Ted warned me about Michael & Tara – he said they are very special people… He didn’t tell me how special… They lost their precious 10-year-old daughter, Emily, a year and a half back – and Emily became a donor… And they became advocates of organ donation. Emily had a floragraph on our float* – way up at the top – near the tip of the tail – close to heaven… Laura and I don’t have children – but like Kari’s Dad & Mom, and Michael & Tara, I couldn’t fathom the pain of losing one… Kari and Emily, and their families, have touched so many lives…
Michael always seems positive and upbeat – like someone else I know… Tara confirmed that’s his standard attitude and she had a few good chats with Laura wondering how these two goofs they love can be this way all of the time… I got a note from Tara the other day – she said when Michael brings us up in conversation, he says “you know, Breathin’ Steven…” and it makes her smile… Thinking about them makes me smile too…
And I got to spend not-enough-time with Julie Stern and her family… Julie is from Iowa Donor Network, and though I didn’t know it at first – she was my first Iowa contact when I exchanged anonymous letters with Kari’s family… The initial letter that I sent through my hospital in Illinois, and the response Kari’s family sent months later – went through Julie. I learned of her when Kari’s family and I opted to fill out all of the paperwork and establish direct contact. That was when Julie said she was very happy for us – but that she would greatly miss reading the heartfelt letters that went back and forth…
I got to hug Julie years later and I’ve been with her at various speaking engagements Iowa Donor Network brought me to – and at several Iowa Donor Network galas… And I got to spend way-too-little time with her at the events surrounding the Rose Parade…
Finally, I stumbled across a journal posting from a lady I met the day Laura and I did our Family Circle rose dedication placements – her name is Virginia and here is some of the beginning of her entry:
We became members of the organ donor family ourselves, back in February 2002. That is when our son Caleb died. There is strength and healing in being among members of the organ donor family. Last January when I heard about the Donate Life float, I knew I wanted to be part of their team.
On the late December day we were scheduled to work, we got up early and piled on warm clothes. Even sunny California is cold at 5AM! And warehouses are always cold and damp, but when millions of dollars worth of flowers are at stake, you can bet the temperatures need to be cool or the flowers will wilt and die.
We fueled up on coffee and got acquainted with the staff and team-members while we waited to start our day on the job. As I stamped my feet to keep circulation going, I was grateful for the hot coffee warming my hands. Soon though, I was totally engrossed in the stories people shared.
These were not ordinary float volunteers.
They were organ donor families with stories to tell and hearts to heal.
There were about 75 volunteers on our 8-hour shift - they were either recipients of the gracious gift of an organ (or perhaps a cornea, skin, etc) or they were part of a family who had given such a gift. The Donate Life staff circulated and shared even more stories.
The hours flew by as we worked and listened to people spell out how organ donations changed lives in very personal and profound ways. There was lots of laughter but there were tears too. The stories unfolded, hugs were shared, and the float was built.
People who know me, know that I have more Iowa Hawkeye clothing than most alums (and a smattering of Iowa State and UNI shirts are among them…) I wear the colors specifically for the reason outlined in what followed in Virginia’s post:
"I'm from Iowa," I yelled, waving my hand and smiling at a volunteer sporting an Iowa Hawkeye sweatshirt and an Iowa jacket.
“Well, I’m half-Iowan” the stranger replied as he made a beeline toward me.
Before I knew it, I was wrapped in the warm embrace of a very grateful organ recipient. “My lungs are from Iowa,” he said with a laugh. “I’m from Chicago”
In moments Steve drew me into the story of how he re-gained his life all because of a sweet young woman from Iowa who became an organ donor.
We stood talking for a long time. Steve’s story was engaging. Being an organ recipient changed his life in more ways than most people imagine. There is a sense of guilt among recipients, a sense of not being worthy somehow. Fortunately Steve grew beyond that feeling and has found ways to put his new life to good use. He is making a huge difference in this world. (Read about Steve Ferkau's story at www.ClimbingForKari.org and read his blog at www.ReviveHope.com )
Virginia went on to post portions of my story in my website about Kari – and told her readers to visit my site and read about the amazing things I’ve done… She continued about the 1,000-plus dedicated roses to donors, and her experience at the parade a few days later:
The morning was cold and the crowd friendly. By the time the parade began, the sun was bright and it was a perfect story-book California day.
As we watched the exuberant marching bands and admired the beautiful floats, I thought about my mother. She would have enjoyed being there. This was an event my mother always longed to attend. I was glad to be there. I was there, in part, because of her. She planted that seed many years ago.
As the Donate Life float went by, I looked down and among the roses I saw my half-Iowan friend “Breathin’ Steven” waving at the crowd. I smiled and thought about my mother and Caleb. My smile grew bigger when I heard Faith Hill’s voice waft up to my ears. She was singing “There You’ll Be.” (See lyrics below). And there they were…
Faith Hill: “There You’ll Be” (chorus)
In my dreams
I'll always see you soar
Above the sky
In my heart
There will always be a place
For you for all my life
I'll keep a part
Of you with me
And everywhere I am
There you'll be
And everywhere I am
There you'll be
Thank you, Virginia… I won’t forget meeting you, or hearing about Caleb. And I’ll never forget being there with Michael, Tara and Julie either… I’ll always feel that being around other Iowans with my half-Iowan self is very special…
*photo of Emily’s floragraph by Scott Weersing