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To My Organ Donor

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I took your heart and lungs to Half Moon Bay and I walked through the sand like there was nothing to it. My body remained unfazed as I sunk my feet into uneven mounds of heavy sediment. Lacy white layers of foam flowed across my path and eventually flooded my sneakers when I was caught trying to photograph the hundreds of pelicans that were attacking the surface of the water. The sky was that deep blue color you only get on perfectly clear days and the breeze was strong enough that I didn’t mind the warm weather that greeted my fog-hunting hiking companions and me. I took deep breaths, letting the fresh air fill your lungs and then I began to cry.

This will sound platitudinous, but in that moment I realized I would not be standing there without your gift. The realization of how close I came to death hit me again with new power. Because of your generosity, I stood in my soggy running shoes, the sun warming my tear-stained face as I stroked one of several vaguely heart-shaped rocks I hoarded in what became a very heavy purse in the short time it took to walk along the tide pools.

Your heart and lungs and I have spent a lot of time irritable and in pain. I have felt ungrateful and unworthy. Transplant inherently comes with tremendous loss, but it seems that every day now I discover something beautiful made possible only by our surgical merge.

I realized childhood dreams one afternoon when I took your heart and lungs running across several stretches of perfectly groomed lawns on Welch Road. My sister and I kept pace with Basil, my crazy short-legged dog who gets bursts of frantic energy after urinating on patches of grass. I kept going and going, busting through my own outdated expectations of my body’s limits.

I’m convinced Chris Martin sang “Adventure Of A Lifetime” directly to me on the night I took your heart and lungs to watch Coldplay perform in a stadium of 70,000:

Now I feel my heart beating
I feel my heart underneath my skin
And I feel my heart beating
Oh, you make me feel alive again
Alive again
Oh, you make me feel
Like I’m alive again

It’s hard to top watching a band I’ve loved for 14 years put on an outstanding show, but I was pretty stoked to realize your heart doesn’t pound painfully against my chest in the presence of loud music like mine used to. It felt incredible to be able to sing and dance without exhausting your heart and lungs; to stand without immediately getting pain in my feet; just to be alive to accept my uncle’s invitation and add the show to the bucket list I’ve formed entirely of already completed items because I was supposed to die when I was 9 and have lived on borrowed time ever since.

I took your heart and lungs to the Strawberry Canyon Fire Trail and I made a joke at my beloved sister’s expense, thankfully catching her in a moment of tolerance for my abrupt humor. I doubled over, shrieking with laughter at my own hilarity. This behavior is more common than I’d like to admit, but the ability to speak while climbing a hill and continue climbing at the same pace, even as I cackled for far too many lonely seconds, was all new.

My mom and dad took turns calling out the number on each elevation marker we passed along the winding stretch of CA-41. I sat in the back seat, nervously filing down my nails as I waited to feel a change in my breathing. But all that changed as we passed the 5,000-foot marker was the width of my grin. After a morning climb to 5,390 feet I danced with your heart and lungs at a wedding no one expected me to be able to attend. I was embraced by a stream of people with intimate knowledge of what I’m going through. Ten years ago the bride’s youngest sister, Rachael, and I sat on a sandy wall preoccupied with illness and our own mortality. At age 13, her greatest wish was to live to see both her sisters get married. On September 17, Rachael and I sat on dainty upholstered chairs at a true fairytale wedding. She hooked up an infusion over her salad plate and I periodically returned to my table to swallow handfuls of pills throughout the evening. We teased each other: me telling her how proud I had been when I learned she wasn’t the source of the mid-ceremony medical scare and her demanding to see my puffy cheeks and wherever else I could be hiding prednisone fat. A mutual recognition of the magnitude of this moment went unspoken. By living to celebrate the marriage of her eldest sister, a woman who kept me laughing and dancing through every summer camp heartbreak, we confounded doctors’ predictions and checked off a bucket list item.

You gave me your heart and lungs when you could take them no further. To honor your gift, I take your heart and lungs where mine could not go. Thank you for making me feel alive again.

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Originally published: November 5, 2016
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