by Andy Rausch
I’d had my heart ripped out numerous times throughout my life by a variety of guys who didn’t deserve me and didn’t appreciate what I had to offer. But this last time I had my heart cut out was different. It wasn’t done by some silly boy I’d fallen head over heels for; this time it was done by a surgeon inside an operating room. Somewhere along the way I’d contracted heart disease, and had been told I needed a new heart if I was going to continue living. On February eighth, after a year on the transplant list, I received a new heart.
“You’re such a brave girl,” my dad told me. That was four days after the surgery. This is my first coherent post-transplant memory. I had been awake for most of the days leading up to that, but was so heavily medicated I no longer remember them. Everyone says that same thing: “you’re so brave.” But the thing is, I would never have chosen to undertake that procedure if there had been any other way to survive. Because of this, I didn’t feel brave. I just feel like a woman who was pushed into doing something she didn’t want to do and had lived to tell the tale. But I suppose there was bravery involved. There had to be. Simply steeling oneself for such a dangerous and traumatic ordeal requires it. Allowing yourself to be put into a sleep that you may not wake up from is something beyond horrifying. In truth, I still don’t know how I did it, other than to simply repeat there was no other way.
My recovery was pretty quick. While it’s true that I stayed in the hospital for two months, which most transplant recipients don’t, my road to recovery was relatively smooth. I had trouble walking more than a couple feet for the first month or so due to the time I’d spent in bed, but I pushed myself, and the difficulty became less and less. Four months after the surgery I returned to my job as a receptionist at the college. “You’ve done such a great job recovering,” everyone said. But again, very little of that had anything to do with me beyond my will to return to normality. Most people who’ve had transplants eat better than I do, and they exercise with more frequency, and yet I’m doing better than they are. At my last check-up, my transplant coordinator told me she sees “very, very few” transplant patients who rebound as well as I have. This makes me happy, but I try not to get cocky about it or take any undeserved credit.
I was almost eight months post-transplant when I was told I could write a letter to the donor’s family. This was a big moment and this news was heavier than I had anticipated. Even though there had been several months where the mere thought or mention of this unknown donor made me cry, I’d wrongly believed I now was past that. But when I was told I could write the letter, it all came flooding back again, and suddenly I was overcome with a plethora of emotions. I couldn’t easily identify them. Was it sadness? Was it joy? Was it grief? It was, I think, all of those simultaneously.
So I sat down to write the family, crying as I did. In the letter, I apologized, although I don’t know why. The reality is that the donor would have died either way, whether or not I had existed. But that realization changed nothing; I still felt guilty. Once I got past the apology, I told them how exceedingly grateful I was for this gift I’d been given. I made a point to write that I was happy their deceased loved one lived on through me. I know it’s corny, but that’s what I wrote. I wrote it not only because I thought it sounded good, which I did, but also because I believed it. Those kinds of thoughts make it easier to cope with the guilt, I think. I wrote about how happy I was, and how great I felt, making a point to tell them I would not have felt this way, and probably wouldn’t even be alive at this point, had it not been for their loved one. “I want to know more about my donor,” I wrote. That was true. Everything had been done confidentially, and I ‘d been told nothing beyond the fact that the donor had been a young woman.
I thanked the family profusely in my letter, maybe going overboard, but I felt it better to go that way than to appear under-appreciative. I told them I looked forward to getting to know them, and that I hoped we could meet. I signed the letter and sealed it in an envelope. I put a stamp on it and stuck in the mailbox, sending it off to the transplant coordinator. After a few days had passed, I started checking my mailbox religiously, hoping to hear from the family, and also knowing I might not. Some transplant recipients don’t. I’m not sure why this is, and can only guess. I suppose it’s because some families doesn’t want to dwell on their loved one’s death any more than they have to. I think that’s a shame, because it would probably benefit people to know their loved ones are responsible for saving the lives of others. Maybe it would help them find meaning and make some sort of sense of otherwise senseless tragedy.
The response letter came back much more quickly than I’d expected. I received it in just over a month. It was a letter from my donor’s mother. It read:
I’m glad to hear from you. I’m glad to know my daughter Tricia’s heart lives inside you. That fact makes me extremely happy. Believe it or not, I’m crying right now as I write this. My Tricia was only 24, which is a very young age for a woman to die. She was just a year younger than you. I wish you could have known her, although in a way I suppose you do. She got good marks throughout school—primarily As and Bs. She went to college in Maryland, and then became a pharmacist here in Tulsa.
