Donna Harper sat in the parking lot at St. Richard's Episcopal School on Saturday morning almost paralyzed with fear. She was about to go inside that school and meet the woman who lives today because Harper's son died.
Lucy Boenitz was inside the school, dealing with butterflies of her own. For 11 years, she has carried something dear inside of her, the heart of a man named Matthew Boylen, who died at 22 in an automobile accident in Ohio.
In the Bible, Matthew literally means "gift from God." Boenitz, 50, received Matthew's precious gift, his final gift, as she lay near death — her own heart weakened by a virus years earlier. The transplant took place at IU Health Methodist Hospital on Aug. 17, 2006
Now, the two women and their extended families would meet for the first time in the library at St. Richard's, where Boenitz works as a first-grade teaching assistant.
With her daughters and husband by her side, Harper found the strength to step through the doors, joining a room full of family members who had traveled from Caldwell, Ohio, in the southeastern part of the state.
When Boenitz entered the crowded room, it seemed for a moment it was just the two women and Matthew in this space. The extended hug, the sobs, then the smiles spoke to the emotional journey both have been on for more than a decade.
"Do you want to hear his heart," Boenitz asked through tears. "It's probably going a million miles an hour."
As Harper listened through a stethoscope, the sniffles and sobs in the room threatened to drown out the sound of her youngest son's heart, but she knew one thing: It was strong and healthy. And, not surprisingly, beating just a little fast, she said.
Next up was Kelsey Pearson, who would hear her father's heart for the first time since she was a toddler and fell asleep lying on his chest.
"Take all the time you need," Boenitz told the 12-year-old. "He's still right here."
The young girl couldn't hold back the tears, and neither could anyone else in the room.
The line continued with Matthew's sisters, Mindy Callihan and Jamie Harriman; his longtime girlfriend, Maggie Pearson; and a host of nieces and nephews.
In all, about 15 family members made the trip from Ohio, including two great-nephews Matthew never met. The youngest, Jackson, is 7 months old.
As the group sat down to look through photos of Matthew playing baseball, showing hogs in 4-H, wearing his beloved cowboy boots and trying out his firefighter gear, the stories, "happy tears" and laughter flowed easily around the table.
Donna Harper was particularly close to her youngest child. They went through fire training together, serving as volunteer firefighters in their Ohio community. When Harper's first husband — Matthew's dad — died in a logging accident in 2002, Matthew was there for her. When she was diagnosed with a brain tumor six months later, Matthew was there.
So when he died Aug. 16, 2006, her world fell apart. It would take a long time before she felt strong enough to meet this Indiana family — Lucy Boenitz and her husband, Tom; Lucy's son Sam (another son, William, could not be there); and her sister, Ann Smith and husband Steve from Bloomington. This wasn't the whole family, but it was enough for today.
"He would have wanted his heart to go to someone who loved their family, who made a difference in the world," Harriman said of her brother. "That's why we've been able to come to terms. We're all organ donors now."
Boenitz, who lost a child of her own to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome 22 years ago, knows she received a special gift in Matthew's heart.
"When I tell people about Matthew, I’m just so proud of him and he isn’t my child. Had he not even given me a heart, I’m just so proud of him. He was doing all the right things."
Everyone there who remembers Matthew remembers his good heart.
"A loving, caring boy," his mom said.
"He was amazing, he was pretty much the perfect guy," said Maggie Pearson. "He was always willing to help everybody."
Boenitz and her family wrote letters to Matthew's family through the Organ Procurement Transplant Network on that first Thanksgiving after his death.
"We wanted to express to you how we were thinking of you," Boenitz' sister told Harper. "How do you ever say thank you for something like this? My sister and I decided that you live well and you carry the treasure the best you can. We wanted to give you that promise."
The Indianapolis woman received her own letter from Harper about a year after the transplant.
"She told me who Matthew was, what he had done, how he had died and the love and pride that this family has ... was just immense."
They corresponded through letters and Facebook over the years, but it was too painful to meet, until now.
"I'm glad we waited," Boenitz said. "I'm glad that we gave ourselves time to heal."
As she held her hand to her heart, she said, "This is the one part of her child that is still here. It's tangible and it's here and it's here for them."
Her son's heart definitely lives on in the right person, Harper said. "He would be proud."