Photo: Rob Howard
They were mothers from opposite sides of the world awaiting the near impossible—organ transplants for their two critically ill baby boys. What unfolded was a story of life, death, friendship, and a desperate shortage that has many young lives hanging in the balance.
Victoria Marsh and Hiromi Awa are sitting at a table, poring over Japanese characters. Hiromi has chosen these characters for their sounds and meanings and Victoria is in the process of selecting a pair of them to tattoo on her body that night. Some make a sh sound, others an awn, and tattooed together they will read "Sean."
"This sh means 'everywhere,'" Hiromi explains through a translator. "This awn means 'in the clouds.'"
"I like that," Victoria says.
Hiromi shakes her head, dissatisfied. "I worry they are not the right clouds. I fear they may suggest a cloudy day, not the clouds in heaven, which is what we want."
"Then why don't you tell me what you like," Victoria suggests.
"I like this combination," Hiromi replies, pointing to another set of brushstrokes. She has spent a great deal of time researching the characters, contemplating how best to memorialize her friend's baby boy, and though her voice is sad, it's also confident. "This sh means 'flies in the sky.' This awn means 'his voice.' If you put them together your tattoo will mean 'his voice as he flies in the sky.'"
"And if you read it out loud," Victoria confirms, "it will say—"
Victoria looks at Hiromi. Hiromi looks back at her. The translator continues to speak, but the women no longer listen. They shift away from her and lean toward each other. Their shoulders soften. Their eyes move with fast familiarity. They are clearly more comfortable communicating without words. This is what they did for weeks in the hospital, while their sons lay waiting for heart transplants. It's what they're inclined to do again now. But this is the first time they've seen each other in the four months since Sean died, and there are many memorial projects to tend to: an origami table they want to set up at the hospital, a story Hiromi wants to write about Sean, and the design of this tattoo.
"If that's what you like, then it's what I want," Victoria says.
Hiromi's 3-year-old son, Hiro, squirms in her lap. He was the lucky one. His transplant succeeded. When Hiromi brought him to New York from Japan for treatment, it was unclear whether he'd survive the long flight. He was born healthy but developed a rare heart muscle problem at the age of 1, the translator explains to Victoria. "Really?" Victoria asks. Sean was born with a congenital condition in which half of his heart failed to grow, the translator explains to Hiromi. "Ah," Hiromi says nodding. It's hard to believe the women spent all that time together in the hospital without knowing what was wrong with the other's child. But you quickly come to realize they didn't have to know. There were plenty of doctors around with whom to share facts. Far more important was to have someone with whom to share the feeling: the feeling of waiting with your child as he waited for a heart, not knowing whether he would live or die.
"Hiro, you look fantastic!" Victoria cries, smiling warmly at the boy who now has meat on his bones and pink in his cheeks—a color especially precious to heart patients, who tend toward a pearly purple-white.
Hiromi leans over her son and stares at a photo of Sean, which she has placed in a silver frame on the table. Sean was a classically beautiful boy with blue eyes, blond hair, and a mini version of his father's square jaw.
We Hear You!