During the Gift of Life Michigan Fundraiser that Canton High School held in my honor in April, I went to the school each day to help out. I took balloons and would sit down at a lunch table full of students who didn't know me. I would ask them if they'd ever seen someone blow up a balloon before, and of course they had. What a silly question, right? But then I would ask if they'd ever seen someone blow up a balloon with lungs that they weren't born with. A few times, a shrewd student would answer, "How would I know?" but typically, the students just stared at me, transfixed by both the question and the general strangeness of the situation.
Once I inflated the balloon, I would write on it, and give it to one of the kids as a form of advertising for the fundraiser. Between my story and what I wrote on the balloon, the student could explain to those who asked why he or she had the balloon, and spread awareness of the fundraiser. Before leaving the table, I always asked if students had their driver's licenses yet. Often many of them did, and in such cases, most students were already registered donors, as evidenced by the little red heart on their license. I thanked them, and reminded them that they were giving a gift that literally no one else could-- should it come to pass that their organs are donated some day, the people who receive them need to be a precise match. In my case, I told them that all I know about my donor is that he or she must have been the right body size and that the doctors told me the lungs were "gently used." Because I'm a short guy (remember the book?) I am pretty certain my lungs came from a teenager. Some young person, just like the ones sitting at those tables watching me blow up balloons, made a decision and gave me a gift that only he or she could give. Every table I sat down at seemed to really understand the message, and I was impressed by their rapt attention, sincere questions, and heartfelt responses.
But there are other, non-corporeal types of gifts only you can give. One of the best examples of this was a letter that I received from a former student two years ago. It was one of her application essays for her first-choice university, and it was all about me. It was a story about one of my favorite days in my teaching career-- the day I took my AP English Lit. students outside to read and discuss poetry on a grassy hill. It was an idyllic hour that I will always remember, but reading her perspective on it, and her interpretation of my actions as I watched a small aphid crawl along my hand and arm, was an unexpected addition to an already great memory. Her viewpoint was an extra window into what that day meant to the students, but how it impacted her could have easily remained a secret from me. However, she chose to send me a copy of the letter, to give a gift that only she could bestow, and now it is one of my most treasured mementos from my career. The school accepted her, and she is currently doing great things at Kalamazoo College.
Many of the people who heard my speech at the CF Family Retreat have contacted me since, and I have been so touched by their feedback, and excited to know that my story can help people and give them hope and inspiration. But there have been unexpected ripples that I could never have imagined. One person contacted me on Facebook and told me about her mother, who was able to donate only her eye tissue following a battle with cancer. She passed in 2013, and her daughter had never contacted the person who could now see as a result of her mother's gift. But, after hearing my speech, she decided that she wanted to reach out to the recipient. She even let me proofread the letter (I am an English teacher, after all). I was moved to tears by what she wrote, and I'm not even the intended audience! This letter is a beautiful example of a gift that only she can give, a sense of closure and connectivity that can come from nowhere and none else.
There are many gifts that are uniquely ours to give, but so many of them are not given because we don't recognize them, or we just don't take that extra step. Since my transplant, I have examined my life to identify what I can give that no one else can. Whether it is information, or gratitude, or forgiveness, we all have things that only we can give, and in giving them, we make the recipient's life (and our own) better in ways that cannot be quantified.