Things We Know by Heart

BOOK: Things We Know by Heart
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DEDICATION

For my sisters, whose hearts are brave and beautiful

CONTENTS
PROLOGUE

 

heart (n):

a hollow muscular organ that pumps the blood through the circulatory system by rhythmic contraction and dilation;

the center of the total personality, especially with reference to intuition, feeling, or emotion

the central, innermost, or vital part of something

—definition of the word
heart

I DON'T KNOW
how I knew, when the sirens woke me just before dawn, that they were for him.

I don't remember jumping out of bed, or tying the laces of my shoes. I don't remember my legs carrying me down the driveway, onto the winding stretch of road between our houses. I don't remember the feel of my feet hitting the ground, or my lungs taking in air, or my body racing to catch up with what I already knew in my heart was true.

But I remember every detail after that.

I can see the blue and red lights, swirling garishly against the pale sunrise sky. Hear the clipped voices of the medics. The words
head trauma
repeated over the loud jumble of their radios in the background.

I remember the deep, choking sobs of a woman I didn't
know and still don't, even now. The odd angle of her white SUV, its hood hidden by the broken stalks and scattered blooms of the sunflowers that grew along the side of the road. The fence, splintered and broken.

I remember glass like gravel, all over the asphalt.

Blood. Too much.

And his sneaker, lying on its side in the middle of it all. The heart I'd drawn in black Sharpie on the bottom.

I can still feel the emptiness of his shoe when I picked it up, and the way the absence of weight brought me to my knees. I can feel the strong grip of the gloved hands that lifted me and then held me back when I tried to run to him.

They wouldn't let me. Didn't want me to see him. And so what I remember most about that morning is standing on the side of the road, alone, darkness closing in around me as the day was unfolding. Morning sunlight on the vibrant gold petals, scattered where he lay dying.

CHAPTER ONE

 

“Communicating with the transplant recipients may help donor families in their grief. . . . Overall, donor families and recipients, as well as their relatives and friends, may benefit from exchanging thoughts and emotions about their experiences with donation . . . the gift of life. . . . It may take months and even years before someone is ready to send and/or receive correspondence, or you may never hear from them.”

—Life Alliance Donor Family Services Program

FOUR HUNDRED DAYS
.

I repeat the number in my head. Let it take over the hollow feeling as I grip the steering wheel. I can't let it go by like any other day without doing this. Four hundred deserves something, some sort of acknowledgment. Like 365, when I brought flowers to his mom but not to his grave because I knew he would've wanted her to have them. Or like his birthday, when it passed. That was four months, three weeks, and one day after. Day 142.

I'd spent it alone, because I couldn't handle seeing his parents that day, and because a tiny, secret part of me
actually believed that if I was alone, then maybe somehow there was still a chance he could come back, turn eighteen, and pick up where we'd left off. Be a senior with me, apply to the same colleges, go to our last homecoming and prom, throw our caps into the sky at graduation and kiss in the sunshine before they hit the ground.

When he hadn't come back, I'd wrapped myself in the sweatshirt that still held the faintest hint of his smell, or maybe it was my imagination. I pulled it tight around me, and I made a wish. I wished, so hard, that I didn't have to do any of those things without him. And my wish came true. Senior year became a fog. I didn't mail my college applications. Didn't go dress shopping. Forgot there was even a sky or sunlight to kiss under.

The days passed, one after another, measured out in an unbroken, never-ending rhythm. Seemingly infinite, but gone in the blink of an eye—like waves crashing on the shore, or the seasons passing.

Or the beating of a heart.

Trent had an athlete's heart: strong, steady, ten beats slower than mine. Before, we'd lie there chest to chest, and I'd slow my breathing to match his, try to trick my pulse into doing the same; but it never worked. Even after three years, my pulse sped up just being near him. But we found our own synchronicity together, his heart thumping out a slow, steady beat and mine filling in the spaces between.

Four hundred days and too many heartbeats to count.

Four hundred days and too many places and moments where Trent no longer exists. And still no answer from one of the only places he does.

A horn blares from behind, yanking me from my thoughts and the nervous-sick feeling in my stomach. In the rearview mirror I can see the driver cursing as he swerves around me—angry hand raised in the air, lips spitting a question through his windshield:
What the hell are you doing?

I asked myself the same thing when I got in the car. I'm not sure of
what
I'm doing, only that I have to do it because I have to see him for myself. Because of the way it felt to see the others.

