I was supposed to call him back months ago. He had left a simple message:
Hi, this is Eric from One Legacy. I’m calling in regard to a question you had. Again, this is Eric at One Legacy. Thank you so much.
It was a message we had spent a year waiting for. And it was there for the taking, for calling back, and I sat idle on it, pressing mute, or pause, or whatever it took to buy myself some emotional strength.
They had made it clear from the beginning of the donation process: after one year we could find out if our daughter’s heart valves could be used to help another baby.
One year. I remember wishing the time away, as if knowing what happened to her valves was all that mattered, as if I could skip facing grief and living in sorrow and missing the most important year of my life.
And then the moment was suddenly upon me.
I yearned for good news. I begged for science and circumstances to align in such perfect harmony for there be some life that was made easier, or saved, by the freak accident that took my darling Margot. I desperately wanted there to be a child crawling around somewhere with a part of Margot inside of them. The constant thought of this miracle materializing, of her valves fusing together with ventricles and atriums of another human being, seemed like concrete evidence that something beautiful came from her.
I have taken gifts from her absence, things I have deemed beautiful only because I don’t seem to have a choice to think about them any other way. I have taken the experience and carved out lessons and wisdom from it, become more fully human, more content, more thoughtful. But even all of the gifts in the world seem so trivial in comparison to what Margot got out of the deal, the one who didn’t even get a breath.
But these heart valves. This felt like something real. A gift directly from her to another, not a gift that was painfully extracted by her parents, but entirely, physically, from her.
The nurse told us that if we wanted to donate, we only had a few hours left with her. They needed to keep her cold, she said. They needed to take her in for open heart surgery.
I opened her delicate eyelids and unwrapped the swaddle around her body. I studied every solitary fragment of her flesh, memorizing the shape of her elbow and the curl of her lip, tracing the outline of her sizable hands. I helplessly pleaded with her to miraculously wake up, even though I knew it to be in vain, and then pleaded and begged none the less. Rain cascaded down the window of our third floor ICU room, and I watched the dark ominous sky hovering over Los Angeles, as if nature and the state of my brokenness were in some mysterious union.
When it was time to say goodbye, we were sleeping together on a fold out bed, my arm wrapped around her chest, my nose pressed up against her hair. I placed her body in a clear plastic basin and watched her disappear around the corner.
Almost all of her returned to me a few days later in the form of ashes. Everything but those valves.
Fear has me in a noose. What if there isn’t good news? What if her valves weren’t right? What if they sat idle for too long and were terminated somewhere, thrown into a bin, or saved in a jar.
I’m locked in my bedroom, phone in hand.
Hi, Eric. My name is Josh Jackson and I’m calling you back in regards to my daughter Margot. She died in March of last year and we donated her heart valves and I wondered if you had any information on those valves.
The words come out like one continuous sentence, sputtered out shaky and broken. I feel exposed, laid bare by a year of grief that has slowly eroded the confidence and security and strength that once filled my being.
Yes, hello Josh. I am so sorry for your loss. Let me see what I can find out for you.
There is a kindness in his voice that makes me want to weep.
Thanks for waiting. It seems that we haven’t yet found a match for them, but her valves have recently passed a follow up test that allows them to still be used. Usually our donations get used within the first year, so I would expect them to go to someone soon.
I don’t know what to ask next, even though the questions are streaming through my mind like flashcards. How do they test usability? What happens if they find a match? Can we find out the name of the recipient if there is a match? Should I call back later?
Where are her valves right now? The one question I hadn’t thought of, the one question that matters.
They are somewhere in California.
Suddenly I’m thrust into this primal act of fatherhood, still looking for my missing child, as if I somehow forgot that her valves, still workable and life giving, were my daughter.
WHERE? WHERE EXACTLY IS SHE? WHAT IS THE ADDRESS? WHERE ARE THEY KEPT? I HAVE TO SEE HER.
I want to shout and scream, but the words never make it out of my mind. It’s all I can do to hold myself together, to keep myself from running out the door and into the drivers seat and to every lab and hospital in California, in search of what is left of her.
I thank him for his time and effort and grace and vow to call back in a few months, as if I’ll somehow forget.
Eighteen months later and I’m still searching.
How far out from your loss are you? In what ways are you still tangibly confronted with your child’s death?