Joseph’s Living Legacy

Joseph’s Living Legacy

From Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul

Joseph’s Living Legacy

In helping others, we shall help ourselves, for whatever good we give out completes the circle and comes back to us.

Flora Edwards

With loving tenderness I unpacked my son Joseph’s Little League trophy, his stack of X-Man comics and the framed pictures of elephants that had decorated his bedroom walls back in our old apartment. Just two weeks before, Joseph had so looked forward to moving into his own room in the new house. Now, making his bed, I couldn’t hold back the tears. My little boy will never sleep here, I grieved. I’ll never glimpse his smile again or feel his loving hug.

Wondering how I could possibly manage to go on, I began unpacking the dozens of plush animals Joseph loved to collect—bears and monkeys, chipmunks and giraffes.

Sitting on his bed, I hugged the Chris Columbus bear he used to nuzzle when he was little and I read Love You Forever or another of his favorite stories. Joseph loved books, and to him they were especially precious because he had a learning disability that made it all but impossible for him to read them himself.

But Joseph was a determined little boy who refused to let his disability stop him from learning. He listened to his schoolbooks and tests on tape, and every night we sat together at the kitchen table so I could read his math problems to him and help him with his spelling. Joseph worked so hard; he always made honor roll at school. He also earned a green belt in karate and was pitcher for his Little League baseball team.

In many ways Joseph was just a regular little boy who loved playing video games with his brother, David, or going to the movies with his sister, Shalom. But Joseph also knew what it was like to feel different and need a helping hand.

I can’t remember how many times I spotted Joseph carrying groceries for one of our elderly neighbors or refusing money after shoveling their cars out from the snow. He loved putting on puppet shows for the little girl down the street with Down’s syndrome, and once, when doctors thought his friend Micah might need a kidney transplant, my son came to me and said, “I sure wish I could give him one of mine.”

Joseph, my little mensch, always made me proud, even on the last day of his life.

I was folding clothes in the den that Saturday afternoon when out of nowhere my husband, Lou, shouted for me to call 911. He and Joseph had been discussing a movie they planned to see when suddenly Joseph collapsed onto his bed complaining of a terrific headache. His breathing grew ragged, and then it stopped. Lou, who is a physician, performed artificial respiration until the paramedics arrived. Then he called ahead to the ER while I rode in the ambulance with Joseph and prayed he wouldn’t die.

Joseph, always the picture of health, had suffered a massive brain aneurysm. “Is he going to die?” I asked my husband. Holding me tightly he answered, “Yes.”

It seemed impossible. Only an hour ago my son was home watching TV—and now he was on life support with no hope of ever regaining consciousness. I wanted to cry out in shock and grief.

But there wasn’t time. There was something important I had to do—and I had to do it right away.

“We have to donate his organs,” I told Lou, recalling the time Joseph wanted to give a kidney to Micah. “It’s what he would have wanted us to do.”

A transplant coordinator made all the arrangements, and a few hours later our family gathered at Joseph’s bedside to offer a prayer and say our last good-byes.

Then we went home, and throughout that night while surgeons recovered my son’s organs I lay curled on his bed, clutching his favorite blanket and telling him how much I would always love him.

I don’t know how I survived those next two weeks—the funeral and moving into the house we’d already contracted to buy. I cried every time I went near Joseph’s new bedroom—the one he would have loved, if only he’d lived. There was a gaping hole in my heart.

Then one day when I felt I could bear my grief no longer, a letter came from the transplant coordinator. “I am writing to share the outcome of your generosity,” I read with tears spilling down my cheeks.

Two Kentucky women, one of them the mother of a boy Joseph’s age, were now off dialysis because they had each received one of my son’s kidneys. Meanwhile, in Missouri, cells from Joseph’s liver were helping to keep a critically ill transplant candidate alive while doctors waited for a matching donor organ to become available. In California two young children would soon be able to run and play with the healthy new heart valves my son had bequeathed them. And two teenagers, one from Kentucky and the other from New York, had regained their eyesight thanks to Joseph’s corneas.

Seven people’s lives had been changed dramatically because of my son. I carried the letter with me for days, reading and rereading it and marveling especially at the teens who’d received Joseph’s corneas. Joseph’s learning disability had prevented him from reading. But because of his very special gift there were now two more children in the world who could. Somehow, this helped me understand that my son had not lost his life in vain.

I wanted each and every one of Joseph’s recipients to know who he was. So one night I wrote them each a letter and told them all about the little boy who had given them the ultimate gift. I asked the transplant agency to forward the letters to all seven recipients. With each I sent along one of his beloved stuffed animals and a copy of a school essay that he’d once written describing how to take care of them.

Knowing the good my son had brought into the world made it easier to walk past his room without bursting into tears. It helped the rest of the family, too, and eventually we became able to share happy memories of Joseph around the dinner table and at other family gatherings.

Lou and I also honored Joseph’s memory by speaking to community groups and high-school students about the importance of organ donation. After a TV interview, the mother who had received one of Joseph’s kidneys contacted us.

“I don’t know how to thank you,” she sobbed the day we first met.

“Seeing a part of my son living on is thanks enough for me,” I said. Because of her new kidney, the woman had been able to attend her own son’s eighth-grade graduation. Joseph never reached the eighth grade, but instead of begrudging the woman her happiness, I kvelled in it— because it was my son who had made this miracle possible.

My son is gone, but in a very real way he still lives on, doing what he always did best—offering a helping hand to others in need. Some say Joseph’s life was brief. I say it was full.

I once heard that if you save a life, you save the world. Well, my son saved five lives and gave the gift of sight to two others. What mother could possibly ask any more of her child? What mother could possibly be any prouder?

Kathie Kroot
As told to Heather Black

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