With the sudden and tragic death of Robin Williams last month there have been a lot of stories circulating by media and internet recently regarding suicide. If you spend time online or watch the news you have heard a lot about it and maybe even learned something but we all hope we will never truly know what the effects of a loved one’s suicide will feel like.
Hallie Twomey’s son, Christopher John (C.J.) took his own life at the age of 20 in 2010. After an argument with Hallie he stormed out of their home and shot himself in the car. The guilt, pain and devastation was unimaginable and overwhelming for Hallie and her family.
Hallie, whose father is a heart transplant recipient, found some peace in that C.J. was an organ donor. His untimely death saved several lives through organ donation and helped others through cornea and tissue donation. This is how I came to meet Hallie as one of our volunteers at New England Organ Bank. I found her story so powerful and inspiring yet incredibly sad and scary. If Hallie had any idea that her son was in so much pain that he would take his own life she would have done anything to save him.
After losing C.J. she started some projects to honor his memory. As a volunteer at NEOB she would share her very personal story and struggle telling others about how C.J. is gone but he lives on in the others he saved through organ donation. It doesn’t stop the pain but it gives her some peace and a reason to smile. She also started an annual blood drive/ fundraiser held on the anniversary of his death each year. The event encourages people to donate blood to the American Red Cross and also register as an organ and tissue donor. John Brooks, C.J.’s kidney recipient, has attended the event every year to show his support and pay tribute to the young man that gave him a second chance at life.
Meanwhile, C.J.’s ashes sat in an urn on the Twomey’s shelf for three and a half years. Hallie knew it wasn’t right. C.J. was a former member of the Air Force with a sense of adventure. He was a thrill seeker with a plan to see the world but now that his time on earth was over Hallie needed to find a way for him to live out that dream. In the fall of 2013, Hallie reached out on Facebook to ask others who might be traveling to bring a small amount of C.J.’s ashes with them to scatter. It was a new way to honor her son and his legacy. The Scattering C.J. page was built to ask others to participate and within a month it had over 4,000 ‘likes’ and requests from people all over the country to participate in C.J.’s journey. Eventually the story gained world wide attention and appeared on cnn.com and buzzfeed news. As of today the page has over 17,000 ‘likes’ and C.J. has been scattered in 46 U.S. states and close to 100 different countries all over the world. In addition, he is scheduled to go into space possibly as soon as next month with the help of Celestis Memorial Spaceflights.
A month before Jared and I were in Mont Tremblant Canada for the Ironman I was with Hallie at the Donate Life Transplant Games in Houston, TX. I asked her what she thought about me scattering C.J. in Quebec and she was thrilled. When I returned home she sent me the ‘Scattering C.J. starter kit’ (that’s not really what it’s called – I just made it up). It contained C.J.’s photo, a small packet of ashes, a thank you note and the detailed instructions including a request to think about who C.J. was, the people he gave life to through organ and tissue donation and to tell him how much they love him and that she is sorry.
For the weeks before we left on our trip I kept the envelope with my passport to make certain it was at the top of the packing priorities. I had thought long and hard about when and where I would scatter the ashes and the photos I would take and the brilliantly penned blog post I would publish to share the amazing story with everyone. I imagined that on a beautiful morning as the sun was rising on Lac Tremblant I would send C.J. off in the water following all of my instructions and it would be a perfect moment. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly how it went. It poured rain all day Saturday and we never even got down to the water for Jared to do a practice swim. Any time we were outside we were huddling under a tent to stay dry. On Sunday, race morning, the beach was so packed with spectators and athletes I couldn’t get close to the water. Also, in Hallie’s instructions it specifically says to be cautious scattering the ashes and try not to draw attention to yourself. I thought it may look suspicious if a non-athlete was scattering an unknown powder substance in the lake during an Ironman so I waited.
Eventually, when most of the athletes begun their swim and the spectators left the beach, I scattered some of the ashes on the beach. Later in the day, after I saw Jared half way through the bike, I walked along the course and continued to scatter him there. Following all Hallie’s instructions, I thought about C.J. and the family he left behind and silently told him that his mother loves him and that she is sorry. I thanked him for choosing to be an organ donor and for being a hero to the transplant recipients he helped. I asked him to watch over Jared and all of the athletes competing that day. I scattered as much of the ashes out of the small plastic bag that I could and then placed it in my pocket to carry with me the rest of the day.
Once it was done I felt a sense of calm. I’m certain it was a combination of my ‘conversation’ with C.J. and the fact that I didn’t let Hallie down in my commitment to be a part of this important project.
Read my blog post regarding the Ironman Mont Tremblant here: Spectating at Ironman Mont Tremblant
I am so proud to have contributed to Scattering C.J. and I could help add to the list of all the places he has been. So many of us want to be remembered and leave a legacy. Although C.J. left all too soon, he is alive in the hearts of his friends, his family, his mother, father and his brother. He is alive in the liver recipient, kidney recipients and lung recipient he gave new life to. He is alive in the cornea recipient he gave sight to. He is alive in the people who received kidney transplants thanks to Hallie’s decision to be a kidney donor in a donation chain. He is alive in each person who has been touched and inspired by his story.
Thank you, C.J. May you rest in peace.
To register as an organ and tissue donor visit www.donatelife.net
To learn more about Scattering C.J. visit the Scattering CJ page on Facebook
I wish I had an opportunity to meet C.J. as a volunteer for NEOB in honor of his grandfather’s transplant. I wish he got out of the car and went back inside to tell his mom and dad that he was hurting and he needed their help. C.J. should be with us today and while beautiful things have happened with the gifts he left behind, they will never fill the void in the hearts of everyone that knew him. If anyone who happens to be reading this feels like that may relate to C.J.’s pain please seek help. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is a good place to start.