Sunday, June 19, 2011

Reflections on the greatest gift of all -- from a daughter to her dad


(Originally published September 11, 1994)           

It's never to late to be thinking about Father's Day.

It's one of those Hallmark holidays that leaves a grown woman feeling pretty small. After all, what do you give a man who has more tacky ties (thanks to his kids) than Dolly Parton has colorless wigs?

Each holiday my sister and I look at each other with that "Got any bright ideas this year?" look, and then we resort to the usual tried but true alternatives to genius -- a box of Walnut pipe tobacco, or some peanut chews.

The notion that there's anything a kid could ever give a parent to even the score is unrealistic.The years of sacrifice and heartache that go into parenting are priceless -- not as in precious and adorable; as in costly, beyond measure.

Or so I thought.

I was flipping through this week's Time magazine when an article caught my eye. And I read with an unexplainable emotion the story of Chester Szuber, a retired Michigan Christmas tree farmer. In short, after 20 years of suffering with heart disease, living through three open-heart surgeries and enduring four years on on organ transplant waiting list, Szuber's new heart arrived on Aug. 18.

It wasn't technically his turn.

But a twist of fate brought his name to the top of the list. His 22-year-old daughter, Patti, had turned up in the University of Tennessee Medical Center, brain dead following a freak automobile accident during her vacation in the Smoky Mountains. Patti was a nursing student. She was the youngest of Chester's six children. She was a loving daughter who had probably given her dad a fair share of tacky ties and novelty gifts over the years. And she was a card-carrying organ donor.

I don't know about you, but I've never seen my pancreas. I'm not even sure if I could pick it out of a line-up on America's Most Wanted Internal Organs. I know that my kidneys look something like the beans in chili, and that my heart looks nothing like the shape of the Valentines I send every Feb. 14.

But unlike other human guts, the heart is symbolic. It is more sentimental to us than any other part of our anatomy. We regard it as much more than a squishy, pulpy mass with ventricles and arteries that get clogged from too much butter and bacon.

Our hearts rule us. They gauge our love. We are defined by our heart in degrees of feeling. Sometimes our hearts break. With any luck, they mend. And when it comes to big decisions, we either use our whole heart or half of it, in the follow through.

But these heart conditions are medically unrealistic. We know our hearts are basic biology. They pump blood through our bodies. If they stop, so do we.

I can only imagine what Chester Szuber thought about during the time it took for his daughter's heart to be transported the 600 miles from Tennessee to Michigan. What he said, according to the article, was: "It would be a joy to have Patti's heart."

The parent in me has trouble with Chester's joy. I have placed my hand over my 3-year-old Billy's chest, on demand, to feel his "heart beep." The rhythmic thump has always reminded me how fragile his life – all life – is. Little more than skin and bones seem to separate our physical life from certain death. I would sacrifice myself to preserve his tiny heart.

And yet, it is the daughter in me that was so moved by Chester Szuber's story. Death came to Patti Szuber too soon. She would never get to say good-bye. No more family Christmases in Michigan. No more well-intentioned Father's Day gifts.

But for every day Chester Szuber lives, he will rely on the steady pulsing of Patti's heart. He will never have to feel the permanent void felt by most parents at the loss of a child. The empty cavity in Szuber's chest, where the imperfect heart of a parent once beat, has been filled with the loving heart of his own child.

Chester Szuber's joy, as I try to comprehend it, is something too sentimental for science to explain. As a daughter, I've spent my whole life trying to give an adequate piece of my heart to my parents. But it never feels like enough.

And so it is for her final gift that a part of me envies Patti Szuber. More than the physical pumping of life-sustaining blood, Patti was able to give back to her father the precious gift of life he had first given her, 22 years ago.

I know in my heart, the real joy in that exchange between father and daughter belongs to Patti.

Postscript: June 19, 2011

I never spoke to Chester Szuber when I wrote the original column. It was harder 17 years ago to track someone down than it is today.

Over the years I have wondered about Mr. Szuber and his heart, so today I looked him up. It was easy. I dialed his number and got his answering machine, which included his cell phone number. So I dialed again, and Chet, as he prefers to be called, picked up on the third ring.

First, I wished him a happy Father's Day.

Then I had to ask him how he and his heart were faring all these years later.

"I feel like a million bucks. I pretty much woke up from surgery feeling great, and I have felt great every day since," he said.

I also asked him if it's true, what I've read, that sometimes a heart recipient finds that they take on some of the qualities of a donor.

"I don't know if it's from Patti's heart, but I have a lot more patience for people than I ever did, before getting her heart," he said.

He is back to Christmas tree farming, and still as grateful as ever for his daughter's ultimate gift.

"Bottom line is I'd much rather have this heart beating in Patti's chest, not mine. But she's taken good care of me over the years."

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