This afternoon as I sat on our rooftop patio, enjoying the afternoon sun, my mind travelled back to 1990, to this day 30 years ago when my mom received a heart transplant. She was 36 years old.
That day is a bit of a blur now but I remember pieces of it. No doubt each member of my family remembers something different. I was 9 years old and in grade four. The day before she would have her transplant, Mom and I had been at my softball game. Her pager went off. She went to find a payphone to call the hospital to see what the news was. She had been on the transplant list for several months by that time. We were living in Calgary but had spent several months the previous year living in Edmonton in anticipation of her surgery. During that time, her pager had gone off sporadically and she had called the hospital each time only to discover that it was a false alarm. But this time, she came back to tell me that she had to go. There was a heart available and she had to go to Edmonton right away. Being 9, I didn’t really think through the consequences of what she was saying and I told her I would prefer to stay at my softball game until it ended and then meet her back at home.
I was lucky to see her before she left. When I arrived home a while later, my aunts and two of my mom’s closest friends were there. My aunt Jessica was going to accompany Mom to Edmonton on the plane that had been arranged for them. I arrived just in time to say goodbye to her as they hurried out the door. Mom later said that I had been so calm and brave but I think I was just oblivious because as soon as they left the house, I burst into tears. It wasn’t easy to sleep that night, wondering what was happening to her, waiting to hear news about the surgery. The next morning my brother and I stayed home from school, hoping for an update. When one hadn’t arrived by lunchtime, we both decided it would be better to be busy at school than sitting around at home, waiting.
I remember sitting in the classroom during the afternoon recess (I was catching up on what I had missed in the morning) when the principal came in (a tall man I found intimidating and a bit scary) to say that he had just received a call from home and that my mom had come through the surgery and was in recovery. I was so relieved. I am sure we celebrated at dinner that night.
But it wasn’t the end of our waiting.
In 1990, organ transplants were fairly new and so recovery was quite different than it is now. Mom had to stay in Edmonton for three months, in the ICU for several weeks and then in an outpatient residence. My brother and I weren’t allowed to visit her while she was in the ICU. I remember the first time we made the trip to Edmonton we had to stand behind a glass partition and wave to her. It was heartbreaking for all of us. The only joy I had was exploring the University of Alberta Hospital with my cousin. We wandered along all of the hallways and discovered the vending machines on each floor, testing them to see if they would randomly yield their delights. Once, we were rewarded with a free root beer.
Finally, Mom was moved to a different floor of the hospital and we were able to go in and hug and kiss her. In a way, it was like meeting a stranger. Her face was puffy and red from the steroids she had to take and she had a long scar that ran from her breastbone down along her abdomen. I was fascinated by it. I think she was self-conscious of it later on because the scar only faded so much, but each time I saw it it made me happy. It was a sign of the new life she had been given, a gift for all of us.
Mom eventually came home in August (and saved me from attending a day camp that would have had me riding my bike all over the city – no doubt it would have been good for me but I equated it with torture). It was like having a special guest come to stay. My brother and I were so happy to finally have her home. Each year on May 16th, we would celebrate the anniversary of her heart transplant. I would bring her flowers and it would be like a second Mother’s Day. Every year, even as a kid, I remember being so grateful that someone had offered their organs for transplant so that Mom could keep being my mom.
When she died on May 7, 2003, she was two weeks shy of her 50th birthday, and nine days shy of her 13th heart anniversary. I think of her often during the month of May, sometimes with sorrow on the day of her death, always with gratitude on the day of her heart transplant and with joy on her birthday. Her life, like all lives, unfolded as she did not expect but she met each challenge with courage, generosity, forgiveness, and love.
Happy 30th anniversary, Mom.