Thursday, July 10, 2008

Give Life

I went to a funeral of a friend with my oldest daughter, Molly, this morning. It was the perfect kind of funeral, a true celebration of Beverly’s life. I tend to get pretty emotional at funerals, and this was no exception. The fact that Beverly was only a couple of years older than I and left behind children and grandchildren who are my children’s contemporaries made it very real to me. Molly, of course, had Kleenex for me.

Molly and her family will leave tomorrow for the Transplant Games in Pittsburg, PA. Robert, now twelve, will compete against transplant survivors from all over the United States, perhaps the world. He is certain that he’ll bring home gold medals in tennis and swimming with the kind of cockiness that twelve year olds have when they don’t have any idea what the competition might be like. He truly is an excellent swimmer and tennis player, and I won’t be surprised to see him do really well.

Robert’s life is the gift of not only his biological parents, but also of his uncle, John, who is married to Molly’s sister, Katie. When he was four, he became really, really sick, really, really fast. He went from being a toddler with a tummy ache to a dying child on life support in less than a week. On the night before he was to receive his liver transplant, I was certain that if I left his side I might not feel his chubby little hands again till they were cold.

I walked over to the hospital where John was being prepped for surgery, just to touch base with him and let him know that we were praying for his safety. I confess, though, that my heart was still at the hospital with Robert, my first, and only, grandchild at the time. I was certainly much less certain than his mother, and John, that Robert was going to survive the surgery. That was before I got to John’s bedside.

I’ve known John since he was in grade school, a classmate of Molly’s. He was always cute, full of energy, and often in trouble, sometimes even serious trouble. Now he was married to Molly’s younger sister, Katie. I’m sure some eyebrows were raised when they became engaged, questioning the ability of this rebel to settle down and be a family man. I never really had those thoughts, though, because I knew that he loved Katie. The signs were all there. From the time they met, he drove back and forth to Louisville almost every weekend until she moved back to Memphis. He had fit into our family gatherings and brought me to tears laughing at myself and my family on many occasions.

Now, John and Katie were expecting their first baby in a matter of weeks, and John was lying on a gurney joking with the hospital staff like they were family.

The transplant doctor had told us that he selected John partly for his fit body and robust health, but more for his daring, no-big-deal attitude. John told Dr. Grewald that “the kid will never make it to an Ivy League school without my liver”, and that sealed the deal. Now we were just waiting for the results of blood tests to tell us what diseases John might have dormant in his body that could be potentially fatal to my grandson. When I mulled over his former rather wild lifestyle, I wondered whether he would be cleared.

John’s bloodwork was pristine, even if his reputation was not. He had never had ANY diseases, not even ones that Robert had had at age four. When I left John’s bedside, I went home to the first peaceful night’s sleep I’d had in a week. It was all going to be fine. He had enough vitality to share with Robert, and with all of us.

Robert’s recovery was a textbook case. He was the first child recipient of a portion of an adult living liver in Memphis, and within twenty-four hours, he was up in a rocker, albeit with many, many tubes coming out of his small body, and asking for a sip of Grammy’s iced tea.

John struggled a bit more. After emerging from a hellacious dose of sedation for the long surgery, he began bleeding, and had to undergo a similar experience all over again. Through it all, John’s parents and a very pregnant Katie were right there with him, while the rest of us reveled in the miracle of Robert’s recovery. A few weeks later, John and Katie’s precious baby girl arrived. Other than fussing a bit about some stitches working their way through, John has never seemed to be anything other than gracious and modest about this greatest gift. He is still “Peck’s Bad Boy” at times, teasing and playing with all of us, but he is the most generous person I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. Robert’s confidence in his potential for winning may come from John’s liver.

I like to hope that I could be as brave as John, but in my heart, I know I would have been too terrified even to offer to undergo the surgery. I kind of secretly thanked my lucky stars that I was too old. John had been a multi-gallon blood donor for many years before he volunteered to be Robert's liver donor, and who knows how many others are out there because of his gift of life. His generosity has influenced many others to sign those driver’s licenses or donor cards in his honor.

I wish we were going to be at the games this week. The sight of a stadium full of organ recipients is unlike any other. I know Robert will honor John with a note, and perhaps a gold medal. I honor and bless him along with Robert today.



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