David Doyle's best present won't be under the Christmas tree this morning.
At best, he'll receive it Friday at a hospital in San Francisco instead of his home in Modesto. He won't open a package. In fact, he'll never see it at all. But it's something he might carry with him the rest of his life.
His gift will be a new kidney. His wife, Jennifer, will be the donor, if all goes according to plan.
You see, they are -- and have been for 23 years -- the perfect match, and in more ways than they ever knew.
Theirs is a story of love, support, perseverance and, one might suggest, pure luck. But there's no luck involved, Jennifer Doyle said.
"We feel like God's had this perfect plan all along," she said.
Or at least the perfect solution to some imperfect and challenging circumstances -- none of which has stopped them from being loving and involved parents to their five children, or dulled their commitment to each other.
David developed kidney disease in 1989. Medications delayed the inevitable need for a new kidney for several years. In the meantime, Jennifer had the more life-threatening issue.
Sixteen years ago, while pregnant with son James, she felt constant pain. She was about seven months along when doctors determined she had colon cancer.
The diseased section needed to go, and any kind of delay would have posed great risks to mother and child. So they operated Dec. 13, 1991, literally moving her womb -- and baby -- out of the way to get to the colon. Then they put everything back where it belonged.
"It (the cancer) was right up against my lymph nodes," she said. "They told me, 'We got it all.' "
Soon after, Jennifer gave birth to the couple's second child, joining daughter Meghann, now 17. James arrived two weeks past his due date. Jennifer delivered him naturally. No kidding.
"It wasn't a problem," she said, though she did joke to the cancer surgeon that he might want to install a zipper instead of stitches, since she planned to be back in the hospital so soon after the cancer operation.
More pressing was that the first-grade teacher at James Marshall Elementary School in Modesto had used every minute of her vacation and sick leave.
"I had enough for having the baby," she said. "But not for having the baby and having cancer surgery."
Her co-workers were allowed to donate their sick time to her -- a first in the Modesto City Schools district.
The Doyles had another baby -- no complications -- in 1993. David began dialysis, and the wait for a kidney transplant, in 1994.
Two years later, they had put off their daughter's birthday party by a week because David was near the top of the transplant list. They finally decided to have the party
April 13, 1996.
With 13 girls arriving at their home, David's pager beeped.
"You need to be (in San Francisco) in 2½ hours," they were told.
"We had to go -- right then," Jennifer said, breaking the news to the guests arriving as they were headed out the door, suitcases in hand.
So soon after Jennifer's cancer surgery, they never considered her as a potential donor. David received a kidney from a 40-year-old woman who had died in a car crash.
He spent 53 days in the hospital before coming home, told the new kidney should last 10 to 12 years.
That was 11½ years ago. A month or so ago, he began feeling tired. Tests confirmed the donor kidney had worn out.
David's pride and joy -- a 40-piece Dickens-era Christmas village display -- stayed packed away for the first time in years. Between the 3½-hour dialysis treatments at 5 a.m. three times weekly, and his full days of work as a computer technician for a San Ramon firm, he simply didn't have the energy to put it up this year.
Just as deflating was that there are 75,000 type O-positive people awaiting kidney transplants. So Jennifer, also O-positive, asked David's doctor if she could be tested to become his donor, explaining her medical history. They determined there was no risk, since she's been cancer-free for nearly 16 years.
When she got the news, she immediately called David.
"I thought it was like a (Cingular cell phone) commercial," Jennifer said. "Dead silence on the other end. It was like a dropped call."
"I was dumbfounded," David said. "She called me and said, 'I'm a match.' I couldn't believe it."
Her brother, Patrick, also is a match, as well as some others they know. But Jennifer believes it's in God's greater plan that she be the donor.
The Doyles are prepared, although the issue of sick time has surfaced again. This time, she's volunteering a kidney to her husband -- not fighting her own ailment. Still, her co-workers at Catherine Everett Elementary School, where she now teaches, are lobbying the district to once again allow them to donate time.
Family and friends will look after the Doyle children while their parents are recovering.
The Doyles found amusement in the string of 13s that had developed in their lives: Her operation fell on a Dec. 13. James was born March 13, 1992, and they were in room 113 at Memorial Medical Center. Thirteen girls were invited to the birthday party on the day of David's first kidney transplant, April 13, 1996. And David's jersey number for softball? You guessed it: 13.
Jennifer gave birth to three more children -- sons Daniel, now 14, Matthew, 9, and Timothy, 7. Matthew is legally blind from a rare hereditary condition, which will prevent him from ever driving a car but doesn't stop him from pulling straight A's in fourth grade at Big Valley Christian School and playing center on his youth league football team.
This family remains positive on all fronts, buoyed by support from family, friends, relatives, co-workers and members of the Big Valley Grace Church congregation. And, as always, they have each other.
"He really was in love with my kidneys," she teased.
"Look at the kidneys on her," he joked back.
Yes, they are a perfect match. What could be a greater gift?
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2383.