The Greatest Gift
by John Norberg, humor columnist s

What is the greatest gift one person can give another?

It's early on Thursday morning. I'm sitting in the waiting room outside a surgery suite at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in downtown Chicago. Family surrounds me. There are 13 of us crowded in here.

There are other groups of people here, too, huddled together, talking softly, sipping coffee from Starbucks cups, reading newspapers, books, magazines, working on computers. Occasional smiles break the heavy tension.

Somewhere, beyond a maze of doors and walls where I can't see, my wife, Jeanne, lies surrounded by doctors and nurses. They're working swiftly and purposefully with laparoscopic instruments that pierce her abdomen. They are removing one of her kidneys. A few hours from now it will be transplanted into her sister, Linda.

I'm sitting here amazed trying to comprehend the fact that a part of Jeanne that was working inside her this morning will be working inside Linda this afternoon.

It's a beautiful day outside and Chicago is very busy as people hurry to work. Drivers slip their cars into small openings in the next lane. Sidewalks fill with people who don't look at one another, already possessed by the tensions of their day. News shows blast the latest crises: recession, debt, disaster, scandal, political fighting.

But none of that matters to me this morning. I am very focused. Moments such as this push out the noise and clatter of the world and bring home what's really important. What's really important to me is the woman I've shared life with, cried with, worked with and laughed with, raised children with and dreamed with.

What's really important to me is my sister-in-law. She is one of the most loving and kind people I have ever known. She would give you anything. I remember the day we met, Memorial Day, 1980. She gave me the family's special homemade chocolate pie. It was fantastic. That chocolate pie helped me decide I definitely wanted to be part of this family.

Chocolate pie. It's interesting what you think about and remember at moments like this. The time is passing slowly. I try not to look at the clock. A monitor hanging on the wall with patient information never changes: "Patient 73: Operating Room.'

What an amazing procedure this is. Doctors and nurses are incredible people.

The first kidney transplant was performed in 1950 in the Chicago suburb of Evergreen Park. The first transplant from a live donor was in 1954. All of this was in my lifetime.

But the thought that this would happen in my family never crossed my mind until Linda's one functioning kidney started to fail and she went on dialysis. She's not alone. There are a lot of people going through this.

According to the National Kidney Foundation as of April 25, there were 114,043 people waiting for lifesaving organ transplants in the United States and 92,021 of them needed a kidney. Last year, 16,812 kidney transplants took place in this country. Of these, 11,043 kidney transplants came from deceased donors and 5,769 came from living people.

The majority of living donors are 35 to 49 years old. About 29 percent are over age 50. Women donate far more frequently than men. The largest donor group is full siblings.

The statistics are starling. Nearly 3,000 new U.S. patients are added to the kidney waiting list each month. This means very 10 minutes someone new is added. Every day, 18 people die while waiting. Last year, 4,903 patients died waiting for a kidney.

When it became apparent that Linda would need a kidney the issue wasn't if she would get one. The issue was who would give it. Such is the love for Linda that everyone in the family wanted to be the donor. Jeanne's other sister, Peg, wanted to be the donor. I wish I could have been the donor. My 92-year-old mother even claimed she should be the donor. The doctors settled on Jeanne as the healthiest of all the candidates.

As a sister, Jeanne was a good match, but not perfect. Because of anti-rejection drugs available today, donors don't have to be perfect. In addition to family, friends and co-workers are now good candidates.

I've never talked with Linda about this. But I know it is true. I know she would rather be giving a kidney to Jeanne, than Jeanne giving one to her. We are a family in which giving comes as naturally as . . . well . . . as naturally as eating chocolate pie.

People tell Jeanne that she is courageous and wonderful to do this. And she is. But honestly, doing anything else is beyond her understanding. This is as natural to her as smiling on a perfect summer morning, like today.

Jeanne is not a hero to me because she's doing this. She's a hero to me because of who she is and what she does every day. Linda is our hero, too.

Jeanne and I walked from our hotel in downtown Chicago to the hospital at 5 a.m. this morning, along North Michigan Avenue, past Water Tower Place, the John Hancock building, the old Water Tower, Fourth Presbyterian Church where my cousin's son was married. We grew up in the Chicago area. It was a beautiful walk we have taken together many times before as we planned fun days in the city. So many great memories.

This day would be much different. Jeanne walked quickly. She was ready to do this.

News from surgery comes and people in the waiting room react. Some of the news is good. Some of it is not.

A telephone in the waiting room rings and the receptionist says it's for me. It's the surgeon who is still in the operating room. "It went very, very well,' he says. "The kidney is healthy. She's doing great.' He said more, but those are the words I remember. "Very, very well' was all I needed to hear.

Now our prayers are with Linda whose surgery is beginning.

What is the greatest gift?

It's not a kidney. What Jeanne is really giving Linda is her love. It's the same love that Linda gives Jeanne and that all of us in our family share every hour and every day.

"Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;' it says in 1 Corinthians. "But the greatest of these is love.'

Love is the greatest gift.

In our family we are very fortunate. We abound in it.

And never more than today.

On Friday Jeanne was released from the hospital. Her sister Linda was released to go home on Saturday. Her new kidney began functioning immediately.

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