The beautiful phrase “Gift of Life” has always touched me with its double meaning. For me, as a donor, I was supposedly helping to give another person the gift of another chance at life. But with each passing day, I feel that the title of “donor” gives me too much credit. I was the lucky one. I was the recipient.
Before I met my recipient, Cameron, his family and I exchanged emails for a few months. They sent me pictures and a link to the website where his parents chronicled his treatment, where people wrote messages of encouragement and posted photos for an online album. I saw pictures of him at the age of four, when doctors sat his parents down and told them that their first child would not make it to his fifth birthday unless he had a bone marrow match. I saw pictures of Cameron with his family while he underwent treatment—a little boy and his parents spending time not in pre-school, or running around their backyard, but in a hospital room. And then I watched, through these pictures, Cam get better. I watched as he recovered. I watched him say goodbye to that hospital room. I watched him return home.
Then, almost 18 months after the transplant took place, I was lucky to finally meet Cam and his family. We spent that day in fall together, going out for lunch and touring the city. Cam was bright, precocious, talkative, and relaxed. His parents, high school sweethearts, were nervous, polite, inquisitive, and warm. They were great parents.
We also walked around Cam's hospital where he and his family spent so many days and nights. When I say "Cam's hospital," that is barely a joke; he really is The Mayor there. The way he would just walk straight up to nurses or doctors like they were old friends and introduce them to me like we were at dinner party showed a little man with signs of at least some political success should he choose to pursue it. The kid can seriously work a room! But walking just enough behind him during that time were his parents, half-hiding behind cameras but noticeably beaming with pride towards their son. I remember thinking how happy I was for them, being back in that same hospital under such different circumstances, showing off their only child, lively and healthy. I kept thinking, “They have their son back. They have their life back.”
For most people, I think, it takes a lifetime, if at all, to learn what's important. For us to learn empathy, or kindness, or pain, or to know what is merely annoying compared to what is truly difficult. For us to learn love. And if we're lucky, and smart, we take those lessons and the experiences we extract them from and transform them into actions of our own.
I think I've learned those lessons over time. I learned them through my parents, my family, and my friends, sometimes in words and other times through example. But I learned them most recently—and most powerfully—from Cameron. Not from a professor in school, not from a book, or a character in a movie, but from a six year old boy. I learned them, too, from his strong support system: a devoted group of people who never gave up rooting for him. And in each message from a loved one that I read on that website, each picture that I scrolled through, each smile on Cam's face both then and now, I saw a little man who was skilled at stealing the hearts of those around him, be they family, friends, nurses, and now me.
So to Cameron, specifically:
I am so proud of you.
Proud of you for overcoming more than most people even think of. Proud of you for teaching me all the lessons that should have taken a lifetime and squeezing them into the short time I've known you.
You taught me what real hard work is and how to fight through the worst days while retaining a smile and an entire hospital floor's worth of personality and positivity.
You taught me about Star Wars over lunch.
You taught me how lucky I am to win that random lottery that is health but also the lottery of a loving support system of my own.
You taught me everything to do with simple awareness, that most of us need to keep reminding ourselves of what's important every chance we get: every day we share with the people we cherish, every year, every birthday, every laugh, and hug, and tear.
I know it sounds schmaltzy, but it's real to me.
For all these experiences, I was the one being given a gift.
For all these lessons, I was the one learning about life.
For all these reasons, I was the recipient, and you were a gift to my life.
I can only hope that, for those reading this, you have the opportunity to be given such a gift, too.