“I lay my head upon his chest, and I was with my boy again. I spent so long in darkness I never thought the night would end. But somehow Grace has found me…and I had to let him in.” ~From “Just Like That,” Bonnie Raitt
Bonnie Raitt’s surprise Grammy win for 2023 Song of the Year was no surprise to me. In “Just Like That” she tells the story of a woman who is unexpectedly visited by the man who got her late son’s heart. It’s a song that can reduce anyone to tears.
I have been that woman—that Donor Mom, as we’re known in the transplantation world. Bonnie nailed the most important thing about these strange, mysterious, indelible connections we form with our organ and tissue recipients.
Because both donors and recipients are pushed to the edge of life, our bullshit magically disappears. For all of us, everything we previously worried about suddenly seems petty, unimportant, beside the point—except for one sterling truth.
Someone out there, in the vast sea of humanity, is carrying your precious child’s organs or tissues around. Somewhere out there, a little piece of that beloved son or daughter still exists.
They’re not entirely gone. And so, despite the chaos, the pain and the crushing grief, you finally understand the larger truth: life goes on.
I lost my free-spirited, blues-singing, twenty-two-year-old daughter, Teal, to a medically unexplainable cardiac arrest. At the time I was a driven workaholic whose focus was squarely on myself and my terribly important agenda. I had little interest in the plight of others.
By contrast, Teal was known to her friends as “Kwan Yin,” because of her sensitivity and her vast compassion.
The night before she died, Teal called me up. “I think I’m going to have a really big seizure,” she told me. Her epilepsy was usually well controlled by medication, so I wasn’t too concerned. Still, I offered to take her to the nearest ER, but Teal refused.
“They’re just going to tell me to change my meds,” she said. “But I like these. They make me feel closer to God.”
Then a strange thing happened. I found myself asking Teal whether this experience had anything to do with her life purpose. It did, she confirmed, because as we both knew, Teal wanted to be a healer.
“I’m so glad you asked me that,” she said, sounding somewhat relieved.
The next night Teal appeared an hour late at the dinner date we had arranged in a San Francisco restaurant. She drifted in, ate her dinner, and drifted out, without saying much at all. Two hours later, she collapsed in a locked bathroom and remained in a coma until she was taken off of life support six days later.
So Teal became an excellent candidate for organ donation.
When we were asked if we wanted to donate her organs, we agreed, knowing this was probably as close as Teal would ever get to being a healer. Then we crawled away on our hands and knees, uncertain how on earth we were ever going to carry on.
All we knew was that we wanted contact, so one year later, we wrote a letter to Teal’s three organ recipients, hoping for the best.
After two years, a letter from the young woman who got Teal’s heart and kidney arrived in my inbox.
“I have been trying to put together my letter for so long, not even knowing where to begin…” she wrote.
She explained that she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure when she was nineteen and nearly died three times in the eight years prior to her transplant. The transplant had dramatically improved her life, she explained, because she finally had the energy to do the things most young women her age take for granted.
She went on to list all of the things she now hoped to achieve: buying property and building a home, traveling the world, having lots of animals. Getting a degree in medical imaging. Getting married.
“I feel like your daughter and I would have been good friends, if given the chance,” she concluded. “She is part of me, and I will be forever grateful.”
When we finally met a few years later, on the very same beach in San Francisco where we once scattered Teal’s ashes, we hugged each other hard for a long, long time, tears streaming down our faces. We’d both been to the edge of life, this complete stranger and I, and we’d come back together.
That afternoon, I got to listen to Teal’s heart. It was my daughter’s heartbeat, yes, but it sounded like any heart, really. And that is when I realized something huge.
Teal used to talk about something called the Unified Field of Love, a space that exists between all of us, where we can connect once we put aside our differences. In this place, we remember that we are all far more alike than different.
For if your heart, or lungs, or kidneys, or liver or corneas can work just fine in my body, and mine in yours, how different can any of us actually be?
I think about this when a family member and I don’t see eye to eye, or when someone cuts me off in the abundant Bay Area traffic. And I try to when I shut off someone’s political rant on the TV, mid-sentence.
That person is me—whether I like it or not in the moment. They’re just experiencing life in a different lane.
At such moments, in spite of myself, I am moved to compassion. To love. To Grace, as Bonnie so beautifully puts it in her lyrics. When we see ourselves in each other, we can’t help but choose grace, no matter how broken we are. And no matter how bitter we may have become.
Today, I’m still in touch with Teal’s heart and kidney recipient, and she has achieved everything on her list and then some.
“I will never take for granted what Teal has given me,” she wrote to us in that first, incredible letter.
It’s clear to me that she hasn’t. And neither have we.