Ten years ago on Thanksgiving Day, my 25-year-old brother, Trey, died after a car accident.
Trey was handsome and popular - a high school valedictorian and college basketball player with a coveted job working for Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. But what stood out most about Trey was his innate capacity to love his neighbor as himself.
This condolence note captures Trey well: “I do janitorial and maintenance work in the building that houses the Alexander campaign office. Trey and I would often speak in passing or occasionally make small talk. After a few weeks, he took the time to introduce himself to me. Trey was always polite, mannerable and usually had a smile on his face. In short, he was an impressive individual. I am of a different generation, race and probably differ on some political issues, and all too often today people allow these things to solely define them and separate them from others. I did not see that with Trey. I consider myself honored to have known him.”
The Thanksgiving timing of Trey’s death was significant, framing our grief through a lens of gratitude. Trey’s boss, Sen. Alexander (whom I also worked for as press secretary), likes to quote his friend Alex Haley, who said, “Find the good and praise it.”
We found “good” when we learned Trey would die the same way he lived - by loving and giving. Only 3 in 1,000 people die in a way that allows for organ donation. If you knew Trey, it wouldn’t surprise you that he marked “yes” to organ donation when he renewed his driver’s license the previous May. His girlfriend also recalled an eerily relevant conversation with him a few weeks before the accident affirming his decision. “I’ll be with the Big Guy,” he told her. “Give it all.”
As a result, five people - two single mothers in their 40s, a 56-year-old mother of two, a 36-year-old uncle, and a 62-year-old doctor and father of four - received a Thanksgiving miracle: a life-giving organ from my brother.
More than 116,000 men, women and children are on the national transplant waiting list, and 20 people die waiting each day. But here’s the stat that hits home for me: 95 percent of American adults support organ donation, but only 54 percent are signed up as donors. When I flipped my driver’s license over the day Trey died, it wasn’t signed.
If you haven’t already, I urge you to register as an organ donor and to share your wishes with loved ones. Talking about organ donation may feel morbid and unnecessary, but it mattered to my family. We were able to carry out Trey’s wishes with peace and confidence. I struggled with the decision to donate his eyes. It seemed so invasive. But he had made it clear he wanted to “give it all.” Now, somewhere out there is a person seeing the world through Trey’s eyes.
In a divine plot twist, one of Trey’s kidneys went 250 miles away to a man living down the street from my mother and stepfather. We were advised that donors and recipients typically remain confidential, but as people in the small town learned that Trey had died on Thanksgiving and donated his organs and that a local doctor had finally received a long-awaited kidney the same day, the connection was unavoidable.
On her birthday that March, my mom was out for dinner when she saw the physician for the first time. She introduced herself, and he thanked her for the gift Trey had given him.
Ten years later, he is enjoying remarkably good health. He remarried, watched his grandchildren grow and continued his 40-year medical practice, now serving veterans.
It turned out the “stranger” Trey helped with the gift of a kidney wasn’t a stranger. He was a neighbor. It’s made me realize there are no strangers, only neighbors awaiting our love and kindness in ways big and small.
Herzog lives in the District of Columbia.