Carve Your Name on Hearts, Not on Marble.


Sunny Lebsack

A good character is the best tombstone.  Those who loved you and were helped by you will remember you when forget-me-nots have withered.  Carve your name on hearts, not on marble.

 ~Charles H. Spurgeon

Between the day you are born and the day you die, you have a choice.   You can live a good life, behave with decency and good character but never step outside yourself and ask what you can do to make a difference.  If that is the path you pick, I believe that when your sand finally runs out the world will continue spinning as it once did, your impact unnoticed.

Or, you can choose to live at a higher level.  Through your words and actions you can elevate those around you to greatness.  You can behave with intention knowing your actions impact the world.  Making a difference each day in the lives of those near and far.   Then, when your sand finally runs out, the world will take a collective deep breath and moment to recognize the change you made.  Your kindness will continue to live on through the stories told by those you left behind.

My sister-in-law made a difference.  She gave when she could and never held back if she could help.  She lives on through the generosity of her family’s decision to donate her organs and tissue.  But, more importantly she lives on in the inspiring work my mother-in-law does.  Sunny’s story continues to change the world through the stories she shares.  I am inspired to do great things with Sunny’s Pedal because of these amazing women.

I want to share with you Sunny’s Story through Sandy’s voice.  I’ve read it over and over again, and I have heard Sandy share Sunny’s love many times.  Each time I am struck with awe at the strength of my mother in law,and the beauty she instilled in Sunny and all of her kids.   I hope that after reading this, you will understand why this summer I ride for Sandy as well as Sunny.

In Sandy’s Words from a story she wrote years ago: Shortly after arriving home from work on August 18, 1993 I heard a knock on the front door.  When I opened the door there was a man standing there all dressed in black.  He flashed a badge at me and told me he was a chaplain from the police department and then asked if he could come in and talk to me.

I remember the thoughts that flashed in my mind immediately.  The first one was, “Oh my God! My kids.  Something has happened to one of my kids.”  Then I immediately thought, “No, it can’t be my kids because they’re not here.” My kids were living in Sun Valley, ID at the time, and I lived in Spokane, WA.

The next thought that flashed into my mind was that he was some kind of a nut.  I guess he sensed my apprehension, because he then said to me, “Your daughter Sunny has been in a very bad car accident.”  I told him to come in.  We went into the kitchen.  HE told me he didn’t know much about the particulars, but that she had been helicoptered to St. Al’s Hospital in Boise.  He gave me the phone number to call the hospital. 

I phoned them right away and was immediately patched through to a nurse.  The nurse told me that the doctor was in with Sunny right then.  She told me not to get on the phone; that the doctor would be calling me right back. 

As I hung up the phone, the chaplain asked me if there was anyone I could call to be with me.  My neighbor was waiting for me because we had planned to go shopping together, so I called her.  Just as she came running through the back door the phone rang.  It was the doctor.  He told me Sunny had been in a car accident and had suffered head injuries.  He then started to stammer and stutter, as if he couldn’t get the words to come out.  Finally he said, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but your daughter has just died.”

All I can remember is screaming over and over, “NO! NO!” My neighbor grabbed me and we cried in each other’s arms.  The next thing I remember is that chaplain handing me the phone and saying, “I think you need to take this call.”

It was a nurse at St. Al’s.  She asked me if I would want to donate Sunny’s organs.  I told her, “Yes.”

She then called me right back and said, “Does that include her eyes.”

I told her, “Yes.”

She then called me again and said, “Does that include her tissue and bones?”

I told her, “Yes.”

A short time later she called back and several of the staff people at St. Al’s told me thank you.  `

I think it is important to note that getting five calls instead of one was probably not the most optimum but, it didn’t matter.  My feelings are that it doesn’t get any worse than it is at the moment you’ve found out that your loved one has just died.  There wasn’t anything that could have made things worse…other than to have NOT been asked.

The amazing thing to me is that it was not a hard decision.  I feel so fortunate because it was not a hard decision.  I had it on my driver’s license that I wanted to be an organ donor, but I had never discussed the issue with my kids.  I never thought I’d outlive my kids.  It still amazes me though that I knew what Sunny would want.  My heart told me what she would want.  I also knew in my heart that my family would not have a problem with it… and they didn’t.  I have never had a second thought about whether I did the right thing.

I know that I would have never realized it… at the time.. if I had not been asked.  But, I know that eventually I would have realized it, and I would have been furious if Sunny could have donated organs and was not given that option.

