Chapter Thirty-Two: The Rose Bowl Parade


“Dad? Is that you?” I mumbled, half- awake, yet mostly still asleep.

I rubbed my nearly sealed and sleepy eyes, but finally forced myself to open one eye to check my alarm clock. 7AM. What day was it? Was it a week day? Did I not set my alarm clock, and had I missed work?

My Dad was still whooping on the crackled phone line: “WE ARE GOING TO THE ROSE BOWL PARADE!!”

I shook my head, trying to clear the fatigue out of me and reason what was going on. It was a Saturday morning in July. My Father was in Washington D.C. on a business trip. Why was he calling me so early on a Saturday morning when I was going to see him again tomorrow when he returned back? I was starting to wake up.

“Dad? What are you talking about?”

He paused in mid-cheer and his repetitive “Rose Bowl Parade” booming and cheering chant stopped to ask: “Your Stepmom told me about you going to the Rose Bowl Parade.”

I racked my brain to my conversation with my Stepmom just yesterday evening when we had a home-cooked and quiet dinner in the absence of my Father. My Stepmom was a huge fan of sports, and especially of basketball and football. Her usual quiet voice went up a couple octaves and her eyes widened behind her tinted glasses: “The Rose Bowl Parade? As in the annual Pasadena, California Rose Bowl Parade? As in the parade before the Rose Bowl college football game?”

I cocked my head and blinked my eyes a couple times in confusion, not knowing anything about sports. “Is that what it is?”

My Stepmom just shook her head at my supposed stupidity and said: “Wow. I was not born in this country, and even I know about these all-American events! I can’t believe that you don’t know the Rose Bowl Parade and about the Rose Bowl college football game! It is an annual American tradition. Do you even know what an honor it is to be a float rider for the Rose Bowl Parade??”

I corrected her: “I’m not definitely going to be a float rider. I’m just being considered for to be a float rider for the Donate Life Float, which is one out of hundreds of other floats at the Rose Bowl Parade. I spoke with **Roger who is the Chief Financial Officer of UKRO based in Los Angeles, California yesterday and he said he is going to speak with the board members and the founder, **Keith, for me to be interviewed via conference call in the next couple of weeks or so. If, and that is a really big IF, the conference call goes well and they want me then I’ll go to California for the parade with one guest and all expenses paid.”

“All expenses paid?” My Stepmom repeated incredulously.

I nodded.

She shook her head in disbelief and finally said, “Well, just being considered is such an honor. We have to tell your Dad.”

“He’s in D.C. now. I’ll tell him when he gets back,” I paused and then with a delayed response to my ignorance about the Rose Bowl Parade, I said defensively: “And, I most certainly do know about the Rose Bowl Parade and the college football!”

My Stepmom gave me a dubious expression. She knew me all too well. In actuality, I only knew that being a float rider for the Donate Life Float at the Rose Bowl Parade was one of the biggest and most unimaginable lifetime experiences ever. I did not know the part of the Rose Bowl football game, but I certainly was not going to admit that to my Stepmom.

My Dad interrupted my thoughts. “What? Was your Stepmom wrong about the Rose Bowl Parade?”

“I’m only being considered. It does not mean it is going to happen.”

“Trust me,” my Dad said confidently on the other line like a cannon ball, “It is going to happen. I know these things.”

“I don’t want to get my hopes up. I’m trying to go with the flow, and not think too much about it…especially thinking about the conference call,” I said.

“You will do great. Look how far you’ve come already!”

I finally said, “Well, we’ll see what will happen.”

In a matter of a couple of weeks, I was sitting on the edge of a seat in the kitchen with my sweaty hand glued to the phone that was pressed against my ear and with the long phone cord coiled around my nerve-wracked body. I was as prepared as could be for this conference call. I had researched UKRO, which stood for University Kidney Research Organization. UKRO was founded by a famous entertainment lawyer, Keith, who had received a kidney transplant from a deceased donor. UKRO was a Los Angeles-based and non-profit organization that specialized in eradicating and treating kidney disease through ongoing research. I had read up on the January 2012 Rose Bowl Parade and Donate Life Float. The Rose Bowl Parade was officially called “The Tournament of Roses Parade,” and January 2012 would mark the 123rd anniversary. The Donate Life Float was established in 2004 after a double-lung recipient wrote a letter to his local organ procurement and non-profit organization, OneLegacy, about an idea for a donate life float as a part of the nationally broadcasted Rose Bowl Parade in order to show the public that organ, eye, and tissue donation and transplantation worked and was a true testament of life.

