Gifts from a Stranger


“For, if ye forgive men their trespasses your heavenly Father will also forgive you;

“But if ye forgive not men their trespasses neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (3 Ne. 13:14–15.)

I paused unwillingly at those verses in the Book of Mormon, then forced myself to read them again. The message was clear: Christ had not added, in his sermons in the New Testament or to the Nephites, anything approaching “unless it is difficult for you.” My stubborn spirit resisted, though. I had carried anger and resentment against someone for a long time. The hurt I had felt initially was still sharp, intensified by the time that had passed. The injury was deep; the offense, I thought, inexcusable. My feelings seemed to be justified. How could the Lord hold my inability to forgive against me? Forgiveness, in this case, was too much to expect of a mere mortal.

All of my rationalizing didn’t make me feel any better. The burden of the resentment I carried grew daily. I knew I had to let it go. I prayed, many times in tears, to be able to do so. But the feeling continued, clouding my days.

I felt a terrible sense of guilt. I had a testimony of the gospel. Why should it be so hard for me to live this principle? My life had been so greatly blessed by my Father in Heaven!

Then, at age thirty-two, I suffered complete kidney failure. My life was saved through the selfless gift of a kidney, donated by my dear mother. Three family members matched—each of whom could donate and each of whom wanted to. The love I felt from all of them was tremendous. I realized what a blessing it was to have such a family.

Life after the transplant seemed remarkable to me. After years of illness, and particularly the difficult months when I was undergoing dialysis, simple things became extraordinary. Every morning was a blessing; every sunset, a benediction. I found a new appreciation for this incredibly lovely world God created for us and cherished each day spent with my husband, Scott, and our son, Matthew. We all realized how precious life is and how fragile our existence here.

Five years went by, and my condition deteriorated. The diabetes I had developed in childhood continued to ravage my body, despite every effort to control it. The resulting nerve damage had partially paralyzed my stomach muscles while I was still a teenager, making food absorption erratic, constantly complicating the effort to balance diet with insulin injections. Frequent episodes of critically low blood sugar—each potentially fatal—had caused memory loss, though I monitored myself with home blood tests constantly. Diabetic retinopathy had taken the vision in one eye many years before, so I lived in daily apprehension of suffering a hemorrhage in my remaining good eye. And I wondered, how much longer until this precious kidney from my mother would be destroyed, as my own had been?

Medical science offered one last solution: a pancreas transplant. Still considered experimental by the insurance companies, the surgery would need to be paid for by another means. We didn’t have the funds ourselves, but family and friends again surrounded me with love and generous support. My parents withdrew retirement savings. Other gifts, large and small, poured in, and the needed amount was raised.

The day my name was put on the organ waiting list, I wept with both relief and trepidation. Few such procedures had been done, and this would be the first of its kind in Utah. The outcome was uncertain, yet my life without it would likely be brief.

A calmness came to me that I could not explain. I had gained a strong personal testimony of the reality of the divinity of Jesus Christ and his love for us, and a firm conviction of the truth of the gospel. A powerful sense of gratitude overwhelmed me.

Months passed. Then at last, the call from the hospital came—a possible donor had been found, and I was instructed to come immediately. In the blur and rush that followed came the solemn knowledge that another family somewhere was grieving their immeasurable loss, which became my opportunity for life.

Then, just minutes before I was taken to surgery, someone told me that a close friend of my nephew had been killed in an accident that day, and the family had decided to donate his organs. I felt a wave of shock at this unexpected turn of events. I did not know the family, but it brought their loss too close to me. The transplant coordinator, anxious to preserve confidentiality, explained that there had been two accidents and two donors that day. I was not told the names of the families, and I would never know which donor was mine.

Scott and my father had given me a beautiful blessing before surgery, and I felt confident I would be all right. Still, lying on the gurney in the hall outside the operating room, I suddenly felt terribly alone. My prayer then was simple but from the depths of my soul. It was answered immediately with an encircling sense of comfort. I became aware that whatever the outcome, everything would be for the best. Life after death became certain knowledge to me, and my fear was gone.

The surgery was completed and tentatively pronounced a success. The threat of organ rejection loomed constantly, though, and the months that followed were difficult. Three times I was hospitalized for antirejection treatment. The treatment caused intense nausea and a host of other side effects. My last dose of a powerful intravenous antirejection drug was administered Thanksgiving Day, and then I was released to go home to my family. Unable to really eat anything, still wondering if the transplant would “take,” and sick from the drugs, I felt again the great love of my family and knew the fight for life was still worthwhile.

My condition improved slowly, and the months went by, each day better than the last. The new pancreas created a balance in my body I had not known before, and a remarkable healing of many of the complications from diabetes took place. I had not realized it was possible to feel so good. Every day became a day of thanksgiving.

A curious thing happened, however, as my health improved; memory of the offense that had troubled me intensified, as did my resentment for the offender. I had never felt this way toward anyone before, and I knew the feelings were wrong. My unhappiness with myself grew in equal measure with the ill feelings I harbored. How could I be so out of tune with the gospel?

As the one-year anniversary date of my pancreas transplant approached, I discussed with my sister-in-law what miraculous changes it had brought to my life. To my surprise, she said, “You know, a few weeks ago I met the mother of the boy who died in that accident.”

My surprise was mixed with curiosity, because over the past year I had thought many times of that family—certain of their grief, grateful for their selfless act that had blessed others. The success of my transplant I had credited to God, but I knew he had worked through others—researchers, surgeons, physicians, and all who had participated; those who contributed financially and those who nursed me so tenderly afterward; and, of course, the unknown family who had donated the precious gift of life in their time of sorrow. I felt indebted to so many.

“She is really an amazing lady,” my sister-in-law went on, referring to the mother of the boy who had died. “I didn’t mention you, but I discovered from others who know her that after her son’s death she reacted in an unusual way. She learned that the man responsible for the accident was alone and without any family. He was having a terrible time living with the knowledge that he had taken a life and was desperately miserable.

“This woman has actually taken him into her life, adopting him as a grandparent figure in the family. She looks after him, visits, invites him to dinner with them. She has been a great source of comfort to him. Isn’t that almost unbelievable?”

Stunned, I sat silent for a moment. I thought of my own son and could not imagine being capable of reacting to a loss of this kind in such a compassionate way. At last, I said, “That really is a Christlike love, isn’t it?” My sister-in-law, unaware of my own personal struggle to forgive another, nodded.

The magnitude of that woman’s love overwhelmed me, and I envied her capacity for forgiveness. How petty my own injury seemed in comparison.

The following Sunday as I sat waiting to take the sacrament, I pondered on the sacrifice of the Savior, and his words at Calvary: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34.) And I understood that even as he was being nailed to the cross, he truly loved those who were in the act of taking his life. His counsel for us to forgive everyone was given not to make our lives more difficult but to release us from self-imposed, destructive burdens. While we carry such crushing loads around, we cannot grow in the gospel, and our progress here is halted. He knows us better than we know ourselves, loves us perfectly, and has shown us what is necessary to have joy here as well as to gain eternal happiness and salvation.

With this realization came a sudden release, and all the dark resentment I had harbored so long vanished. The answer to my prayers had come at last. Humbled, I took the sacrament with gratitude and new understanding.

A woman I do not know has twice given me priceless gifts: once, in donating her son’s organs so that strangers might have a chance to physically live; and again, in her example of Christlike love and forgiveness, which has enabled me to live in closer harmony with the gospel I love.

[illustrations] Illustrated by John Kilbourne

Nita D. Milner teaches Relief Society in the Imperial Second Ward, Salt Lake Highland Stake.