(ran East edition)
He stared down at her small, lifeless body lying on the hospital gurney.
The Rev. Dwight Wolter wanted nothing more than to crawl into the bed and hold her. His 6-year-old daughter, Maya, had died only an hour earlier - alone. She had never been by herself before.
In the dim lights, he saw her battered body wrapped in white cloth. Her blond hair was tucked away, only her face exposed.
Her bright blue eyes were open. They were among the few undamaged parts of her body. She stared toward the sky.
One year after suffering through this tragedy, Wolter finds some comfort in knowing that someone else sees with his baby's blues and that her heart valves help the heart beat in another child's chest. But it hasn't been easy.
His family is torn. He often feels like he has been ripped into pieces.
But he tries to hold everyone together. He tries for his congregation at Spring Hill United Church of Christ; for himself, a parent who lost a child; and for his son, 11-year-old Casey, who was badly injured in the car wreck that killed his little sister.
"How do I grieve the way I need to when I have an 11-year-old sitting next to me?" Wolter said, sitting in the church sanctuary last week. "I don't care whether you're a man, woman, gay, straight, up or down. It's hard to keep it in balance, and whether I do or not, that goes from minute to minute, hour to hour."
If there's one thing the 55-year-old Wolter knows, it's that faith saved his life. He understands now how people can crack mentally, how heartbreak can kill them.
"I always ask my cardiologist if it is possible that my heart can handle this," Wolter said. "Nothing I've ever been through touches this. But I am firmly convinced now that, even in those dark moments, God is still speaking."
Casey sits on the pew next to his father, listening. The accident left him with a gaping head wound and a broken arm. The night it happened, he was flown to Tampa for treatment. He has a barely visible scar on the left side of his forehead, thanks to a good plastic surgeon.
Casey used to remember every detail of the wreck. But time and therapy have helped make them fuzzy.
His mother, Christine Kirk, Wolter's ex-wife, was driving on U.S. 19 north of Weeki Wachee on Feb. 18, 2005. It was almost 6 p.m. She turned around to give the children something.
Then Kirk lost control of the car. It veered out of its lane, spinning and tumbling 240 feet before stopping on the driver's side in the center median, where it caught fire.
Backpacks were strewn as far as 100 feet from the car. Scattered around the roadway were luggage, CD players, lipstick, a Game Boy and a paper Burger King hat.
A passer-by cut the family, and another child in the car, out of their seat belts. Casey remembers a woman dragging him to the side of the road. She accidentally set him facedown on a red ant hill. He couldn't move. He saw blood.
Just before, Maya screamed her last words to him.
"Casey, where are you?" she cried.
"Maya, where are you?" he yelled.
The next morning in his hospital room, Casey told his dad to change the channel. He thought the Saturday cartoon on TV was childish. In his morphine haze, he said he figured his sister was watching it in her room.
Wolter realized that Casey thought Maya was still alive. Casey thought he had borne the brunt of the injury because he was the one flown to Tampa. His mother was taken to Oak Hill Hospital in Brooksville for shoulder and knee injuries. The other girl, April Zagorski, was not injured.
As he searched for the words and the moment to tell his son of Maya's death, Wolter got a phone call. It was LifeLink of Florida. The caller wanted to know if he was interested in donating Maya's eyes and heart valves.
She had been dead for 11 hours.
A quick, but hard, decision
It's the kind of thing no one wants to think about - giving away the body parts of loved ones just after they died.
Five of six people are buried or cremated with organs they no longer need, and Wolter found that statistic appalling. But so was his daughter's death. He had only a short time to make a decision.
Thinking about the generous spirit of his daughter, Wolter chose to donate.
He remembered how, after coming home from birthday parties, Maya always made sure to save half of her goody bag for Casey.
Once, when leaving a playground full of children she didn't know before arriving, Maya said goodbye to each and every one by name.
She didn't mind sharing anything, even cherished onion rings from Burger King.
Wolter, Casey and Maya ate lunch there hours before she died. They sat in a booth - Casey on one side, Maya and her father on the other.
Wolter asked Casey for an onion ring.
"No," the boy said.
"Why not? I paid for it," Wolter said.
"No," Casey replied. He continued to stuff the fried rings into his mouth.
As father and son bantered, Maya slid over one of hers to her dad. He looked down and, before popping it into his mouth, praised the move to taunt Casey.
Meanwhile, she pushed over another with a small pointer finger across the table.
"You could feel her heart from a mile away," Casey said.
Though he doesn't like onion rings anymore, he smiles when he hears his dad tell the story.
"She was always nicer than me," he said.
The two were close. In family pictures, they are always touching. An arm around a shoulder here, a hand on a lap there.
Maya was just starting to come out of her shyness when she died. As her legs grew longer, so did her will to fight back against her big brother.
One time, as the siblings sat in the back seat of their family van, Maya gave Casey a twisting pinch. Rubbing his welted arm, Casey complained to his dad. Wolter asked her if it was true.
"Yeah, and there's a lot more where that came from," she said, laughing.
Wolter and Casey were stunned.
After Burger King, later that day, the children's mother picked them up for the weekend. When Wolter said goodbye to the kids, Maya was still wearing the paper crown she put on at lunch.
Finding a cause in tragedy
Together, Wolter and Casey have slowly gotten used to the empty seat at the kitchen table.
Thanksgiving was painful. Neither could bear a turkey and no Maya. So they went to Busch Gardens and had dinner at a Middle Eastern restaurant.
Most of the time, they end up eating out. Or they eat at home standing up, next to the kitchen counter with paper bags full of whatever they grabbed on the way home.
Before, Wolter, who has full custody of Casey, always had sit-down meals with the kids. He even made his own salad dressing.
Yes, some days are dark. The nights are always long. Wolter has cried himself to sleep, screaming into his pillow.
Casey has post-traumatic stress disorder. His therapist recently instituted rules over TV and PlayStation. No violent or potentially violent images after 7:30 p.m. (But Wolter does allow time for American Idol.)
The two of them have also become proponents of organ donation. At first, Casey had a hard time wrapping his mind around the idea. He understood it but didn't know why he had to learn this now.
As his dad pointed out, it's something Maya would have wanted.
Casey wants to donate his organs, too. Wolter speaks about it every chance he gets. He constantly reminds people of how many lives could be saved.
Because Maya was only 6, Wolter had not given much thought to the end of her life. But if a decision had been made earlier, more body parts could have been saved.
"People need to know that they should make a decision in advance," Wolter said. "Fill out a card, then tell your loved ones. Let them know. Because if you're at a hospital, and they say your husband, daughter or parent was an organ donor, and you don't want them to do it because it's too upsetting at the time, they won't."
Wolter doesn't know whether he could have talked to someone in his situation a year ago. It would have been threatening. It is threatening.
He finds himself thinking about what a woman once told him in seminary school: "Lean on God, because everything else will ultimately fail you."
The words struck him. But he didn't fully comprehend them. Today, he still searches for the meaning behind Maya's death.
He still thinks she died wrongfully. But he has found that, clearly, God won't be bullied by Dwight Wolter for immediate answers - even if he is an ordained minister.
"And I find that very upsetting," Wolter said. "But I have to unclench my fists and say to myself, "I have to trust.' "
For information about donating organs to LifeLink of Florida, go to www.lifelinkfound.org or call toll-free 1-800-262-5775.