As much as knowledge is power, knowing all the facts about UKRO and the absolute magnitude of the Rose Bowl Parade and Donate Life Float by the time I was on the phone for a conference call with UKRO made me a bundle of jittery nerves. I was just beginning to understand the enormity, responsibility, and miracle of possibly being a Donate Life Float Rider. To represent an organization as UKRO and share and show the world the ultimate power of organ, eye, and tissue donation/transplantation from the unbreakable connections of organ donor families and transplant recipients through a float of lively and fresh flowers at the Rose Bowl Parade was beyond my full comprehension and wildest dreams.

I had a tall glass of ice water next to me and kept drinking it to try to clear my mouth and throat that felt laced with cotton. The major staff members of UKRO that were on the phone were Roger, administrative assistant **Vivian, the marketing representative **Molly, and the spokesperson **Victoria.

“How’s the weather over there in New York? Us Californians are such babies when it comes to even rain! I bet you really want to be here in California for the Rose Bowl Parade in December just to get away from that cold and bitter weather in New York! ” Vivian said cheerfully.

I laughed and the layer of anxieties began to shed off of me. The conversation easily transitioned to me sharing my story:

“I always introduce myself as ABC, which is known as American-Born Chinese. I actually just recently learned the truth about my diagnosis of a defected urinary tract and kidneys that began at 7-months-old, which led to chronic kidney failure by the time I was 3-years-old. I was put on peritoneal dialysis immediately at 3-years-old. No one in my family was a match. Also, keep in mind that my parents were not born in this country, so I can’t imagine how it was for them to grapple and try to understand the healthcare system and all that was happening to me when English was not their first language and the U.S. was not their Mother Country. I had my first kidney transplant when I was 5-years-old, but it failed by the time I was 12-years-old. In February 1995, I was put on the national waiting list and was so unbelievably fortunate because I received my second kidney transplant on May 5, 1995 from a 4-year-old girl who died when a mirror fell on her. I received both of her kidneys, and I remember thinking that someone else could have had that other kidney. There are so many people waiting for an organ transplant, and especially a kidney, because of the huge organ shortage.”

I paused for a breath, and pictured the entire UKRO staff huddled around the conference call device listening to my story as the sunshine in California streamed through the windows. I loosened my grip on the phone. The heavy and hurried pounding of my heart slowed down to a normal beat. The July sunshine in the kitchen sliced in shards of heat through the window. Without hesitating, I spoke my thoughts aloud softly: “I think everything happens for a reason. I think about both my organ donor families every single day and how their decision of life and living has given me the privilege to finish high school, finish off university, work, be with and enjoy the simple moments with my family/friends, meet the most inspirational people in the transplant community, experience the highs and lows of possibly falling in love with a soulmate, do all the things I want to do and am so passionate about in the organ donation and transplant community, and just live my life to the absolute fullest.” My eyes started to get wet all over again. No matter how many times I spoke so ardently or thought about my organ donor families, my life, and how there was such a dire need to register as an organ donor, I would always end up teary again and again.

I swallowed hard as the memory of reading my medical records came back to me again and finally said, “I just think me being considered to even be a part of the Donate Life Float is amazing, and it would be the truest and most ground-breaking of honors to be a float rider for your organization that recognizes research as the foundation to finally come up with a cure. I never wish for any one or any family to go through what my family and I went through, but we did and now the only thing to do is pay it forward, make a difference, and try to stop the cycle of over 90,000 individuals waiting for a kidney transplant and over 110,000 individuals waiting for a life-saving organ through research, education, and information.”

Oh, my God. Did I just say all that as strongly and passionately as I truly felt? I was always in awe and disbelief at a whole new persona or person took over me when I was thrown into, spoke about, or wrote about my organ donation and transplant passions. Everyone over the phone was eerily quiet. I grimaced. Maybe I had come on too strong?

