Friday, February 13, 2015

A Valentine Love Story

It has been such a long time since I wrote a portrait story, or blogged about losing my keys while sulking about something silly.  But now the timing is just right - I’ve been saving this story since September, and most of it is written on a napkin from a Wildberry girlfriend lunch. 

Valentine’s Day is about love for more reasons than one.

Joe's hair.  Come on.

Flashback, late 1997.  I had big hair, a tall husband, a giant dog and a baby with a surprisingly round Charlie Brown head.  For five years, I’d worked for my father’s business and it was time to move on.  My husband Joe worked for Hewitt Associates and kept suggesting that I apply.  I’d earn more money, get more benefits for us, we could commute together.  But I was going to break my dad’s heart in the process.  My son Joey came to my father’s office with me each morning.  The gentle beginning to our days was going to become brutal.  It was such an agonizing decision that I used a long spreadsheet to weigh the piles of pros and cons.   In the end, we knew it was time.

I started at Hewitt, staggered and delighted by the shocking change of working for a big company.  I LOVED IT.  I made new friends, including a tiny spitfire of a girl named Tracey.  We clicked immediately, laugh-talking as fast as possible, chirping each other with our Nextel walkie talkie phones, mostly to gossip about coworker drama, sometimes to get work done. I only worked at Hewitt for a year, just long enough to make bonds that lasted through the next six years working downtown, getting fired, and the last ten years of drawing full time.

Tracey and I meet for lunch when we can, especially around our birthdays (the same day, two years apart) so we can catch up about kids (two boys for us both), our siblings (we each have only one brother who each have one son and one daughter) and our parents (who have been married a very long time).  It doesn’t matter how much time goes by between visits, Tracey and I love each other, get each other, root for one another.

I’m always excited to draw for friends, especially dear ones, so I was happy when Tracey asked me to draw a portrait for her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary.  We thought about doing a “then and now” with images of her parents when they first married, and now.  Instead, we settled on a family tree, including both sets of Tracey’s grandparents.  As the portrait unfolded, the future of Tracey’s family hung in the balance.  She looked through photos of beloved, dearly missed grandparents while facing the possible loss of both her own parents.  The portrait was more than just a celebration of 50 years of family love and marriage.  We were hoping against hope that it would be a celebration of life.

Tracey’s parents met at a bowling alley on a blind date set up by friends, both barely into their 20’s.  Her dad became a toy designer for cereal boxes; her mother - a loving homemaker.  We talk together about our parents, how they sometimes drive us nuts and always make us feel loved, how lucky we are to have had them so long, that they’ve stayed together, that they have their health – or what’s left of it. 

“My dad is completely devoted to my mom,” Tracey tells me.  “He’s the most important thing to her, and her to him.  He’s taken such good care of her through two bouts of cancer.  He sat through every chemo.”  Tracey’s mom had a cancerous kidney removed.  For ten years, the remaining kidney has hung on, working overtime.  Its time was up.

“My mom didn’t want to live on dialysis,” Tracey explained.  They went to the Mayo Clinic and began the long, difficult process of trying for a transplant. “She needed a kidney badly. We all got tested, but we weren’t a match. There was a very limited pool of candidates due to her blood type.  We needed more people.” 

They learned about something called “paired donation” that can speed up the process. 

Paired donation is kind of like giving an organ directly to your loved one.  Except you give it to someone else instead.  And someone else’s loved one gives one to someone else and so on until the chain is completed.  The ultimate pay it forward.

Tracey and her brother both jumped up waving their hands to donate a kidney for their mother.  But Tracey’s dad wouldn’t hear of it.  His children were still young, with children of their own to care for.  He was 71 and as always, he was ready to step up to the plate for his darling wife, whatever it took.

Meanwhile, Tracey had been researching online how to find a kidney, trying to speed up the process.  Like her parents, Tracey is a very private person.  But she went public, creating a Facebook page to search for a kidney, imploring friends to share the page with friends of friends.  This is where it comes in handy to be fabulous.  Most of Tracey’s friends responded right away, and those who didn’t got a personal plea from Tracey during her daily campaigning.  In the end, 99% shared, forwarded, cared. 

After waiting many months, a match was found by Mayo.  Everyone rejoiced!  The relief. But then the whole thing fell through.  The match wasn’t made in heaven after all.

Tracey closed her eyes, remembering for a moment. “Everyone was devastated.  Waiting for the kidney was torture; we were on pins and needles.”  Tracey’s mom was very sick.  Time was running out.

