Three years ago today, on my mom’s birthday, I received a call that punched me in the gut during a business lunch: It was my dad, letting me know that a possible donor heart had been found for him.
In the business of heart transplantation, the person in need of the heart lives in a kind of limbo as a name on a registry of potential recipients. My dad was fairly high on the registry because of the severity of his condition, but many months had passed since he was placed there. And until that phone call, every time his name showed up on my caller ID, my stomach would do a flip.
My lunch partner, a client, had the uncomfortable job of watching me cry into my sushi after I hung up. As I apologized for my blubbering, I remember him saying, “It’s okay. This is real life!” He was exuberant, and I knew what he meant: It’s so easy to forget that life isn’t a collection of errands and pastimes and lunch dates and things that merely add up to a day and another day and another one after that.
En route to the hospital, I picked up my kids from school. They were giddy as just-fed hamsters, not being old enough to fully grasp the complexity of what was happening. I’d say the glee was slightly more than they show at the county fair when I let them eat cotton candy, and slightly less than they show on Christmas morning. Gently I explained that our excitement came at a very high cost: Their grandpa was about to gain a heart because someone had died, and the surgery he was about to have was incredibly serious. It was important to me that they regard the gift much differently than ones left under Christmas trees. This was no Lego set or American Girl doll. This was real life.
Once at the hospital, I realized the kids would need some diversions. There would be hours of waiting for screening results. The surgery itself could take well over a dozen hours. So, I left to buy some coloring books at a drug store up the road. On my way back in, waiting by a set of interior elevators that would take me up to my dad’s room, I overheard a somewhat hysterical conversation taking place between two women. They were huddled together on a bench, shoulder to shoulder, heads bowed. One was telling the other what a beautiful thing she’d done, what an amazing choice she’d made. She said to take comfort in it, because it meant someone else out there would get a chance to live. The sobbing was unbearable. My chest dropped into my ankles. Was this the donor’s loved one?
Because his donor’s survivors opted not to respond to the letter my dad was allowed to write several months after surgery, we still don’t know who my dad’s donor was. We might not ever know. But I have my suspicions.
The day my dad had his transplant, there was an accidental death here in town, a young woman hit by a car. I read about it in the news the next day, noting how close the time of death was to the time my dad got his call. Was it her? My dad’s donor was classified as “high risk,” which can mean any number of things, one of the typical ones being a history of IV drug use. The obituary of the woman whose death was reported in the news included a request that donations be made to a foundation for diabetes research. Surely she’d been a diabetic. Did she receive insulin by IV?
I don’t actually know if this woman was my dad’s donor, but I feel sure that those women in the hospital atrium were her loved ones. So, I feel sure she was somebody’s donor. That’s why I keep a photo of her on my desktop. For the past three years, her face has greeted mine at some point nearly every day, every time I fire up the machine where I write these words. Every time I look at her face, cupped in her own hands with a playful light in her eyes, I say a little prayer for her and the people she left behind. I wonder if she did what she wanted to do before she died. I feel grateful. And sometimes I linger a little longer on the picture, remembering that this is real life. We each get just one to call our own. Mine is nobody else’s, and I get to choose what becomes of it, at least until I die and leave a little piece of it to someone else.