Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Human Interest

Giving daughter's organs can't save mother from grieving

Second of two parts


She kept expecting her daughter to come home. It wasn't denial. Or even hope. She just couldn't imagine her world without Liane.

Even while she was choosing a casket, even when she was selecting flowers for the funeral, Charla Moye was watching for Liane to walk through the door.

"I keep hearing her voice," Charla said.

A week had dragged by since she had found her only child dying in a friend's bed, bloated and blue. Charla, a 58-year-old cardiac nurse, had tried to revive Liane, 31. Two days later, she took her off life support.

Charla had donated Liane Adgate's organs — and four of the eight had been placed. Some of the recipients, Charla knew, were probably still in the hospital recovering. Others might already be home, enjoying their second chances.

Charla isn't religious. But on that day before Easter two years ago, sitting alone in her silent home, she kept contemplating resurrection, life beyond death.

Somewhere, in strangers, her daughter still lived. If she saw them, would she still see Liane?

• • •

The pews were packed. Dozens of doctors and nurses Charla worked with, and some who had worked on Liane, filled the funeral home. Sprays of pink roses and white lilies rimmed the open casket.

Charla had chosen a frothy pink dress for her daughter, with a high neck that hid the incisions. Liane's eyes were closed; no one could tell that her corneas were gone.

Into her hands her mother had tucked a drawing: a cartoon pony, colored in purple crayon. Liane's 7-year-old daughter, Kara, had made it for her.

Kara wasn't at the funeral. Her dad had driven down from North Carolina and taken her back to stay with him.

Now Charla lived alone.

"I know my daughter would appreciate all of you being here," she said, sniffling at the memorial service.

"Liane loved to laugh, loved making people happy," said Brenda Thomas, the chaplain from Tampa General who presided over the funeral. "Even in her death, she gave herself to others."

• • •

Charla had Liane cremated. She poured the ashes into a ceramic urn rimmed with golden butterflies.

She stood the urn on her dresser at night, so she could see it when she couldn't sleep. In the morning, she carried the urn into the kitchen while she made coffee.

Six weeks after losing Liane, Charla got a package from LifeLink, the nonprofit agency that coordinates organ transplants. It contained bare facts about the recipients — and information about how Charla could contact them. LifeLink won't share the names of donors and recipients until both families request them. But LifeLink coordinates correspondence and, if everyone agrees, eventually sets up meetings.

Liane's right kidney, the letter said, had been transplanted that same day, at Tampa General — into a 48-year-old man. "He's home and doing well," said the report.

Her left kidney went to a 41-year-old man in Fort Myers. "He's still in the hospital, but stable."

The liver was in a 56-year-old woman from Belleair. It also had been transplanted at Tampa General.

Liane's right lung hadn't been viable after all, so doctors had donated it to a research lab.

Her bones, skin and heart valves were in storage.

Her corneas had been shipped overseas.

To find out more, Charla would have to contact the recipients.

She spent her days dusting Liane's softball trophies and crying over old photos. She made a scrapbook. She left the last few pages blank for the ending — or new beginning. In case she ever got around to writing the letters.

• • •

When the autopsy came back in July, Charla didn't believe it.

"Acute brainstem herniation. Drug abuse. Intoxication by the combined effects of alprazolam, morphine and oxycodone."

She had known her daughter was taking pain pills for her knee injury, and had just been prescribed new antidepressants. But Liane, she believed, knew better than to mix her medications with alcohol.

In the bedroom where Charla had tried to revive Liane, officers found an almost empty bottle of hydrocodone. Liane's friends, with whom she'd been drinking that night, had said they thought she was just sleeping.

Police asked about suicide, but Charla said Liane would never have intentionally overdosed.

"She loved her daughter, loved her life," Charla said.

"Yes, Liane had drugs in her that she shouldn't have," Charla said. But she told people that her daughter died of "a sudden, massive stroke." Which was true.

• • •

"Dear Organ Recipients," Charla typed in September, nearly six months after the funeral. For weeks, that was as far as she got.

Then, one night, Charla sat on her sofa and just started writing about Liane: her childhood, college scholarship, what a great softball pitcher she had been. "You can Google her name and see her college stats to this very day," Charla wrote. "She could be on her knees at home plate and nail second base for an out."

She told the recipients that Liane loved dolphins and Key West, helping on medical missions to South America. "She was amazing," Charla wrote.

"Each one of you has enabled me, my family and my precious granddaughter to feel that Liane lives on. . . ."

She printed five copies. To each, she clipped a small copy of Liane's college graduation portrait. In the photo, her daughter is wearing a black drape and slender strand of pearls. Her long hair is parted at the middle and frames her round, smiling face.

"In the future," Charla wrote to the recipients, "it would be a great honor and privilege for me to meet with you."

• • •

Just before Christmas 2011, Charla received another package from LifeLink. Inside was a holiday card wishing her joy and peace. "I'm sorry for your loss and want to thank you for your gift of life," said block letters. "I know that's not enough."

The letter was signed simply, "John. Left kidney." The 41-year-old man from Fort Myers.

He didn't acknowledge Liane, or Charla's letter; didn't include any information about himself or his family. Just a first name and a body part.