Norah Walker was the first recipient to make contact with Trent's family, though they didn't learn her name until later. Recipients can reach out to the families of their donors at any time through the transplant coordinator and vice versa, but the letter still came as a surprise to us all. Trent's mom called the day after she got it and asked me to come over; and we sat there in the bright living room together, in the house that held so many memories, beginning with the day I'd run past it for the fifth time, hoping he'd notice me.

The sound of his footsteps trying to catch mine had slowed me down just enough to let them. His voice, unfamiliar to me then, worked to fit his words between breaths.

“Hey!”

Breath.

“Wait!”

Breath.

We were fourteen. Strangers until that moment. Until those two words.

As I sat in Trent's house with his mom, on the couch where he and I used to watch movies and eat popcorn out of the same bowl, it was a stranger's words, and the gratitude within them, that shook me out of the dark, lonely place I'd inhabited for so long. Her letter, written in a shaky hand on beautiful paper, lifted something in me that day. It was humble. Deeply sorry for Trent's death. Profoundly grateful for the life he'd given her.

I'd gone home that night and written her back, my own thank-you for the moment of lightness she'd granted me with her words. And the night after, I wrote to another recipient, and another—five in all. Anonymous letters to anonymous people I wanted to know. And when I sent them to the transplant coordinator to forward on, it was with the tenuous hope that those people would write me back. That they would notice me like he did.

I glance over my shoulder and he's there, smiling, gripping a sunflower that's taller than me, its stem trailing behind him, roots and all.

“I'm Trent,” he says. “Just moved in back down the road a little
ways. You must live close, right? I've seen you run by every morning this week. You're fast.”

I bite my bottom lip as we walk. Smile inside. Try not to confess that I've saved my speed for the stretch of road in front of his house every day since the moving truck pulled into the driveway and he stepped out.

“I'm Quinn,” I say.

Breath.

Writing the letters made me feel like I could breathe again. I wrote about Trent and all the things he'd given me when he was alive. The feeling I could do anything. Happiness. Love. The letters were a way to honor him, and a hope for something more. An anonymous hand reaching out into the emptiness, looking for a connection. An answer.

I laugh, because he's still out of breath, and because he doesn't seem to remember the giant sunflower dangling from his hand.

“Oh,” he says, following my glance, “this was supposed to be for you. I . . .” He runs a nervous hand through his hair. “I, um, I got it over there, near that fence.”

He holds it out to me and laughs. It's a sound I want to keep hearing.

“Thank you,” I answer. And I reach out to take it. The first thing he ever gave me.

I got four answers from the people he gave to.

After 282 days, multiple letters back and forth, consent forms, and premeeting counseling, his mom and I drove
to the Donor Family Services office together and sat side by side as we waited for them to arrive. To meet them face-to-face.

Just as Norah had been the first to reach out with words, she was the first to reach out her hand, and in spite of all the times I'd imagined meeting her, nothing could've prepared me for the way it made me feel to take that hand in mine, and to look in her eyes and know that there was a part of Trent there too. A part that had saved her life and given her a chance to be a mother to the curly-haired little girl who peeked out from behind her legs and a wife to the man who stood crying beside her.

When she took a deep breath with Trent's lungs and brought my hand to her chest so I could feel them fill and expand, my heart filled right along with them.

It was the same with the others I met—Luke Palmer, seven years older than me, who played us a song on his guitar, and who could do that now because Trent had given him a kidney. There was John Williamson, a quiet but warm man in his fifties, who wrote beautifully poetic letters about how his life had changed since receiving his liver transplant but who fumbled to find the right words to speak to us in that little reception room. And then there was Ingrid Stone, a woman with pale-blue eyes so different from Trent's brown ones but who could see the world again, and paint it in vibrant colors on her canvases, because of them.

They say time heals all wounds, but meeting those people that afternoon—a makeshift family of strangers brought together by one person—healed more in me than all the time that passed in the days that had come before.

It's why, when day after day went by with no reply from the last recipient, I started looking for him. It's the reason I searched—matched up dates with news stories and hospitals—until I found him so easily, I almost didn't trust it. It's also why, around anyone else, I've pretended like I understand the reasons he hasn't responded. That, like the woman at Donor Family Services told us, some people never do, and that's their choice.

I've acted like I don't think about him every day and wonder about that choice. Like I've made peace with it. But alone, in those endless hours that stretch to eternity before the morning, I always come back to the truth: that I haven't at all. And I don't know if I can unless I do this.

I don't know what Trent would think if he knew. What he would say if he could somehow see. But it's been four hundred days. I hope he would understand. For so long,
I
was the one with his heart. I just need to see where it is now.

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