By Jason Benjamin, Surgical Recovery Manager, LifeCenter Northwest
Trying to describe my friend CJ Jones in words is like dancing about architecture. Yes I stole that line from a movie, but CJ would love that since he was the ultimate movie fanatic. Many people describe their lost friends by saying he loved everyone, that he filled the room, or that he was so full of life. Although those descriptions accurately describe Jones, they still fall flat in embodying him. More accurately, CJ was passionate about those he loved; he re-painted the room; looked at life as the ultimate fantasy game; and rolled his dice until his final breath.
That still is odd to say. His final breath. CJ was young. Not yet 50 and as it turns out not too happy to be turning 50. His birthday would have been, as usual, on April fools. Instead CJ died on Valentine ’s Day; national donor day. Have I mentioned he had a flair for the dramatic?
I have been working in donation for a little over 10 years and had some familiar names, or friends of friends that I had the honor of working with, but I hadn’t ever received the “Jason can you come to the hospital” call. Last February that all changed in a blink.
A common friend, Crystal, called me to say that CJ had been admitted to the ICU and she didn’t know what was wrong. Of course this meant dropping everything and seeing how my friend was. I knew instantly. Seeing him in bed like I’ve seen others I knew CJ would not survive. I was suddenly on the wrong side of the bed. I found myself wondering what to do next. Others haven’t seen him yet. Where are his parents? Where is Zack? What about his stuff? How do I tell others what in my mind I can already see?
I told myself, I have been there for other families and seen them do this, so I know I can. I know I can.
The first few calls were tough. The group in the ICU continued to grow. His friends came out of the woodwork, from every walk of life.
I have to admit it started feeling strange. I would go from wanting to be with my friend and grieve, to feeling obligated to guide people down the end of life path. I noticed I was losing track of time and setting up unrealistic expectations of how long one should sit by his side. I saw others around me doing the same thing. Then I thought; what do people do when they don’t have this type of support group? CJ had everyone there; co-workers, his friends, and then on day two or three, his parents.
His parents lived in Florida and Jamaica. He had spoken of them but I didn’t know them personally. Come to find out, not many people did. Picking them up at the airport was a moment of fear and comfort. Fear knowing that they were just arriving and the grieving process would be staring over from the beginning. Comfort in knowing they were here before he was gone. His mother, Evonne, gave me the most memorable moment of the many long days we spent in the ICU. As we pulled up to the hospital I asked, “do you want to go straight to CJ’s room? If so I can make sure his friends are out of the way”. She looked at me and with a matriarchal tone said “I want to see his friends, they have cared for him”.
She blew me out of the water. This taught me something I take with me in my work always; families can have moments of extreme clarity where everything around them opens up, if even for a moment, and it is important to always be aware of that possibility.
As the days past and mom and dad started to appreciate the gravity of his injuries we were able to have the donation conversation. His mother and father both said, of course, he would want to; “what other options are there?” CJ was able to donate corneas and tissue, and what we have learned so far is he has a cornea providing sight in California and another doing the same in Japan. I called his mother with this news and she was so very pleased to know that CJ was able to give such an amazing gift.
I type this while on a plane to Florida where I have planned a dinner with CJ’s parents. I didn’t know them until last February and I realize that getting to meet them has come at a cost; the cost of a dear friend. But as the end of life and donation reminds us, every life is precious, every gift enormous, and a door doesn’t always have to fully close for another to open.