"Slow down. You move too fast..."
I am at Costco Kanata humming Simon & Garfunkel's 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy) as the speeding shoppers blow past our Ottawa Gift of Life advocacy table.
Costco put us at the entrance for ten hours on a Monday to honour in a meaningful way Julie, an employee, who had died in her early 30s while on a waiting list for a new heart.
"No, not now," shouts one shopper, already 15 feet past me, looking at a super-sized television.
"Not interested...," another offers emphatically, with a shake of his head.
Does he know what we are selling?
"Maybe later...." another one says.
If a shopper ever locks eyes with me or hesitates even for a second , they have my son Adam's picture in their hands.
"He saved four lives," I tell them. "A man has his heart. Three women have his kidneys and liver." Adam, 22, died after a seizure-related drowning; paramedics resuscitated him and brought him to a hospital for our precious 36-hour vigil.
The miracle we begged for was not to be but another magnificent miracle was in that Ottawa Hospital I-28 room that January, 2016 weekend, waiting our embrace. ("A Brave Heart", Chapter 17, Soar, Adam, Soar,www.rickprashaw.com)
My quick elevator talk red lights a few. Even on this"Monday, Monday", a light goes on for some shoppers. They figure out that my son must have died. They offer condolences. Some glance at the Be a Donor table.
What are you selling?
There's Everest moments on my shift. An Iranian couple show me their bracelet which identifies a person as a willing donor in his country. He is happy to write down the beadonor.ca web site after hearing how we in the province of Ontario now register.
Several take out their health cards to confirm the word, DONOR, is in capital letters on the back. It's THE certain way to know one is registered at least in this province. As in every volunteer shift, inevitably there's a few who had registered years ago signing driver licence applications surprised now NOT to see the DONOR word on their card. We get that fixed with a quick online registration.
There are organ recipients who share their own stories and gratitude. Flesh and blood make organ donation real! I share my shift with another deceased donor family member. Suzanne Rousson has the picture of her beautiful son, Sylvain, here too. After his death at 27, he would save five lives.
A few in their senior years joke with me that "you don't want my organs". That opens the door to sharing documented cases where organs from 80-year-old plus donors have functioned well for decades longer in their new recipients. When I had cited those examples at my Soar, Adam, Soar book reading in North Bay, ON., a nun already in her 80s in the front row gave us a fist pump!
Life after life.
Here at Costco, one poor woman waiting for a passport photo couldn't run from me. When I showed her my Adam and invited her to consider being an organ donor, she had a visceral, vomiting look of revulsion. Flashing in my memory was a teen girl at a Stouffville, ON high school reading who told me she wanted so much to register as an organ donor but her mother had vetoed her wishes.
"If you register as an organ donor, you will surely die," she told her daughter. Oh, dear, superstition trumping love, risking putting more healthy organs in the ground while people die waiting.
From my book tour and notes from readers, I sense that this memoir on Adam's gender journey home to the "boy in the mirror" might have other positive if unintended benefits for organ transplant advocacy, precisely because it is only a sub-plot in this love story I tell. First, readers get to know and like Adam, his positive spirit and crazy humour. Then, near the end, they read his surprising final act of love. I mistakenly thought only the one, later Chapter 17 in the book covered his organ donation, the chapter where I introduced John Dickhout, the "golden attitude", grateful heart recipient who had cleverly sleuthed his donor's identity. His heart-filled anonymous letter to Adam's family is in the book. So too is our reply. In that reply, he had picked up a few vague references ----our son's epilepsy, being a hockey goalie, the Celebration of Life. He knew the date of death for a Google search. Audiences at the readings revel at what he then did to reach us, a story he's told himself at five of the tour's 32 cities so far.
Indeed, there's traces of the donor story earlier in the book --- a hint of a conversation Adam had with his Mom when he opened his driver's licence application at 16, and my sister, Pati, a nurse, planting a seed when she drove me to the airport after I abruptly ended my holidays with her when we received the phone call about the drowning.
"...As Pati turns into the San Luis obispo Airport parking lot, she grabs my arm. "Hon, we want the best for Adam, that he be well. But, if it is not to be, he is a young man with healthy organs. I am sure he wants others to have this gift from him."
She is right. I, too, believe that Adam would want that." But my Adam is not going to die. That is not on!" (The Cardinal, Chapter 9, Soar, Adam, Soar)
Other stories on the meetings in hospital hallways with a doctor and nurse, my first mentioning an openness to have Adam be considered as a donor. Later discussions with a funeral director. Letters from Trillium Gift of Life on the four anonymous (at the time) recipients.
Here's a Facebook post I quote in the book. (Adam's 125 posts in the margins and part of the narrative make him a co-author),
February 22, 2016
"I cannot think of a better Family Day message than the letter we got from the Gift of Life Trillium Network confirming that the organs of our Adam saved four people in terminal stages of heart, liver and kidney failure.... Adam drove a car only for one year, when sixteen. They thank us for the generosity in our grief but in truth this happened because our Adam as Rebecca signed an organ donor card at sixteen, the one year she was driving before bigger seizuress surfaced. She sat down with her mom, wanting to do that. We knew her wishes then and knew this honoured Adam's spirit of generosity. And it gives us enormous consolation in our grief. (That Adam's heart is in a man puts an extras smile on my heart.) Have you registered? It takes two minutes. #TrilliumGiftofLife #BeADonor)"
Still, the Costco hours suggest why there is this yawning gap between the vast majority of people supporting organ transplants in theory or polls, 90 per cent plus, yet only about a third of Ontario residents bothering to register. (The registration rate is over 50% in my home towns of North Bay and Sudbury in Northern Ontario, proof that northerners are smarter than the average bear.)
Why do so many people not register as donors? I barely resist the urge to shake some sense into them. However, during the second part of my Soar, Adam, Soar book readings , after a local organ transplant speaker, I do speak plainly. It's not a religion stopping us, as the vast majority see organ donation as an act of faith giving life. It's hardly for any philosophy. I recall a Facebook dust-up with a libertarian who didn't want government messing with his body. They don't. We decide whether to give this gift of life or put the organs in the ground or crematorium.
By and by, we simply just don't get around to registering, especially in this fast lane, death-denying culture.
"Slow down. We move too fast."
I joked that my Adam sped through life in his own fast lane from the moment he arrived after a mere 17 minutes of labour by his mom. Yet, he did take those precious minutes to register as a donor and, equally important, to tell his loved ones his wishes. Knowing those wishes, it became the easiest decision on the hardest night of our lives. I would be surprised later to learn our healthcare team would not have taken the organs of even a registered donor without the living family OK. With John Dickhout now standing beside me, I shudder to think how I could have messed up the miracle.
But there's no judgment of anyone in those terrible circumstances. It's hard to think straight in grieving madness. It's why sunny day conversations with loved ones is crucial.
As a former Catholic priest, I am done with my preaching but I do find myself occasionally back in the pulpit when it comes to the truly abysmal rates for organ donor registration.
I tell people that we can stand in line all night for a new phone that will die on us in six months but we cannot find two minutes to register as a donor.
I hate putting Adam's love story crassly in a supply and demand equation but that is where we are. 1500 in Ontario waiting for organs. One person on that list dies every three days waiting in vain. There's plenty of healthy organs of no use to people anymore for everyone on the list. I know everyone wants an organ for a loved one. Too few will be a donor for others after they die.
I hum more of Simon & Garfunkel's song, wanting to change the last lines.
"No deeds to do. No promises to keep."
We do need to slow down. And we have deeds to do and promises to keep.
(Here's a Government of Canada web site to check out how to be a donor in each province in Canada. Google or ask for the right link in other countries)