Katherine Hobson, in the The Wall Street Journal's Health Blog, recently posed the question: "When will Dick Cheney be too old for a heart transplant?"
She is, of course, referring to the former Bush Administration Vice President who discussed his ongoing heart ailments and the possibility of a heart transplant during an interview on the Today Show last month.
I think that is the wrong question.
I'm saying this as a person who lost the dearest person on earth to me, my brother, who was an organ donor and a perfect match for everything. He was a great, great connector in life, a bridge between so many disparate people. In death, it turns out, he was as well.
This is not about politics or other poisons. It's about watching someone you love die, or not exactly die, but lying in that awful, awful, purgatory required for you to respect their wishes to continue giving life even in death.
It's about being the family member designated to sit in that conference room with the very kind organ donation coordinator, answering questions about body parts and final wishes.
Did he use drugs. No. He was a body-is-temple vegan.
Was he athletic? Yes. Ran marathons.
Patient had a history of…
Patient had a history of enormous warmth, of the most expansive level of compassion and empathy most folks have ever encountered, of a lion's roar of a laugh, of an unquenchable desire to build up broken souls and broken systems.
Patient had a history of experiencing and creating joy, of seeing so much possibility in people they had to become their best selves by the sheer force of his vision of who they could be. Patient had a radical moral compass and communal sense that he must live the social justice about which he wrote and taught.
Patient had a history of mentoring and nurturing and fatherly-loving hundreds of high school students from Chicago's most challenged neighborhoods and schools and taking them on buses to colleges around the nation, showing them the lives and selves they could lead and be.
Patient's history included serving as the spoken-word poetry coach for whom hundreds of poems were written. "He played the part my father never auditioned for," one student wrote of Patient.
Patient had a history of being the most exuberantly present and grateful father for the 12 months he got to be a father to his own son.
Patient's heart was gigantic and miraculous and absorbed and transformed the pain of those around him by some alchemy of empathy and wisdom and humor and love.
Patient's heart had the capacity to love you out of hating yourself.
So this is not really about organ donation, which I absolutely support, or about Dick Cheney's politics, which I staunchly do not.
It's about standing around the greatest person you've ever known, holding his hand, rubbing his feet, singing and weeping and aching and staring. You're in a circle around him, holding him and each other, singing and sobbing and refusing to say goodbye while doing just that. And then they tell you it's time, the teams are ready across the country, families of recipients in ICU waiting rooms somewhere else are weeping at their good fortune. Your loss is their new life.
They say 'it's time,' just as your soft song ends, your hands fall apart, disconnect, the circle around him breaks, and they take him away. You cannot breathe. There's no turning off the machines or flatline on the screen or silence. He is taken away, and you are not. You are still there.
A few months later you may get a letter with the purple Gift of Hope insignia. It's from the man who got your brother's heart and he's eternally grateful and so, so sorry and wants to find a way to say something loving to help ease your pain with his gratitude. You want it to work.
You may choose to write back or not. You may choose to meet. Or you may sit in your pain and loss and not choose anything at all. Because really, you've had no choices all along and you know that.
So when I saw the question posed in The Wall Street Journal asking "When will Dick Cheney be too old for a heart transplant?" I had to write this down, words I still cannot speak, that they are asking the wrong question.
Mr. Cheney, if you were to receive somebody's brother's big, beautiful, socially just, loving, moral, generous, life-affirming heart, how would you live with it?
Here are more thoughts on Grief and Healing: