Eli’s Silver Lining

I could never fathom the importance of photographs until it was the only thing left of him. I especially would never have dreamed that it would be part of our silver lining in a story that would bring as much joy as it would grief.

After a long battle with infertility and miscarriages, my husband and I welcomed our 36-week twin boys, Eli & Walker, into this world. And in that same week, we would learn our little Eli was diagnosed with a very serious birth defect that would land us in a position to make a life or death decision for our first-born baby boy. After much prayer, we chose life – for 2 other children. He would be scheduled to become a neonatal heart valve donor. After he was removed from life support, within a blink of an eye, he was gone. And we were left with the photos.

Four years later, Eli was selected as the donor representative for ARORA (Arkansas Regional Organ Recovery Agency) Donate Life parade flat for the Tournament of Roses in Pasadena, CA. When my husband and I received the news, the one thought that occurred to me was how grateful I was for the countless photographs our NILMDTS photographer, Tricia Kauffman, had captured for us the night Eli was removed from life support. We had so many to choose from!

We flew into Pasadena just days ahead of the New Year’s Day event to join with the other donor families represented. To be able to hold and smell Eli’s “Floragraph” from the float was such a special memory for us, as everything on the Tournament of Roses floats must be made of natural resources.

Photographs courtesy of the McGinley family

Eli’s floragraph was made of crushed hydrangea, cinnamon, and onion just to name a few. Volunteer artists including Eli’s artist, Matthew Mugica, were flown in from around the country to create these floragraphs of organ & tissue donors.  And although we never had the privilege of meeting Matthew in person, like Tricia, he will forever impact our lives. Like NILMDTS volunteers, it takes a very special partnership to create these for grieving families.

Eli’s artist, Matthew Mugica, courtesy of the McGinley family

The morning of the Tournament of Roses Parade, Donate Life American had a section of very tall stadium stand seating reserved for the donor families whose loved ones had floragraphs on the float. I can tell you as a little girl who grew up watching the Rose Parade on the television, absolutely nothing can compare to seeing this parade in person. It was life changing. When we first laid eyes on the Donate Life float coming toward us on Colorado Boulevard with Eli’s floragraph front and center, it solidified the importance of those photos, the volunteers, the time.

Photograph courtesy of the McGinley family

And that silver lining I mentioned earlier, well, for us it came in the form of photos. But it also came in the form of organ & tissue donation.

In memory of Elijah “Eli” Cole McGinley

In honor of his recipients Cambrie & Luis.

Special Thanks to our NILMDTS photographer Tricia Kauffman

Smilin’ Rylen

Every morning, I walk past the most precious picture sitting on our dresser of me, my husband and our youngest son’s hands embraced, wrapped gently and perfectly into each other, symbolizing the promise of comfort and love.

That’s what “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” does. With such dedication, time, tenderness, gentleness and kindness, volunteer photographers like Pam Contreras, worked patiently with my family to capture the most perfect picture that now is part of our everyday life. For families like mine, the gift of a picture is literally “worth MORE than a thousand words,” giving our family the ability to capture and cherish pictures and allowing us to grieve appropriately, honor, heal and remember. For this, we are thankful.

Our lives were forever changed the day we lost our 13.5 month old son, Rylen Quinn Cowan on June 5, 2017 to an unexpected short battle to Bacterial Meningitis. He fought hard, and we prayed even harder for God to give us a miracle, but what we quickly came to realize was that God had other plans. The miracle we had so desperately wished for was the miracle he gave to 5 other individuals through organ donation. We had to fully trust that THIS was God’s WILL, and remain faithful that Rylen’s story was not even close to being done with.

During our deepest darkest hours, minutes, and seconds, our family was held up by so many, but most importantly, we were supported by FOUR amazing organizations that help grieving families like ours.

These organizations that aided our side were: LifeGift – the organ donation procurement organization, Ronald McDonald House – as they housed us while in the hospital, Emma’s Hugs – parking chips that allow for you to park for $115 worth of credit, and Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep – Volunteer photography of our family and Rylen in our last moments together. What precious memories that we will forever hold dear, wrapped in the nicest keepsake photo album for us to look at when we need.

All of these organizations play a vital role in not only Rylen’s story but also ours. We were blessed with giving gifts of life through organ donation, the gift of shelter right down the hallway from Rylen’s room, the gift of parking, and the gift of pictures. My family is truly thankful for these services and quickly became obsessed with the desire to figure out how to help others not only KNOW about these services if in a time of crisis but to figure out a way to GIVE these services back to others, as we knew exactly how it felt to be on the recipient side.

With this drive and passion, we quickly established the Smilin’ Rylen Foundation only 2 months after Rylen earned his angel wings. Rylen’s nickname was Smilin’ Rylen because he was always “Smilin,” and we knew that if we could find a way to give back, we could help others SMILE again, one day.

Photograph courtesy of the Cowan family

Through the foundation, we have hosted two Smilin’ Rylen Runs out in Katy, Texas where we have raised $75,000 giving back to ALL FOUR of the organizations listed above. There is never a day that we don’t enjoy sharing his story, saying his name, and keeping his memory alive.

With our continuous effort to inform and impact families about the importance of organ donation, LifeGift extended the invitation to my family to have a “floragraph” made of Rylen’s sweet little face to be placed on the Donate Life Tournament of Roses Parade float to be seen by millions of viewers on New Year’s Day 2020! Flying us out to Pasadena, California, gave us an experience of a lifetime, one that will forever be engraved on our hearts. When we saw Rylen’s floragraph on the float, our hearts were bursting and our eyes poured with tears of joy. The DonateLife Float was “ALIVE” in so many ways, and truly symbolized its theme “Darkness in the Light,” explaining our journey we have traveled.

Photographs courtesy of the Cowan family

As we approach this new year of 2020, my family will continue to embark on this journey discovering what God’s WILL is for Smilin’ Rylen’s short but mighty life, as his story is and will continue to unfold here on earth, impacting and touching lives. We miss our son so very much, and our hearts will forever have a missing piece in the shape of Rylen. We are so proud of Rylen today and know that he is “Smilin’” down on us from Heaven.

For more information on the Smilin’ Rylen Foundation visit, https://www.smilinrylenfoundation.org/
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