The Trip

Our little Pistol Annie was one of several deceased organ donors honored on the Donate Life float in the Rose Parade this year and it was an overwhelming, beautiful, empowering, heartbreaking, joyful and overall wonderful experience to be a part of. We met so many wonderful people and forged many friendships due to shared joy and heartache. For every story of a love lost, there was one of love saved. Medical miracles were walking among us, and it was so incredible. I’m going to try to convey all of the emotion we felt in this post, and I’m sure I will fall short.

I was very anxious and excited when we got to the airport. I didn’t know what to expect, and I just felt all tingly. I was so very glad to have Robert, my rock, with me. I clung to his arm as we checked our bags and made our way through security. We left on December 29, so very early in the morning, and we had just finished up our last Christmas celebration the night before. I had had absolutely ZERO time to mentally prepare for the emotionally charged journey we were embarking on, and that was probably a good thing. I was nervous, but so very excited to celebrate Annie’s tiny life and the impact she had on this world. I knew that we had several family members and friends praying for us and supporting us, so I tried to document the trip and post to Instagram/Facebook as much as I could. I didn’t want anyone to miss a thing! We started out the trip with a typical airplane selfie:

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We arrived at LAX that morning, and we had a driver waiting to take us the rest of the way to Pasadena. As we walked out of the airport toward the car, the driver told us “whatever you do, say your flight was delayed.” Rob and I politely laughed, because we had no idea what the guy was talking about, and when all else fails you chuckle and nod and hope that’s an appropriate reaction, right? We looked up and there was a police officer waiting next to the car. That’s when we realized that we had been in LA for 5 minutes and the first guy we met asked us to lie to the cops… perfect. As we approached the car, the policeman separated us from our driver so we couldn’t concoct a story (too late), and proceeded to have a heated discussion with him. Robert looked at me and said “there’s no freakin way I’m lying to the cops for a grown man I don’t know.” It all turned out to be over a parking violation, but the way the cop and driver were acting we were all going to jail. He lied, we didn’t, no ticket was issued, and we were on our way. (This doesn’t really have anything to do with our trip, but it was funny and I took pictures while we were being interrogated)

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When we checked into our bustling hotel, I cried because we were surrounded by people just like us. We were all there to honor someone we had lost. People either had buttons on with pictures of their honoree, or a button that said “living donor” or “float rider.” The living donors walked around the float and were being honored for their selfless act of donation. The float riders were organ recipients whose lives had been saved by organ donation. I felt a deep comradery with the people with picture buttons. We all were so very proud to be there, but we would all give anything to NOT be there and be at home with our loved one.

We were issued a welcome packet along with our room keys. It had commemorative pins, programs, schedules, yearbooks, and tons of other keepsake materials. This was all so exciting! I cried when I flipped through the yearbook and saw Annie’s paragraph. She was the youngest honoree. Robert and I could only read a few of the stories at a time, because they were all so painful.

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After we checked into our room we went outside and found our shuttle bus. The very first activity for us was heading down to the barn where the float was and we were going to work a decorating shift. I grabbed a pack of Donate Life tissues off the welcome table in the lobby on the way out, because I was crying every 5 minutes. (Most were “happy cries”, but tears nonetheless)

The woman in charge stood up and addressed the bus to prepare us for what was ahead that evening. She introduced herself, and her name was Annie… tears… She told us what to expect, where to go, who to look for, etc, but I was just praying Robert was listening. I couldn’t concentrate. I was so excited, emotional, and it just felt like my mind was enveloped in a fog. We got off the bus in a parking lot and walked toward the barn. As we turned the corner and walked through the entrance, my eyes widened. I couldn’t believe the scene in front of me. There were people EVERYWHERE. It was then I realized the scale of what we were a part of. This was huge. Millions of people were going to see this. Thousands of people were working on this. This was very, very big.

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We checked in to the Donate Life tent, received our decorating TShirts, and received our briefing on how to be a float decorator. (The part of the briefing that stuck out the most was how dangerous being on the scaffolding was, and we should not “be a hero”… Robert…)

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The scene on the inside of the barn was more shocking than the scene outside. People were scrambling like ants all over these massive floats. The smell of flowers about knocked me over. It was so beautiful! Then we turned a corner and saw our float… tears… and the first thing I thought was “there’s no way in hell they are going to finish this in time.” They kept saying they were ahead of schedule, and I believed them because I was just a rookie decorator. These guys were professionals. The Donate Life float crew is so amazing and compassionate. There were 80+ floragraph honorees, and all of the family members wanted to help decorate the float. They accommodated all of us, and it was pure chaos. I’m sure that things would go much easier if they were just to construct the float with seasoned volunteers, but they graciously take the time each shift to train new ones so families get the most incredible experience possible. They do their best, and we are so very grateful for their hearts. For the first hour, we sat at a table towards the back waiting for a job, because that’s where we were directed. We chatted with other families, observed the chaos, and literally stopped and smelled the roses… and babies breath… and carnations…

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Robert decided that the only way he was going to get a job was to go insert himself, so he took off. He popped up a few minutes later across the way as a delivery boy. He would take boxes of flowers prepped with glue and take them to the people up on the scaffolding to attach to the float.

