When I first arrived in New York ten years ago I found myself as you do when you’re new to the city, in a small apartment without much money, friends or a clue. Anyone will tell you, new or otherwise, that weekends in this town when you’re light in the pockets leaves you with basically nothing to do. Everything here costs something. Except, I realized, walking around. Walking is free, and the MET Museum, then only ten blocks from my apartment, while not free has a suggested donation. In those early days I would donate my dollar (in the last ten years I’ve since upped my contribution), and spend my entire Saturday inside until the docents kicked me out and I would depart, purchasing a hot dog for dinner from the cart vendors outside (still highway robbery at $5 a dog but the cheapest meal you’ll find in that part of town by far).
During one weekend outing I stumbled on the exhibition of the great Rudy Burckhardt, a photographer who came to America from Switzerland in the 1930’s and took some of the best pictures of New York you’ll ever see. Simple stuff at first glance — storefronts from the 1940’s (haircuts 20 cents! Jumbo Malted Milk 5 cents!), unsuspecting standpipes and graffitied CocaCola signs that somehow captured the quiet uniqueness of New York. But the thing that got me most were his pictures of random pedestrians. Disembodied legs in pristine heels walking over manholes in Midtown. The woman in the hat and fur stole on a crowded street. The young man carrying shoeboxes. The men in hats and sharp suits walking past the Lunchroom.
All just normal people going about their normal lives.
Burckhardt’s lifelong friend, the poet and dance critic Edwin Denby wrote sonnets to accompany Rudy’s photographs in this series, and one of Denby’s quotes had been blown up in big text on the wall: “Any day anyone is no other than someone.”
In the following years of my life in the city I’d come think of that line often. I’m surrounded by people most waking hours of my life. Just someones, anyones, strangers, faces, lives going on next to me on the street, on the subway with their arms grazing mine, in elevators and stores, restaurants and bars. It’s near constant all the someones. Odds are, of course, more often than not they’re no ones. I see them, sit next to them, sometimes even go so far as to exchange pleasantries and then — poof! — they’re gone. Lost in the crowd, never to be seen or heard from again.
Anyone is anyone until they’re not, and for me, just a year after the Burckhardt exhibit, five people living in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, California, New Jersey, even right here in New York — crossed over from the side of anyone to someone for the single, random reason that when my mother died they were the ones to receive her organs.
After my mother’s car flipped over I knew these people existed, were out there somewhere with a part of her inside them. And I didn’t just think about the recipients themselves — the people with renal failure, heart failure, liver disease or lung cancer — but their families. Mothers and fathers allowed more time with their children, children more time with their parents, brothers and sisters not having to bury the person they grew up with.
I mean, think about that. Really think about it. Your parent, child or sibling. Think about how you can just pick up a phone and call them. Right now if you want to, and talk to them, hear their voice on the other end. And then think about not being able to do that anymore for the rest of your life, either because they’re sick or because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And in the amount of time it takes for disaster to strike — for a front wheel blow out on the highway, for a crane to fall on a city street, for a car to jump the curb and plow into a crowd- there they are in a hospital bed clinging to their life.
And it really does happen that fast. You never think it does, never want to actually believe it. Even if it is true it won’t happen, not to you. Those things happen to other people, all those anyones on the evening news. Not us. But take it from me, someone who thought bad things couldn’t happen to them. You are not impervious. You are not indestructible. The odds, one day, will catch up to even you. Which is why it’s important to recognize that by doing the one thing we all must inevitably do at one time or another — die — if we donate our organs it isn’t over.
Sure maybe for us it is. But all of those anyones?
It doesn’t have to be over.
Not for them.
That person you love in the hospital bed? Think about getting the call telling you they’re saved. It’s the call you’ve been waiting for, really. The call telling you that someone else’s someone has died so that yours can live. It’s powerful thing life coming from death, and the way organ donation works is that a year has to pass before any contact can be made between the donor family and the recipient. For me, of all of the people my mother donated to, the man who received her heart was the only person open to talking to our family. He sent a note, grateful to be alive and said he and his wife prayed for my mother every day.
What a wild and crazy thing to know this person, this anyone, was out there praying for my mother, a person he’d never met yet whose heart was beating inside his chest.
Grieving, our society neglects to tell you, is a process. It shifts and changes over time becoming different things at different points but it never fully goes away. You don’t cross the grieving finish line, rather you learn to adapt and allow it to become part of your daily gait. Time, as the old adage goes, is the only true tonic, and for me it took five years to send him an email and another year call him. I had been thinking about it for a long time, and one day pacing outside of the laundromat (I was by then no longer uptown but in Brooklyn), I finally worked up the nerve. It went to voicemail and I left what was probably the strangest message of my life. “Hi, it’s uh, Victoria? You, uh, have my mother’s heart?”
When he called me back later that night he said, “I see her as a part of my life and think of her as a partner with me.” He started to cry and then stopped himself. “I’m sorry, I didn’t think I would get so emotional. But you’re her daughter.”
I am her daughter and this man who has my mother’s heart, he and his wife have two adopted sons. In 2011 they were contacted by Children’s Youth Services to take in an emergency placement for a third child who was then only two days old. The child’s mother, apparently, was a drug addict and had no prenatal care and birthed the baby at home. The baby weighed only 4lbs when they got him, but after constant care over eleven months he was 23lbs. They weren’t planning to adopt the child because of their age, now almost sixty, but they found him a nice family.
“I think your mother would be happy to know that the gift that she gave to me has meant so much to a little child who really didn’t have much of a chance at life.”
At that point, nearly seven years without my mother, it had been so long since I’d seen her, hugged her, heard her voice telling me she loved me, that knowing this man existed — that all of these people were out there living their lives — was a comfort to me. But this little baby? These two adopted boys? I was struck by the scope of it. All of these anyones had suddenly become such significant someones because my mother was what such a disappointingly small percentage of Americans currently are — a registered organ donor (in fact New York State, home of Burckhardt’s subjects, is ranked last in the country for organ donation registration).
There is a book I read the year my mother died called Motherless Daughters. I read it over and over that first year, underlining passages, my tears staining the pages. There was one line that struck me the most, “Am I as I am, who I am, what I am, how I am because my mother lived, or because my mother died? The answer, we decide, is both.” Life is not a tenable thing. Bad things happen. People die. Yet what we do in death can help shape who we were in life and change the lives of people around us. I truly believe there is good in the world and that we are, despite outward appearances, a society that cares for one another. I believe that we would take the opportunity to help someone, anyone, if given the chance. By donating our organs we can give life, life that after we’re gone will ripple out like waves on an ocean, touching all it passes, gaining momentum and strength the further it grows.
April is Organ Donation Awareness Month, and in the amount of time it takes you to read this article another name will have been added to the national organ transplant list. By the time you go to bed tonight 21 people will have died because the organs they needed weren’t donated in time. That’s not just 21 anyones. That’s 21 someones. And tomorrow, when you get up to start another day, the already astonishing national number of 124,000 men, women and children still waiting for a lifesaving organ, will grow.
And one day it might be your name that’s added to the list.
I don’t know what the future holds. No one does. But in today’s world where it’s easy to think only of yourself it’s more important than ever to remember that we’re not in this alone. We need each other. I’m reminded of that every day as I walk the streets of Manhattan, or think of the people whose lives my mother has saved and kept alive.
Any day anyone is no other than someone, and today might be the day you save someone’s life.
Or maybe it’s the day they just happen to save yours.