Disclaimer: This story mentions loss and may be triggering for some.
“On September 4, 2006 (Labor Day of that year), our family began a journey we could have never imagined we would have to take. The day began like any other holiday: my husband was off from work, and both our 18-year-old daughter, Mandy, and our 16-year-old son, Matthew, were off from school. It was a rainy, dreary day, and David and I left them at home in bed to head off to our favorite garden center to pick up supplies for a project he planned to work on that afternoon. Mandy, who had just started her second semester of college, called me and told me she and some of her friends were going to Windrock, an off-roading park a few miles from our home. She had never done this before, although her boyfriend, Josh, and best friend, Jordan, were both ‘experienced’ off-roaders.
The day went on and Mandy called me several times from Windrock, telling me how much fun they were having, how she could not believe she had never done this before. Because she knew her dad and I were anxious, she called multiple times during the day. The last time she called, I could barely understand her and thought she was crying. She said, ‘Oh no, I am laughing. I am covered in mud from head to toe, and I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun! I really think this might be the best day of my life!’
She went on to tell me that their vehicle, an old truck the boys had modified for off-road use, had broken down at the top of the mountain trail. I asked what they were going to do, and she assured me they had plenty of friends with other vehicles close by, and she would just ride down with one of them while the boys figured out how to get the truck down. Her last words to me were, ‘I’ll call you when I get to the parking area. Love you, bye, Mom!’
As you’ve guessed by now, that call never came. As I frantically called her phone over the next hour or so, I pleaded with God to take care of her and keep her safe, already knowing deep in my heart something was horribly wrong. My son finally got a call from Josh’s sister, telling us there had been an accident and they were flying Mandy to our local trauma hospital. We rushed there, along with dozens of family members and friends, trying to piece together what had happened and dreading what we were going to face when we got there.
Within a few minutes of our arrival, an ER doctor took us to Mandy’s bedside. She had a horrific head injury and was hardly recognizable laying on that cold gurney. The doctor gently but directly explained that Mandy had a massive head injury and could never recover. There was almost no brain activity, and she would die within a few hours. David and I were beyond devastated yet desperately trying to hold it together. Matthew ran from the room crying, telling one of our friends in the lobby there was no way that could be his sister. They moved her barely lifeless body to a room in the trauma unit where we could say our goodbyes as we waited for her to die.
We returned to a hospital lobby full of family and friends and had to deliver the news that Mandy was essentially gone. We slowly began to piece together the events leading to the accident. The kids decided to coast the truck down the mountain to the parking area so they could put it on the trailer to bring home. For whatever reason, Mandy chose to get in the truck with them instead of riding down with someone else as she originally planned. Of course, with no power steering or brakes, they rapidly picked up speed on the steep slope, were unable to control the truck, and ended up going off the road on a sharp curve and falling over 100 feet down an embankment. Mandy was thrown out near where they left the roadway, hitting her head on a large rock. Jordan was thrown from the truck about halfway down and Josh was found with the truck at the bottom of the ravine. While both boys had serious and significant injuries, they survived.
As we were waiting on the inevitable outcome, we were given the opportunity to speak with the organ donation coordinators. We spoke with them in the early morning hours of September 5 and explained how important it would have been to Mandy and would be to us for her to be a donor. Her grandfather had received a heart/kidney transplant in 1993 that gave us 9 ‘bonus’ years with him, and we knew that our precious girl would want to do that for others. In a couple of days, all 8 of her major organs were transplanted into 6 people. Six families were spared the agony we were experiencing, all because of our Mandy. A few years passed, and we were given the incredible opportunity to meet some of those recipients and to learn what Mandy’s gift of life had meant to them and their families. In turn, we got the privilege of telling them about our fierce and feisty girl and how proud and happy she would be to see them doing so well.
After the funeral, as we tried our best to move our little family forward from such an unspeakable tragedy, we were privileged to hear story after story of a Mandy we had never known. With us, she was a typical teenager, with a fiery temper most often directed at her mother or anyone who treated her baby brother poorly. However, another Mandy emerged from talking to her friends, a kind young lady who befriended those who were not part of her ‘group,’ who encouraged those who lacked confidence, and who stood up for those who were being mistreated. Other coworkers from various jobs she’d held talked of her kindness to them and her customers. We realized that we hadn’t truly known the ‘adult’ Mandy at all. We gratefully came to realize she had grown into a lovely young woman with all the best qualities you could ask for in a coworker or a friend.