Roger, in his lilting British accent, said in an opaque response at the end of our conversation: “Well, Mary, this was a really wonderful conference call. We appreciate the time that you took, and will definitely get back to you.”

I slowly hung up the phone after a couple more carefree verbal exchanges with the UKRO staff members. I was not sure what to make of the conference call. A part of me was convinced that it went so well and I would be the official float rider to represent UKRO on the Donate Life Float, but another part of me nagged at me that I had come off as too aggressive or assertive because of how gung-ho I was about organ donation and transplantation. Only time would tell. I now put my faith in some higher and unknown force or being called “Fate” or “Destiny.” Both “Fate” and “Destiny” had done me well in these past couple of years that revolved around my advocacy projects and work, and I trusted them again to steer me in the direction that I was meant to go towards and forward with.

A week went by. No word. I was disappointed and crushed, but tried to console myself with superficial words of comfort that it just was not meant to be.

Another week was about to finish up when my cell phone tinkled to reveal Roger on the other line. I was still in the parking lot and at my car with two heavy bags of groceries weighing my arms down. My bags of groceries fell in a heap at my feet and I nearly dropped my phone in the process as I hurried to answer it.

“Hello?” I asked breathlessly.

“Mary!” He said jovially.

“Hi, Roger!” I exclaimed. “What’s going on?”

“Well,” Roger said quietly and then his voice escalated to an astounding burst of joy, “Just wanted to let you know that we are finalizing some ins and outs with our founder here, and we want to make sure that you can get the time off from December and January to make it to California to be our float rider for the Donate Life Float and Rose Bowl Parde!”

I did not know what to say, and just blubbered: “Oh, my God! Oh, my God!! I can’t believe this!! Thank you!! Thank you soooo much!! What an honor! I just…I mean….THANK YOU SOOOOO MUCH!!!”

Roger laughed loudly. The next couple sentences exchanged were a complete blur to me. As soon as I got off the phone, I called my Dad and it was now me screaming at the top of my lungs in that crowded parking lot and chanting over and over again: “WE ARE GOING TO THE ROSE BOWL PARADE!!!”

There was never a single doubt in my mind that my Father was going to be my guest to accompany me at the ground-breaking and life-altering Rose Bowl Parade extravaganza. My Father who was the Professor of Molecular Biochemistry to medical students and a champion in science and research would completely and wholeheartedly understand UKRO’s mission, goals, and efforts all too well. But, more than that and most important of all, my Father was the ultimate strength and survivor of raising my older sister and health-challenged me on his own since I was 8-years-old after my Mother left. My Father was the one constant and rock solid supporter in my life who was there for every doctor visit, procedure, and blood work appointment that deemed if my second kidney transplant was still going strong, and he handled all the emotional, mental, and physical side effects and after effects of each medical expedition with grace, a smile, humor, and a calm and soothing philosophical warmth that always motivated me to be better and to fight for myself and others. All my strength, philosophical mindset about life and people, and my positive attitude and smile came from my Father. And, of course, my Father had no disagreements or discord with choosing him accompany me on all the Donate Life Float and UKRO activities when his cheers mimicked mine: “Yeah!!! We are going to California for the Rose Bowl Parade!!!”

From the moment that I was officially chosen in July as the Donate Life Float Rider on behalf of UKRO and for the Rose Bowl Parade, my life was forever changed. Unlike over two years ago when I awkwardly hid in my fearful shell of sharing my lifetime health issues at my workplace, I openly told my co-workers and managers that I was heading to California from December 28th-January 2nd as a Donate Life Float Float Rider for the Rose Bowl Parade. My administrative manager, **Eva, let out a yelp of delight, wrapped me in a warm hug, and then immediately brought me to her manager who radiated with magnanimous enthusiasm and happiness. The responses from just about all my co-workers, friends, and family members were identical:

“Really? The Rose Bowl Parade? You are going to be on TV?!”

My sheepish response was always the same: “Yeah, I can’t believe it!!”

