By Kate Kerry Spencer
How do you thank someone for saving your life at the cost of losing their own?
Soldiers save people they have never met, in countries where they have never lived. Firefighters run into burning buildings at the very moment that those who are able to escape are running out. Ordinary people, when faced with the split second choice of saving just themselves or rescuing others will often put themselves in danger to save even a single stranger.
Human beings are absolutely capable of extraordinary acts of selfless courage and heart wrenching generosity. Many of them will never know the names, let alone the lives, of those whom they saved. Among these brave, generous people are organ donors, who literally give a part of themselves for the chance that another may live.
Gabe* was one of those people. Gabe had everything going for him: a close, loving family, good friends, plans for the future, and his whole life waiting just around the corner.
He never made it to that corner. Gabe took his own young life. He had his reasons, he had his suffering. He had what he likely believed to be the solution for the end of that suffering. Of course, all of this is conjecture on my part, and solving of a puzzle that is all missing pieces. The biggest, most poignant missing piece is Gabe himself.
When Gabe died, his heart went to my husband who had been waiting years for a transplant. When we heard the story of how this young heart made its way to its second home, we wept like children, we wept like ancients. The thought of this young, beautiful boy gone so soon was heartbreaking. We could only imagine the bottomless well of grief felt by Gabe’s parents and family. Almost simultaneous to the grief of Gabe’s parents was the profound relief and gratitude of the recipients of Gabe’s organs. In one young man’s passing, five lives were saved.
While thankfulness is only one element of the miraculous experience of transplant, we thank Gabe’s parents for their selfless, grace-filled choice to allow their son’s organs to bring additional years to the lives of total strangers.
When people are very young like Gabe was, almost all of their major life learning is ahead of them. They can’t yet know how much life changes as we live it, because they have had so few of those years to live any life at all. They do not know that people, millions of them every day, live through and beyond what feels completely unlivable. It’s not a question of courage; it’s a question of time.
What we can only learn by living through a wrenching emotional storm is that our lives are fundamentally entwined with the tides. We don’t need to live near the ocean to carry this truth within us: the tide goes out, the tide comes in, the tide always turns. So does life, with all of its glorious, sorrowful, exacting beauty.
Often, it takes living through something terrible to know you can live beyond it too. Young, old or somewhere in the big between, we are all called to stop, wait and listen for the tide to turn.
In every life there are years that ask the questions and years that answer those questions. I wish with all my heart that Gabe had gotten those years.
Tonight, when the day has wound itself down to quiet, find a soft, welcoming place to sit. Put your hand on your heart and feel its life force steadily beating within you. If you have any heart health issues, use this time to also reassure your heart that you will care for it, and yourself, in the most consistently loving way possible.
With each inhalation, imagine all the life-giving energy of the heart filling your entire being with its life. With each exhale, imagine all the worries of the day receding, like the tide heading out to sea. Remember, the tide always turns.
* Donor name changed and details omitted to protect privacy.
Kate Kerry Spencer is a Pacific Northwest writer, editor, and publisher. Learn more about her upcoming memoir, Smoke: A Story of Love, Lies and Cigarettes.
Smoke is the story of fatal consolations--tobacco, denial and deceit--and the second chances that can come to us in the most unlikely places. For this mother and daughter it was a rehab center where the two women wrestled with cigarettes, scrambled brains and each other--and in the process, found the long way back to love.