GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – For more than 20 years – since a horrible car crash outside Springerville, Ariz. – they were strangers connected by a gift.
The mother who donated her dying daughter’s liver hoped the child who received it found happiness.
The girl who received that organ hoped that the mother who gave it found peace.
On Saturday, these two women finally had a chance to answer each other’s questions.
Mary Jo Morris walked up to Becky Anzelone and gave her a big hug.
Anzelone, who promised herself she was not going to cry, broke that promise immediately.
“Oh, look at you,” Becky said, holding Mary Jo’s face. “My little spark plug, look at you.”
Both women were aware that Mary Jo is alive today because in the days after that crash, Becky decided to donate her daughter Jennifer’s organ.
But Saturday they did not talk about the icy road or fate or randomness.
Instead, they went through hundreds of pictures of Mary Jo growing up.
The family snapshots chronicle the life of a sick young girl.
In picture after picture, she grows weaker. The side effects of the drugs she was taking become more pronounced.
Those pictures are before 1984, when Mary Jo got her transplant.
Liver transplantation was so risky then that Becky did not expect that the girl who received her daughter’s organ would still be alive.
“I always hoped she would live a couple of years,” Becky said. “Just a little more time with her family.”
Mary Jo, now 33, defied the odds and lived.
In the pictures after the surgery, she is strong and smiling.
That was when she began to wonder more about the girl who died and allowed her to live.
“I always wanted to know her name. Her habits. Who she was,” Mary Jo said. “What games did she play?”
Sunday, Dec. 16, 1984, started as a good day for Becky, who at the time was known by her maiden name, Becky Silva.She had taken her three children to Springerville to celebrate her father’s birthday.
A friend was driving the family back home to Tempe when the car spun out of control on a patch of ice and hit a large truck.
The collision was violent and the results tragic.
Becky’s youngest child, 5-year-old Clint McDonnell, died instantly.
Jennifer McDonnell, 12, was gravely injured.
Her middle child, Mark McDonnell, survived.
Immediately after the accident, Becky did not know any of this.
“I had no idea how serious of an accident it was. I woke up in somebody’s vehicle on the way to the hospital,” Becky said through tears.
“It was terrifying. I wanted to know where my children were. How they were.”
Jennifer had been taken to another hospital and then flown to Phoenix.
Jennifer’s father, Mark McDonnell, was by his daughter’s side at the hospital.
“We were communicating the best we could,” Becky said.
Jennifer was not going to make it.
When the subject turned to organ donation, Becky said the decision was easy for her and Jennifer’s father.
“Oh, absolutely I knew it was the right decision. You have one chance to turn something horrible into something wonderful,” she said. “And if you don’t make it then, you never can.
Jennifer’s liver and one kidney were donated.
Becky started to deal with her losses.
“I lost the two in the accident, then my remaining son went to live with his father because I was so badly injured,” Becky said. “One day I had three children, and then the next I had none.”
4 weeks to live
Mary Jo – “my friends call me Jo” – was diagnosed with Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency before she was 3.
Her mother, Joyce Morris, remembers her daughter was given six months to live.
Alpha-1 antitrypsin is a protein made in the liver that prevents the breakdown of enzymes in various organs, according to the American Liver Foundation.
Children with a deficiency can develop severe liver problems.
“I was weak, tired. There were a lot of days when I could not go to school,” Mary Jo said of her childhood.
Joyce quit her job to take care of her daughter.
“She was very sick. Very weak. She had rickets. She had her spleen removed. She had gastrointestinal bleeding,” Joyce said. “She spent five years in a wheelchair.”
Mary Jo was dying of cirrhosis at age 10.
Her only hope to live was a new liver. So the family started raising money to cover mounting medical expenses.
“We had softball tournaments, dinners. We had a marathon,” Mary Jo said. “We had canisters – coffee cans, really – at gas stations all over town. I remember those canisters.”
Eventually they flew to see Dr. Walter Andrews at Children’s Medical Center Dallas.
“Dr. Andrews told us he would have a liver in four weeks,” Joyce said. “She was that bad.”
The Morris family went back home to Grand Rapids and waited.
Finally, the phone rang.
Joyce and Jerry Morris walked into their daughter’s room.
“We woke her up and said, ‘Mary Jo, we got the call,’ ” Joyce remembered. “We asked her, ‘Do you still want this?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ ”
In 1984, liver transplantation meant up to 18 hours on an operating table. The survival rate for one year was less than 60 percent, Andrews said.
But Mary Jo, accurately described by her mother as feisty, made it out of that first year.
Every year her family celebrates two birthdays: The date of her birth and Dec. 18, the date of her transplant.
While Mary Jo began the process of regaining a normal life, Becky was left with nothing.
She had donated one of Jennifer’s kidneys to another young girl. That girl’s family wrote Becky a letter expressing their gratitude.
“I carried it in my purse for two years after the accident,” she said. “It got me through. They were so sympathetic to me and so happy at the same time.”
Mary Jo’s family tried to send Becky letters and pictures, but she never received them.
Eventually, Becky, now 56, put away the one letter she did have from the family of the kidney recipient.
“The letter is packed away somewhere. I don’t know if I can even find it,” Becky said, crying.
“It’s all packed away. It’s in boxes. And boxes inside of boxes. It’s all very painful for me.”
Becky dealt with more tragedy years after the accident.
Her only remaining child, Mark, died in another car accident in 1998. He was 23.
“I’ve had a very hard time,” Becky said.
The phone call
Earlier this year, Mary Jo decided it was time to find the woman whose daughter’s liver was inside of her.
All she knew about the donor was that she was a 12-year-old girl from Arizona.
She called organ-donation centers, but it was difficult to find Becky Silva, who had remarried, taken a new name, and moved to Buffalo, N.Y. She still spends her winters in Arizona.
When she was finally located by The Arizona Republic, Becky was floored.
“They told me a little girl got her kidney and a little girl got her liver,” Becky said. “I’m crying as I’m talking to you. Wow. Wow.”
Becky called Mary Jo.
“When I first heard Becky, I started shaking and crying,” Mary Jo said. “I was at the garage, and the mechanic finally walked up to me and asked if he was going to need to drive me home.”
That phone call this summer was the first of many.
Becky told Mary Jo about losing all three of her children.
Mary Jo told Becky about the disease that made her sick. She told her that the same disease killed her older brother four years ago.
Mary Jo told her about going back to school, about her job driving the shuttle from the airport to rental-car agencies in Grand Rapids.
She told her about her longtime relationship with her boyfriend, Mike.Becky told Mary Jo about Jennifer.
Her daughter had long hair. It was blond in the summer and darker in the winter.
She had blue eyes. “Irish blue eyes. Dark blue.”
She told Mary Jo that her daughter was her best friend.
The two women made arrangements to meet. Becky wanted it to be in Grand Rapids so she could meet Mary Jo’s family.
One thing they did not do was exchange pictures. They agreed they should see each other for the first time in person.
And on Saturday, they finally did.
Mary Jo introduced Becky to her parents and her boyfriend. They sat on the porch on a beautiful fall day and tried to figure out how to talk to a stranger you are already close to.
Then they went out to dinner.
Becky knows meeting Mary Jo will not take away the sadness of losing her children.
It will, however, remind her that her daughter’s life, although far too short, continues to matter.
“I am so happy that something good came from this tragedy,” Becky said.
“It does not make the pain go away. It adds another chapter. A good chapter. I needed that.”