Gary Ives’ character tells of a fateful secret that steered the course of his family’s life.
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Please realize this is a secret I’ve kept for years.
We – our mother, my twin Michael, and I – lived in St. Anthony’s parish. When Mike and I were just seven our father, a fire-fighter, died just before Thanksgiving after months of hospitalization due to burns suffered pulling survivors from a burning apartment complex. Mom visited Dad’s bedside every morning right after attending nine o’clock mass. I remember us going to J.C. Penny’s, Mom buying our suits for Dad’s funeral, and I well remember the funeral: the firetrucks and all the firemen in dress uniforms, each one coming to shake our hands, telling Mom and us what a great hero Dad was. At the funeral Mom was walking wobbly, using a walker because she had been released from the hospital only two days earlier where she had donated a kidney, this precious gift given even as her husband lay dying, to a boy whom she did not even know.
Later Father DiMaggio told me he reasoned that Mom bargained with God. The women of St. Anthony’s had something called The Prayer Tree to which parishioners in need asked for prayers. One such prayer request was from a woman named Hazel Vachon whose five-year-old son Hiram was in desperate need of a kidney. With the rare AB negative blood type, Hiram’s chance for a kidney donor were slim. Mrs. Vachon (there was no Mr. Vachon) was not a regular church goer, so was not known to my mother. But Mom’s rare blood type matched poor little Hiram’s. Father DiMaggio said that Mom probably believed that for donating her kidney to some boy she didn’t even know, God would answer her prayers for our dad’s recovery. But it didn’t work that way.
One of the television channels did a spot for the six-o’clock news from Mom’s and the boy’s hospital bedsides. Mom met the boy’s mother who, to Mom’s dismay, expressed not one word of appreciation or gratitude for Mom’s sacrifice. Mom excused the mother’s stoicism, “She was maybe overwhelmed by those lights and TV cameramen. But then she didn’t seem all that bright, did she?” There was no follow up note of thanks, not even a Christmas card. Sooner rather than later thoughts of her kidney in the boy and of his mother faded as neither the mother nor the boy ever called.
Mom received the settlements from the city and from Dad’s insurance, and we moved across town to our new house in the upscale Bella Vista section of the city, where Mike and I played football for St. Andrew’s. St. Andrew’s, a Jesuit school, was tough, but I kept a 4.0 GPA, qualifying for a full ride to Notre Dame. Mike, though a hard worker, was not an A student. I went to law school. Mike, whose dream was to become a cop, happily joined the police force.
Mike started his family early. By the time I finished law school and married Margo he and Gerri already had two children. Mom invited Mike’s family to live with her. Mike’s pay as a young policeman would have confined them to a small apartment. The house was plenty big, and Mom and Gerri hit it off splendidly, so it was an ideal situation – the big house, grandma, the kids, and a young mother who didn’t have to work at Kroger’s or WalMart like other cops’ young wives. Mom, who was financially comfortable, confided to me that she intended leaving the house and a big chunk of her estate to Mike. As an attorney I could do alright for myself. I agreed.
I married Margo whom I had met in law school. I took an assistant prosecutor’s job in the State’s Attorney’s office and Margo took a spot with the public defender’s office. We covered both sides of the judicial fence. We were able to qualify for a beautiful two-story brick within walking distance of Mom’s and Mike’s with big Sunday dinners, outings and vacations together on Lake Winnipesaukee. Life was good.
Then it changed. Willa, Mike’s four-year-old was diagnosed with Lupus and was in and out of treatment. Worse, in attempting to stop a robbery in progress at a convenience store on Channing Pike, Mike took a bullet in the chest. His partner Ralph DiCaprio was killed. A fractured rib punctured Mike’s lung and he was two months on a ventilator then put on permanent disability and sent home, confined to his recliner or bed always with an oxygen tank at hand. Then doctors at Children’s Hospital dropped the bomb that Willa would likely need a kidney transplant within a year. They urged Gerri and Mike to add her name to the register ASAP. Complicating this matter was Willa’s AB negative blood type inherited from her grandmother.
Mike died on the Fourth of July the next year. His funeral was redolent of Dad’s, only the uniforms had changed – dozens of policemen in dress uniforms, bagpipes, and a firing party. Graveside, I kept my arm around Mom, who was so distraught I worried she might faint. A mother should never have to bury a son, but she toughed it out. At home after the funeral and between tears we discussed plans for Mike’s kids. They were Mom’s hope now, and wasn’t she a perfect grandmother. I was so proud of her.
On the day before Willa’s sixth birthday, the Health Services and Resources Administration called with the news that a suitable AB negative transplant from a deceased person was available for Willa. The new kidney was readily accepted by little Willa’s tender body, and the surgeons and doctors said they had never seen a better acceptance. My mother knew that this was karma. God had indeed answered those old prayers when her husband lay dying.
When a donor receives an organ from a deceased person, often the deceased’s identity is kept secret. Mom asked me to find out who this donor was. “If it’s some poor family, perhaps I can help them.” Margo and I worked the system as only public lawyers can. We learned the donor had come from Attica penitentiary. Prisoners are sometimes able to donate organs in extreme cases. I arranged to meet with the warden to find out who this man might be. The office was old-style with walnut paneling, heavy old, overstuffed leather furniture and dimly lit. Warden Jeffers carefully listened to my rationale with his hands clasped atop the big mahogany desk.
“Your request certainly has merit so I’ll release the identity only if you sign a nondisclosure agreement. No one beyond us must know. Is that agreeable?”
“Of course, Warden.”
“That kidney came from a prisoner killed by his cell mate. The prison doctor and a nurse harvested the man’s corneas, liver, heart, and kidney within an hour of his death. Oddly, he had only one kidney. A helicopter flew the organs immediately to Bellview. This prisoner was an armed robber. He had no surviving relatives, and in such cases the law allows us to harvest organs. His name was Hiram Vachon, he was 31.”
I never told a soul.