There are three men at the heart of this story, but only two of them are still alive. One man has religious faith and the other does not, but now, because of the strange turnings of the universe, they’re united in a message of rebirth and hope and gratitude. The story really belongs to the third man, whose death brought them together.
It starts more than 26 years ago in Sudbury, Ont., when the third man was born a girl. The baby’s mother, Suzanne Corbeil, was so convinced that she was having a boy that for her entire pregnancy she called her bump Adam. When the doctors announced that the baby was in fact a girl, Suzanne was stunned. She found a place for Adam in the baby’s full name: Rebecca Danielle Adam Prashaw.
Rebecca’s parents, Suzanne and Rick Prashaw, had met in Sudbury. They met at a Catholic church, where Rick was the priest. He was a priest who had always wanted children, who would get on the floor and play with the kids when his parishioners invited him to dinner. He had made peace with the idea of never having children of his own. And then he met Suzanne, who had three children, and he fell in love. He had never expected to leave the priesthood: He went on a retreat with Jesuits for 40 days to meditate on the path he should take. He chose, and left to make a life with Suzanne and her family.
At the age of 41, Rick became a dad, as he writes in his memoirs Soar, Adam, Soar, “punch-drunk ecstatic” at the arrival of Rebecca, his little girl. The little girl resisted traditionally girly things. She had to be coaxed into wearing a dress for her first communion. She was a tough and able hockey goalie. At the age of five, something alarming occurred: Rebecca began to experience seizures, and she was diagnosed with epilepsy. A series of major brain surgeries would disrupt her childhood. And yet Rebecca was joyful and scrappy and mischievous.
But she was also not Rebecca. “Since I was a baby even in my mom’s womb, I always considered myself a boy,” Rick and Suzanne’s child wrote in a Facebook post in 2014, announcing that his name was Adam. “I’ve had to hide it all my life,” Adam, 21, wrote. “I just want now my family and friends still to be there and love and accept me for who I am.”
Adam’s parents, who had separated, helped him through his transition. He wanted it to happen faster. He wanted to be able to go outside without a shirt on, now. His dad struggled with the pronouns, trying to get it right. Rick wanted his son to never leave, and Adam wanted freedom. Their communication lifelines were Facebook and texting, where Rick could assert his parental right to complain that Adam was spending too much money on tattoos, and Adam could ignore his old man’s advice.
They shared a sense of humour. One day Rick texted Adam, out of the blue, to ask whether he believed in God. Adam zinged back: “I understand God. It’s you I don’t understand.” Rick says, “He’s the kid with the ball cap on backwards, big grin, phone in his hand. That’s the kid I remember. I could never get enough of him.”
In 2016, not long after he’d quizzed Adam about God, Rick was visiting his sister in California when the phone rang. It was a relative in Canada calling with bad news: Adam had been soaking in his building’s hot tub when he’d had a seizure and had been underwater for some time. He’d been taken to Ottawa General Hospital, and was on life support. When it became apparent over the next couple of days that Adam was not going to live, his parents faced a decision that no parent should have to make. Yet, in a way, it had been made for them: Adam had told his mother, when he got his driver’s licence that if it ever came to that, he wanted to be an organ donor. They told the doctor about Adam’s wishes. He was 22.
Rick would learn that there is no word for what he and Suzanne were about to go through. “We know who a widow has lost, we know who orphans are mourning, but there’s not an English word for parents who have lost a child.”
On the weekend that Adam died in Ottawa, John Dickhout was in Toronto waiting for a heart. Three years earlier, when he was 53 years old and working in the Philippines, John had suffered a major heart attack, then another. He was fit, and ate well. It was, as he says, “just random bad luck.” His health spiralled downward and he returned to Canada with his wife, Lynn, an emergency-room nurse. (Later, after his heart had been removed from his body, an examination revealed that he suffered from a disease called sarcoidosis, which normally attacks the lungs.)
He burst into tears the day he decided to put himself on the list for a new heart. He cries now, talking about it. In January of 2016, a message came from Toronto General Hospital: A suitable heart had been donated. But it was a false start, and the heart went to someone else. Amazingly, a call came the very next day. John should not unpack his bag. There was another heart.
John woke up at the hospital with Adam’s heart in his chest, feeling “healthy again, absolutely amazing.” Of course, John didn’t know that it was Adam’s heart. The whole system of organ donation revolves around discretion and confidentiality, and Ontario’s Trillium Gift of Life Network does not allow donors and recipients to know each other’s identities.
This is where the story takes a turn: Most recipients are fine with never knowing about their organ’s original home. They are told they can write a letter, which is stripped of identifying details and then sent to the donor’s family. John was not most people. He “burned to know more.”
The first letter he sent to the Prashaw family was seven pages long, but it ended up being only three pages once all things that might identify him were stripped out. Suzanne and Rick wrote back, and enough identifying details slipped through in their letter to give John a start. He typed “young man seizure goalie celebration of life obituary” and the date of death into Google, and Adam Prashaw’s name popped up.
Now John was torn: He wanted to share his immense feelings of gratitude, but worried he would cause even more anguish if he tried to contact the family. He set up a fake Facebook page under the name Heart Recipient and sent off a message to Rick. “I’m 99 per cent sure I have your son’s heart,” he wrote. He said he would never write again if the family wasn’t interested in hearing from him. Rick messaged back – twice, because the first time he hit send too soon: “This feels like a midnight meeting in an underground parking garage.” They shared the same wry sense of humour, and something else besides.
On a June day several months after the surgery, Rick came to visit John and Lynn at their home in southern Ontario. There were no tears, just a long talk about that divergent weekend – the worst possible weekend for one of them, the highlight of the year for the other. After a few hours, Lynn brought out her stethoscope.
“Would you like to listen to –“
“Yes,” Rick said.
Now, they go out on the road in memory of Adam, both of them carrying Adam’s heart. They talk about Rick’s book, and invite local members of the trans community to talk about their experiences, and someone to talk about organ donations. They ask people to take out their health cards and look at the back: If you’re a registered donor, it will say DONOR. If you’re not, Rick and John will ask you gently to consider becoming one by logging on to beadonor.ca. Rick will say, “You can stand in line all night for an Apple phone that will die in six months but you don’t have two minutes to become a donor? Go home and do it. Honour John. Honour Adam.”
Rick left the pulpit a long time ago and he doesn’t like being preachy, but he’ll do it for the people whose lives literally depend on someone else’s generosity. He thinks about the days when he ministered to people who were grieving, and how little he knew then. ‘’I hope I never told anyone as a priest that time would heal them. I hope to God I never said that, because it isn’t true. It’s permanent, and it has to be permanent because love is permanent.”