The support and excitement that my co-workers
and managers at my workplace and all my friends and family members had for me overwhelmed, startled, and touched me to such sentimentality that I would often find myself having to catch my breath and stop for a moment to let the reality of all of this sink in for me.

The months leading up until when I would board a plane to California on December 28th were a blur. Just about every week or so, there was an email from OneLegacy with information about the 2012 Donate Life Float and its “One More Day…” theme that illustrated the true preciousness of time, life, and death that organ, eye, and tissue transplant recipients and donor families encountered day in and day out with. When the 28 float riders were announced and finally displayed with candid and smiling photos, I read each and every biography of who was going to be there with me in the “Class of Donate Life 2012” float ensemble. Eyeing each, I said the same thing over and over: “I can’t believe this is happening. Is this really going to happen??” I pinched myself to make sure that this was all reality and not just one of my wild and crazy dreams.

As soon as September 2011 rolled around, the media frenzy and the flower preparation for the Donate Life Float in California that awaited 27 other float riders and me had escalated to a huge kick off. I received emails containing links to articles of random volunteers that may or may not have even been touched by organ donation and transplantation who prepped and fluffed flowers. Their eyes sparkled and their pearly whites shone in the photos that accompanied the articles. On my end of the EastCoast, I had only completed paperwork, booked my flight, read the emails that built up the excitement in me and everyone else in the transplant community, and did whatever UKRO minimally needed from me because I was in New York.

When Thanksgiving had ended, the real work began on my end. UKRO invited me as a guest blogger on their website to the countdown to me boarding the plane for the Rose Bowl Parade along with video clips that my friends helped out with by filming me in all my bouncy and off-the-wall thrills that I was really going to be a float rider. There was also a UKRO media representative that was trying to arrange interviews in New York and I was reaching out to my own media contacts that I had gained from my initial organ donation and transplant advocacy work. In the weeks leading up to me boarding a plane, everything was a dizzying daze with my sister’s return from Hong Kong for the Christmas holiday, my involvement with other organ donation and transplant organizations, at least three newspaper interviews with my own media contacts who graciously and enthusiastically agreed to do a story on the Rose Bowl Parade/Donate Life Float and my involvement, and a TV interview with my local news crew on a torrentially stormy rainy on the night just before I was supposed to leave for California at around 5AM. The TV Interview was a strange and surreal phenomenon because that was the first time I had beams of lights around me and a camera straight in my face. I tried to ignore the camera lens and lights and just focus on the story at hand and the interview with the reporter, but I had to keep digging my fingernails in the palms of my hand to stop from shaking and to force myself to stay calm and collected. When the interview was over with and the reporter and camera man had finished and left, I was immensely relieved, but then wired all over again because the next day was the huge reality that I was heading to California the next day.

Even after every fact known about the Rose Bowl Parade, UKRO, and the Donate Life Float and even after everyone rallying on behalf of me with such infectious and energetic spirit on the East Coast, nothing and no one could have even tried to prepare me for all that was about when I was actually in Pasadena, California for the ground-breaking and once in a lifetime opportunity as a float rider for the Rose Bowl Parade.

From December 28th-January 2nd, my days were an absolute dreamy fog that revolved around a mass of heartwarming, inspirational, and beautiful events. As soon as my Dad and I arrived and picked up our bags off the luggage carousal, we went outside and were hit with the heat of the California sun rather than the cold icicles and frost of New York. It was Roger that came to pick us up and greeted us with a smile that could light up the world. I fell in love with him and his calm and laidback disposition that only echoed California and all its glowing sunshine. Although I was physically exhausted and could have slept like a baby as soon as I collapsed in Roger’s car, I was incredibly and emotionally hyper. I could not stop gazing at the swaying palm trees, closing my eyes to feel the full sun, and listening to Roger and my Father talk. When I arrived at the hotel, I was given my official float rider material that included a 2012 “One More Day” Rose Bowl Parade Commemorative Yearbook, shiny and delicate Rose Bowl Parade pins in an enclosed plastic case, and all the final paperwork details of what my next days leading up to the Rose Bowl Parade were to entail. Needless to say, the next days were absolutely filled to the brim, and I was still pinching myself and in utter disbelief that I was actually in California as a float rider for the Rose Bowl Parade and Donate Life Float.