I and Kasey’s siblings—she has two older brothers, Dave and Bryan—would love to meet you. Since we all live here in the same city, would you like to come and have dinner with our family on Thanksgiving? We don’t get too fancy around here. We just have the normal stuff—turkey and dressing and mashed potatoes… But I’m told it’s pretty good. And we have macaroni and cheese. I’ve heard people say that’s a weird thing to have for Thanksgiving dinner, but I don’t see what’s so weird about it. The kids all like it—it’s was Tricia’s favorite—and I make it with tons of ooey-gooey cheese.
I hope you can come, but you may already have plans since it’s the holiday. Certainly we will understand if that’s the case. I’m enclosing my telephone number here. Give me a call and let me know that you received this letter and whether or not you intend to come. Thank you so much for reaching out, Kasey. We are really happy to know you are doing well and that you successfully received our beloved Tricia’s heart. You sound like a very sweet girl and we can’t wait to meet you.
I read the letter through glistening, tear-filled eyes. I took a deep breath and read it again, finding myself overwhelmed with joy. This first contact had gone much better than I could have anticipated. Thanksgiving was only a couple weeks away, so I called Dorothy Waxman immediately.
“It’s Kasey Daniels,” I announced.
“Kasey?” the woman asked.
“I received your letter.”
There was a pause, and then recognition. “Oh, Kasey!” she said happily.
“I’m calling to say that I can come for Thanksgiving.”
“Great!” said Dorothy. “That would be fantastic!”
“Thank you for inviting me, ma’am.”
“Don’t call me ma’am. That’s for old women. Call me Dorothy, please.”
I thought about calling her “Dorothy please” as a joke, but instead said, “Okay, Dorothy.”
“Will you be bringing anyone along with you?”
“I hadn’t thought about it,” I said. “I guess I’ll be coming alone.”
“Fine,” said Dorothy. “I just wanted to know so I can make the appropriate amount of food. We’ll be eating at two o’clock sharp. Do you have our address?”
“Yes,” I said. “It was on the envelope.”
“Good. Then we’ll all see you on Thanksgiving.”
“Okay,” she said. “See you soon, Kasey.”
“Goodbye,” I said, hanging up.
The days passed quickly, and I spent more time than I should have wondering about what I might say when meeting the Waxmans. I hoped it would go well. Dorothy seemed excited enough, so I guessed it would. But I was a worrier by nature, just like Mom had been. It was in my DNA, and there was nothing I could do about it.
When I told my dad about the letter, the call, and the impending meeting, he was overjoyed. He offered to come along, but I felt like this first meeting was something I needed to do alone. After I had realized that I could do anything I set my mind to post-transplant, I sometimes felt a rush of empowerment doing things that scared me. This was one of those things, so the thought of going into this foreign place alone in the face of unusual circumstance thrilled me.
When Thanksgiving finally came, I spent an inordinate amount of time in front of the mirror trying to ensure that my hair and makeup were perfect. After all, I didn’t want the Waxmans thinking Tricia had given her heart to an ugly girl. That was silly, I know, but it was an actual thought I had.
I drove over to the Waxman’s house. I thought I was ready, but when I came to their street, I panicked and kept driving, right past the house. I drove around the block. I took a deep breath and went back. I sat outside the house in the car for a bit, trying to prepare myself. I looked up at the house, relieved that no one seemed to be watching, and got out. I walked up to the house, trying to act normal, but I felt as nervous as a person could possibly feel.
I knocked. I waited a moment and the door opened. A blonde woman, probably about sixty, looked at me. She lit up, smiling. “Kasey?”
That was when I lost it. I felt another rush of those emotions, all at once, and I burst into tears. Dorothy just smiled knowingly and said, “Bless your heart.” She wrapped her arms around me and pulled me close. We hugged for a moment, and then Dorothy released me, stepping back inside the doorway. “The food’s ready, dear,” she said. I stepped in behind her, wiping my eyes with my sleeve. I saw two guys who were roughly my age standing there, both wearing ugly holiday sweaters.
“This is Bryan, he’s my oldest, and this guy over here is Dave,” said Dorothy. “He’s 25, the same as you.”
I smiled and moved towards them, feeling awkward. They both smiled and gave me obligatory hugs. They were warm, but their hugs were a bit more forced than Dorothy’s, which had felt as natural as a mother hugging her child.