If I could have Sunny back, of course I would choose to do that, but that is not an option.  The gifts that sunny was able to give are the “good’ that I have been able to grab hold of.  Sunny helped over 100 people in her death.  That is incredible to me.  I don’t think there is ever a time in one’s life that we have a chance to make such a difference in another person’s life!

Those people who got her organs would be dead now if it weren’t for Sunny.  They had families that were going through grief of knowing their loved ones were dying.  Sunny gave them a chance to spend more time with their family and friends.  That is what helps me more than anything else.

After Sunny died I had an incredible need for the recipients of her organs to know something about her.  I called Jill Johnson at the Pacific Northwest Transplant bank in Portland.  Jill was the bereavement coordinator at that time.  Jill explained to me the grieving process that the recipients go through… that they fell guilty that someone had to die in order for them to live.  I was totally unaware of that.  She explained to me that I could write the letters and that she would give them to each recipient’s counselor.  She said the counselor would give them to each one when she felt they could handle it.

One by one I received a letter from each one.  Each time I received a letter, I would sit and hold it for a long time before opening it.  I would then read the letters, and with each one I would sob the whole time I was reading them.  But…those tears were a combination of feelings.  They were tears for the sadness I felt from missing Sunny so much and for the joy I felt in knowing the others had a chance at life.

I continued to correspond with the man (and his family) who got Sunny’s lung and with the woman who received her kidney and pancreas.  We corresponded for a little over a year.  They wanted to know as much as they could about Sunny, and I longed to tell them about her and to know more about them.  Each of us had a strong desire to meet one another.  There was much to consider.  Jill asked questions about some things that would have a great deal to do with whether we could meet.  She asked me if I would be able to handle it if the recipients were of a different race, different religious beliefs, etc.  She questioned me about my reasons for wanting to meet.  It was finally decided that the Pacific Northwest Transplant Bank would set up a meeting time and place in Portland.  (We were the first donor/recipients in the Pacific Northwest to meet.)

My daughter, Jodi, told me she would like to go meet them too.  We drove to Portland, and as the meeting time got closer and closer, my anxiety level climbed.  I started to wonder if I was doing the right thing.  If they would like us, what would I say, etc.  The night before our meeting, I woke up in the middle of the night sick to my stomach.  I wasn’t sure if I was coming down with the flu or if it was nerves.  I didn’t want to give them the flu.  I finally decided it was just nerves.  The meeting was held in a doctor’s conference room in OHSU.  It was a woman who got Sunny’s kidney and pancreas and a man who got her lung.  When we walked into the room, there were two men, two women and a young child.  I didn’t know who got what.  It was a real uncomfortable feeling for a few minutes.

When Sunny died we had a closed casket.  My second cousin made a huge collage full of picture of her with her family and friends.  The collage was filled with a million memories.  At the funeral, people flocked to the collage, and it seemed to be a wonderful thing to have there.  At the last minute, before leaving for Portland, I decided to take the collage with me.  It turned out to be the best thing I could have done.  The collage “broke the ice.” Once we started talking there was no stopping us.  IT was an incredible experience for Jodi and me.

I still talk with them often.  I email with the woman who got her kidney and pancreas almost daily.  Sometimes it is just a few lines back and forth, but that way we each know we’re thinking about each other.  The man who got her lung calls me at least monthly.  Each time he calls, his wife and young son take the time to talk to me too.  I have purposely kept somewhat at a distance because I don’t want them to feel like I’m intruding in their lives.  I know I would always be welcome, but I feel it is probably better this way.  I am so thankful that I got to meet them and actually “see” the good that came from such a horrible thing.  And, I am thankful that we keep in touch.  Again, it is a way to grab hold of the good that Sunny did. 


3 responses »

  1. This is a beautiful tribute to Sunny and to you, Sandy! I remember those days so well: planning for the funeral, the music, the food, and just sitting and crying and holding! I am so thankful that I could offer a helping hand and be there for you and your family. Love you!

  2. I am so thankful I took time to read this as I remember Sunny well and have not seen
    Sandi for many years. What a beautiful tribute to that precious little girl. Dan has always
    shared with me when he has talked to Shane or Jodi. Love to you all, Janice (Swenson)

  3. I worked with Sunny and went to school with her. Her heart was a good one. I recommend the book “Journey of Souls.” This life has limits but the soul is eternal.

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