Zombies for Organ Donation

knee

 

It’s become a joke, but a happy one. My family and I attribute every milestone of my progress to the donated tissue holding my knee together. When I took my first step up a flight of stairs, my dad said it was thanks to my “zombie strength,” as if a ligament donated from a dead person gave me superpowers. It sounds strange, but this donation did give me power. By choosing to be an organ donor, this anonymous person gave me a better life in the midst of their death, and I will always be grateful to be a “zombie” because of them.

The first time I dislocated my knee, I was nine. It was father’s day and my brother chased me around our yard with water balloons. I tripped and fell. My kneecap displaced and stayed on the side of my leg, poking out of my jeans in a way I’d never seen before. The pain was sharp and constant. Moving made it acutely worse and I didn’t know what to do. I screamed, my brother found my parents, and my dad scooped me into his arms. They drove me to the hospital in our minivan. I was carted into the emergency room, I refused painkillers because needles scared me, they cut the leg of my jeans, and I saw my misshapen, grotesque bones out of place. The doctor came. He was distant, unphased by my injury. I looked away as he slid my kneecap back, in a sharp, unnatural contortion. The absence of pain was glorious; each part of my body was in its place again.

I went to physical therapy for a while after that. My therapist taught me how to walk, how to move in a way that wouldn’t upset my fragile leg. Still, I was unstable.

For nine years afterwards, my knee would occasionally dislocate. It would always right itself, almost immediately. I walked and ran with a limp and I never let anybody touch my knee. I grew up afraid of my own steps.

Then, when I was eighteen, I took a bad step on my way to class, and my knee fully dislocated again. It was the same crack in my ears as my bones shifted and my ligaments tore, the same pain. It was cold, and I shivered. Each involuntary movement stung me. I was angry that my body betrayed me, again. I was pissed because I couldn’t walk down the street, like everybody else. People stopped, they called my dad and an ambulance, and a boy put his sweatshirt under my head. A girl in my class distracted me while we waited by talking about how annoying the professor was. I was sent to the hospital and the doctor put my knee where it belonged.

Even thinking about it now, I tense up, curl my left leg in, protect myself. Some days, when I’m walking down the street, I remember how dislocation feels, how easily my knee slid to the side of my leg. My fists tense, and I feel the pain, but I know it’s over. I’m fixed. It’s just that unpredictable pain like dislocation has a way of haunting.

After the last accident, I had a knee operation and in that operation, I received donated tissue. Since surgery, I have re-learned how to bend my leg, how to walk and how to go up and down stairs, all through the same physical therapy program I graduated from when I was nine. Today, I can even go for runs. It’s not always easy. I stumble and limp a lot sometimes, but when I get a good run, it’s empowering. I’ve re-claimed my body. I like synchronizing my legs to move like I was taught, pushing myself hard enough that I can feel a breeze against my skin, and I love that all of it is powered by my body.

I didn’t do it alone. Somebody chose to give their body to me, after they died, so that mine could function. I don’t know anything about them, but because of their decision, we are deeply connected—we share a body. Not only am I grateful for what they have given me, but for what they have given every other person who received their heart, their kidney, their liver, anything. Organ donation is an act of love that lasts beyond death and through life, and it is one of the most beautiful things I have been a part of.

The little box on my driver’s license says “Organ Donor.” I’m proud it does, and I hope yours does as well. The next time you go to the DMV, take a second to think back on me and every other zombie out there. One day, far from now, you might create a zombie, too.

 

By: Julia Thompson

Nothing but Silence Now

Watercolor

Silence can grow and it can be broken, but silence is all we have left when everything is said and done. My sister, Cathleen Marie Childress, passed away in 2009. She was 38. Catie, as she liked to be called, suffered from Bipolar Disorder; she was verbally abusive, and when I was little she was my personal tormentor. When I got older our relationship evolved but it was still subject to her wild mood swings and depression. Catie wasn’t the easiest person to be around or communicate with. Each day came with some kind of emotional eruption that alienated not only me but my two other older sisters, Tracy and Becky. When Catie wasn’t pinning me down and lowering spit down to my face just to suck it up inches before it made contact, she was certainly getting under my skin with verbal abuse. If you asked me now what kinds of things she said, I couldn’t tell you, but I do remember her ice cold glare when she was enraged and looking for someone to unload on.

