An Open Letter to the Recipients of My Mom's Donated Organs

The letter that the Organ Donations Authorities deemed too “specific,” “identifiable," and “personal" -- here's what I would say to the recipients of my mom's donated organs if I were allowed.
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Heather Varner
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The letter that the Organ Donations Authorities deemed too “specific,” “identifiable," and “personal" -- here's what I would say to the recipients of my mom's donated organs if I were allowed.

To whom it may concern:

Congratulations on your new organ!

As I write this, I realize that "congratulations" may come off as a slightly off-­putting greeting.

However, I truly mean it -- congratulations. Please don’t take this as disingenuous. 

You have overcome a great obstacle which I am sure seemed insurmountable at times. An new organ -- be it a heart, lungs, a kidney, or a liver -- breathes within you, and I want you to know that I recognize the battle you have fought to get here. For facing what you’ve faced, and overcoming what you’ve overcome, you deserve to be congratulated. You are alive and I hope you are well. Because that fresh, new, functioning organ that has reinvigorated the life your body so deeply craved, was once my mom's.

Now, evidently I don’t know anything about you, and you know equally little about me. What I do know however, is that we have both participated in the cruel torture I like to refer to as the “Hospital Room Waiting Game.”

My waiting game consisted of paramedics, followed by nurses, followed by doctors, followed by surgeons -- all delaying the inevitable. My waiting game ended in heartbreak and loss.

Your waiting game was a little bit different I’m sure; although much longer and no less emotionally ravaging. It is an odd comfort to me that yours ended on a better note than mine; because it was a gift my mom gave that allowed for that.

Over the past few months, you have crossed my mind often. I sometimes ponder how you made it through the waiting game. Perhaps you prayed, maybe to Jesus, or Allah, or Brahman. Or perhaps you meditated upon the wish you so deeply desired. Or perhaps you are not a spiritual person at all and you simply took a logical and systemic approach to the entire situation into which you were thrust.

In any case, whether you consider this new organ a blessing, a gift, a stroke of luck or purely the end result of a protocol­-based waiting list -- I hope you make the most of it. Because before giving you new life; that fresh and healthy organ gave my mom life for 50 years.

In those short 50 years, my mom did a lot. She grew up surrounded by friends, family and an infamous dog named Skippy (with whom I’m sure she’s thrilled to be reunited). She had an outrageously wonderful set of parents who, together ­created the most uniquely charming blend of sweetness and sarcasm that I have ever witnessed. She matured, went to university, got married and had three children to whom she devoted her life. She became a mom like no other; and we became young adults, she turned into a friend like no other. 

She saw her marriage break down and experienced heartbreak and devastation of proportions so monumental I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. She saw darkness and she felt pain; but then she rose from the ashes, coming out stronger than ever before. She laughed and she cried. She indulged in Pinot Grigio, coffee, and handbags. And in an incomparably beautifully courageous way, she forgave. And shortly thereafter, she fell in love again.

She was a friend, a sister, an aunt and a daughter. She was a partner, a lover, a partner ­in ­crime and a teacher. But more than anything -- my mom was a mother.

A mom first, last and always

A mom first, last and always

You and I have more than the “Hospital Room Waiting Game” in common. We have both been blessed with the gift of life thanks to my mom (albeit, in a very different way). This is something that has been easy for me to take for granted throughout the 23 years of my life. However, now as I navigate the problematic and oftentimes seemingly impossible task of re­defining myself without the title of “daughter,” I can see how thoughtless this was of me. I hope that at the very least, we both can take this away as a lesson.

The day my mom died the sky was bright blue. It came as a literal breath of fresh air after the longest, coldest and snowiest winter in recent memory. My mom and I shared a cup of tea over breakfast before going our separate ways; placing the leftovers went in the fridge to be eaten at lunch. It was nearly a month before I brought myself to throw them away (and yes -- the mold that had grown was ghastly).

Since that day, I have spent seven months thinking about what my mom would do, say or think about every little thing that occurs in the span of a day.

I wonder if she would like the sandwich I had at lunch. I wonder if she would enjoy the new song on the radio. I wonder if she would be proud of me in my new job, and if she would like the outfit I bought last weekend. I wonder what she would say about this, and I wonder what she would say about that.

The wondering is a relentless record spinning in my mind, never ceasing to play the same song on repeat.

