God, Country, and Kidneys (Part III: Kidneys)
Six degrees of separation. It’s true. We are each connected to another in six or fewer steps of human association.
This and the two posts before were meant to be written and posted right after Zatha’s graduation in May. But each has taken me longer to write than I anticipated because I’ve grown a little weary; weary because the adrenaline is gone and the thought of Hans’s death socks me in the gut so many times a day that it sucks away bits of my energy; weary because I regularly realize that I have so many years of life left without him. I am weary trying to remember what I need to remember about him. It is difficult to recall conversations, important events, cute moments throughout his life, the sound of his voice, the feel of his hugs.
I am weary because I am reminded of him all the time and it makes me cry; like every time I put in and take out my contacts I think of how I asked the personnel at the hospital (who were all caring and knowledgeable) if someone had taken out his contacts when he arrived. They assured me someone must have, but no one had. Zatha questioned the nurses as well as she watched them regularly test his pupil reactions, thinking his eyes didn’t look quite right. It wasn’t until almost a week later, on the night before they would take Hans away for his independent breathing test, that as I was taking pictures and videos of my precious son to help me remember him later, I took a close up photo of his beautiful blue eyes and saw that his contacts were still in. It doesn’t really matter that they were left in because they moistened his eyes with drops every few hours and he couldn’t tell anyway. His corneas were healthy and recovered, and are probably shining in someone else’s eyes as I type. But every time I pop my contacts in or take them out I am reminded of Hans, just one of so many reminders.
That night I took pictures of his eyes, his curled pinkies, his hairy legs, his gangly toes, his barrel chest, his beautiful hair, his gorgeous blue eyes, his freckles. I took a video of him as well, while telling him little remembrances of his birth and youth, and of the loving hugs and pat-pat-rub-rubs he generously and regularly gave us all. I somewhat understand what it must be like for cutters, those who physically cut themselves to release emotional pain. I so badly want to look at every photo and video of him, and rummage through his things, but it hurts so badly when I do, releasing my sadness and heavy, tiring sobs. I do look, despite the pain, but I can’t bring myself to look at everything just yet. I will look at it all eventually because it will help me remember how much he was loved and loving, how fun and funny he was. My hope is that the day will come, sooner rather than later, when I can do it with all smiles and fewer tears.
I so badly wanted to climb into his bed with him for one final snuggle that last night and hold my only son in one last tight hug, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to jeopardize his health before the recovery of his organs. If he was going to die I wanted his body to be healthy and ready for the transplants. There was a chance that if he survived the independent breathing test and did not die within a certain amount of time he would be brought back to the room to live to the next crisis. But Hans died about 45 minutes after the ventilator tubes were removed.
The process for organ recovery is very complex but moves with brilliant and well-orchestrated efficiency, by necessity. After the devastating news that his brain was so severely damaged, with no hope for recovery, and once we had all the information to make the right decision for Hans, we started the process. More discussions were held, information gathered, medical history documented, papers signed, tests ordered, blood taken, EEG performed, sputum and lung capacity tested, organ recipients and multiple surgeons notified and prepped.
We were told that his lungs could not be recovered because he had aspirated in flight to the Shock Trauma Center and they were not quite healthy enough for recovery. Though every portion of Hans’s brain was so severely damaged, oddly his brain still had electrical activity and thus he was never declared brain dead. So his heart, though it was in beautiful, perfect condition, could not be recovered for ethical reasons that I still don’t quite understand. But there are so many other wonderful parts of him now out there living in others’ bodies – his liver, both kidneys, eyes, skin, bones, heart valves, and other portions recovered for research.
Adrenaline carried us through his funeral and burial, and through Zatha’s graduation. Commissioning Week at the Naval Academy is full of sanctioned activities (parades, balls, receptions, orientations, awards, the Blue Angels, graduation) and parties galore. Despite the cloud of Hans’s death hovering over us, we continued with our original plans in a beautiful house we had rented for the week, and hosted a few parties ourselves. It was at one of those parties that we reconnected with some of my parents’ dear friends: Tom, a fellow retired naval officer, and his wife Margaret, both of whom are my sister’s Godparents, and who have lived in Maryland for years. And we experienced the truth of six degrees (or less) of separation.
The morning that Hans died, my parents had called Margaret to tell her of Hans’s death and organ recovery. The mother of only boys, all now grown, Margaret was a florist for many years. One young woman who had worked for Margaret for a few years, now in her twenties, became like an only daughter to her. This young woman visits or calls to chat with Margaret almost daily.
Just after receiving my parents’ call, Margaret received another call, this time from this young woman. The young woman could hear in Margaret’s voice that something was wrong and asked what might be bothering her. Margaret told her that the grandson of dear friends of hers had just died that morning, a midshipman from the Naval Academy. Margaret could hear the young woman gasp over the phone. She then asked Margaret how this midshipman had died, and after Margaret told her ‘from injuries sustained in skateboarding accident’ the young woman gasped again.
The young woman told Margaret that when she had been a child, she had a favorite babysitter, who was now a mother herself in her forties. The young woman was close to her old babysitter, so close that they talked regularly. Earlier that same morning, the young woman had received an excited phone call from that favorite babysitter who told her that she was on her way to the Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore to receive a kidney from a young midshipman who had died that morning. Hans. Five degrees of separation.