Most of my life with my sister was anything but silent; she had a rage in her that at times was beautiful passion that translated into her artwork. She loved to draw, paint with water colors, and create visual work with all sorts of paints, pencils, and markers. I think I remember her watercolor works best, especially the sunsets. The reds, oranges, purples, yellows, and blues blended into one another, with no clear borders of where one color ended and another began. Those watercolor sunsets were a lot like her Bipolar Disorder; she had no clear borders of where happy Catie ended and angry, hurt Catie began. But like a sunset, eventually her rage fell below the horizon and was extinguished for a time. In retrospect I can see the nuances whether intentionally or unintentionally translated through watercolor fusion. They say that hindsight offers perfect vision on the moments in our lives that start out as blurry and unclear; for me this is definitely the case.

Catie went to Portland Community College and then Portland State well after high school, and I went to PCC and then Pacific University in the same manner, even though we graduated almost a decade apart.  What I have learned that I know we could connect on, but our experience with being nontraditional students could have become common ground for us as well.

The midday phone calls my sister would make to my sister Becky and I still haunt me. I often think that after spending close to a decade as a low voltage communications contractor that I would have been able to keep the conversations going when my sister would call me at work and the words between us quickly ran out. We had lost the ability to speak meaningfully.

Catie usually called me at work, “Hey,” she would say.

“What’s up?” I would ask.

“Oh nothing, what are you doing?”

I’m at work. What’s up?” I would ask again while wondering why she called.

“Just wanted to see what you are doing,” She would say.

“Just working.” It was about this time in the conversation where the ability to communicate would break down. It was as if she wanted me to keep the conversation going, but the absence of conversation was where it led every time. I wonder if those calls were a quiet cry for help or an attempt to push back the loneliness that she often felt trapped in. But being young, in my twenties, I was pretty selfish with my time or I just couldn’t recognize that something was broken.

I had become quite proficient at troubleshooting when lines of communication were dead, and I was good at finding paths for new lines to be installed in even the most difficult places. Maybe I chose not to hear her unspoken message. Looking back, I was drowning at that time just as she was, but the irony of having a job troubleshooting dead telephone lines and establishing new ones doesn’t escape me now.  There is not a day that goes by where I don’t give part of it to remembering my sister. I recall the times my other sisters and I had the Catie we loved to be around.

Catie wasn’t always vindictive; sometimes she was loving and fun to be around. I can remember moments with her when I was little, watching MTV in the living room with her and my other sisters. MTV was all the rage in the 1980’s and for a while in the 90’s, but that channel gave us all something to connect with. What I remember most from the ‘80s was that she always styled her hair in the fashion of Robert Smith from the Cure. She was always so influenced by music, and that I think was something she gifted to me. I can still remember watching certain videos together. One video I remember was Billy Squire’s “Rock Me Tonite,” we laughed as we made jokes about Squire’s flamboyant dancing around his make believe bedroom. I couldn’t say what it was besides the music that had a way of keeping us together and not fighting. But MTV and movies were two common areas we could all connect.

We eventually established “stupid movie night” when I was in junior high. We would go to the video rental store and rent five movies for five days for five dollars. The films were all B-rated movies with titles like: Ed and His Dead Mother, Serial Mom, and C.H.U.D.  There are no more “stupid movie nights,” and I do miss them terribly. I miss my unpredictable sister and I miss those damn phone calls where the silence my sister and I had was better than the absence that swells in the aftermath of an overdose of prescription pills.

 

By: Steven Childress

Heart of Two Homes

Image Credit: Claire Pillsbury

Image Credit: Claire Pillsbury

It was at the Portland International Airport.

Ten ‘til midnight on a snowy evening in mid-December, and I sat curled around my laptop, breathing in pumpkin spice and black-bean coffee from the Starbucks next door. My fingers swiped over the keyboard, filling in a graduate school application due the next day, while I trapped my cell phone between my ear and shoulder and talked a frantic friend through his first time driving uphill on ice. My back to the frost-glazed window, pressed against it from head to hips so that the bite and the cool seeped in through the worn patches in my jacket – kept me awake.

