Denise Ellis hasn’t held her daughter for nearly 19 months, and she’s still searching for her, in a way.
In the fall of 2012, Denise began writing letters to strangers, touting her teenage daughter. The letters included a snippet of what Denise told her daughter on her 18th birthday: “Being your mama is a gift and the thing I hold most dear. As you look ahead to all that your life will become please remember: I will always be right behind you, cheering you on no matter where you are.”
Though Denise anxiously checks the mail for replies from the strangers, she knows she can’t hold her daughter again. Mandy Lathim died during a summer road trip to California. Denise writes to the people who received her 18-year-old daughter’s organs.
It’s unusual for grieving families to contact the people with their loved one’s living parts; typically it’s the transplant recipients who thank their donor’s family. But Denise said she finds comfort knowing Mandy, once a promising Mountain View High School graduate, still has a purpose.
“It validates who she was,” she said. “Some days … it’s like she wasn’t real.”
Denise gathered handouts from the memorial service, a letter she wrote about her daughter and letters from Mandy’s friends before mailing them to recipients.
In September, Denise got a postcard from a man in Montana who guides nature tours. Mandy’s ankle ligament repaired his knee.
“It was life-changing, that silly little postcard,” Denise said.
A month later, she got a typed letter from Wendy, the wife of a man with Mandy’s liver and kidney. Wendy wrote that her husband, Dan, had been unable to walk or sit up in a chair. Without the organ graft, he would not have survived.
When Wendy and Dan gathered with family and friends to celebrate his recovery, Mandy’s picture was on the table alongside the guest book. They read aloud the letters Denise sent in her packet. They also keep Mandy’s photo on their refrigerator.
At the end of Wendy’s letter to Denise, she wrote: “I read this letter over, and it seems so inadequate, but I hope it will help you feel that your daughter lives on in some way.”
The corneas from Mandy’s brown eyes went to people in Florida and Michigan.
“She’s everywhere,” Denise said.
Mandy was a lively, accomplished young woman who had unwavering positivity, her friends and family say.
She was student body vice president at Mountain View and captain of her varsity gymnastics team. During her senior year, she won a “Best of Women” award for her work with homeless youth. Most of her friends didn’t know about the honor until after she died. She started reading to homeless children at Share, a local shelter, while their parents got counseling and services. She also managed a book drive at Naydenov Gymnastics, where she worked as a coach. There were waiting lists to get into her classes.
She was to attend Western Washington University in Bellingham in the fall.
“I got accepted to Western!” she wrote in her journal in December 2011. “The down payment on my tuition has been paid and it’s all official now.”
Before the semester started, she would spend some time in Santa Cruz, Calif. soaking up the sun and surf with her friends Kayla Vera, 17, Greg Ryan, 17, and Brian Teh-Shiun Jeng, 19. The trip, a gift from her mother, was supposed to be a capstone of her successful high school career.
“My life is going to be great, no matter who comes and goes. I am equipped with the power to handle anything,” Mandy wrote in her journal.
In the early morning of Sunday, July 1, 2012 Mandy hugged her mom at their east Vancouver home.
“I watched her walk down the driveway and that was it,” Denise said.
It was early, around sunrise, when Mandy hopped into her car with her friends and headed down Interstate 5.
Later that morning, Mandy called her mom to let her know they were switching drivers, and she was going to lay down for a nap. They were about halfway to their destination.
Fifteen minutes after that, around 11:30 a.m., the car left the roadway and rolled three times just north of Weed, Calif., tossing Greg and Mandy from the car. Greg landed in the grass and sustained injuries that were not life-threatening. Mandy, who wasn’t wearing a seat belt, landed in the northbound lanes of the freeway.
Soon after the rollover, Denise got a call about the crash. Her daughter was in a Mount Shasta, Calif., hospital.
Denise rushed to the airport with her husband, Dave Ellis, frantically trying to find tickets to the Redding Municipal Airport, the airport closest to the hospital, but there weren’t any direct flights. When they heard Mandy was being flown south by Life Flight helicopter to Mercy Medical Center in Redding, Calif., the couple ditched their flight plans and got in the car.
Every minute counted.
About halfway to the hospital, doctors at Mercy called Denise and said they wouldn’t be able to save Mandy. She begged them to keep Mandy alive until she got there.
Mandy was in a coma, with severe brain damage and swelling. Her back was broken in two places. Her body was unable to regulate temperature. Over the next two weeks, about 30 friends and family members came from Vancouver, bringing photos, posters and decorations for Mandy’s hospital room.
She was kept alive for 18 days, while they banked on a miracle. The prognosis was grim. If kept alive, Mandy would require mechanical breathing.
When doctors shined a light in Mandy’s eyes, there was no response. When an anesthesiologist walked into her hospital room one day, he took one look at her CAT scan results and said “Oh, no.”
As Denise sat in the hospital’s chapel, it hit her: She was keeping Mandy alive for herself, not for Mandy. Her daughter, as she had been — a smiley, athletic young woman — was gone.
A couple of months before her California trip, Mandy had a conversation with her family about organ donation. They were talking casually in the family’s east Vancouver home, and Mandy couldn’t fathom why someone wouldn’t want to donate to save someone’s life. She was clear with her words, and with the heart stamped on her driver’s license, that if the time came, she would donate.
