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By Fred Dickey     Originally published December 24, 2012

Tomorrow, a family in Chula Vista will enjoy an American Christmas dinner blended with a small taste of Mexican tradition.

In charge of the kitchen and the turkey will be Lilia Lappinga, the matron of the house. Around the table will be her husband, three children and four grandchildren. What will be especially joyous this year will be the absence of a dreaded burden that has shadowed her every other Christmas.

This is not a traditional Christmas story of the “Deck the Halls” variety, but I like it because it’s about friendship, love and sacrifice — what we should want Christmas to be about.

It’s a story of a woman giving the gift of herself — right down to the scalpel and the blood of the operating table — so that her friend, Lilia of the paragraph above, could enjoy her family without the weight of a creeping disease on her mind.

There are two women involved here: Lilia and Laura Backe, her benefactor, friend and co-worker. They are social workers for the San Diego Regional Center for the Developmentally Disabled and have been friends for 22 years.

Lilia, now 62, knew from childhood that a genetic condition called PKD (polycystic kidney disease) might be in her future. Sure enough, that future arrived 23 years ago. Since that time, Lilia’s health became increasingly precarious. This year, her doctor told her to get ready for dialysis.

Faced with the prospect of unending blood-cleansing treatments, her only other solution was a kidney transplant. She first had to find a willing donor in good health, then the donated kidney had to match, and then her body had to accept the foreign kidney. A lot of things could go wrong or fail to happen.

Enter pal Laura. She stepped up, was tested and declared a match, and then it was nonstop to the operating room. That was in September. Today, each woman is walking around with one healthy kidney: Laura’s is her own, and Lilia’s is a gift.

“Laura is a lovely woman, a funny, loyal friend and a sincere social worker. I will be forever thankful to her,” Lilia says.

Now, it’s time to get to know Laura, one of the more compelling people I’ve met in a long time. If you don’t find Laura interesting, you’re either too narrow or I can’t write to do her justice. If candor means life as an open book, then Laura’s is an overhead projector. She not only will tell you how it is, but what it has been and what it should be. She’s as upfront as a headlight.

She’s the type who will disarm with a quip or a laser observation. And if she’s on her game, it’ll be dry as week-old bread. I can’t imagine anyone more fun to have a beer with, but I get ahead of the story because beer is a big part of it.

Laura, now 44, was raised in Chula Vista, the only daughter of four children, with a mother she was close to and a father with whom she was not. “He was a quiet man, very closed in. I never felt he would open to me. I never felt I had his approval.” Her father died when she was 16, which meant the tie could never bind.

Laura was a kid who felt she didn’t fit in, which made her a member of a very large teenage club. Her escape was alcohol, and she became a problem drinker from age 16.

She drank her way through college, which included too many years in and out of classes while she became a “career” worker at McDonald’s. She was adrift on tossing waters.

I asked if she drank in the parking lot at college. “No, I had it in my backpack.” Between classes, a stop in a washroom booth was for a quick one. “I was a functional alcoholic. I was able to drink a case of beer at night and then get up the next morning and go to work.”

It’s been said that some people drink because that’s where the party is, but Laura says, “I drank because it allowed me to join the party. I was introverted and shy, so when I drank I found I could talk and be like everybody else.”

I asked if drinking made her more social. “Well, I was just hanging around with a bunch of other drunks, if you want to call that being social. Toward the end, though, I was mainly just drinking by myself.”

I mentioned having read that alcohol is tougher metabolically on women than men. “I don’t know about that,” Laura replies, “but I could drink most of the guys under the table. I was proud of that.”

In addition, she developed another self-destructive trait, one that is a cousin to eating disorders. “I was a cutter. After I’d get drunk, the alcohol would lift my inhibitions and I’d get so depressed I’d cut myself with razors, scissors, knives, anything handy.” She pushes her sleeve back to show me scars on her arms, some that obviously required stitches.

“Self-mutilation, they call it. It’s a form of relief, of being able to act out the pain you feel inside and to punish yourself for it. When I stopped drinking, I realized I didn’t have the courage to keep cutting myself, though I wanted to. It’s a hard thing to stop. But when you’re sober, you realize how stupid it is. I became embarrassed that I had these scars.”

Sixteen years ago, positive things happened in Laura’s life: mainly a loving mother, Alcoholics Anonymous, stays in detox, a sobering DUI and probably many other things she can’t identify. Whatever it was, Laura got on the water wagon and hasn’t left it since. “I had hit bottom. [Alcohol] just wasn’t working for me anymore.” After 12 years in love with a bottle, she smashed it in the trash.

Today, she lives in her own home in National City and has taken charge of six rescue dogs. She is an active volunteer with several animal-rights groups.

“Dogs give unconditional love. When I was depressed, dogs were a reason for me to keep going because I had something to take care of. People get on me because they suspect I love animals more than people, but …”

Do you?

She laughs. “I think I do.”

You couldn’t convince the disadvantaged adults of that, the ones she watches over.

“I work with people who are ‘different’ and I found I have more in common with those people than my peers.”

I can see Laura dealing effectively with disadvantaged people and having them think, “She’s good, but she doesn’t think she’s better.”

I comment: “Many people think of social workers as … the derisive term is ‘bleeding hearts.’ You don’t seem like that.”

She purses her lips for a moment. “Well, I am, but I don’t gush.”

Once in a while — not often enough — you meet a person who throws open her psyche and says: “This is me. This is who I am.” The reason such people are rare is that it requires an honesty that most of us don’t dare embrace.

During her zigzag through life, things happened to Laura that gave her a steel backbone and a soft heart, though she doesn’t gush about it. She can leave the gushing to Lilia Lappinga, who doesn’t spare the praise for the friend who gave up part of her body so Lilia could be whole on this Christmas.

If you called Laura an angel of mercy, she’d scoff and say you were crazy. But I’m not so sure you would be.

Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at [email protected].