Liver Day 2020 – What We Gained


Fifteen years ago yesterday was the day that changed our family’s life – the day when my mother received a life-saving liver transplant. As we bask in the glow of Isru Chag Liver Day, it’s still a cause for celebration, even as you read this one day late. Liver Day is a day that we mark on our calendar yearly, and there was no question about whether or not to continue to do so after my mother’s passing. This was a day that she considered to be more special, more worth celebrating than her own birthday (which we kept celebrating, and keep celebrating). August 16th will forever be Liver Day, at least for the Balk family.

The first anniversary of my mother’s liver transplant was marked with a party that my sister and I both missed. I had just come back from Israel, having had one of the greatest summers of my life. It was a time that I watched myself as I continued to grow more and more from each new experience. I was on my way up to camp to tell my younger peers,  my sister included, about our transformative experience in Israel. Yet, I still kick myself that I wasn’t at this party. The five year celebration, a surprise that we incredibly hid from my mother with the help of one of our close family friends, seems like yesterday even as it was a decade ago.

While there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about my mother, I don’t often think about the very means that enabled her to continue to live after her liver continued to deteriorate. She continued going about her life as best she could. Sometimes I’d remark to her that she looked like a banana or a school bus due to her condition, which made her skin a jaundiced hue of yellow. Looking back, I probably could have phrased this more politely, but she’d just laugh as if she hadn’t a care in the world.

When you lose someone, there can often be thoughts swirling about what the deceased will now miss that they’re no longer physically with us. I remember doing it myself since my mother passed away while Estee and I were engaged. Never in my life did I think that she’d miss my wedding. I just assumed that we’d get her to New York or we’d make a small wedding in Cleveland so she could be present. It was even more devastating that I imagined.

Only upon reflecting many, many times after her death did my thinking begin to change. While there were plenty of major life events that my mother wouldn’t be at physically, I thought a lot of about the eight extra years of events that my mother got to see after her transplant and her new lease of life. It’s easy to think about what she’s missed, while at the same time, gloss over the thing that she got to see.

She saw both of her children graduate high school, and wouldn’t have missed these ceremonies for the world. She chaired a pre-graduation dinner for my senior class which was a wonderful way to cap off our year and help shorten our graduation the next day. I was in Israel for my sister’s graduation and my mother called me so I could, somehow, through grogginess and being half asleep, hear her name being called as she walked across the stage. It was three in the morning for me.

Without a ticket to either ceremony, she saw both of her children graduate college. The same week, no less. Dena got to graduate first as her graduation was on Sunday and mine was on Thursday. I thought my mother was the lucky one since she didn’t have to sit through two boring graduations, but she watched each one of them from start to finish.

While we didn’t physically celebrate with her, she watched as her children found their true loves. Judd was in the family starting at Pesach 2010 and has never left since then. While I tarried and Estee only came along three years later and a few months before she would eventually pass away, the time we all shared was meaningful and magical. We fit so much into those short few months.

The trip to Israel my family took to see me when I studied in yeshiva was one of the most meaningful experiences I believe we ever had. She wore herself out walking around the Old City, having to stay in bed most of the day afterward to regain her strength. But she was there, and she did it so well.

As important as all of the big events were, they almost pale in comparison to the “monotony” of the day to day grind. Thousands of phone calls, emails, texts, voicemails and more that we would have missed out on over those eight years. I think the first time I received a text message from her I nearly fainted, partially because she had figured out how to do it and potentially because of the correct punctuation in the message itself. I didn’t even know there was a semicolon available on those old flip-phones.

There was so much fit into that short amount of time. So many memories that I took for granted, not only because she herself is no longer here, but because she made her need for a transplant seem so trivial to those around her among the grand scheme of her life. It was a huge deal even to her, but the bigger deal was how she would be able to go back to living her life, a life of giving. She was one of the biggest givers I’ve ever been around, and it made her comfortable to be on the receiving end. She pushed us to pick up the slack in her stead until she was ultimately able to resume her schedule of activities, much earlier than she should have.

Happy Liver Day, Mom. Enjoy the cake and champagne up there.