The call could come at any time. During dinner, while the clothes are drying, at a Walmart checkout line, 45 minutes into a movie, in the middle of rush hour traffic or in the middle of the night; restlessly sleeping as we’ve now become accustomed. There’s no telling where or how we’ll be, which is an impossible state to find comfort in. But then again, this isn’t a game of comfort or convenience or calculations. I’m sure the events will come as much of a surprise to you and your world as it will to us and ours. For all we know, you’ll also be sitting at the dinner table for Sunday leftovers or folding three loads of laundry or picking up your kids from school or coming home from spring break spent at your in-law’s cabin in Tahoe. The call could come at any time and under any circumstance, bringing us together in a clash of events that will forever hence be our eternal kinship. You’re going to give my wife your lungs and a second life. And all we’ll know of you is that you didn’t see death coming.
I guess I should start by telling you a little bit about Mackenzie. She is the eldest of two gentle brothers and one amazing sister who all love her like the mother she sometimes is to them. She loves the Fall more than most things and is sensitive to foul language. Babies and puppies make her cry, fart jokes make her laugh, and just about any song on the radio will make her sing. Her diet mainly consists of cold cereal and things you put syrup on, but she can bake almost anything from scratch and have it come out perfect. She isn’t perfect herself, mind you, but she’d be the first one to tell you that. She’d also be the first one to laugh at your failed attempt at a joke. She’s kind that way. She’d be the first one to hold your hand and cry with you, the first one to stand up for you to a bully and the first one to look on the bright side of an otherwise dark day. She’s the first to forgive me, the first to forget my failings, and is always the first responder to my many rescues. And she’s the last woman I ever plan to love.
After about a year of progressive breathing problems, Mackenzie was diagnosed with a terminal lung disease (a rare form of pulmonary hypertension) in August of last year. She was 28. We were married only a few weeks, still wearing the tans from our honeymoon. What followed was a whirlwind of appointments, tests, insurance claims, insurance nightmares, unopened medical bills, prayers, pleadings, fights, compromises and tears, lots of tears. And now, barring other “what if’s” still in the works, we’re anticipating this last portion of our pre-transplant journey in our near future; the point where our stories meet.
Yes, some distance in the possibly close future, our worlds will both shake; yours with tragedy, ours with joy. Somewhere you sit, unaware that, while your breaths go uncounted, hers do – waiting for your relief. Somewhere you sit, hopefully among your loved ones, sharing the relative ease that comes with disease-free living. Somewhere you sit, going through your inbox, unaware of this letter being written to you that I so much want you to read but never will. Because by the time we know your name, know your story and meet your family, it’ll be long passed the possibility of meeting you. But rest in peace and rest assured. Your untimely ending is to be our beginning of a wild future.
In the first days following your donation, my wife will be able to take in her first unassisted, deep breath – something she hasn’t done for a long time now. She’ll be able to sit up, walk, and dress without being tethered to oxygen. I’ll be able to kiss her lips without feeling tubes on her face. And I imagine she’ll feel whole again, human again.
In the year following, we’ll be able to settle into a life of somewhat normalcy. Maybe we’ll both decide to go to grad school or buy a home or finally take that cliché backpacking trip through Europe. Also in that year following, we anticipate opening the possibility of becoming parents. Exactly what that discussion will be like and what options it will afford us, I don’t know. But it’s an eventuality I’ll fight long and hard for, knowing how deserving Mackenzie is of being a mother, how instinctual her devotion is. And knowing how fiercely single-minded she will be in her love for our children.
In the five or ten or twenty years following, there will be mortgages and dance recitals, root canals and senior proms, flooded basements and maybe even marriage counseling, which I’ll be resistant to at first but later thankful for (because it’ll most likely be my fault anyway). There will be skinned knees, watercolor paintings on refrigerator doors, Christmas Eve traditions, children going off to studies abroad and an altogether full life of intense beauty and complication that will awe us and simultaneously tempt us away from the things that matter most.
And in the thirty or more years following, when I’ve finally come to terms with my gray hair and love handles, I’ll take Mackenzie’s hand in mine for perhaps the millionth time and, in the silence between us, I’ll hear her breaths pumping through your lungs. And that’s where you’ll always remain, a part of her and a part of us and a part of our children and our families and friends beyond that. Because you will have given my wife what they or I could never give her. I would give her my hands, for she would perform better work with them than I, touch and comfort more lives. I would give her my heart to keep her precious blood flowing in and out of her able limbs, for she would do better with it than I, go farther and serve more. I would give her my own lungs to prolong the sweet words she shares; words without envy, without guile, without pretense or self-purpose. For as hard as I try to speak of things higher and beyond myself, she would form better words with my air than I. Nevertheless, only you, somewhere living and working and breathing, can fulfill what love alone cannot.
And yet, even after all that; after the years and careers and grandchildren and on and on, we too will expire from this world, hopefully leaving behind a legacy as reaching as yours. And when all else is gone, the root of your gift will still ring. Because the things that outlive our bodies are our choices, our love, kindness, charity, and the memories left to our loved ones who will live on and on in our absence. Whoever you are and whatever you’ve been through, we don’t hope for your death any more than I’m sure you don’t hope for hers. But death isn’t the point, is it?
Even if death takes Mackenzie too soon, as it will have already taken you and eventually me, there’s that bit that remains, that ensures all is well. That portion where love and kindness and charity springs, which makes laughter sweet to hear and life too insatiable to merely spectate. That space that will still exist, even after death has made its wash of us; after time and experience has scraped hollow the rest and planted itself triumphant. There will still be that glint of light to carry on the spirit of life brought from death. The leaves that turn from green to gold and gold to brown and, in time, fall to feed the earth; another season and another bloom promised. And on and on and on.