Slightly Insane Mom

"All mothers are slightly insane." –J.D. Salinger
June 23rd, 2014

Dear Organ Donor

Dear Organ Donor,

You died on a winter’s day in 1996. I don’t know much about you, and it’s probably best that I don’t. What I know is that you were a 36-year-old man from Connecticut, and you or a loved one made the difficult decision to donate your organs after your death. My grandfather, my Pop, got your heart. He was told at the time that optimistically, he could expect to survive maybe another 10 years with his new heart. But he managed to live for 17 years. Isn’t that wonderful? 17 years of LIFE.

You didn’t get those 17 years, Organ Donor, but Pop did. I don’t know if you’re out there, but in case you are, I thought you might like to know what he did with your gift.

George_Grace, high res

Gram and Pop in the late 1970s, working on the land they loved

He saw me, his only grandchild, graduate high school, college, and graduate school.

He celebrated the 50th birthdays of his son and daughter.

He celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary, he and Gram taking a trip to Las Vegas, a place he had always wanted to visit.

He did a lot of mundane, daily-living tasks. Mowed the lawn, changed the oil in his car. These are the things you do when you’re alive, and he did them.

He lived through some happy things. He got to see me get married. In 2007, he met his first great-grandchild. And then another in 2009, and another in 2013. His first great-grandson inherited his thick, curly hair, a gift from the Greek ancestors in the family tree. So much life, carried on through genetics.

There were some bad times, too.

He watched his children struggle with addiction. His daughter got sober, but his son didn’t. Addiction can be an ugly part of life.

As he got older, his eyesight began to fail. He had to give up driving, and then gave up mowing the lawn. He had to rely on his wife and his children more to get around.

And then he buried his wife. Two years later, he buried his only son.

Just a week before his own death, Pop learned of the death of his best friend since middle school. Can you imagine that, Organ Donor? Their friendship lasted double the length of your entire lifespan! Few people are lucky enough to have a friend of seven decades, but my Pop was one of those few. He defied the odds in so many ways.

As you may have discovered, Organ Donor, life is full of ironies. This year, after 17 years of a life lived with your heart, Pop was diagnosed with post-transplant lymphoma. The very drugs that kept his body from rejecting your gift caused him to develop an aggressive form of cancer that would be his ultimate demise.

He began to plan his death. He wanted to die at home, with the people closest to him by his side. My mother and I made plans. And on June 8, she called me and told me he was near the end. I was in the car less than an hour later, making the 5-hour drive to their house, praying I’d be in time.

That morning, he requested the oldies station–one of his last spoken thoughts. He loved music, and he was comforted by the songs of his youth. When I entered the room that evening, he briefly opened his eyes. He knew I was there, though he was too weak to speak. I held his hand, and tried not to cry. He was never one for displays of emotion.

My mom and I spent hours by his bedside as he slipped into unconsciousness. My mind drifted toward moments of gallows humor. What song would he choose to die with? “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Elvis Presley came on. It was Pop’s favorite song, and I thought, This would be a lovely song to pick. But then the song ended, and his labored breathing went on. Not the right song, apparently. Bobby Vee’s truly inane “Rubber Ball” came on, and as the backup singers chirped “Bouncy bouncy! Bouncy bouncy!” I thought, Pop, don’t you DARE die during this stupid song!

The following morning, he was still alive, so many songs having come and gone. His breathing became more shallow, the breaths farther and farther apart. I had sat with my Gram as she died a few years before–I knew this was close to the end. As his breath began to hitch, he made pained faces. We called the hospice doctor, who advised that we could administer up to 15 mL of liquid morphine. And so we did, praying that it would ease his suffering.

We watched his breaths slow. My mom perched on the edge of a chair at Pop’s bedside. I sat on the bed, gently rubbing his shin. Buddy Holly’s “Oh Boy” came on the radio. We watched Pop take a breath. We waited for another. And as we realized that we just watched him take his last breath, we broke down, overwhelmed with grief and relief and pride at having given him the ending he wanted.

Because of your gift: 17 years of extra life, borrowed from you. Life, death, birth, and finally, death–all of it, because of your gift. I hope he made you proud. I hope he used your gift well.

You died far too early, Dear Organ Donor. I hope that, wherever you are, you understand that your life, while short, was so much more than just you. Your life was Pop’s life, his family’s life, the lives of the who-knows-how-many other people who received gifts from you that day in December 1996. I can only hope that I keep living my life in a way that honors your precious gift.

With Gratitude,

A Granddaughter