published Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

Cook: I love you, too. Don't cry.

So why, you ask, did I spend part of Tuesday morning inside Chattanooga Blood Assurance circling cotton swabs around the inside of my mouth like greyhounds around a track?

Because of Heather Parman, who lost her daddy.

And because of Josh Gilreath, who tried his very best to save him.

"My hero," Heather said.

Gilreath works in landscaping in Bowling Green, Ky. He's 40, married, with a little girl named Adrielle. In 2005, someone in his neighborhood hosted a bone marrow and stem cell drive. Gilreath signed up. Someone cotton-swabbed his mouth for DNA. Took about five minutes.

Seven years went by.

Then, Gilreath got a phone call.

"I found out I was a match for Mr. Parman," he said.

Eddie Parman -- Heather's dad -- had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of bone marrow cancer. They say cancer is blind; this time, it picked the happiest guy on the block.

Parman, district manager for the Times Free Press, had four kids, six grandkids and a wife of 33 years. Heather, who played four sports at Girls Preparatory School and then volleyball at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, can't recall a single game her dad wasn't there cheering. Beaming. Gushing.

"He always called me his sunshine," Heather said.

Parman began chemotherapy here, then went to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where he needed a stem cell transplant to survive.

It's the same life-or-death situation thousands of Americans are in each day.

"Twelve thousand people are diagnosed each year with blood diseases," said Rhonda Moore, with Chattanooga Blood Assurance. "Six thousand will die because we can't find a match for them."

Many patients need bone marrow or stem cell transplants to live. Someone somewhere may be their identical match, having the exact type of DNA that could travel from their healthy body to a sick one.

The trick is matching the two together.

A national bone marrow and stem cell registry called Be The Match tries to do just that. Volunteers sign up their name and DNA -- it's five minutes worth of paperwork and cotton swabs -- to create a national databank of possible lifesavers.

"It is possibly the most important thing someone can do because they can save a patient's life," Moore said.

So as Eddie Parman was fighting for his life, Josh Gilreath began the process of stem cell donation, which is no walk in the park. There can be pain. There can be nausea. For Gilreath, there was no doubt.

"It's simple," he said. "It's the Golden Rule."

After receiving the stem cells, Eddie Parman got better, but only for a few weeks. With his family around him like planets around a sun, Parman, till the end, stayed a dad. Joking, hugging, telling everyone to stay positive.

Once, he pulled Heather close. Whispered to her that whenever she saw a crazy bird or butterfly, that'd be him, waving. She told him -- he had the clearest blue eyes -- that whenever she saw a big blue sky, she knew he'd be looking down at her.

On April 21, 2012, Eddie Parman died. He was 56. Heather, his sunshine, was 20.

"His last words to me were 'I love you too. Don't cry'," Heather said.

A year went by. Heather had a deep urge to meet her dad's stem cell donor. She asked the folks at Vanderbilt (the hospital keeps donor identities secret) to see if the man would be willing to meet.

A few days later, she got his name. On her way home from work (she's a personal trainer, volleyball coach and works at the Chattanooga Market), Heather pulled over to a gas station, where she could sit by herself in the car. She found him on Facebook. She saw the smiling Gilreath. She saw a picture of his little girl.

"That's when I cried," she said.

A few phone calls and emails later ("it was like talking to an old friend," she said), she asked Josh if they could meet. Yes, Josh said. Absolutely.

A week later, Heather, her mom, brothers, sisters and their kids reserved a back room at an O'Charley's in Nashville. Driving into the parking lot, Heather spotted Josh walking in.

"Even if he had been the worst guy in the world, I still would have loved him," she said.

They all talked and cried and hugged for nearly 3 hours. Someone had brought framed 5x7 photos of Josh donating, and Eddie receiving. It was the first time in a long time Heather saw her mom really smile.

"I felt like I knew those people forever," Josh said. "Their family reminded me of mine."

Sometimes, the lines between us vanish, and strangers become family, and family pass onto the next world, rising up like birds into a bright blue sky. Our job, then, is to love in big ways. To savor our family and friends. To trust others, even strangers. Especially strangers.

Just ask Heather Parman.

"Don't be scared to sign up. Don't be scared to be someone's match," Heather said. "Whatever you've done in your life, whatever you think about yourself, someone can view you as a hero."

Call Rhonda Moore at the Blood Assurance at 423-752-5951 to register. Or go to BeTheMatch.org.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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