My friend George died on April 29th. I wrote most of this post on May 1st, but it seemed too soon. I left it here in my draft folder and waited, wondering when would be a good time to post it, and there is no good time. Yesterday, Sept. 10th, my friend Pam died suddenly. I’ve lost two amazing friends this year – two people I admired for their grace and gentle wisdom. With both losses, each time I surfaced from the waves of grief, all I and think was, “He was my friend,” or “she was my friend.” All I could think about, all I can think about is how much I truly loved these people. It is too soon to tell you all about Pam, but in losing her and wishing I could have told her how much I admired her, I know that now is the time to talk about George.
I think about George as a whole a person, how reliable and energetic he was. I think about his beautiful and beloved wife, and how adorable they were together. I remembered how he looked the last time I saw him. In the deepest parts of my grief I forgot George even had CHD, he was not a cause or a label. George was just my friend.
In my heart of hearts, George is my friend . . . was my friend. He was a good friend who told me life stories not just CHD stories. He was a true friend of mine. In the broader world George was a champion for CHD advocacy and awareness.
The first time I saw Dr. George Warren was at The Children’s Hospital in Denver before Liam had his Fontan. It was probably 2005 if I remember correctly and Liam would have been 2. George was on a panel at the Cardiac Kids’ parent education day. He wasn’t treating patients because he wasn’t a pediatrician, cardiologist, or surgeon. George was a pathologist. He was an MD, but he was also born with a serious and complicated heart defect (TOF) that, sixty-five years ago, was almost always fatal. There were never many people George’s age living with complex CHD, but there was never anyone just like George in any generation.
I saw George speak again at another conference, and that time, entirely by coincidence, I was sitting next to his wife Ros. She is an amazing woman in her own right. George was always open and graceful in speaking about CHD, the medical challenges, how he was dissuaded from pursing his MD but he saw that as a challenge not a barrier.
Even though George and Ros didn’t have their own children, George had an uncanny ability to understand what it was like for us heart parents. He frequently said his mother didn’t stop worrying about him until she passed away in her 80s. She was a brave woman who raised a resilient child. I never met his mother, but I felt like I knew her through George. George was also a father figure to many in the Adult Congenital Heart Association, of which he was a member for many years. He was so proud of his service to that organization. He was a bright light of hope for young people reconciling their possibilities against their challenges.
In retrospect, George’s example of openness and his ability to use his life as a learning experience for others shaped the advocate I became. Our lives converged early enough in my journey as Liam’s mother that, though his influence was gentle, it was persistent. Looking back, I see that George’s subtle but powerful influence shaped my attitudes and my actions in profound and lasting ways. George didn’t merely give me hope that Liam could have a longer life than I expected, but that he could have an amazing life and accomplish anything. There was no better role model for me early in my motherhood.
George was first in line to help us pull off the very first Congenital Heart Walk in Colorado in 2010. When I had no one else on board, I had George. That first year we had four people on the planning committee. Last year, 2012, we had so many volunteers I didn’t have jobs ready for all of them. George helped build that. The Congenital Heart Walk is just one part of the legacy of Dr. George Warren, but it was the one where we bonded the most.
I received an email from George, not long before he died, telling me he planned to attend our Congenital Heart Walk planning meetings through September, but he was very sad he would have to miss it for a trip to Oregon. No one knew, not even George, that he would be leaving us in April. I was sad he wasn’t going to make it to the walk, now I’m devastated that I won’t see him again. I will miss him so much. We all spoke about how losing him this year made the 2013 Congenital Heart Walk bittersweet.
The 2013 walk is this Saturday. I will be in the same place I was the last time I saw George at last year’s walk. As the clean up was winding down, he gave me a big pat on the back before he left. I watched him walk away. Though I was busy packing things, I remember feeling lucky to have George on our team. He was so dependable and passionate. He was the best example of grace and persistence to all of the families who came to the walk regardless of their age or situation. Even though he’s gone, George will remain a beacon of hope for many people. Losing George broke my heart, and it had nothing to do with CHD. When it’s all boiled down and we take away the CHD, the circumstances, the details of time and place, all that’s left if the simple truth that George was my friend, and a what good friend he was.