By Mark Liebenow
In late April we gather our dead and cry. For some it has been a year since our lives were ripped apart, for others barely a month. Emotions are on edge.
We are the families of those who died and donated their organs, and we have gathered at Chabot College in Northern California to honor our loved ones. My mother-in-law Marjorie has come with me. She is doing better after burying Evelyn, her youngest child and my wife, and is back to running the office of her retirement community.
I think of Tom Hanks in the movie Cast Away. He went to college here at Chabot, and there is a life-sized cutout of him in the lobby. He plays a man who struggles to survive physically and emotionally after his plane crashes in the Pacific Ocean. In one scene, before learning how to make a fire, he eats a raw, gelatinous fish. The look in his eyes as he chews is of a person wondering what’s the point when it’s unlikely he will ever be rescued. I know that look. When he gets back home years later, his wife has remarried, so he begins a new life with what he has left. I sense he will be happy, and wish that life was like it is in the movies.
Reg Green is the main speaker and talks about the desperate need for organ donations. The wife of my friend John was one of those who died waiting. In 1994, robbers killed Green’s seven-year-old son, Nicholas, when the family was vacationing in Italy. He and his wife donated their son’s organs to seven Italians. Because of their selfless act, the organ transplant movement finally took hold in that country. Donations doubled and thousands of people are alive because of them. A movie was made about it, Nicholas’ Gift, which starred Alan Bates and Jamie Lee Curtis. “Each year in the U.S.,” Green says, illustrating how often even the very young die, “five thousand families donate the organs of a child.”
After his speech, the smiling face of each donor in a time of happiness fills the large theater screen, and a hush settles over us. Music fills the auditorium as image after image bring back the childhood joy of Danielle, age fifteen, red bandana on her head; Dexter, two years old; forty-eight-year-old Bill with a Fu Manchu moustache; Maribel, a young mother dead at twenty-six; three-year-old Eddrick in his new sweater; nine-month-old Alexandre in knitted cap; and the photos and names of one hundred and forty others, including Evelyn’s, her face shining with hope.
Ev died in her forties of an unknown heart problem, and I think of the dreams we had for our future that now lie in ruins. In the memorial booklet I read the words I wrote that begin: “Evelyn’s soul was sweet like dawn in the Sierra Nevada. She was intoxicating like alpine air. The light in her eyes illuminated the dark paths through the forest of my heart….”
When the video ends, we sit in stunned silence, hit hard by the loss of so many vibrant people who once lived in our neighborhood of the Bay Area. I hear soft crying around me. Applause starts quietly, ripples across the auditorium, and surges in crescendo. Now people are standing and cheering for our loved ones, for their great and final sacrifice, and the roar gives me goose bumps.
We turn and applaud each other, because we have also done something noble. When our world was crashing down around us, we thought about the lives of others. Hundreds of people are alive today because of what we did, and their families were spared our grief. I choke up when I realize that Evelyn did not die in vain.
We share with the people around us what made our loved ones special. A woman in a fur coat shows photos of her husband to a heavily tattooed man in worn blue jeans who shows her pictures of his daughter. Differences no longer matter. People of all races and economic levels share their hearts and sorrow with each other.
This is not the future we dreamed. We did not want our loved ones to die so that others could live. We did not want to face the decision to let strangers cut into their bodies and take parts out.
But the recipients of some of those organs are here today, people who were hours from death, and they make it very clear just how grateful they are that we did.
Mark Liebenow’s writings on grief have been published in a variety of journals, including “Madonnas” and “Grief Walkers” in The Manifest-Station. His book about hiking in Yosemite to deal with his wife’s death, Mountains of Light, was published by the University of Nebraska Press. His essays have been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and named a notable essay by Best American Essays 2012. His grief website is http://widowersgrief.blogspot.com. Twitter @MarkLiebenow2