Charla read the card again and again, trying to imagine what John looked like, how he must have suffered, how her daughter had changed his life. Did he ever think about Liane, the piece of her inside him? Did he like Mountain Dew and pizza and dolphins?

The second card came in April, just before the anniversary of Liane's death. "Hello, my name is Glenda and I am 57 years old. I am retired, living in Florida, and I have a wonderful husband, 4 stepchildren, and 10 grandchildren. I had been suffering from hepatitis C for over 20 years and it eventually attacked my liver, making life miserable for me. . . . Finally, after five years of waiting, we received a call. . . ."

Glenda thanked Liane for bowling, for bingo and the opportunity to take her grandchildren to the beach. "My promise to you is that I will not waste a moment."

Charla imagined this woman, about her own age, sitting on a towel surrounded by grandchildren, building sand castles. Liane had given her that, given those kids the chance to know their grandmom. It was wonderful — but unfair. Liane's daughter was growing up without a mother. And Charla had no one now.

Alone in her living room with the urn, she clutched the card to her chest and cried.

• • •

Charla's favorite letter came last. She doesn't believe in reincarnation, but relishes connections. This one, she was sure, was a sign.

"Hi Charla," began the typed note. "My name is Mark, I am 42 years old and I lost my kidney function when I was 38. I was on dialysis for three years before I was blessed to receive your daughter's kidney. I am so very grateful and sad for you and your family."

Mark was a former body builder, he wrote, who worked with mentally disabled adults. He had parents, a girlfriend, three dogs and cats, two brothers and a sister who had been killed in a car accident.

He also has a daughter, 19, who plays softball. "I used to coach her Little League team," he wrote. "She played well, pretty much anywhere on the field."

Like Liane.

Mark had enclosed a photo: A dark-eyed man with a shaved head next to a beautiful, beaming young brunette. "I am grateful to be able to live a normal life again without being on dialysis," he wrote. "I am grateful for your gift, Liane!"

Through her tears, Charla smiled. Liane would love that. Her kidney, carrying on inside a softball coach, helping him cheer his daughter on the diamond.

She kept meaning to write them all back. She wanted to know more about the people who got Liane's organs, wanted them to know more about her daughter.

"I really do want to meet them," she said. "Then I'll see Liane. Because of her, they live on. Because of them, she lives through them."

For six months, she didn't respond. She seldom left her house.

• • •

Another letter from LifeLink came that fall. Liane had saved seven other people.

Sometimes, when American hospitals reject organs or tissue, foreign doctors want them. Different countries have different standards for transplantation.

Liane's skin had been flown to Europe, to become grafts for a burn victim. Four sets of her osteo cells were in California, where they would help regrow four patients' bones.

One of her corneas had gone to a 73-year-old woman in Ecuador. The other to a 69-year-old woman in Bahrain.

"Just imagine," Charla said. "Because of Liane, these women can see again."

She wondered what Liane's cornea was seeing. What would she think of Bahrain?

• • •

On a warm, windy afternoon, about a year ago, Charla packed a southwestern-print blanket, a spiral notebook and a pen into her tan Chrysler. Then she went back to her bedroom and got Liane's urn.

We need to get out, she decided. It's time.

When Liane was little, Charla used to drive her to St. Pete Beach to chase seagulls. As her daughter grew older, Charla took her fishing. Those last few years they would just sit talking, watching Kara splash in the surf.

Charla had avoided Pass-a-Grille since she lost Liane. This was the first time she had taken the urn out of the house.

She wore black that day, like most days: black blouse, jeans and clogs. She drove to the south end of the island and carried her daughter's ashes across the wide swath of sand. The beach was empty, except for birds.

She inhaled the fishy air, tasted the salt spray.

For 18 months, she had been holed up in her house, numb. Here, the sooty sky seemed to stretch forever. The low sun warmed her wan face.

Charla spread the blanket, planted the urn — as big as a punch bowl — in the center, then sank down beside it. A seagull hopped up, unafraid.

She put on her reading glasses and opened the notebook. It was time to finally respond to the recipients. "To John," she wrote. Tears splashed onto the page. "I am at a very special place that my daughter and I loved . . ."

When she looked up to wipe her eyes, the sun was sinking, staining the gulf silver.

Liane would have loved this, Charla thought. She reached out to caress the urn.

She sat there, listening to the tide, watching the day fade. Finally, she forced herself to finish the letter: "I hope that my daughter has given you a new life. My family and I would love to meet you."

By the time she trudged back to her car, cradling the urn, it was dark.

• • •

This year, Charla tried to push forward, to get past the past. She went to counseling, took time off from nursing, flew to San Francisco so she would be away for the second anniversary of Liane's death.

When she came home, she started working again at St. Anthony's Hospital. Since she can't sleep, she often takes the night shift.

Nurses aren't supposed to advocate for organ donation. But sometimes, when patients ask Charla if she has children, she just starts sobbing. Then she tells them about Liane — and all the strangers she saved.

She thinks about the recipients all the time, keeps their notes under her bed. "I want them to enjoy finally being pain-free. I just want them to be happy."

Charla insists that, someday, she still wants to meet them. But not yet. She knows, now, if she sees them, she won't see Liane.

She never mailed that letter she wrote on the beach.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825.

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