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October 12, 2016

Unexpected Cravings (Yom Kippur 5777, Yizkor)

Maurice A. Salth

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Five years ago, Christine, a forty-something New York City resident, began having unusual food cravings for all things cinnamon. Then soon after, she began feeling emotions she had rarely felt. These cravings and feelings kept reoccurring, week after week. No, she wasn’t pregnant, it had been seven months since she had received a new heart.

Some of you may have heard me tell her powerful story before. Hers occurred a few years before this year’s news of a bride asking the man who received her father’s heart through transplant surgery to walk her down the aisle on her wedding day.

Six years ago Christine was close to death. She spent more than three months in crisis until she received a new heart. Now months later, she was, miraculously back to normal, living a regular life, again. Yes, she took a regime of medications but besides having to take these pills and visit the doctor regularly, she was herself once more…except for her odd cravings and these new emotional occurrences.

And her hunch was that she, in some way, was experiencing something to do with the donor of her new heart. Christine contacted the United Network for Organ Sharing also known as UNOS. She asked if she could meet the family of the donor. UNOS’ protocol is strict. Neither the donor’s family or the donors know much about each other. But, every so often the family of the deceased donor and those who are the recipients agree to be in contact, and even meet.

When UNOS contacted the family of the man whose heart now beat within Christine they decided to meet her and any of the other organ recipients. Their son, James, a 23- year-old young man had died suddenly and shockingly in a vehicle accident. The accident left him brain dead and so his family chose to allow his viable organs to be donated. We here at Central have had members who despite tragic circumstances have made the same decision to give the gift of life to others. We love them and we honor them for their life saving choice.

So healthy was James up until his vehicle accident that doctors were able to donate his heart to Christine and both his lungs to Julie, a woman in her mid-thirties. His liver was donated to a fifty-year-old man named Han. And both James’ kidneys were donated. One to an eight-year-old boy, Joe, and the other to a nineteen-year-old named Ethan. The same week that James died, five people’s lives were renewed due to the donation of his organs.

In June of 2011 four of the five recipients met with James’ family.

When they entered the room they found pictures and photo albums of James and there to greet them initially were James’ aunt and grandmother. There were pictures of James riding a horse, in his Navy Reserves’ uniform, surrounded by friends and family and regularly smiling a broad, strong smile.

His story began to be told informally by his grandmother and aunt in small groups. James had three younger sisters the oldest of whom was eighteen. He was a wonderful kid said his aunt; he had graduated college and entered the Navy Reserves. He was training to be a fire fighter and he loved his sisters, his family and his friends.

James’ parents and his three sisters soon joined them and more stories were told. Julie, the lung recipient had just run a five kilometer race. Ethan, the nineteen-year-old kidney recipient learned how athletic and active James’ was and he spoke with James’ parents about his new found passion for working out. And he told them how much energy he had after receiving their son’s kidney; he had never felt this way before.

One by one James’ parents spoke with each of them. There were many hugs and tears and there were numerous questions. Time and time again his parents spoke of what a special boy and young man James was with his signature smile and his warm personality. And one by one they made a request to each of the recipients: “make sure you take care of yourself and your new organ.” And each one pledged, as deeply, I am told, as any person could ever pledge to do just that, in honor of James and in appreciation of the life that his organs had given them.

And what of Christine’s cravings for cinnamon and these new emotions she was feeling? Well those questions were harder to find exact answers to, but what was clear was that these experiences were connected to James, who he was and what he did with his life.

While James is no longer alive and present, parts of him enliven five people, such a fact is both obvious and awe-inspiring.

Today on Yom Kippur at yizkor, we take the time to remember and honor our loved ones who are no longer with us. And while they did not transplant parts of their bodies into ours directly, surely they helped shape our souls, who we are, why we do what we do, and love what we love.

We too experience cravings; cravings for their mazah ball soup, their Italian chicken in red sauce, their sweet soothing voices. We long to sit on the couch next to them and share a Kit Kat bar. We want to dig in the garden with them and to listen as they passionately defend the Mets. We smile and picture them when “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond comes over the speakers at Duane Reade and we even yearn to experience their annoying habits that now seem so quaint or perhaps still so irritating. We miss them so much. These cravings come expectedly such as on holidays and on our birthdays, their yahrtzites; and often when we least imagine them to present. And yes, our feelings for them continue to exist. They are robust and diverse - they course through our bodies and our memories.

We recognize, while our loved ones are no longer able to sit beside us, they now reside within us and others that they loved and we still love. We see them in our mind’s eye, we hear their voices, we dream of them, tell stories about them to others. We name our children with their names and lovingly look at their photographs and, if we are lucky, witness their adventures in home movies and videos. And we try to do what Jewish tradition teaches us to do, to remember them and to find ways to take their best qualities with us, and make them part of our character and our lives.

Just like the five people were enlivened when they received James’ organs, we who are in attendance here today to remember and honor our dear ones, we are infused with their spirit, their stories, and their love.

Let’s us too make sure we take care of ourselves and the gifts they gave to us.

Let us remember them and continue to take their good names and souls with us on our life’s journey.

Zichronam livracha – may their memory be always, for all of us, a blessing.