A bittersweet smile arrived in my inbox. My dad made a positive difference in the lives of 77 people, whether he liked it or not.
Dad died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 62. He had been battling diabetes for about a decade and, try as we might, we couldn’t get him to follow his doctor’s orders. Dad refused to give up his Cheetos and wasn’t interested in the treadmill.
I inherited Dad’s stubbornness, his short temper and his inability to keep his opinions to himself. He was a chauvinist and I was a feminist. This usually meant that, while I could relate to his feelings and ideas, he made me incredibly angry.
When the hospital asked Mom if she wanted to donate Dad’s organs, she looked at me like a deer about to be plowed over by an 18-wheeler. How should we know what Dad would prefer? He didn’t really like many people. In fact, he could be quite critical of most people.
Wanting to do something positive, we decided to proceed with the organ donations.
“I hope he understands why I’m doing this,” Mom said with tears in her eyes.
“I’m sure he does, Mom.” She worried about it for a long time. I have to admit, I wasn’t convinced Dad would have been on board if he had been asked about donating his organs while he was still alive. In fact, just to be argumentative, he would have said absolutely not. Would he have meant it?
He did donate blood on a regular basis, but he also ignored the blood center’s calls if he thought they were calling too often. Sometimes it was difficult to tell when Dad felt strongly about something and when he was simply being grumpy.
Of all the decisions we made, the organ donation was the one that weighed on all our minds in the year following Dad’s death.
For me, the weight lifted when I opened my inbox to learn 77 people across the country and Canada had benefited from Dad’s bone and soft tissue donation. I expected a couple of people would receive donations, but I had no idea the impact our loss would have on so many others.
A 13-year-old in New York received a donation for an orthopedic operation.
A 45-year-old in Wisconsin received a donation for an ACL reconstruction.
A 67-year-old in Oklahoma received a donation for a dental procedure.
People have had neck fusions, lumbar fusions, repaired ankles and clavicle bones, spinal fusions and hip replacements, all with a little help from Dad.
As a young man, Dad used to show up at my maternal grandparents’ home so often, Grandpa asked, “Is that boy here again?”
Dad joined the Air Force to serve his country in Vietnam. He worked two jobs so Mom could stay at home with me and my brother.
Sadly, we often let the people in our lives slip away without ever really getting to know them.
You think you know your parents inside and out, but I only saw what was on the outside; the manifestations of Dad’s illness, the seriousness of which he kept concealed even from his wife. I was amazed how little I knew about my dad and his life until it was too late to truly understand.
With the insight I’ve now gained about his tour of duty in Vietnam, the reality of Agent Orange and its lasting effects on his health, along with a healthy dose of time to see both the good and bad in Dad’s life, I’ve come away with a new understanding of this man I thought I knew.
I am no longer worried about what Dad would think about the organ donation. He might pretend otherwise, but I am pretty sure he would secretly be pleased.
Julie Shea has a Bachelor of Arts degree in professional writing from Mount Mary College. She currently lives in Charleston.