ST. CLOUD, Minn. — It didn't start with a kidney.
Sure, the kidney Mary Ziegler donated to her friend and companion of nearly 50 years — 22 of them as her husband, 20 as her ex-husband — may be the most concrete connection between them.
No, it started with a decision — 20 years ago — to have a happy divorce, the St. Cloud Times reported.
"We kind of made a commitment at the time to get along," said Bill Henrichs of St. Cloud. "And to not do anything poorly to each other and to the kids. You know all those bad divorce things, we agreed not to do that."
But they did so much more than that — even after both remarried.
"I always say that Bill never left our family, but his wife Linda joined it," Ziegler said. "I consider Linda a gift to my kids and me, and to Bill, and one of the best things that ever happened to all of us."
So donating a kidney didn't seem like too much to give for Ziegler or too much to ask for for Henrichs — not when they had already done the hard work of creating a new, bigger family.
The family is celebrating — all together — this Thanksgiving: Henrich's improving health and Ziegler's gift of a kidney along with their kids and several grandkids.
"I mean our kids have always been really proud to tell the story of their mom and dad and their stepmom and dad," Ziegler said. "But now, I think they were really proud to say, yeah, my mom gave my dad a kidney, and they're divorced."
Henrichs had been living with kidney failure caused by diabetes and hypertension for a while.
"It was ... fairly stable for quite a few years, and then I started to drop in the last year," he said.
He was well past the point of needing dialysis. But he and his doctors knew a new kidney was coming, so they held off.
"I had probably 30 people volunteer to be checked and tested," he said.
Two others were tested before Ziegler, but they weren't healthy enough to donate. Others who volunteered were too old or didn't match closely enough to Henrichs.
That's when Ziegler volunteered.
"The next option was our children, and they're got little kids, got jobs. ... It wasn't their time to do something like this," Ziegler said, even though the kids volunteered.
Henrichs said his doctors likely wouldn't have wanted to give him that young of a kidney anyway, when it could help someone much younger. If his kids donated, they'd likely have had to arrange some sort of chain donation, where strangers agree to donate to each other's loved ones.
Blood work was sent to the Mayo Clinic, and doctors found Ziegler and Henrichs were the same blood type and shared quite a few antigens, Ziegler said.
"The universe was just kind of like, you're the one," Ziegler said. "I'm a big believer in when you're tapped on the shoulder, you should answer the call."
She was also in a good spot in her life: 40 years at the same job meant she could likely easily take time off.
In a way, Ziegler's donation was the ultimate "I told you so" ending to an ongoing argument in their marriage.
"One of our issues when we were married is I'm super-athletic and into health and fitness and wellness and this guy wasn't," Ziegler said. "So I was going to remind you. ... Aren't you glad?"
"That you stayed (healthy)?" Henrichs said. "Yeah, I guess so."
Henrichs was, of course, grateful for the donation. But there was more emotion than he expected.
"I wasn't so worried about myself," Henrichs said. "Going into this, it's kind of like ... worrying about two people. So that was a little hard for me."
But Ziegler doesn't really worry. Her biggest concern was how she'd handle the required recovery period.
"Because I knew I'm not a sitting around type of person," she said. As it turned out, Ziegler was in such good shape she was able to go back to work full time in three weeks. Most people take six to eight weeks to heal.
"I do a lot of yoga and you know, that's super core strengthening," Ziegler said. "If anything, I feel invigorated and energetic because I had to sit around for two weeks."
Henrichs is on the mend, too.
"I have three kidneys now. ... They just add one. So I have two bad ones and a good one," he said.
As for worrying about anything else that could go wrong with major surgery, Ziegler knew she couldn't control the outcome.
"Even when I was in the pre-op ... We were right next to each other, remember? ... Because stuff happens, I was thinking about that," Ziegler said. "And I'm like, well, if I don't make it, then I'm going to know what it's all about."
She said she's lost some people she was very close to in recent years, including her long-time boss, Dick Bernick. She was his executive assistant. She also lost a brother-in-law, another good friend of the family and a nephew.
"So there's a lot of people waiting. And so I was kind of like, well, I'll feel bad for all these suckers down here, but I'll be off to the next adventure," Ziegler said.
The most tangible problem for everyone who came out of the surgery was child care.
"Either one of us was taking care of the (grandkids) ... And so all of sudden, neither one of us could," Henrichs said.
They did spend some time preparing their grandchildren, all age 10 and younger, for the surgeries.
Ziegler got out a big anatomy book with the 4-year-old.
"I sat down and I showed her, you know, (this is) what Grandma is going to give to Grandpa, because his is sick. Her eyes were pretty big," Ziegler said.
The surgeries required some other adjustments, too.
