In June of 2008, Sage Novak was eating breakfast with her husband, Rob, when a bobcat ran through their yard and stopped to take a long look at them, starting their day off on an exciting note.
They were still talking about it when Rob got into his car, headed for a golf tournament with his father. But Novak's college sweetheart, 33 and seemingly healthy, never returned.
"He had an undetermined medical episode on the way home and passed away on the scene," says Novak, who had no idea how to tell their 1- and 4-year-old daughters that their dad, known as a strong athlete, had died.
"The biggest thing for me, I'm a very positive, upbeat person, was the sadness, the utter sadness of knowing your partner was gone," say Novak.
Their oldest daughter was born with a heart defect and had surgery when she was only a day old. So when a representative from the New England Organ Bank asked if she would donate Rob's tissue, she agreed. Four people received transplants, including three baby boys.
"I got such a sense of peace and pride in deciding to donate Rob's tissue, and it was such big part of my healing process," says Novak.
A memorial floragraph bearing Rob's likeness will be a part of the Donate Life float during the New Year's Day Rose Parade in Pasadena. The float, which shows a "Journeys of the Heart" theme, displays 72 of these floral portraits. Novak believes Rob, a former football player at Xavier High School in Middletown, would be thrilled to be included.
After her husband's death, Novak found a strength she never knew she had: "You get up and take care of your children." With family support and the passing of time, she began to find her footing.
She and the girls talk about him all the time, she says, and "with the kids being so young, I was able to kind of craft a magical image of Daddy going up to the angels."
Novak moved back to her hometown, Deep River, and opened a "guy's store" filled with clothes that Rob, a boater, would have loved. She named it "Anchor & Compass" to celebrate her past and future. Rob will always be her anchor while a new relationship with an old friend is serving as a compass, taking life in a different direction.
"I say 'Mommy has two hearts. I have my Daddy heart, which is full and permanent, and, I have my Dan heart which is growing and full of love."
Novak recently took to the computer to research animal symbolism, learning that the bobcat is considered a "messenger from God" by some cultures. Although she still searches for answers, she is now at peace with her memories: "It was an amazing 15 years and I just feel so blessed to have been his wife."
Novak believes Rob lives on in the little girls who look just like him and the small boys he helped, recipients of a gift like none other.
>>To learn more about organ and tissue donation, check out http://www.donatelifenewengland.org. Hear more of Sage Novak's inspiring story by tuning into today's Fox CT Morning News.