I first started coming to Pasadena, California to decorate the Donate Life Rose Parade Float in December, 2009. I was tired and in pain. My husband had left me in November, asking for a divorce. I didn't bother to get a tree. I didn't want to open the red and green tubs filled with stockings, snow globes and red velvet tablecloths. I couldn't fake the holiday spirit -- I was nowhere near it.
Seeing my sadness, a friend of mine responsible for decorating and launching a float about organ and tissue donation in the Rose Parade saw an opportunity. "Come out to Pasadena and help us decorate our float," he said. "I don't know how, but I promise it will help you." So I flew out, arrived on a sunny, Southern California day, and was given a sky blue Donate Life volunteer t-shirt to wear. I put it on gratefully, happy to be an anonymous volunteer instead of Amy Waterman, whose life had just combusted around her.
One of the lead event coordinators put me to work in a hotel ballroom. I lined up nametags in alphabetical order, laid out individual tissue packs onto the tables, and checked in all the people that we were there to honor. They looked pretty ordinary to me -- a group of people like those you might see if you got on a bus. They were from everywhere, of all ages and ethnicities. Some were frail, walking with canes or in wheelchairs. There were a few children. These were the Donate Life float riders and their families, the two dozen people representing the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives are touched every year by the cause of organ and tissue donation. On New Year's Day, they would ride the float waving to the world, inspiring up to 40 million people.
After dinner, each float rider stood up and told their story. I met a 12-year old girl who received a heart transplant 11 days after her birth. One gentle man, Manuel Salazar, had been electrocuted in a work accident, where his arms and legs were completely burned off. He shared about receiving bone grafts so that he could maneuver his wheelchair without assistance. Other family members shared about the moment where, in an instant, they lost someone they loved in a car accident or to a shooting or brain aneurism. One woman, Carolyn Bryant, died while nine months pregnant. Thirteen years later, her son Carter, delivered by C-section one day before her death, would be riding the Donate Life float in her honor, sitting beside the recipient of his mother's liver, Tyla Newbold.
The room was deeply quiet that night as one by one, stories were shared. We cried, as a community, for what was lost and what was gained. At the end of the evening, each rider signed commemorative Rose Parade posters so that each rider could take one home to frame. Manuel signed each copy with a Sharpie marker held in his mouth.
The 2010 Donate Life float featured a phoenix, rising majestically from the ashes. Ringing its neck were floral pictures of those who had donated organs, tissues and bone in their passing. That year, in between my volunteer duties, I would stop and look up at the phoenix rising triumphantly above me in the air. Early on the morning of January 1, I helped the float riders get seated underneath its wings. As they buckled in, I said, "We love you." "We love you, too," many of the riders said back to me. And then they were off for their ride of a lifetime -- a five-mile journey down Colorado Boulevard, smiling and waving in front of 800,000 parade spectators and tens of millions more watching on television.
Afterwards, I went home to St. Louis. I signed the divorce paperwork, figured out how to unstop a toilet, and kept writing papers towards achieving tenure at my university. Thinking of the people I had met at on the float, I could keep living if they could. It was just a divorce.
This week, I will be back in Pasadena to help launch the 2013 Donate Life float, themed, "Journeys of the Heart." One thousand people touched by our cause will place tens of thousands of roses, mums and orchids on the float. A new class of 32 float riders, 72 floragraph families and 3000 individually dedicated roses will represent organ and tissue donors and recipients nationally. Our float's central image, two intertwined hearts, will stand above us: a beacon of what is good and hopeful about humanity. We begin again, as we must, standing strong against pain, loss and resignation.
Watch the Rose Parade at 8 a.m. PST on January 1, 2013 to experience Donate Life's "Journeys of the Heart."