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He then graduated to flower placer himself. He worked his way up the scaffolding while I stood below and yelled “don’t be a hero!!!” He placed babies breath and roses on the large branch that held all the lanterns. I spotted any holes and yelled “no, left! Your other left! Now down! A little further! Now back up just a bit! OK THERE! RIGHT THERE! PUT A YELLOW ROSE RIGHT THERE!” (I really liked this job, and I really liked my view) 😉

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At one point during our shift I snipped carnations and handed them to my friend/sponsor Tammye, and she applied glue to the stems.

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We also got to see Annie’s finished and touched up floragraph, and take a picture with our sweetie… tears…

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After our shift we went outside the barn and got in line for the taco truck. Authentic Mexican street tacos are my love language, so I’m pretty sure that Donate Life loves me. After an incredible dinner sitting on the concrete, we trekked back to the shuttle pick up. I was exhausted.

The next morning was the Floragraph Honoree Breakfast. We walked in, registered, got name tags, and were sent over to the “tile table.” An artist had made beautiful glass tiles, each one unique and hand painted, and we got to select one to take home and keep. Then we went downstairs to the banquet hall and were shown to a table. Over the loudspeaker we heard an announcement to go to the stage if we haven’t already, and look for the people holding our loved one’s picture. If they were able to be there that morning, we would be able to meet and have breakfast with the artist who decorated our floragraph. Whaaaaa?!?!?! We get to meet the people who devoted so much time to our girl?!?!… tears… My heart was pounding as we walked up to the stage. When we saw the beautiful young woman holding a sign with Annie on it my heart leaped. She was there! I couldn’t get enough details about the process. It was incredible. Lindsay and her partner (who wasn’t able to make it) spent so much time blending different materials to get the perfect colors. They painstakingly placed every tiny piece in the perfect spot. They used their artistic abilities to erase Annie’s nasal cannula so we could see more of her beautiful face. This was more difficult than they initially thought, because the tube was pushing Annie’s nose up and her lip down. They redid that portion of her face over and over until it was perfect. I couldn’t thank her enough for all of the time she devoted to our little lady.

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The rest of the breakfast was so emotional. An organ recipient named Melissa who was going to ride on the float came and spoke. Her story was beautiful, and the fact that she was standing there healthy and vibrant because of someone’s gift of life was just so incredible. The most touching part was after her 10 year battle with kidney failure and she finally received her donation, her daughter told her “I’m so glad I can we can just be mom/daughter now. Not nurse/patient.” I can’t imagine how hard it had to be for her to be taken care of by her children. Praise God for healing.

We watched a video documenting the process of floragraph decorating. Then a representative from each table took a jar of colored sand up to the front to pour into a large vase. There was another family at our table so one of them and Robert when to the front together. The room was silent during this process, and it took awhile to complete. The whole room was standing silent, and I could see hand after hand raise and pour the sand for their loved one. I saw old, wrinkled hands, I saw the chubby hands of children as young as mine. I saw my husband’s big, manly hand, the same hand that held Annie’s strong and tiny hand just 6 months before… tears…

We remained standing and sang the song that would play on the float. It was the song from Disney’s Tangled, “The Light”… tears… It was so, so beautiful. After the breakfast was adjourned, I was done. People were walking around and visiting, hugging, telling stories about their loved ones, but I had to get out of there. These people had the benefit of time. For most of them it had been at least a few years since their loss, but for us it had only been half a year. I could only handle it in doses. So I did what I always do to relax. I shopped, ate, and had a beer… and I let Robert tag along.