“That conversation stuck with me,” Denise said.
The family transported Mandy to a different Redding hospital, where doctors would take her off life support and remove her organs. That evening, hospital staff put Mandy in her mother’s lap and took out her breathing apparatus. About 20 minutes later, Mandy died in her mother’s arms.
“She never even took a tiny gasp for air,” Denise said.
Keeping memory alive
On the one-year anniversary of Mandy’s crash, Denise plunged 14,000 feet out of an airplane over Hawaii. Skydiving was something she had planned to do on her 50th birthday with her daughter.
“Mandy!” Denise screamed as she free-fell through a rainbow, telling her daughter the whole way down how much she loved and missed her.
She’s gone skydiving three other times since her daughter’s death; it’s one ritual that has helped her cope.
Although Denise is no stranger to death — her dad died in a plane crash at age 42 and her mom lost her battle to stomach cancer when she was 52 — losing a child is much worse, she said.
“Even if you’re laughing, it’s right in your face. It doesn’t go away,” Denise said. “Sometimes I don’t feel any farther than I was at the very beginning.”
Enough time has lapsed that people get uncomfortable when she brings up Mandy. They want her to stop talking about her dead daughter.
“I’m proud of her still. I want to keep her memory fresh,” Denise said. “I will want to talk about her when I’m 80.”
In the wake of Mandy’s death, Denise created a Facebook group for mourning moms, where they can share the struggles of losing a child. Some of the mothers have children who were left severely disabled after a traumatic injury.
Denise wonders how she’ll cope as Mandy’s friends reach major milestones. Engagements, weddings, graduations, job offers — all things she eyed for her daughter. It feels terribly unfair that Mandy, despite her hard work in high school, was robbed of all the experiences she could have had, her mother said.
“I need to experience the world at its finest and at its worst,” Mandy wrote in her journal on Sept. 6, 2009. “I need to write my soul’s discoveries and sing my heart’s desires. I need to hear from God on a mountain top, and listen to the people in the valley. I …
just need to live.”
Always have purpose
Though Denise acknowledges that she will never get over Mandy’s death and may never fully be at peace with it, she does realize that her daughter’s life still had — and has — a purpose.
Mandy still has a legacy at Share, the Vancouver shelter. A food pantry at Mountain View High School, which collects food and necessities for the organization, was renamed “Mandy’s Pantry” after her death.
Money that would have gone toward Mandy’s college tuition instead was spent on uniforms for Mountain View gymnasts, and three annual scholarships for students at the high school. One scholarship will go to one gymnast each year. Another is called the “Live with Purpose” scholarship, available to a senior who best demonstrates how his or her life will serve a greater purpose. The third scholarship will allow a seventh Mountain View student to attend Leadership Camp; the high school pays for six students a year.
When Mandy was 14, she wrote a journal entry about the importance of living a life of purpose.
“People aren’t scared of the actual act of death itself,” she wrote Dec. 14, 2008. “They’re just scared of living only to die, thus comes purpose. ALWAYS have it. Nothing of importance ‘dies’ after death.”
Threads of life
This January, Denise stood before fabric scraps piled high on a long table. Tears filled her brown eyes as she clutched a framed picture of Mandy: “This is a lot harder than I thought it would be.”
It was a Saturday afternoon. She was in a conference room on the second floor of the Lions VisionGift building in southeast Portland. People buzzed around her: volunteers, seamstresses and other people who had lost someone.
Her oldest son’s girlfriend, Teighlor Glavin, was at her side, helping her dream up Mandy’s quilt square for the 2012 Threads of Life Quilt. The project celebrates organ donors.
She watched other people puff paint their loved one’s names on 8-by-8 inch fabric squares.
Denise recalled Mandy writing a Walt Whitman poem in puff paint on a bandana that she hung in her bedroom; her handwriting was beautiful, Denise said.
She pawed through the fabrics, settling on a pure, white background for Mandy’s photo, perhaps bordered with a blue ribbon. They were her school colors at Mountain View. If she had gone to Western Washington University, they would have been her colors there, too.
“This is draining. You wouldn’t think it would be, but it is,” Denise said.
Stephen Rice, program director at Donate Life Northwest, walked up to Denise with his baby boy cradled in his arm. They talked about how she could get more involved by speaking at assemblies and medical conferences. Denise wants doctors to tell patients that reaching out to donor families can help with the healing process.
“(Doctors) don’t think about where that tissue comes from,” Rice said. “It’s all very clinical.”
The quilt square didn’t turn out the way Denise initially planned. Instead of a white quilt square, she used navy blue and outlined Mandy’s picture in white. She wanted the words “Mandy Lathim — a life with purpose” embroidered above Mandy’s picture, but the embroidery machine was broken.
When a volunteer seamstress finished the square, she turned it over in her hands. Sewing the silky navy fabric had created some bumps in the square that she hadn’t anticipated.
But, the seamstress pointed out, hardly any of her finished projects end up the way she plans them to.
Teighlor turned to Denise, smiled, shrugged and said, “Such is life.”