The next day was a fully packed day of finally seeing the Donate Life Float in the making, float decorating, media interviews, and truly meeting my entire UKRO family that I had only communicated with through email and video chats up until that point. Roger drove us to the biggest warehouse that I had ever seen. My mouth dropped to the ground my eyes bugged out in complete shock at seeing all the massive floats-in-the-making side by side. So many floats, but even more people working on the floats in this absolutely huge workshop warehouse of madness. There were people hanging off scaffolding, climbing up ladders, and gluing flowers on the floats, but then there were people clustered together at long tables like little elves as they fluffed flowers, counted seeds, dabbed glue in a careful circular motion around the base of the flowers, and laid these flowers as gingerly as possible on cardboard trays.

In the midst of all the complete worker bee chaos, I could not tear my eyes away from the Donate Life Float that was in the making before my very eyes. I knew the facts about the float that I was going to be sitting on with all the other float riders on January 2, 2012: the Donate Life Float itself would stand at 33 feet from an anchoring clock tower that had an animated sun and moon dial. There would be 6 floral timepieces that showcased the amazing 72 memorial floragraphs “floral portraits” of deceased organ donors. The theme song that would play throughout the float ride was “100 Years” by the band “Five for Fighting.” Lastly, there was to be a very visible sign on the “Donate Life Float” that read “20 million in 2012,” which indicated Donate Life America’s greatest feat of adding 20 million registered organ donors in 2012 to the current 100 million registered organ donors in U.S.A.

The Donate Life Float "One More Day" theme

The Donate Life Float in the making at "the warehouse of floats"!

But, the facts could not ever, ever capture being right then and there as I stood in front of the Donate Life Float. It was majestic. It was beautiful. Not just because it simply was, but mostly because this float represented the pinnacle of my organ donation and transplant passionate efforts. It was my passions, my heart, my soul, and my purpose all in one in that float. I tried so hard to take one photo after another, but even a picture could not encapsulate the float and especially the significance of what it meant to me and everyone else in the transplant community. My Dad walked back and forth, staring at it in complete awe. He then walked back and forth through the warehouse, turned his head this way and that way to glance at all the volunteers who were busily working on the flowers for each and every float, and finally just shook his head in astonishment. He clapped his hand on my shoulder and said: “Wow. I’ve never seen anything like this before.” I looked up at my Dad. His expression was priceless and indescribable, full of emotion, pride, and stunned amazement. I craved to say to him: “So, this is all the goodness that has come out of all the pain and the bad..” But, for once, I kept my mouth shut just to live in this moment with my Father. I followed the same pattern and movements that my Father had with just walking back and forth and shaking my head in shock. I breathed: “Wow. This is really happening.”

The UKRO team of Victoria, Molly, Vivian, Roger, my Dad and I got to work by fluffing up ruby red carnations with other volunteers who either were or were not touched by organ donation and transplantation. I was particularly intrigued with the volunteers who knew nothing about organ donation and transplantation, yet had specifically requested to volunteer their time for the Donate Life Float.

My Dad and I "fluffing flowers"

Our precious ruby red carnations that went on the Donate Life Float

All of us working had on fluffing and prepping flowers to be put on the Donate Life Float

One Chinese woman who eerily looked like my Mom with dark curls that framed her smooth, oval face and her brother who was a man of few words who let out a happy grunt here and there when he finished fluffing a flower said to me: “We have always wanted to volunteer our time for the Donate Life float. We just think what it represents is just so beautiful and meaningful. The Donate Life Float has to be the most significant float that touches you like no other float in the Rose Bowl Parade.”

I was speechless.

