Meeting the man with Maya’s heart

Two years after my 19-year-old daughter Maya was killed in a freak accident, I met the recipient of her donated heart: a middle-aged Chilean businessman, his wife, and their two children. My book Swimming with Maya describes that initial meeting and the friendship that grew from it, a bond that changed the course of my grief and my life.

In May of 1994, I called our donor coordinator. I intuitively felt that meeting the man with Maya’s heart would help me move on, even though I had no idea how.

Our coordinator, Shelley, told me that only two days earlier Fernando had asked to meet me. What were the odds?  Our meeting would take place at the headquarters of the California Transplant Donor Network in San Francisco. Both our donor coordinators would be there. We were to meet on Memorial Day.

When Fernando’s eyes met mine for the first time I was overwhelmed with tongue-tied shyness. I did not know how to greet him, so I simply extended my hand. He clasped it and then pulled me into an embrace that lasted several long moments. As my head rested against his jacket I found myself weeping, and through that sound, I heard the steady beat of Maya’s heart in his chest.

“You have given me a part of yourself,” Fernando said as hugged me and stroked my hair. “The child who lived in you is living in me. I have so much respect for what you have done.”

When Fernando and I ended our embrace, his wife Penny took me in her arms. “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have a husband,” she said. “There are no words to thank you.” The couples’ two children stood beside their parents staring up at me.

That meeting marked a sea change in my grief journey. I could no longer pretend that Maya was simply away on a trip from which she would somehow miraculously return. Fernando had given me proof that my daughter was dead – but not entirely. Her vitality made it possible for him to live his life in ways he had been unable to do for a decade. I not only heard Maya’s beating heart in his chest, I sensed her presence as vividly as if she were standing next to me in that room.

At subsequent meetings, our conversations were tender and painful, full of his overwhelming gratitude and my wild swings between grief for Maya and joy for Fernando. But after our third meeting in 1996, I decided that it was better for me not to meet with him again. Unless I could let go of Fernando, I would never be able to fully let Maya go and reconstruct my life.

Over the years, Fernando and I stayed in touch through emails and phone calls. I learned to incorporate Maya’s life so deep in memory that she became the water I swam in and the air I breathed each day. I no longer needed physical reminders as I once did.

Maya’s heart saved Fernando’s life, and meeting him saved mine. Fernando lived 14 years beyond his transplant. We remained friends until he died of cancer in 2006.

If you would like to consider becoming an organ donor, transplant professionals recommend that you:

  • Talk to your family about your decision. Family members will be approached at the time of your death if organ donation is a possibility, and they will need to give consent.
  • Sign a donor card. You can find out about the laws governing donation in your state by visiting www.shareyourlife.org, the Donate Life America website. You can register to become a donor on the site.
  • Educate yourself and others about donation. Debunk any myths you might have heard.
  • Tell others about donation. One gift can save up to seven lives, and tissue donation can improve the lives of dozens more.

 

 

Fan Letter

I am blessed by wonderful friends. A number of them are women young enough to be my daughters. Today, I opened my mailbox to find a letter from one of them, Kelli Jones. It was a fan letter, a love letter, a blast of encouragement strong enough to make me vow to write every single day for the rest of my life.

Kelli was responding to my post about the 21st anniversary of Maya’s death. I need to tell you that Kelli is pregnant with her third child, a son, due a month from now. She and her husband Gordon already have two beautiful little girls, so for Kelli (as for all young parents who read Swimming with Maya) the book is an invitation to imagine the unimaginable. I am in awe of young mothers like Kelli who read the book and live inside its raw emotion – they are brave!

Kelli, Rahwa, and baby Naomi

Kelli, Rahwa, and baby Naomi

The post about Maya inspired Kelli to write me this: “It brought me back to the feeling I had when I read your book and entered the world of your reality. I can just never imagine – yet these feelings give me glimpses as to what I hope to selfishly never experience.”

Amen, sister! No one should experience the death of a child. But millions have – and will.

“How you intellectualize, spiritualize, and translate your human thoughts and emotions for us all to read is just absolutely brilliant,” Kelli writes. “I was so blown away when I finished Swimming with Maya by your outlook, perspective, philosophy – whatever you want to call it – on this world that you have me as a loyal fan, forever.”

A letter like this is every writer’s dream. As writers, we work blindly, often unaware of our readers. When a reader takes the time and trouble to tell us how our words have affected her – well, it is beyond satisfying. Having readers like Kelli makes every hour spent in front of the computer screen struggling for the right word, or the perfect image, so worth it.

Writing is hard, lonely work. But also the most satisfying work I have ever done. Bringing Maya back to life on the page is, for me, a magic, sacred act. And when someone recognizes that accomplishment it sets my heart on fire.

“Thank you for working through all your years of struggle to be with us here today because our lives would surely lack if you were not present. So thank you for fighting.”

She concludes her letter like this: “Thank you as well for raising another amazing daughter – do I ever love and appreciate your Meghan. I’m so thankful to have her in my life.”

Kelli and Meghan are friends whose husbands were best friends in high school, whose daughters are the same age, and who inspire me every day as I watch them bravely set out on the riskiest venture ever – bearing and raising children.

Meghan and Kelli's daughter, Ophelia

Meghan and Kelli’s daughter, Ophelia

Young women! You are the fighters. You have years of this journey ahead of you and no one knows how it will turn out. I had Maya for 19 years – and even knowing how it ended for her – I would do it all over again. I’ve had Meghan for 32 years and I surely hope to leave this earth before she does. And, lucky me, I get to relive Meghan’s and Maya’s childhoods as I watch my granddaughter Lucia grow up.

