For as long as I can remember, my grandfather had heart problems. He had his first heart attack in 1982 followed by numerous surgeries and procedures. Despite his poor health, my grandfather had always been a rough, tough, stubborn cowboy. The kind of rough and tough cowboy who rode in a horse show ten days after his quadruple bypass when he made my grandmother wrap his chest in ace bandages and told her not to worry... As the years passed and my grandfather's heart disease progressed, it became clear the only option was a heart transplant.
I think the fact that he always seemed to recover before gave us a false sense of security. Even when he was put on the transplant list, we thought "Okay. We'll get him a transplant and he'll be fine. No problem." We had no idea what we were in for. No one ever expects to be in that situation. No one ever thinks it can happen to them. But when he was admitted to the hospital in early November, the reality of what was happening set in and the waiting truly began. The doctors and nurses did everything they could think of to try to keep his heart beating. It was a constant battle on their end to keep him alive and to try to find a suitable match.
As the weeks progressed, the waiting became almost unbearable. Every time my grandfather heard a helicopter landing he would ask, "Do you think that's my heart?" My grandmother was afraid to leave him alone. She would listen to him constantly to make sure he was still breathing. We prayed for a miracle. We prayed for a match... But knowing the cost of what a match would mean for another family made us second-guess ourselves. Who were we to hope for something like this? We constantly switched between feelings of hope, despair, frustration, guilt, and every other emotion you can name.
But on December 9, 1998, we got our miracle.
We lost my grandpa early this year to something completely non-heart related, but even in the midst of our grief we can't help but be grateful for the thirteen extra years that we got to spend with him. He lived a second lifetime in those thirteen extra years, and in that time I got to know my grandpa better than I ever had before. I think of the past thirteen years, and all of the memories that we never would have had had it not been for the ultimate gift from a stranger:
- Listening to my grandpa tell stories about when he was young...
- Walking around with me in Laguna Beach, pointing to people and joking, "My tan is better than his, right?" ;-)
- Shooting hoops with my dad before my sister's wedding...
- The times when my dad, mom, sister, brother-in-law, and the kids all loaded into our cars and made the two-hour drive to spend the weekends on the lake, hang out in the barn with my grandpa, fish off the dock, and always, always have something on the grill.
- Listening to Buddy and Ka-Diva as they talk about their Papapa (a name that my Grandpa Jim chose himself because he was their "Papa's Pa" ;-) I love that they have so many great memories of their great grandpa and that they will be able to tell Pooper and Butterfly all about their awesome Papapa who was a real cowboy.
- Having my grandpa meet Booger Bear and knowing that he got to see me "be a mom." (He didn't get to meet Monkey while he was still here, but I do believe he paid him a visit a couple of days after he passed away. That's a story for another day, but I will say that that experience left me with a huge sense of peace, and makes me smile every time I think about Monkey's "conversation" with his Papapa that night.)
- Seeing that he was still the same old, stubborn, tough cowboy, but with a few subtle changes... He was more patient than he was before, more sensitive, and more open with his thoughts and feelings. I loved sitting back and watching him and my dad grow closer than they'd ever been before as they'd just sit on my grandpa's porch and talk or work on projects around the property. I loved watching him and my grandma together... Just seeing how much they loved each other and knowing how thankful they both were to have those extra years together...
I will try to carry on their gift of life. I'll continue the chain they created when they put others before themselves. I will spread the word about the importance of organ donation and what an amazing blessing it can be to so many people. I will discuss my decision to donate with my loved ones, and encourage others to do the same. I'll share what an incredible difference that one life has made for my entire family. ...and I'll pray that, because of their influence, this life, my life, can make a difference for someone else.
On this day of Thanksgiving, I am thankful for miracles and for those who made those miracles possible with their ultimate gift of life.