I see you sometimes. You’re the kid the same age as my little sister who’s crossing the street as I sit in traffic at a red light. You’re the guy whose laugh everyone noticed in the busy restaurant last night. You’re the barista who gives me a large instead of a small. I want to know you. I want to know your family. I want to know what your dreams are. Where do you see yourself in ten years? Do you want a family? Do you like dogs or cats more? Are you a cheese person? Because I can eat a wedge of sharp cheddar at an alarming rate. Can you belt out disco music at the top of your lungs in the shower like me? Do you have brothers or sisters? Are you happy? Are you in love? Then the car behind me honks and shouts because the green light is close to fading to yellow and I realize I’ve been daydreaming about you again. I don’t know anything about you. Not your favorite color. Not the band you listen to on repeat. Not your birthday. Nothing, not even your name. I think about you more than I care to admit. I have all of these questions I would give anything to have answered. But then I remember the question I’ve been asking since you saved my life.
How did you die?
As I write this, there’s a prescription bottle to the right of me. This one pill that I now take will be a part of me until the day I die, just as what you gave to me will be with me until that same day. This little white capsule keeps the organ you gave to me without fear of rejection. I don’t know why I’m telling you this. Perhaps it’s to distract myself from the fact that I have no idea what to say to you. How do I thank you? How do I honor your death? My God, I wish that I could tell you that I will find the cure for cancer, write something that helps bring world peace, or do something spectacular with this second chance. But I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that all I want is to be healthy. And thanks to you, I’ve become pretty good at that.
69 days was all it took. Day one, I walked in with what I thought was a nasty cold paired with a possible urinary tract infection. Less than 10 weeks later at the ripe age of 25, I was waiting to die in a hospital bed in the ICU. But then, my dream team came in and told me about a young man whose liver would fit me perfectly. Yours. Eight hours of surgery later, you had saved my life. I went in for surgery on Wednesday night, and I came through the other side on Friday morning. After tubes and bandages were pulled and ripped from my body, they walked in, my mom and my kid sister. That feeling of them being allowed to hug and hold my face is something I will never forget. The tears and the happy sobs of gratitude. To look into their bloodshot eyes. The smell of coffee and relief on their breath. The warm sun was coming through the windows on that cloudy January morning. I have never felt such love for life. When I think about that moment, I often think of your family and what may have been the worst moment of their lives.
I was never told your name. Everything has been kept confidential. I’ve tried writing your family, but I thought that writing you may come easier. “Male, age 21” was all that they would tell me. The first thing I thought of was my sister. You came into this world the same year that she had. And naturally, my next thought was of your siblings and what you must mean to them. The very idea of losing my little sister makes even inhaling hurt. If roles were reversed, I would have given my life up for hers in the blink of an eye. You see, my little sister is my favorite person on this big ball of blue. She’s funny, and she ’s strong, and she’s just the best person despite everything that she’s had to endure. And now, she was going to have to face my death. Before you came to save the day, no one could sit with me and act as if things were normal, until she came. My sister was the only one who could still put a genuine smile on my face. Even on what we thought could be the last days of my life, she made me laugh. She crawled into my hospital bed, held my hand, and we took selfies. Silly, I know. I think of her and how my life would never be the same without her. She was my very first best friend. I can’t help but think of what your brothers and sisters must feel. So I promise you that I will be the best big brother in the entire world to her. I will love her when she comes home with a new tattoo or falls in love with some idiot who isn’t worth her time. I promise you that I will hug her tight every time that I see her.
We were left with the question of “how?” How did you pass? Was it sudden? Was it an accident? Did a stranger not call an Uber after too many drinks? Was it the rain we had been having? Were you out with friends? Celebrating a belated new year? I guess it doesn’t matter. I wish I knew your name though. So much so, that I’ve given you one despite never knowing a thing about you. I call you Sam. No particular reason to be honest. I was at a concert and the artist’s last song she sang was by the same name. I fell in love with the song and what it meant, and you came to mind. It was meant to be. Sam. I say your name a lot these days. Often times, when I’m doing something that I don’t want to do or a task which is proving to be difficult. Getting out of bed on a workday. Making it the last five minutes on the treadmill. Or even something as simple as taking the garbage bins out the night before. I think of you and say your name because you will never have the chance to do such things again. These “burdens” are a blessing to me now. I remember being in the hospital post-transplant and my discharge date kept being pushed back further. And further. And further. I could not wait to get out of that sterile hospital room with its fluorescent lighting and not just be alive, but honestly living. Eat real food. Hug my family. Order a cup of coffee. Pay a utility bill. Take my dog for a walk. Deal with these everyday burdens. And then I would think of the good parts. Like being stupid with my two best friends.
