Life, Death, and Donations

October 9, 1989 – I was a freshman in high school. I was at my locker before homeroom, preparing for the day. A friend approached me, her face very serious and sad.

“Sherry died last night,” she announced.

I raged at her. Told her to shut up. It couldn’t possibly be true. Sherry was only 14.

And yet, I knew it was true. On some level, I expected it.

In homeroom, I listened to the announcement of her death over the intercom. Most of my classmates came from other middle schools and didn’t know her. I was one of the few who cried. Later that day, I got a note from a friend saying that this was the worst day of her life. I had to agree. Losing a best friend is brutal at any age, but it’s incomprehensible at 14.

Sherry was one of my best friends in middle school. She had an illness – the name of it escapes me now – which weakened her lungs and made it difficult for her to breathe. When we first met, she could do most everything that healthy kids our age could do. Birthday parties, school dances – she even played clarinet for a time.

I think it was around 7th grade when her illness became more apparent. As her heart and lungs weakened even more, she stopped participating in normal activities. Every day, her father would carry her up the stairs at school for classes and then down again at the end of the day. Since she couldn’t take the stairs, my friends and I would take turns getting her lunch tray and taking it up to her. We’d all have lunch together.

She started appearing in the local news. There were spaghetti dinners and other fundraisers to help the family with medical expenses. She was on a wait list for a heart and lung transplant.

In 8th grade, she no longer came to school. She was too sick, so she continued her education at home. Meanwhile, everyone waited and hoped for a donor.

I wrote to her often that year. She never wrote me back. To this day, I don’t know why. Did my letters upset her? I wrote about events at school – a life she could no longer participate in. Did she know she was dying? Probably. Maybe she was trying to pull away from all her friends, thinking it would make things easier for us. I will never know.

Just a couple days before she died, I wrote her another letter. I remember walking into my bedroom later and seeing it. I crumpled it and threw it away, thinking she would never write me back anyway, so why bother? I’m so glad I didn’t send that letter. Her parents would have received it right after she died.

I didn’t go to the visitation later that week. I couldn’t bear it. There was a finality to seeing her dead in a casket that I couldn’t handle. The funeral felt safer. The casket was closed. I remember the funeral being on Friday the 13th.

Since that time, I’ve been advocating for organ donation. I signed up as an organ donor when I got my driver’s license a couple years later.

Today, on this 29th anniversary of her death, the bloodmobile came to work. I have no intention of donating organs any time soon if I can at all help it, but blood, I can donate. It seems fitting to do it today.

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Thinking of you, Sherry. And today, I’m wondering who you would have been if you had only gotten that organ transplant that would have saved your life. You never got the chance to grow up, but hopefully I can give a chance at life to someone (or multiple someones) when my time comes to an end.

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