I met the man in whose chest my daughter’s heart is beating.
Jerry and his wife Laurie drove to Wickenburg to meet the mother of the organ donor who saved his life. We spent nearly five hours talking, crying, laughing and creating the beginnings of a strange and wonderful “family” connection, which I expect will last the rest of our lives.
Jerry had been having serious heart troubles since 2006. By early 2008, after several surgeries, it was clear he needed a transplant or he would not survive.
“It’s difficult to get on that list,” Jerry said. “Weeks of tests, evaluations, and more tests. Laurie and I both had to be psychologically evaluated. It was crazy.”
Finally his name was placed on the list for a heart transplant on March 13, 2008.
That very same day, March 13, 2008, I arrived in Portland, Ore., to spend Spring Break with my daughter, who was then a sophomore in college. On the morning of March 13, 2008, she and I stood at the rent-a-car window while I presented my driver’s license. Ava saw the donor sticker on my license, we had a lengthy conversation about the merits of organ donation, and she decided to become an organ donor that day.
Tell me this is coincidence, and I will tell you I have never believed in “coincidence.” I firmly believe there is purpose in everything that happens, even if we cannot see the “reason” behind it.
Her organ donor sticker, sent from the Arizona Department of Motor Vehicles, arrived less than a month after her car accident.
I haven’t met the other four people whose lives Ava saved with the loss of her own. I have received a letter from the woman who now breathes with Ava’s lungs and is able to hold her many grandchildren today because of Ava. And I am certain the people who received her kidneys, liver, and pancreas are equally grateful and happily living their extended lives. It pleases me deeply to know these lives were spared, and their families are rejoicing, because of the gifts my daughter gave.
But I learned that it is not all joy in an organ recipient’s world. There is tremendous guilt that goes along with the gifts they receive. Jerry learned that his new heart belonged to an 18-year-old person. He wasn’t told any more than that, but it brought tears to his eyes.
“I’d say it broke my heart, but it wasn’t really mine…” he tried to explain. “Why do I get to live? Why must this child die?”
Ah, the eternal questions.
I asked the same questions at my daughter’s hospital bed, when it was clear she wouldn’t survive her injuries. Through the following weeks and months of my deepest grief, I asked them repeatedly. There is only one obvious answer: because we who are left living are not done yet. We have work left to do.
Laurie and Jerry both feel this, as do I. There is much work we are meant to accomplish before it is “our time to go.”
Nearly 21 years ago, I gave birth to a beautiful, healthy baby girl. She grew, flourished, and was the joy of my life. She was everything a mother could want, and so much more. I felt, as she completed her second year of college with academic accolades and a slew of friends, that I had “succeeded” in life: I had raised a child to be a productive, well-adjusted, loving and giving adult. I rested on my laurels, a proud and happy mother.
Then suddenly the world I knew ended with one swerve of a steering wheel.
Now, nearly three years later, I am a different person. I don’t appear very different on the outside, but inside there are massive changes, not the least of which is the gigantic hole of loss. But there are a great many positive changes too, as I take on my unfinished work – that of raising a 10-year-old child, supporting my friends and family, giving a truly committed love, helping others connect to kids who need help, and sharing what I’ve come to call my “journey,” in hopes it helps other people along their own paths.
As I put my ear to his chest and listened to the steady rhythm of Jerry and Ava’s heart, my own leapt with a multitude of emotions I cannot begin to name, but an old truth was underscored: The only thing in life of real value, the only thing that is truly priceless, is love.