Matthew has now grown into a wonderful young man. An aerospace engineer by trade, he is married, and we’re blessed with the most beautiful granddaughter. Even at 2 years old, she displays some of the strong will and independence we so loved about our Mandy. They now live close by, and we are so grateful for the time we get to spend with her. Fourteen years after Mandy’s death, we still grieve for her daily and miss her more than anyone can imagine, but we are also able to find great joy in the life we have today with Matthew, his wife, our precious granddaughter, and each other.
Over the last 14 years, we’ve had some incredible opportunities to share Mandy with the world. In 2010, she was chosen to be honored on the Donate Life Float that has appeared in each Rose Parade since 2004. Our family was flown to Pasadena along with many other organ donor families and transplant recipients and treated like royalty as our family members were honored as heroes for giving the ‘gift of life.’ Still today, we are fierce advocates for organ donation, speaking publicly on behalf of our local organization and using our social media platforms to encourage people to sign up on the organ donor registry. Encouraging organ donation is one of the ways in which we have chosen to publicly honor Mandy and to keep her memory alive.
Early in our journey, we had many, many people support and love us. We are people of faith, and we believe we are to be the hands and feet of Jesus whenever and wherever we can in this earthly existence. So many people carried us through those first hard years of grieving; it’s impossible to know how a person survives the loss of a child without faith and the love of those around them. People we didn’t even know who had also lost children reached out to us via mail, phone, email, and social media to provide support and comfort; helping us to see that we were never alone.
Many days, when I’d find myself so angry at God I could only shake my fist at Him (if I could acknowledge his existence at all), I’d receive a text, card, or message from someone who gave the space and opportunity to vent all my anger and frustration. In time, as I became stronger, I felt God telling me I needed to be that same kind of resource for newly bereaved parents. I started a small, informal grief support group where we could come together and be real and honest about our hurt and pain but also laugh and tell stories of our children. It helped all of us to feel less alone in our grief journeys.
Since Mandy died, I’ve had many experiences that can only be described as ‘divine intervention,’ but a few weeks back, there was one in particular that convinced me that perhaps God does truly put us where he needs us to be when we need to be there. I was scrolling through Facebook, worrying myself sick about COVID and thinking about all the families who will have an empty seat at their table in 2020, when a friend request popped up.
Normally, when I receive a request from a name I don’t recognize, I just delete it and move on. However, this lady’s name popped up and for some reason, I clicked on her page, wondering who she was and why in the world she was sending me a friend request. I couldn’t see much on her profile, but something told me to look for her on LinkedIn. I found her page there and noticed she was from Cleveland, OH. Mandy’s heart was transplanted into an 11-year-old boy at the Cleveland Clinic, and I immediately wondered if perhaps someone from his family could be trying to contact me.
I messaged her and asked why she sent the request, and surprisingly, she responded almost immediately. She said she was sorry; she thought her granddaughter must have been playing with her phone. When I explained why I was asking, her response astounded me. She told me her son had died and been an organ donor in 2011. She explained that she was in the process of moving and going through his pictures and belongings, deciding what to keep and what to throw away. I told her I understood just how hard that was, there was nothing most heart-wrenching than feeling like you are packing them away forever. We talked a few more minutes, and she revealed that she rarely saw any of his friends but had even spoken with some of them in the last week or so, and that, too had given her some peace about moving forward with her life.
We both concluded that perhaps our ‘random’ connection wasn’t really an accident after all. Maybe some power higher than both of us realized she needed the encouragement of another bereaved mom in that very moment. I hope I was able to give her the assurance that we all understand that struggle and she is never truly alone. She, in turn, reminded me that Mandy is still alive and with our family in a very deep and personal way. Mandy lives on each time we share her story, whether it be about organ donation or simply when two heartbroken mommas share a brief moment of connection and understanding across many miles through the magic of Facebook.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Betsy Rhea Harrell of Knoxville, Tennessee. You can follow her journey on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
Read more stories like this:
‘They kept tapping his feet saying, ‘Wake up, little baby, wake up.’ I left the room. I knew he wouldn’t come back. We’d missed him by minutes.’: Mom describes losing son to ‘what was believed to be a virus’
Provide hope for someone struggling. SHARE this story on Facebook to let others know a community of support is available.