We were delayed for a few hours leaving Hermann, Missouri because I had more broken spokes I needed to get fixed. This was incredibly unfortunate as the ride from Hermann to St. Louis up the Katy Trail hugged the Missouri River, leading to breathtaking scenery.
We wanted nothing more than to take lots of breaks on the trail admiring the river and consuming calories but that delay in Hermann forced us to only take a few short ones. During one of them, Joe decided he wanted to swim in the river. Despite my warning of a strong current, leeches, and diseases, Joe went in. He is probably filled with diseases, (more than normal) I advise you not to touch him.
In St. Louis we stayed with Kody, Joe’s best friend from the summer camp he has worked at for the past 3 years. If you have had any kind of conversation with Joe over the past 3 years, chances are you have heard Joe talk about summer camp. Joe talks about camp like a teenage girl gossips. “OH MY GOD, LYK THIS ONE TIME AT CAMP, BLAH BLAH BLAH.” Talking about camp is what Joe does. Now imagine him and his best friend from camp talking about camp. “OH HEY REMEMBER THAT ONE TIME WE DID THAT ONE THING? OH YEAH THAT WAS THE BEST THING OF ALL TIME EVER THAT I’VE EVER DONE EVER” And I’m just in the backseat playing monopoly on my phone (always go for the orange properties).
During our city explorations we took a tour of the Anheuser-busch brewery. It was interesting seeing the entire process from start to finish, but we missed the part where they add urine to the bud light. We also got free beer at the end. The best tasting beer is always the free kind.
After that we went to the zoo! For anyone that doesn’t know, I worked at the Phoenix Zoo for 2 years in college and absolutely love everything about zoos. St. Louis has a fantastic one (and it is so well funded that it is free to the public!). We didn’t get to spend very much time in it, but we did see this tiger doing its best Joe and Max impression and being adorable.
Free beer and free zoo = good afternoon. That night the St. Louis Cardinals had a series-deciding playoff game at home. Kody, Joe and I went downtown, near the stadium, to watch it. The Cardinals won so we went out to celebrate with the locals. At our first bar we met a man who I will now refer to as creepy ponytail guy (CPG). I don’t know how the conversation started, but at the end Kody and Joe had CPG convinced that I was a gay Pakistani fleeing conflict in the Middle East. CPG REALLY wanted us to accompany him to the strip clubs on the east side (shadiest part of the city), but, using my “cover” as a gay man, we declined his repeated attempts to kidnap us.
We made our way to a bar just across the street from Busch Stadium (where the Cardinals play) to get weird. And we did just that. I am purposefully leaving out many details.
Here is where the post gets a bit emotional. All you middle-aged groupies might want to grab a tissue.
The next day we made our way to Wood River, Illinois to meet Cathy and Jeff Dunnagan. Cathy reached out to us on our website offering to feed and house us. Cathy is a two-time liver recipient and she shared her story with us. I encourage you to stop reading this, read her story and then come back to finish.
Cathy’s story is phenomenal; it was also my first experience with an organ recipient who literally had hours to live before someone’s donation gave them years. It impacted me in a whole new way. I have seen how death affects a donor family. In the months after Michael’s death I saw the life and passion get sucked out of Joe and the rest of his family. I have seen how finding the silver lining in Michael’s tragedy has helped the family recover and remember Michael as a hero. That silver lining spurred this entire trip. But I had never seen the other side. The other side was always a fantasy in my mind. It was the classic-type line that Joe and I delivered to strangers on the way: “the night Michael passed, his kidneys and liver went out to three different people who got to live the next day.” I have heard Joe say that so many times that I got numb to it. It wasn’t until I met Cathy that I truly understood the magnitude.
Cathy was uncontrollably grateful to the Choppi’s for honoring Michael’s wishes and donating his organs. She has never lost sight that if it were not for donor families like the Choppi’s, she would not be alive. Both she and Jeff told us many times that they were honored to meet us and assist us on our journey. You read that correctly, honored. And it truly felt that way; it was the most humbling experience of my life.
Gratitude is a part of everyday life. People open doors for you, you say, “thank you.” People give you a gift, you thank them. I have never seen such a true, pure graciousness than I have in Cathy. She is so thankful for her gift of life – it was magical to see. Her face lights up talking about all things she has done since her transplant. She has taken spontaneous road trips to both coasts (in fact right now she is heading to Charleston) and just booked a 30 year anniversary cruise for her and Jeff. All of this is possible because two strangers registered to be organ donors.
Today was a whirlwind of emotion. In the morning we went to do an interview with the Alton Telegraph newspaper. Cathy, Joe and I all answered questions and did our best not to lose it.
We will link to the story when it comes out. After, we visited the regional organ donation organization, Mid-America Transplant Services (MTS), building in St. Louis. For those that do not know, MTS in St. Louis is one of the largest organ donation facilities in the country. The building was impressive. A wonderful woman named, Tamy took us on a tour. We got to see the clinical side of organ recovery which was really cool. Throughout the offices were stories of donors and recipients that were really touching. It was emotional for all involved. The dichotomy between Joe’s loss and Cathy’s life was indescribable. Seeing the incredible giving by the donor family, coupled with incredible graciousness by the donor recipient, was powerfully moving.
Sadly, we parted ways with Cathy and Jeff and rode on to Litchfield, Illinois. Oh, you thought you could put down the tissue now? Nope. Joe and I rode in to Litchfield and were hanging out in a parking lot looking up motel rooms on our phones (rain again), when a woman named Liz drove up to us in a car and asked us if we were riding for Donate Life. She had seen the logo on the back of our bike jerseys and, in a non-creepy way, followed us into the parking lot. Turns out that five years ago, her nephew, Jake, tragically passed and his organs were donated. Just like the Choppi’s, Liz’s family became involved in Donate Life and she volunteers for them here in Illinois. Moved by our story, she got my phone number and promised to come to our motel with a gift certificate to the famous restaurant in town so we could have a nice meal for free. Sure enough, a few minutes later Liz showed up with a coupon she won at a benefit allowing us anything we wanted for dinner. Final bill came out to $93. Yeah, we eat a lot. Liz also told us more about Jake. Despite being in Cardinals country, Jake was a big Chicago Cubs fan. She gave us a memorial pin of him in his baseball uniform to take with us to Wrigley. Now we have two organ donors with us making Wrigley their final destination. Our plan was to be in Chicago on October 16th, but Jake’s 17th birthday would have been on October 15th. Getting there a day early could be a nice birthday present…
Love from Litchfield,