My cousin, Allie, is an actuary. I once asked her if she could figure out my chances of dying. She smiled and told me not to worry about it (as it turns out there’s a 100% chance). There are so many ways to die– disease, violence, and accidents– it seems like a miracle that any of us make it as far as we do.
From one cell we grow into these super complex beings. Each with the same basic anatomy but with completely different characteristics and personalities. I’m not even going to pretend to know how it all works but what I do know is that it is pretty miraculous that it all keeps doing its thing with little help from me. I used to like to go under water in the bathtub and listen to my heart beat—it amazed me (still does) that this thing inside of me just kept ba-bumpin’ away to keep me alive. I love to feel my heart beating faster while I’m running. I also like to lie very still and see just how slow I can get it to go. It’s really quite incredible.
Fifteen months ago today, my 4-year-old nephew’s body stopped working. His creativity and joy for life got him into a situation that turned out to be deadly. For the next 5 days his body was kept alive by machines while we desperately waited for a miracle to happen and the swelling in his brain to go down. On the fifth day, after accepting that his body would never be able to work on its own again, he would never wake up from his sleep, his parent’s did what no parents should ever have to do, and took him off life support.
When it was time to say goodbye, my brother and Tera held him for the last time while Payton let go. My very loving and very large extended family sat in the waiting room with our eyes down. Every time the door opened our heads flew up. Finally, after what seemed an eternity (only 22 minutes) a nurse came to tell us Payton was gone. We sat crying and holding each other while chimes rang over the intercom, announcing the birth of a baby—a new life with a heart that went ba-bump, lungs that filled with air, and 8 other working systems, came in to the world just as Payton was going out.
Payton’s parents were so courageous and had decided to donate Payton’s young, healthy organs to give others a second chance. We stayed in the waiting room as the organ donor team operated on Payton. A while later a team of 4 doctors came and told us how amazing Payton had done and how many gifts he had given. It seems as though Payton new exactly what to do—because he let go so quickly, more of his organs were able to be saved. Through our extreme pain and gratitude, we each came forward and hugged and thanked the doctors (who were also crying) for giving us hope by turning our greatest loss into others’ second chance at life.
In the days, weeks, and months to follow I often thought about the recipients of Payton’s organs. I prayed for them, that their bodies wouldn’t reject the new parts and that they would live full lives. I wondered if they had a level of gratitude proportionate to the level of our pain. I wanted to know if they ever thought about the grief that we live with. I feared that they wouldn’t live lives worthy of Payton’s sacrifice.
Then it struck me, it’s not my concern whether they were grateful for their gifts—my own gratitude is where I should be. It’s of no use to me to wonder if they think about our pain—I should be focused on loving myself and my family through the pain that we share. It’s not my place to judge the quality of their lives—I should only concern myself with the quality of mine.
Steve Prefontaine, a running icon who also happened to die tragically at quite a young age, is famously quoted for saying, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” Most of us will never be Olympic athletes. You may not feel like you are incredibly “gifted” at anything. But if you are reading this now, it means you have an INCREDIBLE gift—you’re alive. All of those systems are working together to keep you alive. Your heart continues to go ba-bump in your chest and that, my friends, is a gift worthy of your gratitude.
I can’t control how the recipients of Payton’s organs will choose to live their lives. I can, however, control how I live mine. I can choose to care for my body. I can push it to explore new boundaries. I can give it my best so as not to sacrifice this gift. I can be present each moment and choose to live with gratitude for this thing in my chest that keeps going ba-bump.
So, here’s to my precious little nephew, whose zest for life inspired many, and who probably would have gotten a time out for using the “H” word. I’ll honor your short but beautifully lived life by giving a big“hell yeah” to living as fully as you did.
Ba-bump. Ba-bump. Ba-bump…