Kevin and Kim Oxender didn’t think a trip to California for New Year’s Weekend to see a float with an image of their late son was going to happen.
A childhood friend of their son Kaleb was getting married and they would be unable to go to the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena to see the Donate Life entry. The timing didn’t appear to work out.
But the persistence of their sponsoring organization, Community Tissue Service, paid off and the couple was able to fly out and participate in the festivities surrounding the float and parade.
“It was plane, plane, car, bus,” Kevin Oxender said about the trip out west. “We dropped our bags off in the lobby and got on a bus.”
The bus, one of four, took them to a building outside the Rose Bowl where the float awaited. The couple joined other families of organ donors and recipients to view the float and the judging.
The float’s theme was “Teammates in Life,” and depicts a spectacular Polynesian catamaran, propelled by a team of 24 organ, eye and tissue transplant recipients rowing in unison with strength gained from their donors. The sails of the vessel featured 60 floral portraits (floragraphs) of donors interwoven with Polynesian designs and patterns.
“We got to check out all the floats,” Kevin Oxender said. “We had to stand back and then the judges came through.”
A bell rang announcing the judges’ arrival, Kim Oxender said “you could hear a pin drop.
“Everybody had to be quiet; they were videotaping.”
The judges graded the floats on their criteria in regards to construction, participants in the float and how they are placed and presented and the crowd’s reaction, Kevin Oxender said.
“It was really an emotional time,” Kevin said.
“We really thought we’d be okay until we saw our son up there on that float,” Kim said. “It’s real.”
The experience of getting up close to the float, touching it and taking photographs cemented the reality of the situation, Kevin said.
“It was more emotional than I thought it was going to be,” Kevin said.
They had been invited to come out Dec. 28 and help finish the float’s assembly, but a childhood friend of Kaleb was getting married New Year’s Eve, so they reluctantly declined, Kim said. The organization sent them the floragraph of Kaleb and they could finish his eyebrows, she said.
So all of Kaleb’s friends and the family finished it and sent it back, Kim said.
“Then they called again, I think it was about 7 o’clock on a Saturday night and said ‘Well the Rose Bowl is Parade is not until Monday the second, so would you guys want to fly out New Year’s morning?” Kim said. “So, we were still able to go.”
The trip went smoothly for the first-time flyers, and they were able to get out the parade staging area without having to worry about their luggage, Kevin said. They were met by a former classmate of Kim, who lives out there.
The man, Ralph, chauffeured the couple around the area and he volunteered to help work on the float in the Oxender’s place.
Viewing the float also enabled the couple to meet and talk with other families who have not only lost a loved one, but whose organs were donated. The time spent in fellowship with others in similar circumstances was a comfort to the Oxenders.
“You are not alone,” Kim said. “Sometimes you feel so alone when you lose a child or loved one and then you get to actually talk to other ones.”
“It was very humbling,” Kevin said.
Seeing the float up close was an experience that made the couple appreciate all the work that goes into a float. They are basically as big as a semi-tractor trailer, Kevin said. Watching the parade on television doesn’t do them justice, he said.
“You cannot take them in, how gorgeous they are,” Kevin said. “How much work they put into them.”
Two floats set world records for the longest and the highest, Kevin said. The longest stretched out 123 feet, complete with a swimming pool and surfing dogs. The tallest had a giraffe as its centerpiece.
The Donate Life float won Best Theme.
The floats take about a year to build. The 2018 entry is already being designed, Kevin said.
The atmosphere around the float was tender. There was no bitterness, only gratefuil hearts, he said.
“Some (donors’ families) have a sorrowful heart, others (recipients) have a thankful heart, but everyone has a grateful heart,” Kevin said relaying a statement from a Donate Life official. “That summed it up.”
The raw emotion on display surprised the couple.
“Some were bawling,” Kevin said.
Some families got a chance to meet the people who received an organ from their loved one.
“We long for that day,” Kevin said. “It’s hard to put into words.”
The couple only know the first name of two people Kaleb’s organs helped.
The time spent under the canopy was filled with a lot of emotion, but not bitterness. People were glad to meet others and share in the experience.
There was more emotion when the float came by the grandstand Jan. 2.
“There wasn’t a dry eye anywhere,” Kevin Oxender said.
But now their focus shifts to the Kaleb McLaughlin Memorial Ride and Organ Donation Awareness Day, July 8, in Pioneer. The event is a fundraiser for Donate Life and local fire and rescue units.
The annual event has raised a total of $49,325, with $25,250 given back to Pioneer, Kevin Oxender said. At the 2016 event, there were 206 motorcycles registered for the ride.
The 2016 ride brought in $14,830 with $11,250 given back. Of that nearly $10,000 stayed in Pioneer:
A 5K run, “Kaleb’s Donor Dash had 134 participants.
The Oxenders urge anyone has been the recipient of organs, to write a letter to the family of the donor. A letter would help bring closure as some families have never heard anything about where their loved one’s organs ended up. Kim said.
The knowledge that several people have benefited from Kaleb’s organs helps the Oxenders get through the day.
“It’s a big comfort knowing there are parts of him still alive and walking around,” Kevin said. “It’s bittersweet, but he is still walking with us in ways.”
James Pruitt may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org