Paul's surgery was Tuesday that year. It went smoothly, I suppose. Most of that day and those around it passed in a blur. I do remember that hospital--I hated it. Paul was sharing a small room, so there was no place for me to even sit, let alone stay with him. The hall smelled terrible--one of his hall mates had a serious incontinence problem. The nurses were clearly over-worked and only sporadically responded when called. Paul was in pain and, now lacking a hip joint, unable to walk or even do much physical therapy. And he was still very sick. It was miserable.
Of course, I was working that entire week, daily driving the 35+ miles between home and the office, home and the hospital...I was completely frazzled.
We didn't know exactly when Paul would come home, so we decided to put off Thanksgiving dinner until he could join us. Mom, bless her heart, still cooked a traditional meal, and my Dad made plans to drive up and join us.
Shortly after midnight, Thanksgiving morning, my beeper went off. I was called out to meet with a family at the children's hospital. Earlier that day an 18-month-old boy had been playing in his yard on the edge of a rural two-lane highway. His mother was inside the house with his newborn sister. His aunt was supervising as he and his siblings played in the unseasonable warmth and sunshine of the late afternoon. The boy's ball ran away from him and he chased it, into the road and into the path of a car traveling right at the 55 mph speed limit. The corner of the front bumper struck the boy's side and he was thrown several feet.
By the time I arrived at the hospital, the family had been there for hours. They were exhausted emotionally, physically, and spiritually. The boy's brain injury had progressed so far that nothing more could be done to save him. A ventilator kept his lungs and heart working as his brain died away. Through their crushing grief, this family had made the decision to donate the boy's organs and save the lives of others. I held their hands, gave them the information they needed, did my job. I could not go look at the boy. I concentrated my efforts on the family.
After several hours, the family encouraged the boy's mother to let go, go home, and try to sleep--or at least go home to her other children. She turned to me and said, in a voice that will haunt me for the rest of my life, "How do I go home and leave my baby? How can I do that?" I could not answer. I had no answer. All of my skills, my education, my training failed me as my mother's heart seized for her pain. I simply took her hands in mine and told her, "I don't know."
I must have said something, I remember saying something else as my professional self took control of my body. The family said their goodbyes and left the hospital. As I prepared to leave (the rest of the case now being under the charge of the organ donation coordinators), I forced myself to go into the boy's room and look at him, touch his hand. He was beautiful. Despite the ventilator tube in his mouth, the Iv's on his arms, he looked completely unscathed. His eyes were closed as if in a peaceful sleep. I had seen his records. I knew that his liver was damaged beyond repair, and that his brain was, quite simply, gone. But on the outside he was no less than perfect, already an angel. I choked back my tears, gently stroked his hand, and whispered to him, "God bless you."
Somewhere in the state, three other children and two adults were being prepared for the transplant surgeries that would save their lives.
On my way home, I turned off the radio, preferring to drive in silence. I thought of Paul in his hospital room, of my own beautiful child at home, of the generosity and love of my family during the past month. I thought of that mother and the next days, weeks, and months for her.
Suddenly, the road turned quite rough, the car became difficult to steer, and I realized my tire had blown. I was driving in a construction zone with no good place to pull over, so (as I know I shouldn't do) I drove on the tire rim until I could pull into the mall parking lot--a large, well lit space. As I pulled to a stop, the tire flew off completely, rolling a couple of hundred feet across the parking lot.
It was 5am, still dark, and cold.
I called my mom, at home with the baby. She was asleep, of course, and I remembered having turned the ringer off in her room overnight so my late-night work calls would not bother her. I called her cell phone, thinking she'd have it in her room with her. No answer. I tried again, both numbers. Still nothing. I decided to wait. Owen was an early-rising infant at the time. I figured she would be up in about an hour or so, and I would call then. It never occurred to me to call anyone else (my boss, for instance, who would have immediately sent help). So I waited in my car in the empty parking lot of the mall, watching the sun come up.
It was a gorgeous sunrise--pink, with big fluffy clouds.
Finally, she called me back, upset and worried and apologetic (as if she had any reason to be!). She had AAA. She would call them, bundle Owen up, and come sit with me. When she pulled into the parking lot, I got out of the car, slipped into the back seat, and was completely undone by the smile on my beautiful, happy, healthy, whole baby's face. I pulled her out of her car seat and held her to me while I cried--for all we had been through, for Paul, for myself, for that little boy's family, for gratitude and relief that I could hold this child and she was there smiling at me.
Tire repaired, crisis over, we went home and I went straight to bed. I heard Dad come in and heard Mom's quiet voice telling him what had happened. I heard Owen's happy play. We had lunch and then I received a call. Paul could come home later that afternoon.
That night I called the family of the boy who had died. I gave them the news that their angel had saved the lives of five individuals through donations of his kidneys, lungs, heart, and pancreas. I was amazed and awed at the grace with which they thanked me--thanked me.
We had our Thanksgiving meal that year on Friday, Owen in her high chair, my parents beside her, Paul at my side (in pain, on crutches and IV antibiotics, and unable to eat).
I have never been more grateful for such blessings in all of my life.