Two Sons and the Defeat of Death
Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death
And upon those in the tombs
Today is the day of Resurrection for us in the Orthodox world. It was a day of celebrations long into the night and early morning today, I don’t think I went home and crept into my bed until close to 5 in the morning. There truly is nothing like these services, and I’ve attended almost every Protestant and Catholic church in my area during this journey back to Christ.
However, during this Holy Week and now the Great and Holy Pascha I was constantly at an emotional breaking point every time I found myself praying or attending services. My brush with death had been the very impetus since 2020 to find my way back to religion. I grew up with it sure, if only nominally due to being a military brat. The Eucharist wasn’t really a thing, and the passion or devotion in military chaplains I found to be lacking as Church on military bases really was nothing more than a Sunday Social Club for Senior Enlisted and Junior Officers.
However this isn’t going to be a tale about that at all, but rather what has found me constantly at this emotional woe, not just now but really since January of this year, is knowing the name and face of the donor of my kidney. For those of you not in the know, I had a birth defect as a kid that caused urinary reflux, damaging my kidneys for the first six years of my life that went totally unnoticed until my mother demanded a second opinion. A surgical correction ensured I’d be okay, I was told that eventually a transplant would be necessary. Having that odd sense of mortality on your shoulders since first grade sure does a number on you. I had eighteen years of good, healthy life, until early 2020 did they fail, and I found myself on dialysis. I’ve told this story before, you can hear more if you’d like here. I’m a rail thin kind of guy, which gave me the chance to qualify for a pediatric kidney transplant. And so, almost a year ago now, I got one.
And at the beginning of the year, I received a call from the hospital’s social workers letting me know that a reply had been written out to me by the donor family. I had initiated contact just a few weeks after the transplant had taken place, a letter whose contents will be known only to God and the donor family. I accepted the letter both in physical copies and pdf. I got the PDF first, naturally. No one tells you how to prepare or react to this. No social worker or priest can really prepare you for what you will feel. I knew that I’d be dealing with a very broken parent, after all, this family lost a child not an adult, so the sensitivity would surely be turned up to eleven. I was gutted, to say the least, I won’t share the letter’s contents, but I had found out something that I am only just beginning to reconcile with.
My time on dialysis and wait listing, exactly one calendar year, was longer than my donor’s entire lifespan, just only nine months.
He died in a car accident. Someone ran a stop sign not paying attention. I remember getting tagged in a lot of twitter threads about how hard organ donor recipients acquire the memories or can know ahead of time the nature of their donor’s death before knowing. I can anecdotally confirm that on my end. I had dreams of a collision before getting the letter, which I had back around last Thanksgiving.
Yet I had struggled now for months, with many tears, lamentations, and phone calls to friends about exactly how to reconcile this. How was I deserving of this? Of all my sins written up on my own mental ledger I didn’t know how some schmuck with a boring office job, a life prior to this of sleeping around, and being generally reckless. I guess I’m getting my life in order? Paying off debts, doing well at work, the channel’s growing. But I’ve constantly found myself in prayer, or just moments alone, wondering, how did I get here? How is it that I am worthy of this gift, a renewed lease on life, a staving off and the defeat of my own death in this time on earth? I mean, I used to joke while on the waiting list that some Sally is gonna ride her bicycle without a helmet for the last time and we’re gonna get the call. Oh yeah, dark humor and that youthful sense of invincibility were my copium, and I let the needle hit the bone.
Which brings me to the subject of today, the Great and Holy Pascha, the Resurrection of our God and King, Jesus Christ.
Leading up to today I had been really wondering just how I am to make sense of my own life, in the defeat of death, voluntary passion and long suffering of our Lord, and how someone else’s son had died too, and through his mother gave four other people (myself included) a new lease on life, staving off death with the donation of kidneys, heart, and liver.
But the services of our tiny parish had given me a better understanding of life, and the joy I should take with my kidney. At the Transplant Clinic in Dallas, they tell you it’s good luck to name it. I find that sickening, at least, to give it a new name. So in my first letter to the donor family, that was the only thing I asked for was the name of their child, so that if I was going to give it a name, I’d at least honor his or her memory. And I certainly do honor his memory. I’m one of those people that talks to himself when he drives, and I do drive a lot where I live, both by nature of rural living and my job. When I’m not listening to something I’ll talk out loud about maybe what I’m going to write about or what I have to do, and sometimes I’ll have a chat with my passenger inside of me. Perhaps that’s an odd way of looking at it, but I don’t think so. Just as scripture tells us that Christ is with us at all times, even after his ascension, I like to think that this baby boy is with me as well, even after his death. The really cool thing about pediatric organ transplant is that the organ grows up with you, so that in six months to a year the organ becomes a full sized adult organ. So in a way, on this earth, their child gets to grow up with me, putting an immense sense of importance to piously stick schedule, diet, medications, abstention from drugs and alcohol, the works. All coinciding with the practices and faith of the Church, so that now for the rest of my life, the only alcohol I will ever get to enjoy will be during the eucharist.
I went to our Paschal Services last night, crying and trying to reconcile my life and the loss of a mother’s young child and the gift bestowed upon me to live a normal life with my past, my old ways, my still ongoing challenges, as I come back into the flock of Christ. I got there around 10:30 PM, and I don’t think I got back home and into my bed until 4:49 AM. The entire way home, for the first time in many, many years, I smiled with my face streaked with tears of joy. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. The baby boy, whose name is Legend, is with me, and with his family and the three others whose lives he saved. Legend has defeated my personal death for now, and Christ has defeated death for all and for all time. Speaking to my priest about this before leaving with his blessing, he told me not to worry in this line of thinking, and that I should rejoice in finding reconciliation in this glorious day and festival that through Christ I shall have life eternal in his kingdom, and on this earth I shall have life through the compassion of a mother to make the call to donate.
I had called her on our Holy Friday to tell her she and her son have been in my prayers constantly all week. Like the thief on the cross, I as a humble sinner ask God to remember her son in his kingdom, and may Legend’s mother, like Mary was told by the Angels, to rejoice in what has come of her son’s death in the lives of us four recipients. She said on Easter that she had the family visit his grave, as this was their first Easter without him, and how it was my first with him. It’s hard sometimes trying to talk to her, not because we don’t get along or anything like that, but because it’s very very hard to keep myself together talking to her. She had told me Legend’s older sisters are beginning to understand death a little better, along with organ donation. She has told them, given her son’s name, that Legend never died. I find that so beautiful, that I find it fitting that he gets to grow up with me in a way to keep on living, if just physically and vicariously, through me somehow. But I think I’ve said just enough, so I’ll leave it with that; Legend never died.
The Tomb is Empty.
Death is Defeated.
Christ is Risen!