CEDAR FORT — There’s an old saying out there: You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose family. This is a story about two newfound friends – Dee Gatewood of Los Angeles, California, and Bruce Walker of Cedar Fort, Utah, who exactly eight years ago, unknowingly, became family.
Dee & Mamo
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Gatewood has spent the last 30-plus years of her life in the labor and delivery unit as a nurse.
“When they have their babies, that’s the best part of it,” said Gatewood.
No matter how much she loves those babies, there’s no arguing the most important people in her care, are the three of her own.
She has two daughters, Erianna and Erinn.
Her youngest child is her son, Emmanuel, who was given a nickname by Erinn when she was so young, she could barely put a sentence together.
“She couldn’t pronounce Emmanuel, so she would say ‘Mamo,’” said Gatewood. “So we’re like hey, that’s kind of a cool name.”
The nickname stuck.
When Mamo became a teenager, he grew into a man’s body – at a little over 6 feet tall, over 200 pounds, he was the starting center for the high school football team.
Big kid. Big personality.
“He was a jokester,” said Gatewood.
With an even bigger heart.
And every inch of that big old heart belonged to his mother.
“He gave me hugs all the time,” said Gatewood. “He told me he loved me every day. He was ‘King Mamo,’ you know, and he was, you know, our protector. He would take care of us, and he did his best to do that.”
‘In my heart, I already knew it’
On a warm Tuesday night, the summer before his senior year, Gatewood reluctantly gave Mamo the okay to go to a party with some of his football friends — a good group of kids who stayed out of trouble.
But when the party let out, local news outlets reported there was gunfire. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office confirmed a teenage athlete was shot and killed while standing on the sidewalk, waiting for his sister to pick him up.
The shooter was unknown.
The teenager killed, was Mamo. He died on July 10, 2012.
There is absolutely nothing that can prepare a mother for that kind of heartbreak.
“You know, you never want to say that you give up,” said Gatewood. “But in my heart, I already knew it. In my spirit, I just knew that he wasn’t going to be OK.”
A failed heart
More than 600 miles away and 40 years prior, Bruce Walker spent the better part of three decades serving the people of Utah.
“I hired on with Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office,” Walker said. “I was on the west side, Kearns, Granger, Taylorsville.”
He patrolled the streets. He protected the public. And in a moment he does not often share, there’s a newspaper clipping documenting the moment he saved the life of his partner from the oncoming car of a drunk driver, literally lifting his partner, and tossing him out of the way, with one arm.
In his 25 years as a deputy, very little could rattle this father of eight.
He was big. He was strong. But understand, there were moments where his heart would simply ache.
“Dealing with the families when kids got hurt, that was, that was tough,” said Walker, with a single tear running down his face.
Family will tell you Walker’s heart is what gave him the courage to protect and save lives.
Doctors will tell you that the very same heart was about to kill him.
Walker said the doctor told him, “You’ll be dead in two months.”
Walker had heart failure. And at that moment, his mortality became a reality, not just for the now-retired sheriff’s deputy, but for his entire family.
“And I was so terrified,” said his wife, Stephanie Walker. “I spent every night sleeping, plastered up against his back, listening to his heart. I was so afraid that he was going to die on me that week, and he couldn’t die.”
The only long-term solution that could save his life was a heart transplant.
“I mean, it’s very difficult to get your head wrapped around. You’re gonna have to have a heart transplant,” said Bruce Walker.
He was put on the transplant list, but it’s a list with no guarantees.
The blood type has to match, the body type has to match and the proximity has to match.
And because of his 5-foot-10, 320-pound frame, he needed a special heart.
“What they were saying is, it had to be, it had to be a big heart,” said Walker.
A big heart that after nine hours of surgery, not only saved his life but kept the hearts of his eight children and 22 grandchildren from breaking.
And every single one of them knew, on the other side of this happy equation was not just a donor, but a tragedy.
“Right away I was like, ‘Oh, no, no, no, no, no!’” said Gatewood. “I just wasn’t ready to hear nor accept that.”
Donating Mamo’s organs was not easy. It made his death final. But Gatewood also understood the decision was not hers to make.
“I remember that conversation that we had; he was so adamant. He’s like, ‘When I get my driver’s license, I’m going to put that sticker on my driver’s license because I’m going to be a donor,’” Gatewood remembered Mamo saying.
Mamo’s kidneys saved two lives. His lungs saved another. And whoever was lucky enough to get his heart? That’s something his mother pleaded to know.
“I just believe that things happen for a reason,” said Gatewood. “I just asked God, like, ‘Please just reveal to me who has his heart. That’s all I care about. If you could just reveal that to me, I’ll be OK.’”
It should be known that donor families and recipients are not revealed to each other, unless both parties agree to it.
So, Gatewood began writing a letter.
Hundreds of miles away, Walker began writing a letter.
His wife began writing a letter. And every single one of the Walker children began writing a letter.
Letters of gratitude. Letters of sorrow.
And for reasons unknown, letters that never made it into the hands of either family.
The letters apparently got misplaced within the donor agency.
“They had been lost in the shuffle or sitting on somebody’s desk or something,” said Walker.
Meaning he never got a letter from Gatewood, and she never got a letter from Walker or anyone in his family.
“And I didn’t hear anything back, I didn’t hear anything back,” said Walker.
Here’s the thing: If Walker had given up the search, and Gatewood had grown tired of writing, these two families may have never known they were meant to be together.
Letters from the Walker family finally made it into Gatewood’s hands. The letter from Gatewood finally made it into the hands of the Walkers. And what happened next, neither family can explain.
“The love that we have for each other was just instant,” said Gatewood. “It was just instantaneous.”
“Instant,” said Walker, with a tear in his eye. “I mean, it was instant family.”
A 65-year-old man, now with the heart of a 17-year-old boy.
Different? Maybe on the surface. But when it comes to God, family and serving others, they couldn’t have been more alike.
“[Bruce] was a sheriff in his town. My son wanted to be in law enforcement. It was just perfect. Like, the perfect person got the perfect heart,” said Gatewood.
In the arms of his mother
In July 2019, more than seven years after Mamo’s passing, Gatewood would finally get to meet Walker, face to face.
In the terminal at Salt Lake City International Airport, Gatewood walked off the plane and through the terminal. And with tears and smiles, she and Walker gave each other one of the most meaningful hugs of their lives, as Mamo’s heart once again beat in his mother’s arms.
“Ahhh, it was a happy, happy, happy feeling,” said Gatewood. “I mean, just to hear his heart beating.”
She could hear it. She could feel it.
And that undying love she shared with her son, every bit of that love, continues to live.
It lives in the man, whose life Mamo saved.
“That was very special to me, and to her,” said Walker. “That she was able to listen to that.”
“I got to hear it,” said Gatewood. “And feel it. Like, it’s not just hearing it. You could feel it.”
And it’s that moment – a moment few people will ever get to experience in this life – that brought peace to Gatewood, and renewed life for Walker.
While every inch of Mamo’s heart will always belong to mom, the purpose of that big old heart just may have been to bring these two families together.
“They’re family,” said Walker. “They’re family.”
“I was heartbroken,” said Gatewood. “I went through so much pain, but at the end of it, I feel like I also had just as much joy.”