"I kept telling her, you know Grandma is not going to be able to be picking you up and carrying around," Ziegler said, and her granddaughter asked why. "I'd explain to her and then she'd say, 'Well, I don't want you to do that.' "
But the lesson must have stuck.
"Now, I'll help her out of the car and she'll go, 'No Grandma, I can do it. You don't need to lift me out,' " Ziegler said. "And then of course when I came home, 'I wanna see your owie!' " Ziegler said.
Ziegler was home a few weeks before Henrichs, who had to stay in Rochester for tests and observation. The 4-year-old was happy to see him.
"She was pretty excited when I finally made it home," Henrichs said.
Henrichs and Ziegler met in ninth grade and have been good friends since.
"We did a lot of hunting, fishing, working on the farm together," Ziegler said. Both grew up in Princeton on farms, part of big Catholic families.
They married at age 18, and at 19, moved to the St. Cloud area.
"He was going to be a rock star," Ziegler said. Henrichs joined a band, and Ziegler got a job at Bernick's, where she still works.
They had two children a few years later: Matthew, now 31, and Macy, now 28. At age 40, Ziegler and Henrichs realized something changed.
"You're a lot different when you're 40 than when you're 18," Ziegler said. "We've always been really good friends and companions. It's just that we both really changed."
At the same time, Henirchs met his current wife, Linda.
"Linda happened to come into Henrichs's life and they were a good match," Ziegler said.
They made a decision to not let divorce destroy the family they had built.
"It's always been on the adult, practical side of things," Henrichs said.
"We wanted to make sure that our kids were as affected as best as possible," Ziegler said. "Kids don't ask for divorced parents, and so, it's not fair to them."
Ziegler said she's grateful for how everything turned out.
"I would have never wanted to raise my kids without (Linda). .. And my kids will tell you the same thing, that they're so grateful that she was in their lives," Ziegler said. "I admire her. And she's a lot of things that I'm not."
Linda is structured, Ziegler said.
"We were a very good complement for each other, and I tell everybody this," Ziegler said.
Ziegler is better at spontaneity.
"I'm not a good discipliner. I'm a good drop-everything-and-let's-go-to-California," Ziegler said. "So I consider Linda a gift to my kids and me, and to Bill, and one of the best things that ever happened to all of us."
The four of them, Henrichs and Linda, Ziegler and her husband, parented the children. They are a blended family, with two biological children of Henrichs and Ziegler and Linda's two children.
Ziegler says her kids got an extra set of parents and more family members.
"It was fortunate that Linda had two daughters so Macy got two sisters. And Matt ... he got some really cool cousins. His best friend for life is Linda's nephew," Ziegler said.
Henrichs remembers an early school-year dinner with the four of adults.
"We said, 'We're going out to supper to discuss the rules for you guys.' And the kids, they were freaked out," he said. "So they knew that we were — all four of us were — together on the kids."
It shouldn't seem like a remarkable story — an ex-wife donating a kidney to an ex-husband — but to many it is.
"One of the surgeons that I talked to, he said, it's more common than you think, especially when they're older like us," Ziegler said. "And for the same reasons. You share children. You share grandchildren. You're 60 years old and (know) what's important in life now. It's not all the crap that happened before. It's about the rest of your life."
And everyone else who is now a part of your life, too, she said.
"I'm hoping that he has another 20 great years," Ziegler said.
Henrichs said there were a lot of people surprised to hear who his donor was.
"I kind of avoided mentioning who it was," Henrichs said. "But I could tell that they kind of knew because they would come back and keep asking .. becasue they wanted to hear it."
He is looking forward to April, the six-month mark from his donation.
"I've got a little bit of a road ahead," Henrichs said. He's still adjusting.
"I'm still in the middle of getting things organized as far as the medicine goes. But today's a better day, a lot better day. I had a couple of bad days earlier this week," he said.
He does face risks.
"Because my immune system is depressed. I gotta stay away from sick people," Henrichs said.
He may have to take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of his life, but not everyone does. He's already down to taking one quarter of the medication he started with. He also has to relearn how to manage his diabetes.
"That has all changed so I'm working hard at getting that figured out," he said. "Before with the kidneys being weak ... the insulin would stay in your body longer. Now it's getting filtered out."
Looking at the experience, Henrichs takes away one obvious- but-important lesson.
"Well, I think better health earlier on, is what I've learned," Henrichs said. "Definitely."
"I never really thought about transplants before," Ziegler said, because she had never had direct experience with someone who needed one.
"I don't think what I did was too amazing," Ziegler said. "I was thrilled to be able to do it. To do it for, not just him, but for my kids and for Linda, everybody. So, I'm pretty grateful that I did take good care of myself all my life."
It's just what you do for family, Ziegler said. What surprised and amazed her were the people who donate without having someone they specifically want to help.
"Yeah, I did a good thing, but people that do it altruistically, I'm in awe of them," Ziegler said. "That is really selfless."