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Mary Dunn Houston

The year was 2007. In the Spring, we celebrated my parents 50th wedding anniversary. The theme was a fifties style sock hop. Everyone dressed up for the celebration. My Mom wore a pink poodle skirt. My Dad wore jeans, a white t-shirt and a black leather jacket. We had so much fun. As I watched my mom and dad slow dance, I could see that they were still in love. In a few short months our daughter, Mary, was going to marry the love of her life, Brandon. My hope was that they too would be dancing at their fiftieth wedding anniversary.

July 28th was a beautiful sunny day. Mary and Brandon had a small intimate ceremony in our back yard, under a red maple tree next to the pool with about 85 close family and friends. They were both fans of the movie “Princess Bride” and Brandon had inscribed “As You Wish” on the inside of Mary’s wedding band. Mary had asked our son, Rob, to be “Man of Honor.” His speech was wonderful and when he finished, he asked for a brother/sister dance. There wasn’t a dry eye around, especially the bride.

Five weeks after the wedding, Mary and I had a mother/daughter day at the NYS Fair on Labor day. We arrived at 8:00 in the morning, had breakfast, went through the animal buildings, saw the sand sculpture, butter sculpture and of course had our glass of milk. We watched the free show at Chevy Court and then walked around the Fair for awhile more. We had left about 7:30 and I dropped Mary off at P&C in Fayetteville as Brandon was getting out of work at 8:00. They were going to go out to dinner. I went home to relax the rest of the evening. Two hours later I received the phone call that no parent ever wants to get. It was Brandon. He said, “Mary’s been hit by a car and she’s unresponsive.”

On their way home from dinner they had car trouble and broke down on 81 south, a dark stretch of road just south of the city. Mary was standing on the shoulder of the road when a car swerved right to avoid theirs and hit Mary instead. When we arrived at the hospital, the doctor told us she was brain dead. They had her on life support. Later that evening, we were asked about organ donation. We didn’t hesitate to say yes as Mary had become a blood donor her senior year of high school and had given regularly. Every time she came home from giving blood, she would walk in with a big smile and say ”I saved some lives today!” She was a very thoughtful and caring person. Always there to help out a friend or give someone a shoulder to cry on.

The process of questions had begun and when it came time to go through the list of what to donate, we only chose a few. Like many people, we didn’t know a lot about organ donation. Had we known then, what we know now, we would have given more.

Over the next 30 some hours, many family members, friends and co-workers came to the hospital to say goodbye to Mary and give us support. I was thankful to have that extra time with her, if only to hold her hand. The staff at the hospital and the people from Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network were very compassionate and accommodating to our needs. We felt like we were in their way at times, but they managed to do their job by working around us. Many of us were in the room when they cut the locks of hair and took her hand impression. Such a special moment. We treasure our memory box.

In less than six weeks of having the most joyous occasion of our daughter getting married, here we were, planning her funeral. As he did for her wedding, our son, Rob, prepared another speech. I don’t know how he got through it. Again, as at her wedding, there was not a dry eye in the room. Especially Rob’s.

A few days before the funeral we heard through some mutual friends that they were pretty sure who had received Mary’s liver and that he wanted to meet us. I called Michelle Lester to confirm that indeed it was the person they knew. The Sunday before Thanksgiving 2007, my husband Wayne, myself, our son, Rob and Mary’s husband, Brandon, met with Mary’s liver recipient, Dominick Tassone Jr. He owns Dominick’s Restaurant in Syracuse. He lived only 6 miles from us. We also met three of his daughters. In the 3 hours we spent with them, we laughed, cried and shared stories.

Mary wanted to have 5 children. Dominick has 5 children. He also has 13 grand children. We also found out that Dominick’s children graduated from the same high school I did. Mary was a huge Yankee fan, Dominick was a huge Red Sox fan. We gave Dominick some pictures of Mary. At the end of our visit, Dominick offered to generously establish a scholarship in Mary’s name at the high school in which she graduated. The scholarship will go to a student in the Early Childhood Education Field. To date, we have given seven $1000 scholarships to deserving students. There is more money in the scholarship fund now than what we initially started with as family and friends have generously contributed also. Unfortunately, Dominick passed away in 2011. We still keep in touch with his children. His family and friends had some golf tournaments in his memory these past few years and the money has been divided to the scholarship, The Donor Family Network and The CNY Eye & Tissue Bank.

At Mary’s wake, a retired art teacher came through the line and asked if there was anything she could do, please don’t hesitate to call. I took her up on that about a week later. I asked her if she could help us make “Mary Angel” Christmas ornaments out of Mary’s wedding gown. I got the idea because when I was in high school, a fellow band member who played percussion, passed away from leukemia. At the band banquet, his family had made ceramic drum Christmas ornaments for all the band members. To this day, I still hang it on my Christmas tree. Thirty-eight years.

The art teacher designed an angel. Twice a week for 4 weeks, family and friends came to our house to work on the “Mary Angels” They turned out beautiful. We made enough to give to every family that attended the wedding. We even had enough material to make some “Mary Angel’ tree toppers. We passed them out that first Christmas without Mary. It was very emotional, but we had and still have a lot of love and support from family, friends, and coworkers.

My involvement in Donate Life activities began 4 years after Mary’s passing. I was asked to volunteer at the CNY Eye & Tissue Bank Booth at the NYS Fair. I hesitated at first because I hadn’t been back to the Fair since the day Mary and I went that fateful day. I used to cringe whenever I saw an advertisement for the fair. I couldn’t watch the local news stations at fair time because they broadcast from there. But for some reason I felt that I was ready to do this. What a better way to honor Mary’s legacy than to go to the fair and spread the word about eye, tissue and organ donation. I arrived at the fair and took a deep breath. I’m okay. I volunteered for two shifts that year. What an amazing experience. I was hooked.

Through the Donate Life events and gatherings, I have met so many amazing donor families and staff members. I am proud to be an advocate for Eye, Tissue and Organ donation.

Our daughter, Mary, was a very caring and giving person. She lived life to the fullest. She loved country music, The New York Yankees, The New York State Fair and especially being with family and friends. Gone, but not forgotten. Always on our mind, forever in our heart. Her smile said it all.

Mary Dunn Houston
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