A Wife Gives her Husband the Gift of Life

There’s no way to top this present.

The year 1998 was the beginning of a remarkable transformation for my family. My father, Jim Dineen, the always healthy, weightlifting, never-missed-a-day-of-work kind of dad, discovered he had kidney disease. He was 52, and had no symptoms. We don’t really know how he got it — he even guessed that exposure to Agent Orange when he was in Vietnam could have been a factor — and the road to recovery has been long. But in November 2003, my father received a healthy kidney at Christ Hospital in Cincinnati, where my parents live. My mom, Joyce, a year his junior, was his donor. After years of marital ups and downs, multiple surgeries for complications of the disease, and financial challenges by the dozens, our family dynamic changed for all of us in ways we never could have expected.

My parents have certainly had their troubles, and as their child I’ll never know how they made it to 38 years of marriage. They loved each other, but they didn’t seem to like each other very much. Dad was too fond of his beer, and he talked down to Mom a lot. When she tried to stand up to him, a fight would inevitably follow. I remember Mom once coming to visit my sister Leslie and me when we were both attending Miami University of Ohio. She told us she and Dad were splitting. But ultimately, our parents stayed together because of their faith. They believed somehow that God had a reason for them to remain married, and resigned themselves to sharing their lives, however imperfectly.

It was my dad’s disease that began to change things. In the beginning of his illness, he went through hell. In 1999, his electrolytes plummeted so low as a result of diuretics he was taking that he passed out and fell in the bathtub, fracturing both elbows and several ribs and suffering a concussion. He had been put on the steroid prednisone, and initially gained 40 pounds of fluid and almost lived in the bathroom.

Dad was self-conscious about his appearance, waiting until night to go out for groceries, and even then using the drive-through lane. The only time he really appeared in public in two years was at a wedding. Dad wanted to be there so much that he was willing to risk ridicule. (The only clothes he had at home that would fit on his swollen body were a gray sweat suit and slippers.) I don’t know where he found the strength to go on.

During it all, my mother stood by, sympathetic and helpful. She was at his side through six stomach surgeries and 35 more procedures to drain fluid that had collected in his abdomen from the prednisone. He and Mom had to work as a team just to get him through the day.

The dialysis treatments, which began in 2001, first took place in a clinic, three days a week. Dad’s arm turned black from the needles. It’s no wonder Mom felt terrified when he was approved for at-home dialysis — putting the procedure, and his health, in their hands. Still, she was adamant about not letting him go through it alone. Each night, just like a first officer with the captain of an airliner, Mom went over his checklist with him step by step. At one point when his muscles atrophied, perhaps as a result of the prednisone, she taught him how to walk again. The process seemed to go on and on, tying them both to the house and robbing them of so much freedom.

The decision to go ahead with a transplant for my father was a long and arduous one, mostly because he had liver damage too. One physician’s assistant told him, “According to your file, you’re supposed to be dead.” And for a while, doctors mistakenly thought that he would need not just a kidney transplant, but a liver transplant too. Dad’s future hung in limbo.

When the donor testing process finally began in the spring of 2003, numerous people, including me, my uncle Tom, and my mom, came back as matches of varying degrees. But Mom was the one who insisted on going further. She said she wasn’t scared, and it was the right thing to do. We all stepped back in amazement.

At last a date was chosen — November 11, 2003. All of a sudden, the only thing that seemed to matter to Dad was telling the world what a wonderful thing Mom was doing for him. A month before the surgery, he sent her birthday flowers with a note that read, “I love you and I love your kidney! Thank you!” (Can’t give the gift of life? Your husband will still love these presents.)

Financially, the disease was devastating to them. Because he was too sick to work, Dad lost his consulting business; throughout the same period, Mom was downsized from two different jobs. So for months they had no income and were in real danger of losing their house. My father had given up his leased car, and when Mom’s stopped running, they had to somehow buy two cars, which was another big drain on their already taxed resources. So my sister and I were humbled and surprised when, shortly before his surgery day, Dad handed us a diamond pendant that we were to give to Mom after the operation. He’d squirreled away his spare dollars to buy it.

At the hospital on the day of the transplant, all our relatives and friends gathered in the waiting room and became embroiled in a mean euchre tournament. My family has always handled things with a lot of laughter, and even though we were all tense, everybody was taking bets on how long this “change of demeanor” would last in my parents.

We’d informed Dad that if he chose to act like a real pain on any particular day after the operation, he wasn’t allowed to blame it on PMS just because he’d now have a female kidney!

The surgeries went well, and not long afterward, my sister and I were allowed to go in to visit. Dad was in a great deal of pain but, again, all he could talk about was Mom. Was she okay? How was she feeling? Then the nurses let us do something unorthodox. As they were wheeling Mom out of the recovery room, they rolled her into a separate alcove to visit Dad. It was surreal to see both our parents hooked up to IVs and machines and trying to talk to each other through tears. The nurses allowed us to present the diamond pendant to Mom so that Dad could watch her open it. Everybody was crying, even the nurses.

As I stood with digital camera in hand, I tried to keep the presence of mind to document the moment. My dad was having a hard time fighting back emotion, and suddenly my parents spontaneously reached out to hold each other’s hands.

In my nearly 35 years of existence, I’d never seen my parents do that, and I was spellbound. I snapped a picture and later rushed home to make sure I’d captured that enormous, life-defining moment. That photo of my parents’ hands said everything. After so many years of discord, it was apparent to me that they finally understood how much each loved the other.

My father stopped drinking early in his disease, and he’s started back to the health club again to improve his muscle tone. He’s fascinated by how quickly he’s recovered physically. But I have seen so many more profound changes. It’s as if the transplant healed our whole family.

There’s definitely been a softening to Dad. He’s mellowed, and he has more patience now. He’s not condescending to my mother anymore. Mom, too, has loosened up, since she’s not dealing with all that anger. There’s a closeness that they didn’t have before, and the experience has deepened their faith. Mom says she can see God’s hand in this all along the way.

I live in Nashville, and when I talk with my parents on the phone now, I joke and say, “Who are you people? You’re freaking me out!” Because at times they act like kids. They laugh more and complain less.

For Christmas, Leslie and I gave them two framed photos linked together by hooks. The top photo is of their clasped hands on their wedding day, August 7, 1965. Handwritten on the matting it says, “For better or worse, for richer or poorer.” The second photo is of that day in the recovery room. Their hands are intertwined with hospital bands and IVs, and on the matting it says, “In sickness and in health, ’til death do us part.”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest