My daughter Jessica was among Michigan residents honored at the State Capitol Sept. 29 at the first annual “Donate Life” celebration, which honored organ donors, organ recipients and those still waiting for organ and tissue donations.
I knew the moment I gave away my daughter’s eyes and skin that those were the parts of her I’d miss the most.
Her eyes, those windows to the soul, so blue they could be a distraction. Her great aunt called them evidence of something special – as if we needed it.
Her skin, its texture and smell forever imprinted in my memory, conjuring images of my first born that I cannot live without. Especially now, nine years after her death, when memory IS Jessica.
Immediately after the accident – in those earliest moments of making my way through the buffered existence that is grief – answering “yes” to the question of whether my husband and I wanted to donate our daughter’s organs is one of the clearest things I remember.
A drowning victim at age 25, Jessica was a prime candidate for donation: young, no major illnesses, no wild lifestyle that could have harmed her beautiful body. She had lived a fairly circumscribed life, one defined more than we had hoped by her developmental disability.
But the world is a dangerous place, and life, fragile.
As mothers do, I had worried about that body, even as she lay on the beach while my husband and emergency workers tried to breathe life back into her. I lay down on the sand, straddling her ankles as they worked, trying to break the waves that persistently threatened to reach her. I tugged on the legs of her bathing suit, looking to preserve her modesty.
Ultimately, as the attempts to revive her grew more desperate, the EMS workers sliced open the entire front of her bathing suit and tried shocking her back to life.
Jessica never made it that far. Instead she made it to another place, one painful for most of us to even consider. Jessica became an organ donor.
As the parents of a daughter with special needs, her father and I were both burdened and blessed with the opportunity to maximize our child’s potential – even at the very end. For Jessica, donation was the opportunity to in essence create life, even though she never gave birth herself. Jessica needed help just to make it through the average day. In death, however, she became the helper – a role she relished on the rare occasion when it fell to her in life.
Everything possible had been done to save her – on the beach, in the ambulance, at the hospital. So when the nurse asked us if we wanted to see our daughter before making that long journey back home without her, we slowly shook our heads and answered simply, “No. She’s not here.”
That was when the next phase of guiding our child through life – the entire cycle of life, including death – began.
Without a heartbeat, her major organs were no longer viable for transplant. But other parts of her – eyes, bones and heart valves – could improve life and possibly even create additional days for someone else.
We didn’t succeed in saving her for ourselves on that warm August afternoon, but her gifts now extend beyond our dreams. At least three people are living better lives and perhaps longer lives because of our daughter.
Nine years on, we remain grateful for the whole of it – her birth, her life, her death and, most of all, her continued presence in the world.
Please consider joining the circle. If you don’t have a heart sticker on your Michigan driver’s license, you aren’t a registered organ donor. And you need to be. The lives of thousands of people literally depend on it.
Sign up on the Michigan Organ Donor Registry at www.Michigan.gov/sos.