Four hours of sleep had left me like a frayed nerve, twitchy and raw. Held loosely together by plans and necessities and what seemed like a god-ordained level of stress, all bloodshot eyes and shuddering fingers and–

I just wanted to go home.

South Carolina was about a five-and-a-half hour flight from Portland, as the crow flies. Eight-and-a-half if the crow had to make exchanges in Chicago and Atlanta to get there. It would be a long red-eye capping off an even longer day, but I was at my gate and on time, waiting to take off so I could touch down in my hometown by the time my dad woke up the next morning. So I could step right out of the airport and into the fold of his huge, warm arms, his dopey grin shining down on me, all white teeth and crinkles around his eyes. I hadn’t seen him in person since last January, and the two-thousand miles between us – the three hour time difference – ached in my chest, low and throbbing. I wanted to see him.

But, even so, I kept thinking about it: a half-woken daydream of dropping everything and making my way down to the bottom floor of the airport. Catching the last Red Line train out and hopping on the 57 bus back to campus. Shoving open my dorm door and stumbling through the dark and the warmth and the scent of stale sausage burnt into the carpets. Slumping down onto my bed, face-first and starfished. Sleeping for weeks. For months.

I just wanted to go home.

And that was the problem. Oregon was steamy soup and plastic Christmas trees, rainy naps and a caramel mocha melting the chill off my fingers. South Carolina was golden wheat fields and mist-cool air, sunset silhouettes and a step-family I loved and feared. Home and not, home and not. Caught so perfectly between them that, at times, I felt like I had no home at all. Just waypoints.

I swayed to the right, side pressing into the stiff, navy nylon of my suitcase. The yellow polyester of my laptop bag, sandwiched between. My life and living, distilled down to two carry-ons. I could tuck them under my arms and walk for miles, if I had to.

Packing wasn’t hard anymore. I’d learned how to do it at age sixteen, after my parents divorced and I split the days of the week between their houses. I made a system for hedging a life between two places and lived it, every day, until I had everything whittled down into four bags that I toted between two houses.

And I remember that late-summer afternoon, the sun on my back and warm dust brushing my cheeks as I hovered in the open door of my car’s backseat. As I stared down at those four bags, barely filling half the bench, and realized that I could take them anywhere. That whatever place I stopped in could be my home just as much as either parents’ house. That my real home amounted to an armful of items tucked in canvas bags and the waving hands of my family as I once again drove out of sight.

The woman at the counter came over the gate’s PA system then, calling for the pre-boards and first class. I saved the application file and shut my laptop, telling my phone-friend to pull over and call his dad to come pick him up and bring him the rest of the way home. He’d come far enough.

With trembling hands, I tucked my laptop into its bag and fastened it closed. The black canvas straps slid threadbare beneath my fingers, a touch more familiar than the down of an old quilt or the burnished handle of a favorite skillet. It pulled the breath from my lungs; one part solace and two parts longing.

I wanted to go home.

Throwing the strap of my laptop bag over my shoulder, I grasped the handle of my suitcase and stood up, stretching.

Time had passed since I was sixteen and empty. I’d distilled those four bags down into two now. My second home was across the country. I only moved between twice a year, and only ever on planes. I know now what a home was not: South Carolina, Oregon, and the two bags I carried with me. Not the place you lived, nor the people you loved.

Something more than all of that. Something deeper, or something else.

I stepped out into that drafty jet bridge at midnight, a suitcase at my side and a bag on my shoulder. Breathed in the crisp smell of frost that swept the sleepy haze away, steadied my shudders as I braced against the chill. I remember looking out through the bridge window to see the stars and snowflakes studding the sky and thinking to myself:

I didn’t know what home was, then or now. But I knew that I would step onto this plane. I would keep fighting and working and searching for home.

And someday, weeks or months or years in the future, I’d be standing under this sky again. Staring up at stars and snow – chest full, hands steady, eyes clear. Looking up at this very same sky, and knowing that I’d finally found it.

 

By: Claire Pillsbury