A story of connection and community

Guest Column

Guest Column • Lisa Herendeen Wojtowicz
I once read that writers and novelists like to live and create their stories in small, close-knit communities. These towns, where everyone knows each other, make good settings for stories of connection and human drama. The following story is like that and it is set in my former town, Metuchen.

I have been thinking about community a lot since I recently moved from Metuchen, to northern California’s sprawling car culture. California is wonderful in so many ways, but it appears that it is much harder to find established communities here, like Metuchen.

In my old town, Metuchen, the houses are close together and have detached garages. What they may lack in status and comfort, compared with California homes, they make up for in architecture that is an enabler for creating a loving community. Sadly, most Americans have believed for the last several decades that big houses and wealth would bring happiness. In New Jersey, this pursuit of wealth is evidenced by a proliferation of McMansions built on former cow pastures. I call these houses temples of narcissism, because this type of architecture and the layout of these communities (without sidewalks and communal spaces) forces people to live separate lives and makes them oblivious to the lives of people around them.

But my story is about the opposite of oblivious self-absorption. My friend and former neighbor, Ellen Greenberg, lives on one of those small Metuchen streets where people walk a lot on their way to town, the train or school. People walk a lot and chat with each other, which is important because that is how Ellen knew that her neighbor two doors down, Rainer Luerrsen, needed a new kidney.

Ellen is a busy mom with two small children, and Rainer and his wife, Ellie, are in their 50s and their son is grown. They are of different religions and ethnic backgrounds. They are friends because they live in the same neighborhood. Everyone in the neighborhood knows Ellie and Rainer because they are fun and always have the beer keg on their porch during the block party. We knew that eight years ago Ellie gave Rainer her kidney, when his began to fail. That surgery came at an emotional time because their close friend, a NYC firefighter, had just died in the 9/11 attacks.

Now eight years later, that kidney was failing and none of the other family donor options were working out. Rainer had to go for dialysis to keep him alive. A couple of days later Ellen’s cousin died tragically in New York City, when he was struck by a bike messenger and killed instantly at age 50. Ellen, in spite of her grief, remembered her neighbor and arranged for her cousin’s kidney to be donated to Rainer. Miraculously, the two men’s blood and tissue types matched, and now Rainer has a new kidney and a new lease on life. And a small part of Ellen’s cousin lives on.

If Ellen had lived in a different neighborhood, she might never have known that her neighbor needed a kidney, or not known at the right time, and the story would not have had a good ending. Instead, this lifesaving transplant is a comfort to Ellen and her family. It was a cause for celebration at our annual block party, which my family and I flew back for. And although it rained, everyone was in a good mood because Rainer is doing well, and it is good to feel connected to a neighborhood.

Lisa Herendeen Wojtowicz, of Woodside, Calif., is a former Metuchen resident, therapist and storyteller.