The Gifts of Life and Death
Perhaps the worst kind of tragedy befell another family in my daughter’s second grade class during April vacation: a classmate’s parent died. It was a tragic accident. The circumstances of his death are still being sorted out, but it seems to come down to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, though something I am sure will elicit an unending series of what ifs for many years to come.
At first I wasn’t sure how to tell my daughter, or when. We were in the early part of a week off and yet it didn’t feel right to withhold the news and save it for when she had to go back to school. I didn’t want her to be surprised and hear it from friends she played with over break, especially knowing how seven and eight year olds are occasionally the unintentional arbiters of stretched truths and rumors. I also wasn’t sure how it was going to be addressed by her school or teacher, if at all.
Compounding matters, coincidentally just two days prior she and I had had a very tearful discussion about a form she saw me filling out after we ate pancakes as a family. It was a life insurance form, a scenario we’ve talked about with her in the past but, for some reason, she was devastated by this time around. Her father and I have been careful to not say we will never die because that is unrealistic and unfair to her. Instead, we try to impress upon her that the probability of it happening anytime soon is quite small, all things considered.
And then the unthinkable actually happened to a girl she shares a classroom with every day. I feared she was going to call my bluff.
Despite wanting to keep our vacation light and easy, and notwithstanding the odds I had tried to comfort her with 48 hours ago, I told her not long after learning the news myself. Like me, and perhaps like most everyone, I knew she was going to project the awful series of events onto herself and how it could quite possibly happen to her also. I expected she would wonder whether her own father would die too early, or worse yet, that we both would. It is something that I think comes up for her in ways different than for those children who have siblings; she is afraid of being in this world alone and without us, her only immediate family. After breaking the news to her and allowing her to ask questions, I reminded her that we have plans in place should something like this ever happen to one or both of us. We have tried to do our best to make sure everything will be taken care of.
I didn’t want her to dwell on tragedy, so I steered our conversation toward the small glimmers of light that remained outside the shadow of this news. We talked about ways she can be a supportive friend should the occasion arise, how being at school might be the one place her classmate might be able to let go of her sadness for a little while. I also tried to deliver some modicum of hope with the terrible news about her friend’s father: his family had ensured his organs were donated so that six other people could still live. She seemed comforted and impressed by that, not realizing before this point that organs could even be donated.
But the death of this parent, someone whom I’d never met before, had an unexpectedly profound effect on me beyond sympathy for his lovely family and fighting against my tendency to conjure worst case scenarios of my own: it forced me to examine my own stance on organ donation. For most of my life, the idea of organ donation never sat well with me. And since it had been more or less an abstract concept—something that had not affected me or my loved ones directly—I never thought much about it beyond blithely opting out. The fact that I was now genuinely praising and heartened by this other family for something so completely selfless and admirable grated against my long-harbored ambivalence about organ donation. It gnawed at me in the days following this tragedy, especially after seeing how the notion consoled my daughter.
It was because something had changed inside me.
Not only had a death and donation scenario tangibly played out within a few degrees of separation, but a particular myopia I once struggled with has seemingly vanished since becoming a parent. The fragility and brevity of life took on a new clarity when I had my daughter, not just with respect to her life, but also mine. So too has my understanding of what the mere presence of my life means to her. With those factors at play, I could now see the reasons I held onto to justify opting out were misplaced, ignorant, and shortsighted. They were completely contradictory to positions I’ve long held on other issues. It was time to make a change, and so I did. I registered to become an organ donor before the week was out. I decided that if I can give someone else an extra day to kiss their family or witness another sunset, I want in.
Admittedly, the reason I changed my mind is also partly selfish. When the unthinkable happens to me, I want my daughter to know that not only is she taken care of, but perhaps someone else’s loved one might be too. I hope that my potential gift might one day give her comfort that even after I am gone, a small part of me still remains somewhere close by, even if just for a little longer.
Kristen M. Ploetz is a writer and former land use attorney living in Massachusetts. Her work has been published (or is forthcoming) with The Hopper, Gravel, The Healing Muse, NYT Motherlode, The Manifest-Station, The Humanist, Modern Farmer, Literary Mama, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a collection of short stories. You can find her on Twitter (@KristenPloetz).