Inspired by a comment bbd made about Mary’s organ donor t-shirt in her “ Early Voting in Ohio” post.
On a Tuesday evening in August, the phone rings. Because I’m precariously balanced on the guest bed replacing a light bulb under the fan, Steve answers. “It’s your sister. She wants to talk to you.”
The tiny screws affixing the globe are fiddly and exasperating. “Can’t you just talk to her?” I plead.
Steve insists. “She sounds upset. She wants to talk to you.”
I love my only sister. We’re close. Because she’s had some hard times and doesn’t like to upset our older parents or her children, Sylvia usually calls me for support or to vent. I encourage her to talk to me, but I confess being put out on this occasion.
Leaving the globe dangling and climbing down from my unsteady perch, I bark, “What?”
Sylvia must have held it together for Steve, but as soon as she starts speaking to me, she falls apart. I regret my vexation and curtness as I listen to my sister sob, “Sarah’s been in an accident. I don’t know much and haven’t seen her. They called Parkview’s life flight from Ft. Wayne. I’m on my way to the LaGrange hospital. She hit a semi head on. I’ve gotta go. Mom’ll call later with details.”
Sarah visited less than a month ago to celebrate Andrew’s 4th birthday. Age 17, ready to embark on her senior year of high school, Sarah shares many descriptive tags with Sylvia: poet, obsessive reader, gifted student, fairy daughter, absent-minded, passionate, idealistic, and possessor of a physical need to write. Sarah also reminds me of my Stephen: invariably calm and loving, cheerful, upbeat, and beloved by everyone.
Here’s Sarah at our home wearing a clover necklace she wove in the back yard. I’ve always envied her rope of thick hair. Because of the birthmark on Sarah’s chin, Sylvia calls her “my touched-by-an-angel girl.”
With this image of Sarah in mind, I consider her prospects. The phrase “life flight” induces panic. If it’s beyond what the local hospital can handle, the situation is grave. Having a head-on collision doubles the crash impact, so that’s a second strike against her chances. Worst of all, though, she hit a semi. I reckon the chances are high that Sarah will require months of therapy, be permanently paralyzed, or maybe even be mentally disabled.
Hours crawl by. In 1997, cell phones aren’t common, so Sylvia can’t call with periodic updates like she would now. Finally, the phone rings. It’s Mom.
“Mary honey,” croons my gentle and affectionate mother, “Sarah’s gone.”
“Gone? What do you mean gone?” I demand.
“She’s dead.” There’s a momentary pause, then, “What did you expect? She hit a semi truck head-on,” a pragmatic and steely mom I’ve never experienced replies coolly.
You know the scene in Peter Jackson’s film The Fellowship of the Ring when Gandalf battles the Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-dum in Moria and falls down the abyss? Boromir has to restrain and then carry away Frodo who is shrieking, “Nooooooo!” That howl of disbelief, rage, and heartbreak emerges from me. I can barely stand to watch that scene all these years later.
Steve had both knees replaced at the same time just a month before Sarah’s death. He’s still sleeping in a home health surgery bed that he can raise up to protect his arthritic shoulders. We’ve turned our queen bed sideways and abutted it against his twin bed so I can snuggle him and sleep as close to him as possible. Before we fall asleep, Sylvia finally calls me herself.
Sarah stayed up late Monday night reading a Spanish translation of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams, Sylvia reports, as well as preparing for a debate presentation she made the next day during her first week of school as a senior. All Sarah’s life, Sylvia has fought to enforce a sensible bedtime—turning off the overhead light then the bedside lamp, taking away the flashlight Sarah sneaked under the covers, and threatening to revoke privileges. It’s pretty much impossible to stop a determined reader. Sylvia didn’t know Sarah had stayed up until 3 a.m. until it was too late.
One of Sarah’s senior pictures, developed after her death.
After a full day of school and a brilliant debate presentation to the freshman class, Sarah drove 30 miles to visit her father and his family in Kendallville. She immensely enjoyed playing with her brothers and sighed happily to her stepmother as she left at 9 p.m., “I’m going to sleep really well tonight. I’m going to sleep like death.” This is the stuff guilt is made of—“If we’d known how late she was up, we would’ve insisted she stay overnight!” “We should’ve driven her home!” “One of us could’ve gone with her!”
About four miles from home, Sarah fell asleep at the wheel. 999 times out of 1000, she would’ve woken up embarrassed to find herself stuck in a cornfield alongside the two-lane country road. This night, however, a semi truck crested a hill just as Sarah’s Plymouth Horizon drifted left of the yellow line. The young driver threw his whole rig onto the shoulder trying to evade her, but felt the sickening impact as Sarah’s car lodged itself under his front left wheel. He said she never looked up. In one of the most impressive acts of bravery in my experience, Sylvia sought out the young truck driver at the hospital and assured him that there was nothing he could have done that would have saved her girl.
The country road where Sarah died.
I was livid. How could Sarah have been so stupid? Not even the seatbelt she was wearing and the airbag in her car could save her. She should’ve realized she was too tired to drive. She shouldn’t have stayed up so late on a school night. She shouldn’t have been so impulsive, so romantic, so impractical. She shouldn’t have put her mother through this. Of my sister’s four children, Sarah was the one most like Sylvia. I fell asleep raging against Sarah’s thoughtlessness and teenage sense of invincibility.
