

You have to forgive me, but it’s now Tuesday, Maarch 13th, and I don’t have all that much to do as I sit around my condo in Seattle and wait for a liver. I’ve been feeling so much better, I’m even looking into getting some part time work. What with my disability insurance having run out, and the stock market going down faster than the Titanic, I’m not exactly feeling wealthy.

In any case, I remember a very unusual thing that happened to me, in 1985. As I said earlier, I left Ventura in 1968, but I didn’t mention that I’d had contact with almost nobody I’d known in California for some fifteen years. For a couple of years, I felt certain that I’d get back on drugs if I went back to Ventura, and my parents had moved out of that town before I did. My old friends frequently heard rumors that I’d either died of an overdose of narcotics, or been sent to prison for a great many years.

I did, however, make good friends in Juneau with a guy named Don Beard. Don, although I barely remembered him, graduated the year after me from Buena High, in 1966. His parents still lived in Ventura, and Don visited them freqently.

Don came back from Ventura after a Christmas vacation, and told me he’d seen Susi Rawls. He’d heard she was an excellent special education teacher at Ventura High, and the faculty advisor for the cheerleading squad. Susi was my close friend David’s little sister, and we’d been quite close. It suddenly occured to me that I could call someone in Ventura- there wasn’t any law against it!

I called information and sure enough, got a number for Susi Rawls. I dialed the phone with a great deal of nervousness and excitement, and an elderly lady answered the phone. I asked for Susi Rawls. "I’m Susan Rawls," she said. I could hardly believe it- I was only thirty-seven, we hadn’t grown THAT old. I told her I was Roper Penn, and asked if she remembered me. She didn’t say anything, so I mentioned Buena, her brother David, the Class of ‘65. "Oh," the lady said, in an annoyed voice, "you must want that young Susi Rawls. I get calls for her all the time. I’ve got no idea what her number is."

Relieved, I was still in the mood to call someone in Ventura. I’d heard my old buddy Larry Koontz taught middle school at Anacapa, my old junior high. What the hell, I said. Larry had been my best friend, why not call him?

I knew Larry would remember me, but I wasn’t sure at all how he’d feel about my calling him, but Larry was completely friendly, told me I was far from the only guy who’d left town, and told me to get my butt on down to Ventura that summer for The Class of ‘65’s twenty year reunion, which ended up being just about the greatest night of my life. Like I said, I had a whole lot of friends in high school, and since nobody had heard a thing about me in fifteen years, they made a terrible fuss over my being there.

Talking to Larry over the years has been like reading a super good, epic novel, as he and other old friends fill me in on how everybody in high school turned out. But the strangest thing by far, to me, that Larry told me, was when I first asked him if he knew what had happened to Dennis or David, the two guys I’d been such good friends with during my heavy drug days. Larry slowly searched his memory banks and slowly told me that Dennis had quite drugs entirely, had a family, including a boy who’d turned into a football star, and he’d made a career out of being a prison guard at the Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo. David, on the other hand, was still in the drug life, and he’d been for a long time a prisoner at the Men’s Colony. Dennis and David liked each other, but they never talked to one another because it might have been dangerous for David- cons, appaarently, weren’t supposed to be close friends with a guard.

I can’t express how strange it seemed to me- both my two closest partners, locked up for eight or twenty-four hours a day, in the same building. But one was a prisoner and the other was a guard.


Seattle, March 13th, 2001

You’l have to excuse me for all this philosophy, but as I said, I’m feeling a lot better and I don’t have a lot to do but wait for a liver to come my way.

I read an interesting article from "Tin House" magazine by a guy who’d had a liver transplant. He spoke about not feeling like his body was "all his" anymore, of not knowing what to say when he wrote to his "donor family"- the family of the person who died and supplied you with a liver. He wondered what his old and dying mother would think if she was clear enough to realize her son had someone else’s liver inside him, not the liver he was born with, the liver his mother and father had "given him."

A person on an airplane saw him taking all his after-transplant medications, and he told the person that he’d had a liver transplant. The person wanted to know was the liver was male or female, white or black. At that point, the man really didn’t know.

A lady in my transplant support group told a story about how she and her husband where taking a drive in the country, after her transplant, and she suddenly had an urge to ride a horse. She’d never had the slightest interest in riding a horse before, she never had ridden a horse, and her husband felt totally surprised.

Months later she learned quite a bit about the female who’d donated a liver to save her life. It turns out this female’s greatest love in life had been riding horses.

Had the liver from the horseback riding female somehow affected the recipients mind? I basically doubt it, and yet, I find myself wondering what it will be like to have somebody else’s organ inside my body, filtering every drop of blood I own. It seems to get right down to that basic question- "Who am I?"

Obviously, if brain transplants were possible, I’m sure the recipient would be a whole lot like the donor. It seems to me we are, pretty much, our brain. But the heart, for instance, is just a huge muscle with the sole job of pumping your blood. But the liver is sort of a big and ugly organs- it seems like one liver would be pretty much like another.

And yet, most all people feel an increase of energy when they get a new liver. If I got a liver from an eighteen year old boy killed in an auto wreck, might I not feel like it’s the eighteen year old inside me making me run faster, work harder, or talk instead of listening so much of the time.

What are we but our blood, our tissue, our heart, lungs, brain, liver, kidneys and all the other organs and body systems working to keep us alive? Our bones letting us stand up, our skin holding us together?

Indeed, in one very basic sense, won’t I in truth be part another person if and when I get a liver transplant? Will I be able to feel it, the same quiet way I feel death sneaking up on my current liver sometimes? Will I be more feminine if I get a female’s liver? Will I jump an inch higher on the basketball court if I get a liver from a thin, athletic, black man? Might I suddenly appreciate opera for a change?

Time, one hopes, will tell.


This is the Table of Contents for the book manuscript.

Chapter Outline JUJU

1- Bluebirds


3- Surf Mobile


5- Beer At Buena High


7- The Legend of Highsmith

8- OUCH! (green lake)

9- The Tonight Show


11- Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds


13- The Chase For Chuck


15- Why Oh Why?


17- Shame


19- Crime and Punishment


21- Up or Down?


23- Yikes! University Life!

24- Meds

25- Satisfaction


27- The Godfather


29- Brownies!