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After our happy hour we went back to the hotel to prepare for the gala. I’d never been to a gala before, so I was pretty excited. We got all dolled up and walked to the venue. During the cocktail hour we stood around and had drinks with our group from Oklahoma. There was another floragraph family there with us, the Kinzer family, who were honoring their son Jantz on the float. There was a float rider, Nita French, who is a kidney/pancreas recipient. Her transplant cured her type I diabetes, and she has had 3 beautiful children post-transplant which is a WORLD RECORD! Her husband Dennie is in our Air National Guard unit back home, and we had to go all the way to California to meet him. 🙂 Our wonderful sponsors, Jeff and his son Will, Annie’s nurse Shellie, and Tammye and her husband Brian rounded out the group. There was a silent auction, trays of appetizers floating around, and free beer and wine. Holla! All of the ladies sparkled and the men (especially mine) looked so handsome. There were several little girls that were beaming in their fancy dresses and looked like they felt like Cinderella… or Belle, or Rapunzel, or Sleeping Beauty, or whatever princess is cool right now. Robert proudly wore his button with his youngest daughter on it. I didn’t wear mine because it would have ruined my dress. I’m sure Annie understood.

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(Below: The Kinzers on the right, our sponsor Jeff in the middle, and the Frenches on the left. We love our Oklahomies!)

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We had the honor of meeting Mr. Reg Green, a donor father and accomplished author. His son Nicholas was killed in an attempted car hijacking in Italy, and his organs saved several Italian’s lives. The day before we left for our trip, Robert’s mom got word from a friend that there was a Letter to the Editor in the Daily Oklahoman about Annie. Reg, who is very involved in the Donate Life community, was so touched by Annie’s story that he wrote to the Oklahoman on her behalf. He wanted to make sure people knew about the parade and had the chance to see our girl, and wanted people to be aware of the real stories surrounding organ donation. It is something so beautiful that can come from something so dark, and he knows that all too well. Reg wrote a book, The Nicholas Effect, which was also made into a movie, and made sure Robert and I got a copy of both. He spoke at the gala, and was so engaging, funny, thought provoking and sentimental all in the span of about 5 minutes… tears…

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Towards the end of the gala, a local glee club came out and sang an upbeat a capella version of “The Light” that would play on the float. It was gorgeous. They then sang that one “rock this club like it’s dynomite” song and started pulling people out on the dance floor. That’s when the party started! I saw old people getting down to “Blurred Lines”, I saw Nita shaking it in her floor length evening gown down an aisle of cheering people, I convinced Robert to dance with me because my sisters weren’t there (they are my usual dance partners). One of my favorite stories from the gala is when Rob and I were dancing, and this tall guy dancing next to us started giving Robert a hard time about his dance moves. The guy wasn’t the best dancer either, but he and Robert were giving each other a hard time trying to decide who was the worse dancer. Later that evening we got to know that guy a little better, and it turns out he is a disabled veteran and purple heart recipient with one leg… tears – of laughter… Max, if you are reading this, I still give Robert a hard time about how he got beat in a dance off by a guy with one leg. 🙂 Max was at the gala with his buddy Ed, another purple heart recipient, who was riding on the float. He was shot in the leg in Afghanistan and his sciatic nerve was severed. Through a transplant of nerve allografts, three years later he had full use of his leg. See what I’m talking about?! For every sad and tragic story, there is one of life and hope. This community is incredible. We were the last ones to leave the gala, and by leave I mean we got kicked out. We were having such a blast with our new friends, so we moved the party to the hotel bar. Then, you know, we tried to solve the world’s problems for a while, made more friends, stayed up too late, and had a little too much fun…

The whole time we were gone, our girls were bouncing around OKC. We kept getting pictures of them from family, and I just wanted to show you guys how cute they are…

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An unexpected picture that I got from a friend was this one. My friend Elisa in OKC sent me this picture while we were in Pasadena. I couldn’t believe how small this great big world can be. This is her friend Jordan, who works in the organ donation community in Arkansas. She was the one who placed Annie’s flogagraph on the float, and Jordan knew Elisa and I were friends. So this picture was taken, sent to Oklahoma, and bounced back to us in Pasadena. Incredible.

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The day after the gala was New Years Eve. Robert and I slept in, woke up and ate a greasy breakfast (to counteract the rowdy night before) and headed back to the barn for float judging. From all accounts I had heard, judging was going to be the most incredible part of the trip. I was so excited. We showed up at the barn, ate at the taco truck… tears – of joy… and waited for judging. And waited. And waited and waited and waited. It seemed like it took forever! It was pretty cool because while we were waiting we got to look around at all of the floats that were pulled out of the barn. They were huge, bright, and very impressive. Across the way we saw a float with a band on it, and when they started practicing I realized it was Hall & Oates! But it was just one of them, so, great job Hall, or Oates, or whoever. Thanks for helping us pass the time!