It took 11 days for them to come and see me after the transplant. They kept me sane, loved me back to life a time or two, and got me out of my head long before being locked in an ICU and being told that I was going to die. In reality, these two people who I’ve shared my life with know me differently than anyone else on this planet. They can take one glance at me and know something’s off. They each can call me on my shit when no one else can just as they can make me laugh so hard that tears flow freely down my face. We have walked beside one another during the very worst moments of our lives. Have no fear; they have also been within an arm’s reach during my most cherished memories. When my body was healing with seventy-seven staples keeping you inside of me, they would send or say things that nearly split the stitches from too much laughing. Thank you for that. There would be no laughter with my two best friends if it weren’t for you. I promise to keep laughing and to hold them close. I promise to never keep things from them. I promise you that I will love them until the three of us are old, wrinkled grumps on some porch together talking about the days of our youth.
Of all of the people who have felt your loss, your mother comes to mind most often. Likely because of what mine means to me. Before I was diagnosed, the thought of death did not terrify me. I’ve lost people and the tears would always come, but somehow, a thought of knowing that they were going to be okay would find me. Their spirit is only shedding its body. When I was told that I was going to die without an organ such as yours, a fear I had never known grasped me hard and would not let go. It was not a fear of dying, but a fear of the life that I had yet to live. I had so many things that I wanted to do, so many things that I wanted to see, and to hear, and to experience. I was not ready to die. My mother was holding my hand when the doctor gave me a death sentence. And all I could think of was not being there for her. To dance with her at my wedding. To introduce her to her grandchildren for the first time. To tell her that everything was going to be okay. To never come home again. She was the first one I thought of when I came out of surgery and was conscious. Before they had removed the breathing tube or had taken the tape off of my eyes, they put a pen into my hand to write questions. All I could write was, “Where’s Mom?” Where is she? Why isn’t she here? And before I knew it, she was. I think of your mother and I cannot fathom the loss she has in the center of her being. I want to thank her, but at the same time I want to apologize. I want to tell her that I’m sorry. I may never find the cure or the reason as to why you were taken from her and why I was given a second shot. I’d hug her and I’d probably cry because this whole dying thing has made me an emotional fucking wreck. I promise that I’ll thank her and the rest of your family. I promise to tell her that her baby’s life will not have been lost on me. I’d ask her about you and I’d soak it all in. All of it.
At the very least, I promise to ask her your name.
But until then, I will call you Sam. And I will live for you, Sam. When fear grabs hold of me and keeps me from doing something, I’m going to do it regardless. I’m going to do it for you. As my fingers type these words, I glance at the calendar next to me and see the date. In two days, it will be one year since you saved my life. To say this past year has been an adventure would be putting it lightly. I fought hard. I cried more than I would care to tell you, but most of these tears were happy tears. I am still lost and pondering why this happened. I still think about you, about your family, about life before that dreadful diagnosis day in November. Up until recently, I wasn’t big on making plans for tomorrow. Or the next day. The thought of making plans and thinking of the future had become something only others got to do. I couldn’t think of that when I must be grateful for merely this very moment. How could I want for something years down the line when it was a miracle to be here right now? And then one night after hearing of a friend gone too soon, in walked my old friend Fear. Fear of getting sick again. And as I sat there crying with hands shaking, someone very close to my heart told me that I could no longer be afraid to plan for tomorrow. Is there a chance that I will get sick again? You betcha. But I’ve decided to pull out my planner despite that truth. So this is my promise to you. I promise to get stronger than before. I promise to fall in love again. I promise to get married, and have babies, and travel this world, and dance to Donna Summer with a block of Tillamook in hand, and hug my people a tad too long. I promise to meet your family one day. I promise never to take my loved ones for granted or forget the beautiful burdens for what they are, a gift. I may not save the world, but you saved mine, and I will always remember that.