my mother’s autopsy

Prior to her passing, my mother chose to donate her body to research.  I met the physicians who would do her autopsy and tissue collection about 10 days before she died.  They signed up to bring us pasta on our meal donation website.  Mom had told me that they were from the Banner Sun Health Research Institute, but it didn’t occur to me that they would be slicing into my mother’s heart, holding my mother’s brain, until they were visiting with her in our living room.

They were kind. They enjoyed her in health (she had helped them raise money for a new facility while she was still working), and they were devoted to her with death looming near.  They knelt before my dying mother and held her hands.  They looked me straight in the eye and told me they would take care of her.  It wasn’t until then that I understood the depth of generosity in my mother’s donation, and the importance of helping these special people, so suited for the difficult work that they do. Mom, as always, chose well.  I trusted them, and with the intimacy of their task at hand, I started to think of them as family.

Yes, take my mother’s body, I thought.  I would give it to no one else. 

The first phone call was to the research institute after she took her last breath.

Her funeral was nearly a month after she passed.  Those kind doctors came.  She was cremated, their work complete. I gave them a big hug, and knew nothing else to say other than thank you.  Thank you, for helping others learn from my mother’s cancer.  Thank you, for slicing into that big heart, for holding her brain, for dissecting her tumor and sending it to the four corners of the earth.

Today, 8 months after her funeral,  I received the autopsy report.  When I checked the mail I was stressing out over a scheduling mix up over a certification exam; small shit, really. Its funny how quickly one can revert to shallow concerns after months of worrying about life and death. The letter was in a nondescript envelope, but it was thick, and I knew what it contained.  My anxiety about my test fell away.

Reading the report brought up mixed emotions. At first, I felt a little bit like a kid at Christmastime.  Mom’s brain weighed 1404 grams, who knew? But then I felt disappointment.  Coming from an oncology background, I want to understand her cancer on a cellular level.  Why it was so drug resistant.  Why she wasn’t cured.  Part of me was naively hoping there would be some striking insight from her autopsy on why she had to die, on that rainy December day at the age of 58. There wasn’t one.

I didn’t learn much from the report.  Her abdomen was full of lymphoma, but it had not infiltrated her kidneys or her brain like I thought it might have. It still seems unclear what kind of lymphoma she had, exactly. The report didn’t tell me why it was, to quote my mentor and friend, “the world’s worst lymphoma.”  And now, I will learn nothing more from her physical body.  The days of pouring over her CT scans and lab reports and now this final document are done.

I must accept that she is gone, and it will never make any sense.

Mom’s body has been turned to ash, but her tumor is preserved in a tissue bank somewhere.  Perhaps someday those rogue cells will give up their secrets to researchers someday.  Perhaps those researchers will use the knowledge gained to to save another mother’s life, somewhere. I hope they remember, as they hold the cold slides in their gloved hands, that this cancer was terrible and powerful enough to take a most perfect soul, and break the hearts of those that loved her.

21 thoughts on “my mother’s autopsy

  1. missjacquejoy

    This was a difficult, but compelling read. Wanting…needing answers is really built into us and I think some of our deepest pain comes when we don’t have the answers we seek. I hope that your mother will indeed provide answers as time goes on, answers that someone, somewhere will benefit from. I admire you. 🙂

  2. Chatter Master

    Sometimes I read something, and I have a desire to let someone know I just read their words, and felt them. But I don’t know what to say. I couldn’t read this and just ‘walk away’. I read this, and felt so many things. Thank you for sharing, you seem to be like your mom.

  3. Lisa O'Brien, lifeyum

    You and your mother. In my heart and mind today, and every day I start to get caught up in the petty stuff. Love.

  4. Heart To Harp

    You are so very brave, to support your mother’s decision to donate her body, to welcome the researchers into your life and heart, and to live without the answers you hoped for in the autopsy report. I hope that as more is known about how to get cancers to give up their secrets, future researchers will find answers to your mother’s cancer, and that this knowledge will bring hope to others.

  5. Kathy

    Your mom did a brave thing and it may help others in the future. I wish I understood more about my mom’s cancer, especially how it affected her during the last few weeks of her life. But I don’t know if I could have dealt with an autopsy. I don’t know if it would have helped anyone understand pancreatic cancer more. You were brave too, as I am sure this was not an easy thing for you to go through. Take care.

    1. bornbyariver Post author

      Its tricky to intellectualize her illness too much- and that’s easy for me, considering I’m a nurse. There are never really answers to my questions.

      I hope researchers will find more answers for pancreatic cancer soon- just a devastating disease. I’m sorry your mom had to leave you too soon.

  6. spilledcookies

    Amazing and hard share. My mom had cancer 3 times. It is mean, hateful. and makes no sense, but perhaps the knowledge given so graciously by one will lend a helping hand to many.

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  9. kjpaints

    I think your family is so brave and generous by donating your mother and putting off a funeral. I don’t know if my family could have been that selfless. I wish you had gotten more answers from her autopsy. I really sympathize with your hoping for answers. I’m still wondering why my mom was taken so young. I really admire your strength and your ability to verbalize all your feelings. Thanks for sharing.

    1. bornbyariver Post author

      it was the one thing my mother firmly expressed about her wishes after she was gone- she wanted her body to go to science. we were happy to comply, and it was the right thing to do for our family.

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