April is Donor Awareness month and a time to promote the DONATE LIFE movement. The term “Donor Awareness” serves to remind us of the thousands of people awaiting life-saving organ transplants. I am eternally grateful to the Goetz family for donating the heart of their precious daughter and sister, Jody to me more than 21 years ago. And I continue to thank my “kidney sister,” Jennifer Lund for rescuing me from renal failure in May, 2005, nearly 11 years ago. I love the logo and label DONATE LIFE as a representation for the miracle that transplantation is. During my transplant journey I learned a lot about the gift of life and how each of us can give life every day.
Although we frequently equate life with the body, the gift of life reflects something far beyond an organ donation. With my transplants, I received more than new organs. I gained a certain vitality, energy if you will from many sources. After the heart transplant I noticed the over 250 cards and notes some sent from people I didn’t know or had never met. My mother set them out anywhere she could find a spot; on bookshelves, window sills, on top of the television, nightstand, my desk, and on the kitchen counters. Each one gave me a spark of energy, of life. I felt loved knowing that people thought enough of me to take the time to purchase a card and write encouraging words. Other folks brought food, visited and sat with me, arose before dawn to transport and accompany me on clinic visits. In fact, each woman in a support group I belonged to many years ago in Detroit took a week of vacation time to care for me when my mother’s family leave ran out. They traveled by bus, train, airplane, crossing over during weekends like nurses changing shifts in the hospital. They cooked meals, made beds, washed clothes, propped up pillows, entertained visitors, talked with nurses and handed me pills with water. Each friend brought me the gift of life by sharing extraordinary love in their ordinary actions.
This scenario was repeated with slight variations after I spent a month in the hospital in 2003 in heart transplant rejection, after surgery for a kidney transplant in 2005, and heart valve replacement surgery in 2006. People brought lunch and dinner for weeks. I felt soothed by the nourishing, life-giving food that neither Warren nor I had to prepare. Other friends and acquaintances offered respite time for Warren by taking him fishing or allowing him to go to the barbershop, run errands or tinker with his photography. They sent books, quotes, emails, and pictures, while allowing me to rest when I needed to. Again the loving energy conveyed in these acts of kindness enlivened me.
I realized that people do not have to be seriously ill for me to give life. A certain zest is exchanged when I smile and acknowledge a stranger. Or if I am intentionally kind to an anonymous, fatigued clerk in the store, I know I convey a vivacity that spreads like a virus spurring energy from person to person. When I take a moment to listen deeply, to take a genuine interest in another person I know my action triggers a certain verve. Now I enjoy accompanying family and friends to medical appointments and outpatient procedures. Besides paying the kindness extended to me back, there’s a certain joyous contentment that pervades our time together.
Perhaps the larger theme embedded in the Donate Life campaign is that there we have so much life to give. We come alive when we connect and share whatever we have with others whether it is an organ transplant, food, time or joy. Warren, a site leader for a community garden, likes to grow organic vegetables for our table and also for the local food pantry. Each year the Stone Mountain Community garden donates about 1000 lbs. of fresh, organic vegetables for people with vouchers standing in line to feed their families. I like to pray and send positive vibes to strangers. I recently encountered Mary who like me was recovering in the heart catheterization lab during my annual heart transplant check-up. Her husband told me she was going to need surgery for an aneurysm they had discovered in her heart. I assured him I would pray for her. Other times I create names like “Bob,” “Tim,” “Gloria,” or “Susan” for the homeless people with signs on the side of the road or pushing grocery carts with their belongings down the street and add them to my prayer list. I believe when I pray I am sending each person some life energy. Helping, giving time, love, and energy or praying for others promotes life. On the contrary I notice that confrontations and conflicts that I might have in person or on the phone sap my energy.
Often as a culture, we tend to reserve the giving spirit for certain times of the year like Thanksgiving and Christmas. But look at the countless ways we can “donate” or give life to others. Possibly you’ve considered becoming an organ donor and have signed up on the Donate Life website. Thank you. Maybe you cannot donate or have not encountered a situation where an organ was needed. Yet opportunities to give life abound and in giving life, you receive it back—you observe in yourself a certain vigor and vitality that may have been absent before. It is in the giving spirit that you truly receive the gift of life.
C. S. Lewis said, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of your self less.” I would add that instead of trying to get more out of life, when I give more life it returns to me more than ten fold. And to give life in all the ways it has been given to me leads me to the peace and joy in my heart.