Before lunch time came and just as I was getting into the fluffing flower groove, I was suddenly pulled to the Donate Life Dedication Garden event. This event involved anyone a part of the transplant community who wanted to dedicate a rose accompanied by a personal message that was placed in a vial of water to anyone or anything that was a vital part of the transplant journey. Many people dedicated a rose to their organ donor (living, known deceased, or anonymous deceased), a hospital, organ donor family, etc. Each rose in the vial was plucked into an area of the Donate Life Float. I had dedicated a rose to both my anonymous organ donor families and then I was pulled alongside Victoria to dedicate another rose to the UKRO founder, Keith. Molly and a UKRO volunteer were busy zooming in cameras to Victoria and me dedicating roses and placing our vials of roses into the Donate Life Float along with trying to capture float decorating and an onslaught of interviews that we were suddenly bombarded with. The OneLegacy’s Asian community liaison introduced me to interviews by the Chinese newspapers and organizations with my Dad right there to speak Chinese, as I could not speak Chinese fluently and could only understand the language. My Father and I stated over and over again at the interviews within the Asian community that organ donation and transplantation was still a work in progress, and that I was working towards telling my story along with so many other stories in order to register individuals as an organ donor. My eyes were nearly blinded by so many recording cameras and digital cameras going off in my face, my face ached from smiling so much, and my mouth was dry from so many interviews. Nonetheless, I had never been happier or more at home in my entire life.

"The Donate Life Dedication Garden" event. Here are my two roses to two of my
anonymous organ donors and their families.

Placing my dedication roses in the Donate Life Float
That night and the days that followed, I became familiar with my UKRO family, connected with the other float riders at two dinner extravaganzas, and was literally just sailing on a cloud and complete high on life when forging friendships with kindred spirits who understood my plight and who were and are simply the most remarkable individuals that I could ever meet in my lifetime. A select few of the float riders I connected with was a hand transplant recipient, a physician that acted as an altruistic and living organ donor by donating his left kidney to a complete stranger, an organ donor family representative associated with the widespread media coverage of the 2011 Arizona shooting, an aortic valve recipient, and many more. They were strangers I never met, but somehow knew and bonded with just from our life experiences alone.

Float Judging, which was held on January 1, 2012, was probably the most emotional day for me because the Donate Life Float was a final finished product with every seed, flower, and petal in its place. I had just kept staring at the Donate Life Float when I first saw it in the warehouse, but when I finished saw it completely done, I could barely breathe. It was absolutely gorgeous with the floragraphs, clocks, and every single flower that was treated with such gentleness and care. I was assigned to the first seat at the front of the float and next to the tallest gentleman, **Tony, who was a heart-transplant recipient and firefighter from San Francisco. It was all too amusing that I was assigned to sit next to him when he was the tallest and I was the shortest out of all us 28 float riders. Float judging was basically a rehearsal or practice run of the actual Rose Bowl Parade where we found out where each of us would sit and also practiced waving and smiling like mannequins to straight-laced and serious judges who would see our float and determine if we would win an award. The sun was scorching hot and all of us 28 float riders had sweat dripping down our faces as the judges examined our float and all the other floats. “100 Years” by “Five for Fighting” song kept playing over and over again. I grinned and smiled until my face hurt, but when the judges finally walked away with nodding approvals and shining eyes at the Donate Life Float, this deep and gnawing ache began to fill my chest.

Here is the finished product "Donate Life Float" on the day of float judging!

Here is where I found out that I was going to sit!

My float buddy heart-transplant recipient, Tony, who had a deep and base voice that could lull you into a mesmerized state had put his long and sleek arm around me. He asked: “Are you okay, Mary Wu?”

I just nodded. I had spent these days so happy and on top of the world, and now I felt all these moments catching up with me into a ball of exhaustion.

Tony’s arm wrapped around me and into the crook of his arm. He whispered to me: “This really is something, huh, Mary? This really is so unbelievably amazing, isn’t it? And, this is all happening because of our organ donors.” His long fingers clutched protectively to his photo of his smiling organ donor.

That is when I started to cry.

I did not even know why I was crying. I had been on such a happy and hyper high since I landed in California, but the mere mention of “organ donors” made me think of mine. I would not be even sitting here if it was not for them. Memories of when I woke up from my second kidney transplant began to whirr in my head, and the wondering cycle of my 4-year-old organ donor who would actually be 17-years-old at the time of my Rose Bowl Parade experience started up.

