One of my favorite stories of an infectious book – pardon the really bad pun – happened in a Sunday School Room turned dressing room of Paisley Abbey a few years ago. Our chorus was doing an afternoon performance in this gorgeous venue which was also a bit short on private space, so our soloist for the Stabat Mater, a lovely Irish mezzo called Una McMahon, was crammed in with us regular singers, up a very, very narrow and treacherous spiral slate staircase in a long narrow attic room. She was sitting alone, as the other singers were giving her space, but I thought she was just a ringer from another choir, so I settled in at the otherwise empty table with her, my book in hand… whereupon she leaned across the table and grabbed my arm. “Have you read this book?” she asked, holding up THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS by Rebecca Skloot. “Um, no,” I began, intending to tell her my mother’s book club was reading it – but I never got in another word. She was off, so grateful that someone had breached her isolation so she could tell them… It was THE BEST book she had ever READ and I had to go to Waterstones at the tea break and get it IMMEDIATELY and what they did to this POOR WOMAN’S REMAINS was absolutely CRIMINAL, but she had SAVED so many PEOPLE and there was this total ethical stew about it, and people ought to really THINK before they do this type of thing, and… and…
I wanted to hug her delight. I wanted to go trekking across the city (and it was pouring down buckets, so let me tell you about how committed I was feeling) to find a bookstore and get it, right away. When was the last time you felt like grabbing a virtual stranger and pressing a book into their hands? I loved her enthusiasm so very much, and it’s stuck with me these years later.
And as Oprah Winfrey has finally finished her seven-year project to bring this story to film, Mrs. Henrietta Lacks is on my mind again. They stole the cells from her body before it was returned to the family. The lab people nonchalantly went on, working from “material” they had to produce life-saving cells to test Jonas Salk’s virus on. It wasn’t illegal, necessarily. But to keep her family from knowing her contribution to science – because she was the “unimportant” bit – was a bit unfeeling, to say the least.
Long live the immortal cells, and the work that scientists do – and long live the human contribution. May we tenaciously cling to our humane-ity.
epigraph on an immortal life
a theft before her body cooled, fair game in laboratory hands
those bold, immortal cells a boon each scientists could understand
with no permission sought, unknown this treasured life bloomed, undeterred,
her DNA a cornerstone and life to others has conferred.