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David Cook

One year ago this week, Will Hunt's heart gave out.

He'd just turned 16. Just started driving. He was an athlete — competing for a world champion cheer team in Atlanta — and an honors student at McCallie School. Gobs of friends. Golden days ahead.

But one October day, something didn't feel right. Will couldn't catch his breath. Was it exhaustion? Pneumonia? Doctors ordered X-rays. There in the gray image, Will's heart was huge, swollen and out-of-place among his lungs, like it had photo-bombed the X-ray.

An echocardiogram gave the frightening news: Will's heart — beating at only 10 percent capacity — was dying.

Doctors called it cardiomyopathy: a disease of the heart muscle, which was so ironic to me.

Will's heart was always the strongest thing about him.

I first met him in my English class two years ago; sure, he's Ivy League bright, but it was his heart that shone brightest. Ever met somebody that is at home wherever they go? Drop Will off anywhere on the planet, and he'll make friends by sundown and never lose himself. Never lose his own identity.

He has this inner diamond of personality.

"I have never heard him complain," said Thomas Sell, one of his best buds. "No one can make the best of it like Will. He can always find the silver lining."

With months, maybe weeks to live, Will was taken by air ambulance to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, placed on a heart pump, and given top priority — he was so young and so sick — on the transplant waitlist for a new heart.

Remember the rest of the story? The viral video of pre-transplant Will singing Maroon Five. Adam Levine's response.

The Nashville apartment, loaned to the Hunts — totally free — by a nearby family they'd never met. The #WillPower kindness from loved ones and strangers. The 4,787 emails of encouragement in Will's inbox.

The joy when they heard a donor's heart had been found. The deep, tearful gratitude that followed.

"I'm still overwhelmed with emotion," said his mom, Kathleen. "We couldn't help but think of the donor family, and their ultimate sacrifice."

On Nov. 17, 2016, in a transplant surgery that lasted through the Nashville night, Will received a new heart.

The big question followed: would his body accept or reject this new heart?

Accept.

Or reject.

Perhaps that is the question for all of us.

Now, one year later, Will is simply wonderful; he's back on the cheer team, taking AP classes, down to 10 pills a day from 30. Gobs of friends. Golden days ahead.

Today's column?

It's not about his surgery.

It's about his heart.

Just listen to what Will said over a recent lunch.

-"Love is the way life continues. Without love, there is no life."

-"I live life now completely different. It's a beautiful thing, too. Before this, I didn't understand a lot of things. And not understanding makes life life. That is the beauty of life. There are silver linings in everything. Without great struggle, you don't understand truth."

-"I would do it all over again. Sure, it was the hardest part of my life, but also the most eye-opening and enlightening experience."

-"I realized how grateful I am at being able to walk down stairs, eat breakfast, stand up without hurting, seeing my family all together. Everything is so different, and different in the best way."

To me, Will's always been wise. But now? Post-transplant? His wisdom seems more pronounced. Magnified. It's like the Tao of Will Hunt.

More enlightened.

"People are good. No matter who or what they are. In essence, people are good. No matter who they are or the background. Everybody has a heart."

-"You figure out no matter what people think or say or believe in, love is greater than all of it."

-"There's going to be illness, sickness, hurricanes, disasters, but when there is love, there truly can't be devastation."

You can read these words as sappy or Hallmark-naive. Get serious, Will. Come on, get in the real world.

But what if Will is speaking about the most real world of all? What if Will is expressing this core truth the rest of us have forgotten?

What if our hearts — not his — need the transplant?

At some point, we can choose to stop being angry. To trade in resentment for gratitude. To relate to others, instead of repelling them. Will Hunt has become my teacher, reminding me that we can see this world — this ugly, beautiful, harsh, stunning world — in many ways.

But only one renews our heart.

"Love," said Will. "Love is the most important thing in life."

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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