Tony’s eyes started to tear up and then our other float rider buddy, **Jose, who was sitting next to Tony said: “Guys, you can’t cry, because now I’m going to cry.” Sure enough, it was a chain reaction, and Jose’s eyes filled with tears. Jose was an organ donor husband. His wife had collapsed from of a sudden brain hemorrhage on the day that she was preparing for their 25th anniversary celebration.

Tony’s arms wrapped around Jose and me, and he just kept saying over and over: “This is too emotional, but to feel all this is worth everything in the world.”

And, that was the moment I knew that this ride of a lifetime that was really going to happen on January 2, 2012 in front of the U.S.A. and was all about both my organ donors and their families.

On the night of January 1, 2012, I was barely able to sleep, agitated, and practically exploding with so much emotion as I tried to remember every person I had met, every flower I had fluffed, every conversation, and just every breath-taking and beautiful moment. January 2, 2012 would kick off with my float ridership on the Donate Life Float and the Rose Bowl Parade, but I was also leaving late after 10PM that night back to New York. So, to every beginning, there was an ending and vice versa. With wide eyes and a clouded mind, I thought of the Donate Life Float and its theme of “One More Day…” To me, it was more than fitting to me that the theme of the 2012 Donate Life Float was “One More Day” because organ donation and transplantation really was all about the preciousness of time, life, and death. I always wanted so desperately to stop the hands of time so I could take in all these treasured moments. But, as we as organ donor families and transplant recipients/candidates especially knew of, time was something we did not have control of and every minute with our loved ones and on this earth either as an organ donor family or a candidate waiting for a life-saving transplant was too precious and often taken for granted. My time in California had went too fast and was reaching the top point of the Rose Bowl Parade about to happen.

On January 2, 2012, I was up at 4:00AM after an extremely restless sleep. I carefully dressed in my Rose Bowl parade day attire, which included a shirt supplied by the New York State Organ Donor Network (my local organ procurement organization- that read on the front “An Organ Donor Saved my Life” and the back had a sketch of the New York State Driver’s License with the infamous red heart proudly indicating “organ donor. Also on the front of the shirt were the UKRO kidney bean logo and various U.S. State buttons or pins from my time at the 2010 Transplant Games in Madison, Wisconsin, because the Transplant Games was the first major life-transforming event that had motivated me to become an organ donation and transplant advocate. To complete my parade day attire was a sign that read “THANK YOU- I RECEIVED MY KIDNEY 23 YEARS AGO,” compliments of New York Organ Donor Network yet again when I was invited to and attended an organ donor luncheon event in October 2011. After I finished dressing, I took a deep breath. Yup, I was ready to fulfill my role as Float Rider for UKRO!!

In my Donate Life Float dress attire!

All my Donate Life float buddies, the OneLegacy Crew, and workers at "Vons,"
which is where we stopped at 4-5AM on the day of the parade for breakfast!

Or, so I had thought that I was more than ready to fulfill my Float Rider role, but when I saw all the finished floats and especially the “Donate Life Float” lined up one by one and the crowds and crowds of people walking down to see one float after another with giddy grins and pointed fingers, I did not feel ready at all. So many people stopped by to clamor, ooh, and aah over the Donate Life Float. So many people stopped to talk to us float riders to find out our personal story. One gentleman with sleek and graying hair who looked to be in his late 50’s eyed my sign and then looked at me quizzically and motioned for me to talk to him: “How old are you?”

“29-years-old,” I said.

“So, this sign said you received a kidney transplant 23 years ago? Did you receive your kidney transplant at 5-years-old?”

“I have had two kidney transplants. One when I was 5-years-old and another when I was 12-years-old. My organ procurement organization counted both of them together.”

The woman who stood next to him with long, dark blonde hair said: “This is my brother, and he is waiting for a kidney transplant, too. He’s been on dialysis for years. It is great to have a machine, but life isn’t meant to be lived on a machine.”

I did not say anything, because it looked like both of them wanted to say something more. The gentleman’s hands were gnarled and suddenly took a hold of mine with a tight grip. I inhaled sharply, not sure how to react. His body shuddered with emotion, tears streamed down his face when he said:

“Bless you and these gifts of life that were given to you,” He paused, and his clear blue eyes looked into mine, “You give me hope.”

