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Carmela Antolino Headshot

What My Dad Taught Me Before He Died

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My dad was the first man I ever loved...my hero...my strength. I was fortunate to spend a lot of time with my father when I was growing up, hanging around while he toyed with his '74 Challenger, built something new or listened to his Italian music so loudly that the whole street could hear.

I am the youngest and only girl in my family. Being raised in an Italian family, I was instantly favoured by my mom and held in a special place by my dad. I learned a lot growing up -- some very tough lessons, in fact -- with a strong male influence. I grew a thick skin and one of the most important lessons I learned was that no matter what life throws your way, being strong is not a choice, it's mandatory for survival.

My dad is the ultimate role model for strength, courage and determination. It was early in 1994 when my dad suffered a heart attack one morning before my brother and I left for school. I didn't understand exactly what was happening, all I remember is being scared.

Fortunately, my dad survived his heart attack, but was told he had about six weeks to live. My dad was in no way prepared to let go. Opting for a second opinion, my father learned he was a candidate for a heart transplant and was put on the organ waiting list. For weeks my family and I were on edge. We would receive calls in the middle of the night telling us they had a heart for my dad.

My parents would rush downtown to the hospital, get prepped for surgery and then, it would all slip away because it wasn't an exact match or the patient that was near end-of-life changed their mind to donate their heart. Time was running out.

Our angel arrived on May 22, 1994. A young man was riding his bicycle and was stuck by a car -- he was an organ donor. My dad got the call and this time, he got the heart too. He underwent his life saving-surgery that day. I was too young to understand the details and the implications that came from receiving a heart transplant; all I knew was that this surgery would save my dad's life.

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It was a large commitment to accept a heart transplant. My dad was dependent on medications to help keep his heart pumping and was tied to frequent hospital visits. But these setbacks were not going to get in the way of my dad's determination to be there for our family.

My dad went on with his life as if nothing had changed. I was blessed to have a family that didn't harp on the fact that he was ill and my dad never let it hold him back. I went through the typical experiences of a young girl: being embarrassed by my dad dropping me off places with his loud car, having disagreements over my curfew and rebelling when I was punished. I never once thought that the very things that would make me crazy about my dad would be the very things that I would do absolutely anything to experience again.

Sadly, my dad passed away September 5, 2008, by far the worst day of my life. All the anti-rejection drugs that were keeping his heart pumping were slowly deteriorating his other organs. We knew this day would eventually come, but none of us really wanted to accept it. Really, how can anyone be prepared to lose their parent?

I was raised to be tough, but polite. I was told to act like a lady, but think like a man. God forbid anyone ever did anything to hurt me, my father would send my brother to deal with the poor soul who thought that they could remotely look at me the wrong way. I wouldn't change a thing about the way I was raised. Everyone who knows me and had the pleasure of knowing my father knows that I am his daughter, through and through.

After my dad's death, I learned that strength isn't reflected by your physical capabilities, but how well you can handle the things and people in life that will knock you down. I learned that being strong doesn't mean you can't cry, shout or complain, but it means that you must be resilient, brave and determined to move forward.

My dad taught me that it is important to stand up for myself because no matter who it is, no one is to be condescending or disrespectful to me. I learned that if I work hard, I can achieve my goals. If my parents could come to a strange country as immigrants and thrive, I have no excuses for not being successful in my native land. I learned that people will always show their true colours; whether it be family or friends. I learned that it's important to learn from your mistakes, but never make the same one twice. But above all, I learned to do onto others what I want done onto me.

Ya, I'm a daddy's girl. I've been knocked down time and again and I keep getting up and coming back stronger. My dad was a beacon of strength for me. He did everything in his power to survive. Every day of his life he chose to live. Every day of his life he chose to fight. Every day of his life he chose to be brave. Even in his final hours, he fought to the core to ensure he went on his own terms, when he was ready.

Organ donation has not only touched my life, but the lives of my family, and most importantly, the life of my father. I will forever be thankful to that 21-year-old man who was selfless enough to be an organ donor.

I was lucky enough to have my dad alive for what I consider an extra 14 years. He made me into the woman I am today and I am eternally grateful. I am blessed that even though my dad hasn't been physically here for the last four years, he's definitely been in my heart, my mind -- and more prevalently, in my everyday actions.

I want to encourage people who are considering becoming organ donors to think about all the people's lives that you would be changing. It is vital that we as a society are aware of the importance of being an organ donor and what it truly means to save a life.