Long after relating the details of Sylvia’s call to Steve, I finally fall asleep. During the night, I jolt awake, startled to hear Sarah speaking to me, once, only this once, soft and clear and sad. “I’m sorry, Aunt Mary, I’m so sorry.” Having helped Sylvia deal with what she describes as an amputation for more than eleven years, I’m still working on forgiveness.
By the time the life flight arrived at the accident scene, Sarah was too far gone to airlift. Sylvia’s ex husband is a small town family doctor. When Sarah died at the local hospital, the staff was stunned. In shock, not a single person thought to ask Sylvia or Jerry about the possibility of organ donation. It was Jerry’s second wife Kara, a nurse, who suggested donating Sarah’s eyes since she was such a voracious reader. Unfortunately, eyes have to be donated almost immediately after a person’s death. Although Sarah was not declared dead until some time after she arrived at the hospital, she was clinically dead at the accident site. Her parents were unable to donate Sarah’s eyes, kidneys, heart, liver or other major organs. These organs must be removed shortly after “brain death,” but while the heart is still supplying oxygen to them. I thought this might be the end of the story, but the hospital asked if the family would be willing to make a tissue and bone donation. Everyone enthusiastically agreed.
As Sylvia notes in her lyrical “Honoring Sarah: Living on Both Sides of the Sword of Death” (see Sylvia’s The Wood Elf blog), “a surgical team flew in to work half the night harvesting bone, tissue, fascia, heart valves, and skin. In spite of these surgeries, Sarah’s family and friends bade her farewell in an open casket. She looked untouched by injury or surgical intervention. The Red Cross sent a grateful letter of appreciation with a packet of grieving support materials within two days of Sarah’s death, and has supplied us with periodic updates on the healing use of her donated tissue, which for many members of her family has been the greatest source of comfort in their grief.”
Steve and Sarah celebrating Christmas at the home of Mary’s parents.
To date Sarah’s tissue, bone, skin, fascia, and valves have changed the lives of at least 35 individuals. Excited and gratified, Sylvia would call and read me the list of recipients, including several like Steve who suffer from arthritis. One high school athlete from the Columbus, Ohio, area where we live received Sarah’s anterior cruciate ligament to repair a knee injury and perhaps allow her to compete once more.
I’m writing this to encourage you to consider making an organ and tissue donation at the time of your death. You can have this noted on your driver’s license in some states and should carry a donor card in your wallet. Most importantly, though, you need to tell your family what your wishes are in this regard. Different states have various age criteria for donors (up to age 55 to 80, or no limitation). In fact, a 95-year-old lady was a liver donor. Those excluded include persons with cancer (who can’t donate tissue but can donate eyes), hepatitis, recurrent infections, AIDS, other autoimmune diseases (like rheumatoid arthritis), and those with Alzheimer’s. Donors with heart conditions can be accepted, as can diabetics. Guidelines are constantly being updated to keep pace with medical advances. Organ donations need to be made immediately at the time of death, but tissue, bone, tendon, valves, and veins can be donated up to 24 hours after a death.
If you want to give the gift of life at the time of your death, please make sure that it’s noted on or with your driver’s license and tell all your family. You can print a donor card here. You can also try to be the one who makes the life-saving suggestion if (God forbid) you’re ever the one standing in the hospital waiting room reeling from the loss of a loved one. If this free, ongoing, and life-saving gift makes sense to you, please pass this message along to everyone you think might be interested (you can copy and paste into an e-mail for non OS friends and family).
Like Sylvia and me, Sarah was a writer. A year before her death, she wrote in her journal, “Mine is the happiness of a shooting star, as bright and as fleeting.” Eerily prophetic. The summer before her sophomore year, Sarah noted, “Behind all laughter there are tears, before the peace comes the agony. In every love there is heartbreak. The art of living is to see the beauty in all.”
By reading her poetry, journals, debate pieces, and short stories, I’ve learned from my niece. What has Sarah taught me? Be observant. Cultivate hope. Look for the good in everyone. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Love may indeed be enough. Make time for poetry. Take time to get to know your loved ones. Today. God is. Darkness can be comforting. Write. The world needs dreamers (even off-in-dreamland ones) just as much as Type A’s. Drive carefully and not when you’re weary. Accept yourself. Don’t be afraid to live life to the fullest.
I hope to honor and spread Sarah’s brilliance and beauty through an ever widening network of individuals.
Please consider joining me in becoming an organ & tissue donor and passing on the gift of life.
Another photo taken by Sarah’s devoted grandfather. In this photo, Sarah is wearing Grammie’s bridesmaid dress (which Esther wore for her brother Otto’s wedding in 1948). Sarah is standing in front of Grandpa’s rose garden, which he’s been tending more than 50 years.
Please be sure to read Sylvia’s eloquent speech given on behalf of the Red Cross in the months following Sarah’s death here. Her courage and poetic imagery will impress and inspire you. Please share Sylvia’s moving, compelling, and hopeful piece—properly credited—widely also.
(If you find this helpful, please remember to go back up to the top and rate this, so that as many people as possible will see it.)