My eyes filled with tears. I gently squeezed his hands, not saying anything.

His sister turned away, distraught. She collected herself, plastered on a smile that looked all too familiar to my Father’s when I had health episodes, and then took a picture of her brother and me together as we held up my sign proudly.

I finally sat on my designated seat on the Donate Life Float. The California sunshine radiated its warmth. Us float riders and I waited for what seemed like an eternity. All of a sudden, the song “100 Years” by “Five for Fighting” and the wheels of the magnificent and towering “One More Day” Donate Life Float began to move. However, I could barely hear the song when the crowds of people before me on the side streets began to cheer, cry, and scream. I was overwhelmed with a whole blender of emotions. I was filled with humbled honor, joy, vibrant enthusiasm, and tears. All my memories of my Father with me for hospital stays, doctor visits, needles, procedures, and pain flooded me, but then came to a halt when I remembered waking up and recovering from my second kidney transplant that was 17 years ago. My two organ donor families from my first kidney transplant at 5-years-old and my second one at 12-years-old still remain an unknown mystery to me, but on this ride of a lifetime Donate Life Float, they were in my head and heart. I wondered if they were watching, and if they ever thought about who received their loved ones organs. Would they be proud of me and all I had fought for to survive and now giving forward in the organ donation and transplant community and public with ongoing advocacy to increase organ donation awareness, inspiration, and registration? With the sun shining, the bluest skies, and the tallest mountains in the backdrop on this ride, I could not stop smiling, grinning, screaming, and waving like crazy on the outside to all the screaming and waving fans with tears that streamed down their faces, but I also could not stop crying bittersweet tears on the inside for both my organ donor families and for my family, friends, and all the awe-inspiring people that had blessed and come into my life from my health obstacles and challenges. As the wheels of the 2012 Donate Life Float turned and the deafening sound of the crowds and my newfound float friends overcame me, my life and all this extended time that I was too fortunate to have had on this earth from two life-saving kidney transplants from two organ donors who gave in their time of tragedy had never seemed more indescribably and incredibly small and yet large at the same time.

A photo shot of me riding along on the "Donate Life Float"

Crowds and crowds of Californiansholding up their driver's licenses with the infamous p
ink dot that indicates they are proud and registered organ donors!

Donate Life supporters!!

This was my view from where I sat on the Donate Life Float! Beautiful day!

Five miles and about two hours later and as the heat of the sun beat down on us emotional and exhausted float riders, my legs wobbled like Jell-O when I was helped off the 2012 Donate Life Float. I stared at the looming and gorgeous float one last time that had epitomized organ, eye, and tissue donation and transplantation to the world before I shakily stumbled on to the bus that would bring us float riders to a post-reception lunch. I was quietly pensive on bus ride with conversations swarming around me about what everyone thought and how everyone felt. At that moment and the time that has followed post-Rose Bowl Parade and Donate Life Float back in New York, I have looked over and over again at photos and videos to try to find one single word to describe this 2012 Donate Life Float experience as a float rider for the 123rd Rose Bowl Parade, and the only word I can conjure up is “Indescribable,” for this truly was something that has to be experienced, felt, and lived.

How extremely and unbelievably lucky I was to experience this true ride of a lifetime that represented the journey that we all had in this life! How grateful I will forever be to UKRO, my Dad, my entire family, my friends, everyone and anyone, and the health challenges that led me to this absolutely wordless and speechless point in my life. It was a privilege, chance, and life-transforming time in my life that I will remember for as long as I lived, and the days in California that led up to that one day, January 2, 2012, will remind me until the day I die just how powerful time, life, death, and organ donation and transplantation always will be because these connected all of us in ways that were just “indescribable” and ultimately felt inside the core of each and every one of us.

**denotes fake name to protect privacy of individual

Indeed, "One More Day..." theme of the Donate Life Float
The "One More Day..." Donate Life Float of the 123rd Rose Bowl Parade

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

Hi Mare, I love how you opened the chapter! Great story and what a dream come true for you. You most still be on cloud 9 just remembering this experience!