Dorothy led us all into the dining room, where the table was set. There was a nice big turkey in the center of the table, along with some cream corn, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, gravy, and wine. “There are two pies for dessert in the kitchen,” said Dorothy. “There’s a pumpkin pie and there’s sweet potato, too, if you like either of those.”
“I do,” I said. “I like both.” I patted my stomach. “I’ve been eating more lately now that my appetite has come back.”
“That’s good,” said Dorothy. She motioned towards a chair. “Have a seat.”
We all sat down. It was a rectangular table, big enough for ten people, but there were only four of us. Dorothy and I sat on one side, and the brothers sat across from us. “Bryan, will you say the prayer?” asked Dorothy. Bryan smiled politely, and delivered a short, stock prayer that sounded like it had been recited verbatim hundreds of times. When he finished, Dorothy raised the bottle of wine and looked at me. “Can you have this? I didn’t know.”
I felt myself blushing, unsure what to say. “They, uh, they let me have some…in moderation.”
Dorothy smiled. “Everything in moderation, right?” She poured me a glass, and then filled her own. She then passed the bottle across the table to Bryan. After the boys filled their glasses, we started to eat. The food was good, not great, and it reminded me a little of my mom’s cooking. I decided to tell Dorothy this, leaving out the part about it being mediocre. “This tastes like my mom’s cooking.”
Dorothy smiled. “Is she a good cook?”
“She was,” I said. “When she was alive.” I came to the end of that sentence and found I didn’t know what else to say.
“Oh,” Dorothy said. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. She died when I was fifteen. She was in a car accident.”
“Just like Tricia,” Dorothy said, her voice cracking.
I felt bad. I hadn’t known how Tricia had died. I put my hand on her shoulder, and Dorothy looked at me. “It’s okay. No fault of yours. It happens to all of us eventually.” Dorothy regained her composure. “I hate to ask this, with us still eating…”
“Yes?” I asked.
“I really wanna show you something, and I just can’t wait. Would that be okay?”
“Yes, of course.”
Dorothy stood. “Come this way.”
She led me back through the living room and into a hallway on the left. She took me down the hall to the second of three doors. She grabbed the doorknob and looked at me. “This was Tricia’s room.”
“Okay,” I managed, unsure how to react.
Dorothy opened the door and went in. I followed. The room was still decorated with all the trappings of a high school girl. There were posters and photos of cute male stars, mostly actors and bands who were no longer relevant. They were people who were popular among teen girls back when I had been one myself.
“I restored everything,” said Dorothy, turning towards me, spreading her arms to display the room. “I’d kept most of it in place after Tricia went to college, but after she died, I put everything back up the way it had been when she was still in school. This is my shrine to Tricia. I wish you had known her. She was a very sweet girl, like you. She had a good heart.”
I looked across the room at a congregation of tennis trophies sitting atop a tall dresser. Dorothy saw me and said, “Go ahead, take a look.” So I walked over and looked at the engravings on them. They were all first place trophies. “These are amazing,” I said, still reading.
“She was a terrific tennis player,” Dorothy said.
I turned around to see Dorothy standing in front of me, now holding a huge butcher knife. What was happening? She had a weird look in her eye. I didn’t know what it was, but suddenly I felt scared. I looked to the door, and saw that Bryan and Dave were now standing there staring at me, as well.
“What are you doing?” I asked, starting to panic.
Dorothy held the knife up between us. “I’ve collected everything that belonged to Tricia, Kasey. My collection is complete.” She paused. “Well, almost.” She moved towards me slowly, her eyes locked with mine.
“What are you saying?” I asked.
Dorothy stared at me, smiling a twisted smile. “I’m gonna need that heart back.”
She moved towards me. I tried to push her away, and now saw the boys moving towards me, as well. I stumbled back against the nightstand, and there was nowhere to go. I was trapped.
“Please, no,” I begged.
Dorothy’s arm slashed out, and I felt the blade rip across my stomach.
“Grab her, boys!” screamed Dorothy.
This was when I felt the blade cut my stomach the second time. And I knew then it was too late. I had been saved by the transplant only to die now because of it. I closed my eyes and started to pray.
PLEASE SUPPORT ANDY RAUSCH BY PURCHASING ANY OF HIS NONFICTION BOOKS OR NOVELS ON AMAZON. HIS NOVELS INCLUDE MAD WORLD, RIDING SHOTGUN AND OTHER AMERICAN CRUELTIES, ELVIS PRESLEY: CIA ASSASSIN, M-COMPANY IN THE AXIS OF EVIL, AND MANY OTHERS.