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We gathered in the barn when it was finally time for judging. There were rows and rows of folding chairs for us to sit in. The float was gleaming in the California sun, and the crowd for our float was huge! There are only about 15-20 people there for each float during judging, but since the Donate Life float is such an emotional “experience” there are special accommodations made for them. There were over 650 people there for our judging. Yeah. That’s a lot. The judges walked over, a bell rang and judging began. The music began, the riders and walkers began to wave, and all of us floragraph family members waved back. I don’t think I’ve ever felt a surge of energy like that in my life. Everyone in that moment in that barn was connected. The power in those waves was incredible. The people sitting on the float were saying “thank you” with their waves as they looked into they eyes of heartbroken families. The living donors stood tall and proud around the float, knowing what it feels like to sacrifice for others. Can you imagine how it would feel to know that because of a small piece of you, someone was able to live and breathe today?! There was such a respect for those walkers. Then there was us. The families. I was surrounded by people who had the same pain I did. I felt that pain deep down in my gut, but at the same time I felt a lightness in my heart. There were tears EVERYWHERE. The riders were all crying because of their deep appreciation of the gift they had received. The families were crying because there was so much pain, but oh so much joy. The judges were even crying, because all of these emotions were thick and palpable. Judging was one of the most incredible things I have ever experienced. Time was up, another bell rang, and that barn ERUPTED in applause, hoots, hollers, and joyful racket. It was awesome. We walked around and took pictures of everything.

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“See that light? It’s Annie.”

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After judging we went back to the hotel and got ready for dinner. We went out with our Oklahomies to a real fancy New Years Eve dinner. Dennie mentioned during dinner that the restaurant looked just like what he pictured New Year’s Eve would look like when he was a kid. He was exactly right. There were white and champagne colored balloons covering every inch of the ceiling, we were sitting near the bar and all of the ladies were dripping in sequins, and there was a band playing right next to our table. The saxophone player was RIGHT next to us, and it took everything in me not to yell “Careless Whisper!” at her until she took my request. 🙂 Dinner was delicious, the wine was incredible, and the company was beautiful. Rob and I went back to the hotel, kissed each other Happy New Year, and we were in bed by 10:00…

The next morning was parade day!!!!! I could hear the marching bands warming up outside our hotel as I was getting ready, and it just amplified my excitement. Rob and I sent out a mean mugging selfie to remind people that they were dead to us if they didn’t watch the parade.

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We took our places in the grandstands, and I had butterflies waiting for the parade to start. There was an adorable little baby girl sitting in the row in front of us, and it turned out she was 6 months old. The exact age Annie would have been. It was so strange to see that little baby exploring everything around her, shoving things in her mouth, cooing at strangers, and trying to conjure up in my mind what my little girl would have looked like. I couldn’t do it. I have a snapshot in my mind of Annie, not a slideshow of growing girls like I do of Dylan and Harper Lou. I can’t even imagine what she would look like, and I’m not sure I want to. I love her for who she was, not who she wasn’t… tears…

The parade started, and the closer we got to our float the more anxious we all got. I was sitting next to Dennie, and he was so excited to see his pretty wife on the float. On the other side of us were the Kinzers, whose emotions were similar to ours I imagine. Their little boy’s sparkling eyes and adorable blonde locks were on the float as well. As soon as the float came into view, the stands went crazy. We all were jumping, waving, snapping pictures, and trying to soak in every moment. I locked eyes with Nita. She was sitting on the float, waving, and searching the crowd for familiar faces. When we saw each other we both started bawling. Such a rush of emotions! She then saw her hubby and cried even harder. I saw my baby. She was so beautiful, so high up, and shining like the little light that she was. Then before I knew it, she was gone. I cried when it was over because it was so symbolic of her life. Here for just a moment, bringing so much joy and light, and then it was over before we knew it.

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This whole parade experience was incredible. It was a really great form of closure. It was a way to be outwardly focused, and not so focused on our own pain. I think it’s important to acknowledge my pain and to feel my way through it, but if it is all that I see, it will consume me. I saw that everyone had a story. There were people whose lives were saved because other people were able to see past their grief and pain, and were able to allow their loved ones to give as their final act. I am so very grateful that the people at LifeShare of Oklahoma gave us this opportunity to celebrate life. I’m so honored that they chose our Pistol Annie. I’m thankful that her story is saving lives. I praise God for the pain and the heartache, because I was able to SEE His works, miracles, and His light in the darkness. I also praise Him for the joy that was present throughout our journey, and for the hope that we have in Him. I thank God for sending all of the people into our path that helped us along the way. And I thank Him most of all for letting me be Annie’s mom.

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