There's never been a better name for a person than Charity Sunshine Tillemann-Dick. She died this week, at the age of 35.
Charity was diagnosed with pulmonary arterial hypertension when she was a young opera singer in Europe. She had two double lung transplants in the past ten years, flatlined twice, sank into comas, suffered innumerable close-calls and lights-blinking, horn-blaring intensive care unit emergencies, only to always to come roaring back with rekindled energy and sunny grace — to sing and to shine.
I got to know Charity Sunshine and her family because we were patients at the Cleveland Clinic. She had had the remarkable effect of making you both count your blessings and ask yourself, "If she can do so much, beset by so many challenges, how can I even take the day off with a cold?"
Charity considered every breath she took — to sing, to laugh, to love — a gift from God and from a couple of families who passed the spark of new life on to her with the lungs of their departed loved ones.
When she wrote about her singing debut at Lincoln Center in her beautiful memoir, Encore, Charity recalled the frozen moment of stillness when she took the stage.
"I know I didn't get here alone," she wrote. "I think about my father and my grandfather. About my incredible mother. My brother and sisters. I think of all they've sacrificed to help me reach this moment. I think about my friends and teachers scattered across the globe ... I think of my doctors and my nurses, about the IV hanging out of my arm and the young woman whose death brought me back to life. I think of the lungs I'm rejecting. I think of the breath they've given me. I am about to make my Lincoln Center debut. It's a miracle. But it's not just one. A thousand and one miracles have paved this most unlikely of paths."
"I begin to sing," wrote Charity Sunshine Tillemann-Dick. "There is nothing but darkness, the music, breath, and air. I know I am dying. I've never felt so alive."
And she used that extra life to sing, record albums, write a musical and go out into the world to talk about the vital gift of organ donation.
To know Charity was to feel some of the warmth and strength of the sun. And I know she would want me to use whatever chance I have to speak about her now to say that signing a simple form to donate your organs after you are gone can give new life to people who can use that extra life to bring more grace, love and laughter into this world. And to sing.
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