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.