My mom was a major 49er’s Fan with a capital “F,” and her favorite player – by far – was Jerry Rice. He was a god in her eyes! She watched every game wearing her #80 football jersey, waving her 49er’s flag and football wand, whooping and hollering every time Jerry would make a catch or a touchdown. It was more fun to watch her than to watch the game most times.
I think, however, that the reason she loved Jerry Rice so much was not because of his incredible athletic skills- his speed, finesse, grace or Spiderman-like ability to catch and hold on to a ball. The reason she loved him so much was because of his heart. She could see that he put his entire heart and soul not only into the game but also into living. It was like he lived to make others feel better about themselves, no matter if they were on the field or not.
It was this generous, loving spirit I was given the gift of witnessing first hand almost exactly nine years ago in March of 2001.
It turns out that, all those years my mom was cheering and shouting for her ’9ers, a ravaging disease known as Hepatitis C was slowly turning her liver into cement. It had lain dormant in her body for over thirty years. But in 1994, the year Jerry made 149 yards and three touchdowns to win the Superbowl, she was put on the waiting list for a liver transplant due to the ferocity of its progress. She managed to keep herself healthy with a rigorous regimen of Chinese herbs, diet and regular visits to the clinic at Stanford. However, in January, 2001, she took a bad fall which precipitated a rapid decline. We ended up rushing her to our local hospital on Valentine’s Day with an acute case of pancreatitis.
Mom was very sick – she had been fighting this battle for over seven years, but with the opening the pancreatitis provided, the disease decided to make its final assault. If we didn’t find a donor liver for her immediately, she wasn’t going to make it. She was transferred Valentine’s night to Stanford Medical Center where she received the finest of care and spent her last month alive.
I moved into the hospital with her, setting up a cot and watching over her night and day. We took the kids out of school so they could be close by, and she had more visitors than she knew what to do with. Family, friends, doctors, nurses – if they didn’t know her before, everyone who came into her room fell in love with her by the time they left. As her stay went from days to weeks, and her health and energy deteriorated, everyone on her “team” began to feel that she needed as many boosts as possible in order to maintain her hope in the possibility that a liver would turn up in time.
She wasn’t getting any closer to her life-saving transplant, though; as a matter of fact, it seemed like it was slipping through out fingers. There is a window of optimization with transplants; you need to be sick enough to be eligible and healthy enough to withstand the grueling day-long surgery. We really needed a miracle- something to boost her spirits and our hopes. That’s when someone had the brilliant idea of seeing if we could have Jerry Rice surprise her with a visit, or even a phone call. That would give her something to talk about!
So, as she slept with her #80 football jersey for a pillow case, and her little football wand laying on her nightstand, we schemed. Jerry was right there conspiring with us, in a manner of speaking. In her quiet room we had come to call home, covered wall-to-wall with cards, posters, photos and banners from the worldwide multitude of friends and family who were rooting for her, we brainstormed about who we knew and who we knew who knew someone.
Then, after about a week, it seemed our miracle might be on its way. It just so happened that some of the nurses who were working with mom knew of another nurse – Krishna – who was a nanny for Jerry Rice when she wasn’t caring for people at the hospital. The nurses arranged a meeting with her, and she was truly one of the sweetest people I have ever met. No wonder she was the nanny for such a great guy! Krishna came to mom’s hospital room and talked with us about India – her home country – and mom’s worsening condition with such love and presence, we knew she would be able to help us. She told us she would convey mom’s story to Mr. Rice, and see if she could arrange something.
What seemed like an eternity went by without a word; in reality is was only a few days. But when you’re waiting for the break that will save someone’s life, every second seems like a week. By now, mom had slipped into a semi-comatose state, just breathing and resting her tired body. She hadn’t responded to us verbally for several days, and seemed to be slipping away.
On March 11th, however, our miracle came through. The phone, which was in pretty constant use with all the well-wishes and prayers, rang. I picked it up. It was Jerry Rice. I couldn’t believe it! “Oh my God!” I whispered to everyone in the room, covering the receiver with my hand. “It’s Jerry Rice!!!”
He listened very graciously as I explained the situation… mom would most likely not respond to him, but he could know that somewhere, somehow she was hearing him and what an incredible, wonderful surprise and lift that would give her spirit. Before I put the phone to mom’s ear, I said, “Mom, there’s someone very special on the phone for you…. It’s Jerry Rice!” She stirred, turned her head, and mumbled something. It was the first time she had responded that much in four days. “Go ahead, Mr. Rice.” As I held the receiver to her ear, I could hear him saying, “Hi Wendy. It’s Jerry Rice.” She turned and stretched her neck, as if trying to wake up. “Now, Wendy, I want you to be strong. You hang in there, Wendy!”
Then the real miracle occurred, when somehow, from deep inside of her, she managed to mumble weakly, “Okay.” Then he said, “Okay, Wendy. You take care now,” and I got back on the phone with him. “Thank you so much, Mr. Rice. You have no idea what a gift you have given her. Thank you.” “You take care now, and take care of your mom. Be strong,” he replied. And I really felt like he meant it. I hung up, and looked over at mom. “Hey, mom. That was Jerry Rice!” A weak smile flickered across her face. She had heard.
We were all shedding tears of joy and deep gratitude for this man who had taken time out of his busy life to call a woman who he didn’t know at all, but who deeply admired him. I will never forget his generosity, nor the generosity of Krishna, the nurse who so willingly went out of her way to help a very loved woman and her family and friends in our time of trouble.
Unfortunately, the gift of that donor liver never came in time… my mom slipped away at one in the morning on the 15th – the Ides – of March, 2001. But she did receive a the most precious gift- the gift of love- from a man she had idolized for years.
Thank you, Jerry, for one of the greatest presents my mom could ever have received. Thank you, and bless you for being such a wonderful example of what it is to be a true human being.