It was early 1998, not long before Allison was born. We had recently moved into our newly built house and piano movers arrived just before 9:00 pm on this evening with a baby grand that had been purchased new by my great grandmother in 1909. As Valerie, Austin, Trenton and I sat on the staircase, watching excitedly as the piano was set in place, Val fidgeted nervously. She had been trying to contact her mother all day without success, and could no longer contain her worries. “I wonder where she is. I hope she’s OK” Val repeatedly thought out loud. Sensing her concern, Trenton did his best to comfort her. In the sweetest, most reassuring voice a little boy could muster, four-year-old Trenton said, “Well, Mommy, maybe she’s dead.” Different people empathize in different ways. Some of us just may need a little help.
When Trenton first arrived in the intensive care unit in March, 1995 he was placed in a room next door to a teenage boy named Zack. Zack had his own set of problems arising from an extended stay at Children’s Medical Center, but he had received relief from a heart transplant just days before we arrived. Seeing him leave ICU about a week later gave us relief too, as we were just beginning to explore the possibility of a heart transplant for Trent. That kind of surgery was frightening, so Zack’s apparent success gave us reassurance that we had a workable solution.
Friends and family were the first to teach Valerie and me the comfort of empathy. Their love was often shown through service, whether someone was delivering food, caring for Austin, sitting in ICU with Trenton so Valerie and I could rest, or even cleaning our house and redecorating (yes, redecorating our house, and they even rehung pictures). Equal to these for me was knowing the pain these people felt for us. In person, it was people like Valerie’s brother, Vernon, standing at Trenton’s bedside, crying at the sight, but there was a more subtle expression of empathy I also appreciated. A friend had set up a phone number for anyone to call in for an update (it was 1995, so few used email or web sites). The friend left a daily voicemail of Trenton’s status, and callers could leave reassuring messages that I checked each day. What caught my attention was the number of people who called and left no actual message. Knowing someone was calling solely because they were interested in Trenton was comforting in itself, but some DID unknowingly leave a message. Occasionally, a caller did not hang up fast enough before the recording began and I was able to hear one second of a slight sniffle or whimper of a cry. Someone, and I wouldn’t know who, was feeling our pain. Yes, I guess misery really does love company.
Trenton had three nurses caring for him in shifts and Melissa was on duty the morning of Trenton’s surgery. Valerie was resting in the ICU “family bunk room” at the time. The family bunk room was a quiet, unlit room attached to the ICU waiting room, with bunk beds, all with their own curtains and each family assigned a bunk. Val never slept well in there, fearful the next light to shine into the room would be a nurse coming to tell her we had run out of time. This evening, at midnight, Melissa entered the room and grabbed the curtain, causing Valerie to start shaking. Thankfully, Melissa was alert to this fear and quickly shared the news, “Good news! We got a heart!”
Although her shift had ended, Melissa stayed at the hospital until the transplant surgery was complete late in the morning. That afternoon, she called me from her home, saying, “I could get in trouble for telling you this, but I’m so freaked out, I need to tell you that I know who the donor is!” While telling a neighbor about our transplant, the neighbor informed Melissa that a baby in their neighborhood had died the day before. The two compared notes and realized it was Melissa’s neighbor who was the donor.
I attended the funeral for baby David a few days later, sitting near the back of the sanctuary, out of eyeshot as I watched his parents, Gary and Sarah, walking to the front row. I was draped in pain and sorrow. It was terribly uncomfortable attending a funeral 1) for a baby, 2) for a stranger, yet 3) someone who meant so much to us by having a life-saving impact in our lives. That said, I knew it was nothing compared to Gary and Sarah’s pain, and it was the least I could do, although little did I know at the time we would help them during a chance meeting one year later (but that’s a story for another time).
So, why did I mention Zack? A month after attending David’s funeral, I sat at Zack’s funeral, wondering if this would become the routine of a transplant family. Afterward, I wrote a brief comment in my journal when I arrived home. “I am going to my second funeral in just over one month, both for children. It’s uncomfortable. You don’t bury your kids…I hope these funerals don’t get easy.”
Jump forward eighteen years to 2013. A friend in Oklahoma informed me of a family she knew whose daughter, London, was in ICU with serious heart problems at Dallas Children’s Medical Center. I visited the Facebook page created to update family and friends on London’s status (gone are the days of voicemail updates), and I read every word of every post…and the pain came back as fresh as if reliving our own experience. I prayed multiple times for London and her family, and with each prayer I said, “Thank you, Father, that this still hurts.”
My first blog mentioned how Trenton blessed us with survival, and while that is true, it is incomplete. We have also been blessed with a stronger ability to feel someone else’s pain, and while it doesn’t feel good, it’s a blessing to 1) be in a position to know how it feels, 2) know that it may be all that is needed to provide comfort to someone, and 3) be human.
This is just a suggestion. If your friend is a pile of mush, suffering through a trauma you have not experienced, don’t think you too need to be a pile of mush and take on their painful emotions in order to be of service to them. Think about how you would feel in their position and what would give them comfort at that time, and then be their rock and their servant (that has always been my brother, Danny). If they feel the need to be in pain, instead of trying to talk them out of it, feel their pain (being thankful that you can), remembering there is reason and purpose in pushing through to another day, and that you can help carry them there. Those of us who have lived their pain can be a pile of mush with them, but we also must be the connection back to their survival when they may not see it.
If you think empathy is necessary only when a family member or close friend is suffering, consider how divided we have become in America, whether by race, religion, financially and/or politically. A black person is shot by a white policeman and our Facebook timelines explode with opinions of how one or the other is to blame. Instead, realize the sadness of a life cut short, a family in mourning, and the risk a police officer takes every day in just doing his or her job. Currently, the internet is overflowing with millions of self-anointed zoo “experts” opining on who is to blame for a boy getting into a gorilla cage at a Cincinnati zoo. Did you know the mother received death threats? I’m not aware of a time that death threats have helped a woman who either made a parenting mistake or was simply raising a mischievous kid. In elementary school, Trenton and a friend, Dru, once went to the Vice Principal’s office for throwing rocks at the school during recess. When put on the spot, Trenton explained, “I was throwing rocks at Dru’s rocks so they wouldn’t hit the school (full disclosure: when first hearing this story from Valerie, I replied, “That boy’s gotta learn how to lie better.”). I’d like to take this moment to actually thank all the other parents of Cottonwood Creek Elementary for not sending death threats to Valerie and me. Think, feel and act out of love and empathy.
Back to baby London. How is she two years later? She’s excellent and has a baby brother. She will eventually need another surgery, but London is doing well and growing, and for that I’m still thankful.
P.S. Pic 1: Could you discipline that face? Pic 2: Our first donor family, the people who made our life story possible. Pic 3: Allison recently graduated high school and will attend the University of Oklahoma this fall. Why did I post it? Because this is my blog and I get to post what I want.