However, as I move forward (but not on -- I’ll never move on from my mom), I have realized that I don’t need to wonder so much. Sure, I may never know if she likes the boots I chose to wear to dinner last Friday, or if she agrees that my hair really needs a trim -- but the important stuff -- the values and beliefs and life lessons that she would want me to make the foundation of my life -- well, that I already know. I know it because she taught me. Sometimes inadvertently, and sometimes intentionally. Either way; in the way parents should should, she left me with life lessons more valuable than any physically tangible inheritance. For that, I am grateful.

Now, I know I already stated that we really don’t know one another and because of this I realize it is far from my place to ask anything of you. However, if I may humbly do so, I ask that you might bear with me as I elaborate upon these guiding principles I believe my mom would want to be her lasting legacy. Whether you take them to heart or not is your choice and your choice alone. But for a reason which I cannot begin to put into words, it is important to me that you somehow know her; as impossible as that may sound. And since she is gone, the only way I can fathom for me to bring her to life and allow this to happen is through the written word.

1. My mom’s life was cut short at 50 years. And while those 50 years were full in many, many ways she had dreams and plans that were yet to be fulfilled. These were the dreams and plans that we talked about over dinner or a glass of wine; always laughing and imagining.

They were “someday,” “one day,” “far­away” dreams. In my mom’s passing, I know that she would not want anyone to procrastinate their plans.

Life is short. Embrace the cliché and seize the day.

My mom on her 50th, celebrating her excitement about the next 50 years

My mom on her 50th, celebrating her excitement about the next 50 years

2. My mom was never boring. Sure, at first glance she may have appeared to be the “typical mom,” but anyone who knew her will attest that that was far from the case. With a cackling laugh rivaled only by the Wicked Witch of the West, she had a wild way about her that made even the most monotonous of chores fun. She proved to everyone who crossed her path that even in the darkest days, there is light to be found.

Life is meant to be sweet. Find your bliss.

Mom & I “finding our bliss” (Summer 2013)

Mom & I “finding our bliss” (Summer 2013)

3. Oftentimes when someone passes it is all too easy to look back on your memories of them through a rose-­coloured lens. It seems to be human nature to idealize the past. While we often do this with our loved ones, for some reason I don’t find myself doing this with my mom. Maybe this is because she was never shy when it came to her flaws. She knew her faults and she accepted her imperfections. She laughed at herself and took advantage of opportunities to grow every day. She was not perfect and she was the first to admit it.

Nobody’s perfect, don’t dwell on your faults. 

“Never take yourself too seriously” – A life lesson that involves dressing up in RCMP uniforms.

“Never take yourself too seriously” – A life lesson that involves dressing up in RCMP uniforms.

4. When we celebrated my mom’s life, the daughters of her best friend performed “Hands” by Jewel, one of my mom’s favourite songs. The refrain “In the end, only kindness matters” is repeated throughout the song. This is a lesson my mom unremittingly reminded me and my siblings throughout our lives; reminding us that when dusk falls ­as long as you can lay in bed at night and feel good about the kind of person you were that day, then you have achieved the most important thing of all.

organ5.jpg

The world can be cruel, don’t let it harden you. Kindness matters.

She was full of lessons from the very start. I know this “list” may come off as though I’m attempting to tell you how to live your life; and I apologize if that’s how you’ve taken it. More or less, I think the reason I am sharing these ideals with you is that I simply hope you are curious. Curious about the organ inside you and the person to whom it once belonged. Curious about the donor who gave you the gift of life.

The reality is that the mere thought of my mom’s heart continuing to pump and her lungs continuing to breathe is a simultaneously unnerving and beautiful idea. And as much as her organ donation may be a gift to you, truth be told, your acceptance of her organ is a gift to me.

Knowing that a piece of her lives on provides me with an odd sense of comfort that goes beyond conceivable expression.

At my mom’s funeral, I delivered the eulogy during which I spoke about you and your family. I looked around the church and noted the large crowd, saying that while we all may be mourning it is a striking thought to know that in her death, there are crowds just like us elsewhere across the country celebrating today. Celebrating because their loved one has been given the chance for life.

Celebrating because their prayers, meditations, wishes, hopes and dreams have come true. Celebrating because even in her death; my mom (in true "mom" fashion) gave life.

So once again, congratulations. I hope you live your life to the fullest. I wish you well.