Saturday, December 17, 2011

Man of Mystery

I remember the first time I heard anything about the man who saved my life. I was in the Cardio/Thoracic ICU in my hospital, recovering from my double-lung transplant and just generally acting like a crazy person. In my mind I was a radiant source of benevolent light who was, in no uncertain terms, a model patient through and through. As it turns out, I learned later, I was in fact a model patient -- providing the model you were seeking was a cautionary tale of how NOT to act after transplant. Whoops.

But a couple of things I do remember correctly. I remember, for example, that a fellow transplantee at my center who I knew from the CF community came into my room (how she got past the nurses I will NEVER know) and gave me a small stuffed dog, which I still keep on my desk to this day. I remember that my CF doctors and nurse came by and spoke with me, not over me or through me like so many of the other medical staff. They asked me questions and listened and told me they were happy to see me smile, which I did for them -- a genuine smile despite the pain. I remember that my wonderful transplant doctor came in to check on me with his son in tow, and that I wasn't listening to him because I was more intrigued by the fact that the child liked my ipad. I watched Erin playing with him and thought "wow, even in this house of horrors there is actual LIFE going on." And I remember when I took my own ipad back and wrote my first few post-tx sentences on this blog, which were in rhyme and read:

Not much to say.
I did my vest.
I got some rest.
I passed the test!
(From: "Live From New York, It's Sunday Night!")

(And yes, they did bring me a vest in the ICU. It was torture.)

I also remember very clearly that my sister came in and told me what she knew about my donor. She said that through a collection of conversations, my family had learned that the donor was mid-40s and that one doctor had explained that he was male and tall, which is why my new lungs were a bit too big for me. It wasn't a lot of information to go on -- not that we were planning on tracking down his family through detective work anyway -- but it was enough. I immediately proclaimed that my donor needed a (new) name as a part of my family, and with that short introduction and a whole lot of love, "Donor Bob" came into our lives.

Every so often people ask me what, if anything, I know about my donor. And I tell them precisely what I just told you: that he was male, that he was slightly larger than I was in terms of lung size, and that he was somewhere in his mid-40s. I am also quick to point out that this is just hearsay, and that I'm not positive about any of it. Because I just don't know. I don't know if he was married, or had children. I don't know where he lived, what he liked, who his friends were, or whether he played sports. If I get a plane, I have no idea whether my lungs have been to my destination before or not or, if they were there, what they saw, what they breathed, what they knew. I don't know if my lungs have ever climbed the mountains of my home state, or stood at the top of the Statue of Liberty looking out over the island I call home. They live in a lawyer now, but I don't know where they lived before, what skills they might know that I will never learn, what names they called out in joy, what sobs they might have let loose in grief, or what words they uttered with their final breath in their first home. I don't know any of that, really.

If my lips could form the words to say hello in another language, would the sounds be familiar music to my lungs? If I sit fumbling with the strings of a guitar, would my lungs be able to tell me how to strum it? When I reread my favorite books, muttering my favorite passages under my breath, do my lungs thrill to the sound of Keats and Marquez and Walker and Stoppard? Do they gasp just a little to stand on the shore of the Hudson and see the twinkle of a skyline they might otherwise never have experienced?

Does the experience of my body now -- the known and the unknown -- mean that I have done more than I will ever imagine? Does it mean that when someone asks me if I've ever been to Mongolia that I can now say, with a straight face and complete honesty, that I don't know, but I hope so?

Because I do hope. Not knowing what Donor Bob did in his life does not in any way take away the reality of what I wanted for him. I hope that he had a ton of fun. That he had people, lots of people, who loved him. I hope he was fiery, passionate about something, and that he liked to laugh. I hope he read books. I hope he felt, even every once and a while, the Earth beneath his feet and the stars about his head. I hope that if he saw Les Miserables at any point in his life that he thought it was beautiful. I hope he aimed to be kind, and that he succeeded just a little bit in that goal. I hope he liked animals, especially dogs or horses, and I hope he got to try really amazing bar-b-que at least once. I hope he liked music and that he tried dancing in public, even if he was terrible at it. I hope he got caught in the rain at some point in his life. I hope he was funny. I hope he had questions. I hope he had faith, though I don't care what kind. I hope he was, is, and will forever be happy. I hope someone he loved was with him when he died. I hope I can make him proud without losing myself.

I hope for a lot of things.

The other thing people ask is whether I've reached out to him, or rather, to his family. The answer to that question is kind of hazy. I have not written the typical donor letter. My center asks you to wait a bit before you do so anyway, but I spent the first year after transplant dealing with a lot of residual infection and hospitalizations. As a result, I decided to wait to write until I felt more at home with the gift that I know these lungs represent -- after I had lived and loved and laughed with these lungs for long enough to find my own voice again, to hopefully communicate the incommunicable and explain the inexplicable to the family whose son/father/husband/cousin/lover/friend or whatever gave to me the greatest gift that I will ever receive. I knew I wanted to wait until I could write a thank you not just from my heart, but from the collective body of heart, soul, and lungs that I am now: one part Bob, a lot of parts Piper, and one wholly grateful and beautiful human being.

But there is a wonder, no doubt, in not knowing everything. There is a joy and an excitement in allowing my Bob, as it were, to just be -- to be all he is and all he ever was, just himself, and independent of medical hearsay, of other people's opinions, or even of my own hopes. A true man of mystery in every sense. A truly unconditional, even unidentifiable, source of love, strength, and opportunity.

And the greatest friend, without a doubt, who I may never even know.


  1. Wow. Just Wow.

    Thanks Piper for sharing and many thanks to donor Bob for a fabulous gift to a fabulous woman. In tears over here for the love in this post.

  2. Once again, you have spoken so well what so many of us feel deeply, yet cannot effectively voice. You've made me cry, but most importantly, you've made me reflect on my gift and my donor. Thanks for that.

    Mike Begley

  3. Thank you, "Donor Bob", for having the wisdom to be an organ donor so the world can have more time with Piper. She's got lots of stuff left to do.

  4. Hi Piper - I have posted comments a few times in the past. My 10 yr old son has CF. I'm writing for a different reason now. Two weeks ago my 29 year old brother was killed in a motorcycle accident. Because of the way he died we weren't able to donate his lungs or heart but donated just about everything else. As you can imagine my family is going through hell right now but I needed to thank you for your post. I needed to hear how much my brothers gift may be helping someone. It doesn't really take away the pain but knowing that someone else isn't going through the same pain helps.
    Thank you