Last year in this country more than 6,500 grieving families said yes to organ donation. For 2011 we know many thousands more will give the gift of life. Among them: the family of Christina Taylor Green, the youngest person to lose her life in the Tuscon shootings. Only nine when she was killed, Christina came to see her congresswoman Rep. Gabrielle Giffords because she wanted to learn more about how government works. As President Obama said in his eulogy for the victims, Christina saw the world with the innocence and hope of a child.
Thanks to Christina’s parents’ decision to donate, two other children have had their sight restored. John Green, Christina’s father, says the knowledge that Christina’s corneas were able to help other children in need has been a great comfort to the family. Donation is a powerful act of generosity that affects donor families as profoundly as the recipients of their gifts.
When the unimaginable happens – a child dies – families who are able to donate can find a powerful sense of meaning even in the most senseless or tragic death. Knowing that something positive has come from your loss changes the course of grief. That’s been my experience in the wake of my daughter Maya’s death almost 19 years ago. In our case, because she was in an irreversible coma and declared brain dead, Maya was able to donate solid organs as well as tissue (including her corneas) and bone. Ultimately, our gift saved the lives of four people, restored sight for two, and may have helped upwards of 50 people with bone and tissue grafts.
Maya lives in our memories. She also continues her physical existence through the many people helped by our gift. I have been fortunate to meet two of those people – the man who received Maya’s heart, Fernando, and the woman who received her liver, Patti. Over the years, knowing Patti and Fernando has brought comfort, inspiration, and a very special bond of friendship. Both of these extraordinary people had young families at the time of their transplants in 1992. In my darkest hours, knowing that those children could still grow up with their parents soothed my heart.
A few years after Maya died, I imagined what it might be like for the two people who had received her corneas to be looking at the world through her eyes. Learning about Christina’s gift of sight brought back the feelings that inspired that poem. Here it is.
The red squirrel darts across a pine branch,
pauses, flicks its tail this way, then that.
The December day is clear and fine.
I describe this to you,
although I don’t know if squirrels
or weather interest you.
Why tell you about your sister
the clothes I still keep under my bed?
As if speech could stitch the living to the dead.
We are here, you see. Our eyes still
wander over the everyday,
gulping it down.
I imagine the gloved hands
of a surgeon, a touch
delicate as snow;
Stainless steel carving
sight out of you
grafting it to new eyes.
When she came to
did her eyes leap
to catch the world
as it ran at her?
Or, looking in
a borrowed window,
do strangers fall into the dark of you?
The Hebrew word for heaven
means “another place.”
Daughter, I think of you
in alternate space,
a membrane so thin
I could reach across
our worlds running side by side,
invisible tracks, a delicious passing
or the squirrel’s flick of tail,
first on your side, then on mine.