As a result of one of Tracey's repeated messages, a friend of a high school alum made a suggestion to contact the Living Kidney Donor Network,  Tracey spoke to the founder, Harvey Mysel, who offered to meet with her parents.  A kidney recipient himself, Harvey told them not to put all their eggs in the Mayo basket, urging them to widen the pool and explore other places, like Loyola. 

Within a month of getting established at Loyola, another kidney was found through the paired donor pool.  Tracey’s mom and dad were scheduled for surgery on the same day, within two weeks of their 50th anniversary.  There was a 20 person chain making up the final list of paired donors.  The logistics of scheduling all those surgeries in different parts of the country was an enormous challenge. The surgery for Tracey’s dad’s kidney recipient was pushed back a couple days. I asked Tracey if her dad could have changed his mind once his wife’s new kidney was snuggled in place.  “The donor can change his or her mind, even on the table up to the moment before anesthesia,” Tracey explained.  “But my dad said he would never back out.  He’d never put another family through the devastation we all felt when the first kidney fell through.”

Both surgeries were ultimately a success, though her mother spent some scary time in the ICU while her family held their breath.  Tracey’s parents ended up recovering on the same hospital floor.  They were each other’s incentive to get out of bed.  Dad painfully walked each day to see his bride and her healthy new kidney.  The nurses thought they were adorable.

Back when Tracey and I were piecing together her portrait, we didn’t yet know how the story would end during such a scary time for her family.  Choosing images of all those beloved faces was bittersweet and more emotional than for most of my portrait clients.  Tracey fretted over every picture being just right, especially those of her grandparents.  Only her father’s mother is still alive - in assisted living.  Tracey’s grandpa was her primary caretaker since she’d had a stroke in her 80’s. Like father like son.  Tracey’s dad took his father’s 2009 death very hard.  He passed with his loving family all around him. 

Tracey’s maternal grandfather, Papa, took Tracey’s brother Michael to his first Cubs game, and Michael took 12 year old Tracey to her first game in his memory – they are life-long, suffering fans.  Papa died when Tracey was four, taken by cancer in his 50’s. The loss devastated Tracey’s mom, who always called him a “gentle man”.  His wife, “Nana”, lived to be 86.  “Putting Papa and Nana together again for my mom will be the crown jewel of the portrait,” Tracey stressed to me.  After all Mom had been through, it would be a beautiful, emotional surprise. 

And then, a happy ending – mom’s kidney came from Pennsylvania, dad’s kidney went to Utah.  On their August 30, 2014 anniversary, Tracey and her brother presented the portrait to her parents: precious children, beautiful grandchildren, beloved parents.  One kidney found, one kidney given, one grateful family.  And now, six months later, everyone is doing beautifully.

Wadded up in my purse for months. 

In September, I scribbled the whole story down on a restaurant napkin at lunch, a month after the transplants.  I’d asked Tracey ahead of time if I could write about her story and then I forgot a damn notebook.  And a pen.  And then I forgot to write it. Some things never change.

“While my mom was recuperating in the ICU,” Tracey told me over our lunch salads, “I kept thinking, what if she doesn’t get to see her parents together in the portrait?  What if something happens?  I thought the portrait was going to be big.   But it was so much bigger than I thought.”

Today, Valentine’s Day, is also National Donor Day. 

It’s a good day for a love story.

With love,
Wendy Zumpano


  1. A beautiful, inspiring story, Wendy. It really touched me. This blog entry should be taped to the back of the portrait, or even framed next to it!

    1. Thank you, Mommy! We're so lucky to have you married for almost 50 years too, and without any terrifying health issues. Love you.

  2. What a beautiful story. I hung on every word, you have such a gift for telling a tale. Here's what I'm begging you to do. Start with this story and write a book about your portraits. Every one of them has a story to tell but you could pick the most poignant and include the portrait in the book! After reading the this story, it was a delight to look over the drawing and see the faces right there. Oh, it would be such a great and inspirational read like those chicken soup for the soul books BUT WITH PICTURES! Please think about it. Of course there would be blah-boring-legal stuff but one good lawyer could draw up a thing for your clients or whatever. I even have a name for the book: Maggie is Great! I think it would sell a bunch of copies! DO THIS!

    1. Well that's QUITE a compliment coming from a wonderful writer. I think my next blog should be about YOU and your adventures and the cover of Vardin Village. Or perhaps we should wait for the next cover?

  3. What a beautiful sweet love story captured and shared by you, my dear Wendy. You have such a gift and I agree with Maggie; I want a book of stories.


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