A room full of people, a room full of stories. That’s what we encountered the other night. It was the opening ceremony of the Transplant Games in Cleveland, Ohio. Attended by over 6,000 people from 40 different teams around the country, there were recipients, living donors and donor families, a term given to those who lost loved ones and even in their time of acute grief, decided to donate their loved ones’ organs and tissue. You can read the open letter I wrote to Wendy’s kidney donor’s mother here.
The emcee for the evening started the event by saying, “We are all here tonight because a difficult decision was made.” It’s important to get it out there right away, because it was the elephant in the room. Everyone was there because of a donor. Now there are living donors, and that is no small feat, someone who willingly gives a piece of themselves, literally, to keep someone else alive. They are not only honored at the games, but they are invited to compete as well. More than that, however, are the donor families that need to be honored for their loss. Lives were cut short, and lives were extended. Just because it is a celebration of life, hell, the name of the event is the Donate Life American Transplant Games, doesn’t meant that there aren’t hundreds of people hurting because they have lost someone whom they loved. They wore their loved ones on pins, they posted their pictures on placards, they wore necklaces. I spoke to a woman who told me all about her son who died when he was in his early twenties, and she said to me, “His friends are all getting married and having kids and I miss him every day. Every day it hurts.” The emotions will always be raw for them, but it helps ( I hope) to have them see that their loved ones helped to extend the lives of so many more. That’s what the games are all about.
This was the first time we went to the games and I had to really think about what we were going to say about donor families and what “giving life” really means. Before the opening ceremonies we talked a little with the kids about Wendy’s donor and how he died and how his parents decided to donate his organs, and that it was likely that they were going to hear a lot of those stories tonight. The stories would be emotional, but they are powerful and important to bear witness to them. And, of course, we could talk about it after if they had any questions.
But this is hard stuff. Life is messy. This topic is something you don’t often talk about, and here we are sitting in a room full of people, an AUDITORIUM of people, talking about it. When a story came up on the screen about a father who donated his son’s organs after he had an asthma attack, Penny leaned over and said, “This is one of the stories you warned us about, Mom,” as she held my hand.
Here is the thing that goes along with this knowledge, that people died and their organs were donated: Palpable gratitude. An auditorium full of grateful people: recipients and those who love them. Families and friends. Whole teams of people who have gotten together to celebrate this extension of life.
And these people are competing and attempting sporting events they might not ever have done before, because they were given a second chance. I have lots more stories, there will be more blog posts about these games because I’ve learned a lot in the past few days about community through resilience, about the power of multiple generations coming together, about giving voice to the pain and the grief and the gratitude all at once. About how your story is just a part of the thousands of other stories, creating a mosaic of meaning.
I’m going to say one more thing before I close. Register to be an organ donor so that your loved ones don’t have to make the decision. Over and over again, I heard how much easier it was for them to donate their loved ones’ organs because they knew it was what the person wanted.
Don’t make your loved ones make that decision. Make it for them, so they can just follow your wishes.
More to follow.
Photo: The Auditorium at the Donate Life Transplant Games, waiting for everyone to arrive.