Since the election, my texting repartee between friends and family has generally fallen into two categories: the piddly who-needs-what from the grocery messages (once we regained appetites), and the profound bemoaning of demagoguery and global demise.
Then there was this text last week from my sister-in-law in Tennessee: “Will is getting his heart tonight.”
That would be my formerly active, adorable, healthy, and robust 16-year old nephew Will, who five weeks ago was airlifted to a pediatric cardiac intensive care unit with cardiomyopathy and, due to the severity of his heretofore undetected heart disease, placed as highest priority on a heart transplant list.
That I can even say or type or text “heart transplant,” that such a thing even exists, is mind-boggling. And even more so to speak of it as a fairly routine thing. In fact, after having recently read (and loved) The Wright Brothers by David McCullough, the thought of a child being airlifted to the closest major hospital (the incredible Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, in this case), and a transplant surgeon Lear-jetting in the middle of the night to retrieve a donor’s heart that, lo and behold, happens to match Will’s specific needs (another wowza — the science and data-sharing behind determining that!), I’m in awe over awe. I’m aware in a way I normally would take for granted how even the flights involved to pull this unfathomable stunt off are nothing short of jaw-dropping.
And so it goes. We buckle in, prepare for takeoff, defy all odds, and take flight. Surgeons scrub in. Nurses prep. Parents, family, and friends pray. A heart comes out. A heart goes in. One life is tragically lost; a 16 year old’s life is saved. And none of it makes any sense. It defies punditry and polls; it makes a mole hill out of the Tetons of campaign garbage tossed out of our collective window over the last year and a half, and all the post-election analysis and wound-licking/hand-wringing over where do we go from here. Not that the hand-wringing is over, but last week’s startling text has shifted my focus from the overwhelming unknowns of where, to the overwhelming wow of here.
Here: with the gift of a donor heart and the surgeons’ deft skill, here means Thanksgiving arrived a week early for our family, and none too soon. Thank goodness for Thanksgiving this year. I think our Founding Fathers (and my guess is the Fore-Mothers had more to do with it) knew what they were doing when creating the nation’s social calendar, plopping in the Cornucopia of Plenty just after the election and before the inauguration. They foresaw that democracy could get messy, even painful, even mortifying, and that a strategically scheduled pumpkin pie might sweeten the healing.
And so this week we’ve been given a window to take a deep breath, maybe even bow our heads if we’re so inclined, and return thanks. We’ll gather round at Thanksgiving and do what Americans do best — consume — but maybe we’ll also dabble in what we don’t normally do so well — pause, reflect, swallow pride, and chew on humility for a change —it’s gluten-free, after all. Maybe we’ll recognize what absolute miraculousness we live amidst, by no doing of our own, not even that of the clueless elitist left or the hatemongering alt-right. We can skip the soggy casseroles of faultfinding and blaming (warning: it’s got those canned crunchy noodle things on top) and go back for heaping seconds of beauty and wonder and gratitude.
Will got a new heart. Americans got a new president-elect. Both transactions were at the cost of a deep loss, and both will require a long healing and recovery. After a transplant, there’s a period when the patient is immunosuppressed so the body won’t fight off the new organ; one has to be extra vigilant against infection during this vulnerable time. I think our country is in the same ICU. We must guard against the contagion of bigotry and hate, the virus of greed over collective good, the deadly bacteria of environmental degradation.
But in the meanwhile there’s turkey and mashed potatoes, the good bottle of Cabernet I’ll spring for, for a change. There’s this baked-in time to give thanks for things as profound as a heart transplant and the wonder of modern medicine, and as piddly as Trader Joe’s pumpkin bread mix, which comes out perfect every time. To be amazed and grateful for the airplane that safely delivers you to grandma’s; for the small wonder that your bags make it too; for the smell of tea olive blooming by her front door; for the afternoon nap with football on in the background; for the after-dinner walk with your nieces and nephews. The ones who are strong and happy and healthy despite their atrocious manners and Snap-chatting at the table. The ones with big hearts and healing hearts. The ones whose hopeful hearts we must not break, and whose future we must work to brighten.