Don't forget to live.
A friend asked me recently why life was worth living. I told my friend, quite honestly, that it gives us the opportunity to love, and be loved.
_ _ _ _
On May 5, 1995, my best friend's little sister, Tina Minke, lost her life.
She was crossing the same railroad crossing that her brother Scott and I had crossed hundreds of times together while going to school or pretty much anywhere. The crossing had no crossing guards, and the brush along the tracks was so grown up around the crossing that you couldn't see a train coming until you had driven to the top of the steep incline at the tracks crossing. As the road there was gravel and dirt, one would spin one's wheels trying to take off again if one had stopped just short of the apex of the hill, at the tracks. So it was that we routinely would play a risky game of rolling up to the top of the crossing, glancing back and forth quickly, and then proceeding across without ever stopping. There was not a stop sign present, and it was inconvenient to stop simply for safety's sake. Tina lost that little game that the rest of us had played, and her little car was struck.
Her body was virtually unscathed, but "virtually" just means "not quite." Her neck was snapped to the side, instantly cutting her brain stem internally. Although she was CareFlighted to a quality hospital quickly, she was pronounced brain dead.
Tina had wanted to be a surgeon. She had been working through high school as a nurse's aide. She had a couple of scholarships waiting for her at Texas A&M, where she planned to go Pre-Med. As an honor student, no one doubted that she would be successful. She was driven. She was 18. She had just 4 weeks of high school left.
I didn't go to the hospital to see off the only sister that I had ever known. I knew that her family had many, many friends, almost all of whom would be converging on her house. I called in sick (trust me: I was physically ill) and went to her house, where I had spent about half of my life in my teens.
The house was empty. The family was saying their goodbyes at the hospital.
Like many of us, this was a disaster that occurred right in the middle of everything. May is a busy time in any high-school senior's household, and the Minkes ran a business out of their house. Despite the fact that Tina's mother Donna is a well-known neat freak, the house was in the same bit of disorder that 99% of our houses are, when we're not expecting company. And company was coming. I knew that this would be one more stressor to Donna.
I let myself in and started work. I started working the phone, which was ringing off the wall. Literally hundreds of people called from the community and from surrounding states, offering help. Each person, I genuinely believe, would have moved Heaven and earth if I could have given them a part of the task to do. For the mean time, I and others who showed up set up a schedule for them to come by. They all wanted to bring food.
I started mowing the lawn, then passed if off to a neighbor who insisted. Others showed up, and started cleaning, doing laundry, and such.
I can't convey how much love flowed from these people, these friends of my extended family. They loved the Minkes, and they loved Tina. We who were present worked together in a frenzy, not because the house looked bad (it actually looked great in about 30 minutes), but because it gave us something to do. I resolved to let no phone call be left unanswered, especially when I realized that it was Tina's voice on the answering machine. This meant juggling a lot of Call Waiting beeps.
My father got through. "Son," he said, "Call the Minkes. Make sure that they're not lingering around the parking lot of the hospital. There's a really ugly storm doing bad things there in Fort Worth. It's bad."
I called them. They were just leaving. I begged them not to go. They left anyway, just missing an enormous hailstorm that injured several people in that very parking lot. Softball-sized hail, it was reported. The Minkes made it home. That night, one of the worst thunderstorms that I've ever seen railed. It seemed like the end of days. It felt appropriate.
The next morning, a local gravel merchant, unbidden, arrived with gravel trucks and paved the Minkes' hundred-yard long dirt driveway with gravel and Flex Base. The storm had softened the driveway so that only quality 4X4 trucks could have made the ascent to the house, otherwise. Now, visitors could come pay their respects without getting stuck. (You may be sure that this would have weighed heavily on the Minkes, too.)
I've never seen such an outpouring of... ham.
For whatever reason, North Texas folk bring ham when a friend passes away. Smoked ham. Spiral-cut honey ham. Picnic ham. Boned and boneless ham. Whole and pressed ham. Sliced and otherwise. Boiled ham. Lunchmeat ham. We started freezing it. We started asking next door neighbors to freeze it. Then we started sending it home with visitors. If there wasn't 200 lbs of ham there, I'll kiss your butt... right on the ham of your choosing.
It turned out that Tina had signed up as an organ donor. Her parents were a little iffy on the whole thing, at first. It's hard to think of your daughter, whose shell is right there in front of you, breathing with the assistance of a machine, having her organs harvested and distributed to other people.
But they did just that, and have NEVER regretted it for an instant.
I've met the recipients of several Tina's organs. I've met the recipient of her liver. I've met the recipient of her heart. Her kidneys were used. Her blood was used. Her eyes were used. Tina led a clean living, and was healthy. She never got to be a surgeon, but she got to save a few lives with her 18 year-old organs. Parts of her live on, literally.
_ _ _
The funeral was emotional, and I left with a rose from her graveside. Crossing the fatal railroad crossing a half hour later, I placed the rose on the tracks. No one saw me.
But a few minutes later, a photographer saw the rose, and he published this picture of the same rose in the paper.
It had been a perfect rose, even if it had been picked just a little too early.
I miss my friend, and family member, who died 15 years ago yesterday.
Tina Marie Minke
November 24, 1976 - May 5, 1995
November 24, 1976 - May 5, 1995