When I was in college I remember hanging out with friends who might be going through a tough situation, or were feeling depressed, and I would help them think of the myriad of reasons for them to remain positive despite their situation, like a car salesman selling a used car as-is (yep, there are some scratches on the car but the paint is a pretty color; sure, the muffler needs to be replaced but it sounds cool when you rev the engine; and heck, it still drives). Always trying to find the positives amongst the negatives.
And so I continue trying to find the positives. Hans worked on finding the positives. If it was windy he would kitesurf. If there was no wind but good waves, he’d surf. If there were neither, he’d skimboard at the beach or, if it was raining, in the neighborhood swales. If it was muddy, he’d go offroading in his Jeep. If there were friends around he’d get them to play paintball, or slackline, or go longboarding. If conditions weren’t right for any of the above, Hans would read a book or build a bike jump or make a movie, like this very first simple movie he put on his YouTube channel back in 2011 after Hampstead, North Carolina, got seven inches of snow and Hans wanted to snowboard in it. How does one snowboard in the flat coastal neighborhood of Pelican Reef, with nary a hill? Watch to find out. Always trying the find the positives amongst the negatives.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRO8FuGreJU&list=UUt_b8M76G4p8wwfKMG8GA7A
Or this one not long after, made on a cloudy day, with over 2,000 photos taken (by me) and put together (by Hans) for a cute stop-motion video he called “Wishful Thinking.” Hans was cool. Hans died with no regrets, and we have none either.
It’s been just under four months since his death and we are still reading through the beautiful cards and letters from all of our dear friends and family, and from people we’ve never even met. They so warm our hearts. I’m still wrestling with paperwork, closing accounts, paying bills, planning his headstone. His effects from the Academy finally arrived but I haven’t had the time or the fortitude to begin going through it all. I continue to feel a bit like being a hermit, and it’s almost odd how facing people I know is harder to do than facing strangers. Maybe it’s our common tie to Hans that makes seeing the people I know, he knew, more difficult. If I don’t answer your phone call it’s not because I don’t love you, it’s because I still find conversation to be tough. But I’m getting better at it. Please keep calling, writing, visiting, grabbing me in the grocery store. It’s nice to know people care.
When one is going to put a new roof on one’s house, one notices everyone else’s roofs, when they didn’t before. It is like that with death. When it happens to your family you become more acutely aware of death all around you, you suffer along with all the others who suffer. But our own roof, our own death is still the main focus of our suffering. Eric and Zatha are the truly brave ones, marching along with their suffering, getting out there every day, working hard, doing good things. Zatha fears that it isn’t apparent to her friends how much she is hurting, because she has always hated to cry in public, hates to bring negative attention to herself. She hopes people don’t believe she is callous, or that she is already over Hans’s death. She isn’t. At all. And she never will be. None of us will be. She tells me she carries a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach all the time. She cries every day, mostly when she’s alone. She misses her brother so badly but has found so few friends with whom she can share remembrances, thoughts, her sadness. If you are one of those friends, thank you. But please don't be afraid to talk to her, ask her questions about Hans, his accident, share memories of him. She'd really like that.
I love Eric and Zatha, our family and friends, finding joy in their daily lives, successes, anticipating their exciting futures, but I can’t really put any words to the feeling that my life feels so much less full because Hans is gone.
One quarter of my family is gone.
Half of my children are gone.
One hundred percent of Hans is gone, to me, to us.
Maybe it’s that mother connection that makes it all so awful. I carried his growing body in my womb, I birthed him, I nursed him, I fed him and comforted him, read to him, taught him, made music with him, talked and laughed with him and took so many pictures of him, sharing so many seminal moments in his life with him. And now he’s dead. Sometimes it really doesn't seem real and I have to remember seeing him in his coffin to remind me that it is real.
I don’t find my self-worth through my children, though we all somewhat vicariously live through our children. I am a stand-alone, capable woman, confident in myself and my family. But whom of any of you would expect to never be able to talk about your LIVE children or grandchildren, their accomplishments, relationships, school, current activities? Or, if you are younger, about your brother or sister or boyfriend or girlfriend or current friends and their activities? It feels like that for us now. If we mention Hans, most people instantaneously become very quiet, they do not respond, or do not ask any questions, or share any thoughts. They graciously hear us out then move on to other subjects, uncomfortably trying to figure out what to say or not to say. As I’ve said previously, I understand somewhat how you feel because I have been there where many of you are now, not having lost a close loved one. But prior to Hans dying my friends who have lost someone will tell you that I have asked and do ask and still will ask about their deceased loved ones, I truly am interested in people, their people, alive or dead. Pay attention to your next conversation with a friend and determine how much you talk about the people you love. We don’t need a stranger, a counselor with whom to talk about Hans. They don’t know him. We need you, our family and friends.
And still, I just am so sad, but – and here comes the big ‘but’ – if I can suffer the reality of the worst fear a mother can ever have yet I can still be, for the most part, kind, and pleasant, and gracious, and nice, and joyful for all those things that bring joy to the world, I don't understand those who can’t. If you find me a little cross and impatient with whiners, complainers, and excuse-makers, you will know why I might give them a mental middle finger if they get in my way. I don’t have much patience for them anymore. Yep, I’m complaining about complainers, whining about whiners, but I am not complaining or whining about my life. I am alive.
Flow with kindness. You never know whose kidney you might receive.
I will find sunshine on a cloudy day. I will learn to surf on a day with good waves. I will skateboard when there are no waves. I will read good books in any weather. I will enjoy people. And if I can flow with kindness and love when my baby boy is dead, can you? You are alive.