Angel Heart

On the afternoon of Halloween I was handed an assignment that at first I didn’t believe. And the more I learned about it, the more I realized how unbelievable it really was.

After photographing trick-or-treaters, I drove over to a hotel in Lynchburg and waited in the lobby with reporter Casey Gillis, her friend Jennifer and Jennifer’s friend Lindsay. Within a few minutes we would be meeting Derri Engstrom and her family, who had arrived from Minnesota that afternoon to complete an amazing journey that led to Lindsay.

Two years earlier, Lindsay gave birth to a little girl, Lillian, who seemed as healthy as any mother could hope. Not long after, however, Lil was diagnosed with a condition that required multiple surgeries on her lower intestine. At seven months old and on life support, doctors told Lindsay that there was nothing else they could do. There was, however, something else Lindsay could do: agree to donate the girl’s heart to another child in need. Lindsay and her boyfriend, Johnny, agreed to do it and had no idea where the heart went for over a year.

Five months earlier, in Minnesota, Derri Engstrom’s son Easten was born with a heart defect that left half of his heart almost useless. Enduring multiple surgeries as well, he was hospitalized and the Engstroms prepared for the worst. Then they got word that a heart was on its way and they prepped little Easten for his biggest surgery yet. The surgeon said it was the best fit he had ever seen. The Engstroms called it his “angel heart.” Derri said she always wondered where the heart had come from.

On the anniversary of the surgery, Derri sent a letter through the donor organization that eventually reached Lindsay, and they decided to talk on the phone. That led to emails and an eventual plan to meet in person. I didn’t learn of any of this until the Engstroms were already in Lynchburg, in their hotel room, getting ready to meet Lindsay in the lobby. I felt like I skipped right to the end of the story, reading the last page without knowing how it all came to be. Luckily, I got to spend a couple more days with them and discovered the depth of their connection and the improbability of the whole situation. They repeatedly described each other as “family” and the two moms treated each other like sisters. I couldn’t distinguish the tears of joy from the tears of grief that both mothers shed.

Here are the photos we published from that weekend, of brand new friends who had already been through more together than many people do in a lifetime. The News & Advance published Casey’s article on Thanksgiving, as Lindsay joined the Engstroms at their home in Minnesota so they could spend another holiday together.

Lizard Legacy

Although he has been in my sister’s and then my parents’ care for the last five years, my leopard gecko Ardie died today. He lost sight in both eyes years ago and hasn’t been able to feed himself for a long time. In the last month he went downhill quickly and lost about half his body weight. When my mother took him to the vet recently, his charts indicated DOB as 1994. 18 years. I thought he was only 14. Which means he lived a longer life than I even realized. RIP little guy.

This photo is from probably one of my earliest “studio” shoots ever, from 2002, for which I used a lamp, some leaves and a big white piece of cardboard. I’d guess it was taken in the fall…

Wait and Hope

I can hear your laugh. I’m sure it is the first thing most people imagine when they think of you, that genuine, all-knowing chuckle. You’ve lived more life already than your years would suggest and you’ve made countless friends along the way. I don’t even recognize the names of these people who signed your cards, all sending you their love. Now here I am and I don’t even know where to start, what to say… I mean, you might still wake up and read this some day. At least that’s the scenario I choose to envision.

The person lying on this bed in front of me, dressed in only a thin gown, his labored breaths punctuated by blips and beeps from the monitors — I can’t connect that to the animated person with whom I’ve shared so many adventures. I think we’ve been yelled at by the cops at least a half-dozen times and now you won’t even squeeze my hand. I know we haven’t been as close the last few years, and I know there are no hard feelings. That’s just how it goes sometimes. But I can’t imagine losing the other half of all the memories we’ve made; I’m going to have to do the remembering for both of us now.

Your mom explains that they have detected swelling on your brain and are increasing your sedation. The news hits me like another punch in the gut. Is there even any use asking “why” to all this? No conclusive explanation or profound reasoning will make any of this easier. We’ll probably never know if the batteries were dead or if you tried to move or if the fire just spread too quickly. There seem to be so many variables that could have changed this outcome but I try to kick the “what if” thoughts from my mind; I know that path just leads to unresolved dead ends and more frustration. So all we have left to do is wait. Wait and hope. And pray, in whatever form we do. These thoughts are my prayer, my most sincere wish that you will come out to play shuffleboard again, or go night swimming. Or just laugh…

Your dad hugged me and thanked me for coming to visit. Of course, I say. And I mean it. I follow the signs in the ICU back toward the elevator. As the doors close, I think to myself: I should thank him. Thank him for bringing such a wonderful person into my life in the first place. Without such supportive parents, I’d never have any of those memories at all. I’ll tell him another time, I promise myself, because I know there will be many more visits to come.

Keep fighting, Leon


Leon wading in the moonlight at Hidden Beach in Minneapolis, July, 2009. Right before the police showed up…