One afternoon shortly before I retired from teaching, an e-mail from Ken, a former student, popped up on my classroom computer. Realizing he must be 30 by now, I smiled in recollection of the 16-year-old who'd once brightened the day: an athletic young man with dark eyes always brimming with laughter and mischief, and straight brown hair that wouldn't stay out of his eyes.
Today's message carried quite a tale: He had skillfully camouflaged cystic fibrosis during high school, coughed up blood in college and used oxygen at night in his early years as an engineer. And he had lived off around-the-clock oxygen in the months before his double lung transplant.
A double lung transplant! I sat staring at the computer in disbelief.
"Adversity builds character," he added. "I look at life in ways none of my friends are able to do. I never get depressed; I have neither time nor inclination for that."
I saw Ken some months after this note. He invited me to attend the Transplant Olympics in Orlando, and I watched him moving across the tennis court with precision and grace. He took silver in tennis, and gold in racquetball.
"Mostly I love biking," he said later. "This year I rode 200 miles from Seattle to Portland in one day."
But as we left the site of the last games together, he had one more thing to tell me. "Whatever I do, I do for myself and Hunter," he said. "We're entwined together in this life for as long as it lasts."
Thirteen years earlier he had come to know Hunter.
Ken explained how he and his wife, Barb, had headed to a newspaper office in the San Juan Islands, a brief ferry ride from the Washington mainland. They had come to search the archives from three particular days in July of that year.
Ken wanted to learn about the person who had given him back his life. The donor, he learned, had been young and from the San Juan Islands. Knowing what we do about organ transplantation, he knew it would have had to have been soon after the donor's death.
"Look," Barb had said, pointing at the paper. A 16-year-old had died on July 7. The teen had been an athlete, captain of the basketball team and a popular soccer player as well. He had excelled in academics. Ken stared at the page and that date. July 7 was marked by grief and hope.
And then the inevitable question. "Where is the cemetery?"
As the taxi wended its way through the countryside, its gently sloping land blanketed with tall grass rustling in the breeze, as Ken vividly described the scene to me, a small church nestled in the corner of the cemetery came into view. Ken asked the taxi driver to wait.
Grave markers were flat on the ground with no tombstones evident anywhere. Then something far in the back caught Ken's eye: a grave that appeared to have offerings around it. Barb followed his pointed finger.
"Let's go," he said.
The two stopped short in front of the grave. It was Hunter's grave, with the dates of his birth and death. Candles, necklaces and various pieces of assorted jewelry surrounded the grave. A framed photo of attractive teenage girls, all formally attired as if for a holiday dance, stood propped up in the grass on one side of the grave.
"We miss you, Hunter," read a small note.
Ken slowly sank to his knees, awed by the realization that one random day bound him inextricably to this young man.
"At that moment, I felt a connection to Hunter that surpassed anything I've ever felt for another human being," Ken told me.
In silence, he and Barb headed home to continue the lives they'd left behind, lives they were slowly beginning to piece together after a long and painful hiatus.
The afternoon had grown chilly, and Ken, slowly rolling up the rear window of the taxi, inhaled a deep breath of the cool island air right into Hunter's lungs. Two athletes had become one.
Freelance writer Elaine K. Markowitz, whose articles have appeared in the Times and other publications, lives in Palm Harbor.