Little did I know that motherhood and writing would converge for me. I often feel like a tall, old redwood tree – the bark is deeply grooved now but oh those branches reach for the sunlight! On a day like this, with Kelli’s letter in my hand, I am so grateful I am still standing.

 

 

 

 

Learning to Laugh Again

In my personal pantheon of spiritual masters, I fondly include a Unity minister from Alabama. I heard Rev. Edwene Gaines speak at a Unity center near my home four years after Maya died. I now see that 45-minute talk as a turning point in my grief. That was the day I learned to laugh again, an essential skill in my resilience toolkit.Swimming with Maya

Rev. Gaines is a “woman of a certain age” with a big blonde mane of hair and a warm southern drawl. She’s like the Paula Deen of “New Thought” ministers. That morning, she flicked on her microphone, winked at us, and said, “Dontcha just feel like God is messin’ with ya sometimes?”

Everyone else giggled politely. I broke into a loud guffaw. The question struck me as hilarious on many levels.

First, I recognized the stark truth that, sooner or later, most of us do feel like God, or the universe, or some power greater than ourselves is reshaping us like so much silly putty. We expect life to be fair, and it isn’t. As if God should be always attending to our needs and smoothing our way like an indulgent parent. Ha ha!

I found these words coming from the mouth of a minister oddly liberating and refreshing. Edwene instantly put all fellow humans on the same level. She wasn’t talking at us; she was sharing her own life experiences.

She went on to tells stories that made the slapstick hilarity of  an “I Love Lucy” episode pale in comparison. The time she traveled to London for a speaking engagement but couldn’t get her hot rollers to work on British electricity and had to go out with her hair looking like a fright wig. Or the day she was slathered in mud at a Mexican health spa and then escorted outside by the attendant to be rinsed off in full view of the other guests.

She even mined her failed marriages for laughs. “My friends say, ‘Poor Edwene. Always a bride, never a bridesmaid.’ ”

Beneath the humor I latched on to some deeper truths about the tension between maintaining control and the challenge of letting go. I had gone kicking and screaming toward surrender, but Edwene showed me that it was the only sane choice. Maya’s death had shattered my illusion of control. It broke my porcelain-figurine ego in a million pieces. God definitely seemed to be “messin’ with me.

That day, laughter opened a space in my grief. Through that small window I saw that I was getting better. Years of grieving, and of listening to other bereaved parents pour out memories of their children at The Compassionate Friends support group I attended, had forced me to grow up. Random tragedies happen by the thousands every day. No one is immune.

After four years of mourning, my heart and mind opened to a stunning and simple truth: Disaster isn’t personal. Maya’s death, ultimately, was not about me – it was an accident that could have happened to anyone. For the first time, I realized that Maya’s death belonged to her. I recount this turning point in Swimming with Maya.

My destiny and my daughter’s were separate. She was her own person. We hadn’t finished letting go of each other in life – she was torn away from me – so I was left with no other alternative: I had to complete the process on my own.

Maybe I would be less hurt and angry if I released my obsessive need to know why my daughter had died and gave up my insistence that life should be fair.

Laughing at Edwene’s stories – and at myself – helped me create enough space between myself and Maya’s death to breathe and see clearly again.

No joke. Laughter is healing. Give it a try!

 

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Happy Anniversary

It is April 6, the anniversary of Maya’s death in 1992, a day when my internal clock Maya on her 19th birthdaystopped. My daughter is dead. After more than two decades, I am still not used to that. I see Maya as a vibrant 19-year-old. But she would be turning 41 this October.

Her grave lies just beyond the overarching arms of a giant California oak tree, a dancing canopy that splays light and shadow on the grass with every breath of wind.

The Garden of Remembrance

The Garden of Remembrance

I vividly remember standing there the day Maya’s casket was lowered. As workers winched her down, my knees buckled. I wanted to jump in after her.

Her permanent absence seemed like a hole in my life I could never fill – a cavern far larger than the slash of black earth I stared down into. As I sit at her headstone 21 years later, I shake my head in wonder. How did I survive?

There are many “objective” answers to that question – love of family and friends, therapy, grief work, writing, prayer, humor, resilience – but in the end, the fact that I am still here remains mysterious to me. Forgive the cliché, but it is a miracle.

Every moment is precious because I know how quickly and randomly life can end. After Maya died, I learned what real trouble is. Most of the time, I no longer sweat the small stuff. I complain less and celebrate more. Oddly, this day is a happy anniversary. It’s a marker of how very far I’ve come since that afternoon all I wanted to do was follow my daughter into her grave.

All I can do for my daughter now is tend her grave and write words that keep her memory alive. Each word I write is like a breadcrumb in a long trail of survival, each one an echo of the love I carry for Maya.

“Maya was a bright light,” my friend LeeAnn Brook wrote on my Facebook page. “I remember that beautiful little girl.”

I do too – a dancing sprite, blond hair glistening in the sun, splashing in the Yuba River on a glorious summer afternoon. Or, her later self, brash and witty, making jokes at my expense. No one could make me laugh like Maya could – and no one did a better job of pushing my buttons. Our conflicts were fierce, emblematic battles.

Thankfully, we made peace before she left for college. Raising a high-spirited teenager bent on rebellion is not for the faint of heart. I’m so grateful she lived long enough to show herself – and me – where her talents as an actress might take her. In Swimming with Maya I write about those final months of her life when she blossomed before my eyes.

IMG_1830Maya left this earth at the peak of her beauty and energy. She was like the shooting stars carved into her headstone – a brilliant flash across the heavens.I celebrate her always, but most especially on April 6.

 

 

 

 

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