June 23, 2001. Afternoon. It was a month after I graduated college. I did not know what I was going to do with my life (I still don’t), I just knew that I got a degree and was the first one of my immediately family to do so. Though brilliant, my parents didn’t go to college. My older brother, with a genius IQ (if IQ actually mattered) did not attend college. My older sister went to the Navy, and later went to college, but not back in ‘01.
My phone rang. I was just about to hop in the shower to go shopping with a past friend (we’re no longer friends, but she was supportive around this time). It was one of my sisters on the phone. She could barely talk. Barely. I thought she was hurt. I told her to slow down and to just talk to me slowly. Just talk.
All she said was "mommy didn’t make it." I knew what she meant.
Minutes passed and I didn’t realize that I was screaming at the top of my lungs. It’s like I saw myself screaming but it was someone else I was watching. I managed to go to the shower. Cried. Screamed some more. Then silence.
I called my father. He told me that my mother had died. He was still at the hospital with one of my other sisters. My mom had a heart attack. (Later in the medical examiner’s report, it revealed cardiomegaly and cardiovalvular disease/mitral valve prolapse; my own doctor said childhood rheumatic fever back when she was in Jamaica could have been the precursor.)
I called my friend. I told her what happened. She started to cry. She drove me home. I was at school still, a few hours away from my parents’ house.
I got there. It was dark. Disarray. Pain. Dried tears on faces. People wandered. People stopped by to give condolences. So much pain. The house immediately changed. It has never been the same since.
The (landline…those were the days) phone rang. It was someone from a college’s medical center. What could they want? None of my sisters attended that particular college. They called for my mother’s organs. On the same day. Only hours after her death.
I screamed at them. I was so distraught, out of control and angry. I felt too many emotions at once. I truly wanted to die that day. Though I had experienced passing suicidal thoughts as a teen, not until that moment did it feel so real and so desired. This is partially why I recently published a Storify about suicide: Calling Victims of Suicide “Selfish” Is Victim-Blaming. People are quick to call those who feel this way “selfish” and it is victim blaming to do so. Most people who have suicidal ideations, make suicide attempts or commit suicide simply want the PAIN of their lives to end.
I told the school, “no.” They could not have my mother’s organs. Truthfully, this was not my call to make. It was legally my father’s. But he was handling the many people coming in and out of the house to console us and to cry themselves. I am not sure if the school ever called back; they may have, because legally, I could not make that call. But I felt so much pain and the idea of them invading her body, I could not say “yes” to.
My mother was not registered as an organ donor. From what I gather, she objected to the idea. She knew the importance but could not get past certain trepidation about the healthcare industry. Her fears were not irrational. Anyone can read Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington to know that some current resistance to certain facets of the healthcare industry is not unfounded or paranoia (nor is it only particular to America, actually). (I’ve heard so many Black people say they’re anxious about being an organ donor because they feel that if their life is at risk, the doctors will be less inclined to save them and more inclined to start thinking of where they’ll send their organs.) My mom also didn’t like the idea of cremation or any alteration to her body. Her funeral was an open-casket funeral. I still remember the dress she wore. Her face. Her gloves. Giving her forehead a kiss before they closed the casket that final time.
Fast forward twelve years later and I changed my driver’s license registration. I am now an ORGAN DONOR. I always had my option as “no.” But when I recently renewed my license, I decided to change it. In fact, I regret that I told that school “no” for my mom, except for the fact that I was in compliance with her wishes, which matters above all to me.
My own wishes differ now. Now, I already know that Black bodies and lives are not respected in the healthcare industry and that some Black people’s resistance to mental health care is not solely about stereotypes about Black strength or preference for theist practices; it involves how we navigate the healthcare industry with a lot of difficulty and how at times, practitioners cannot relate to who we are. I’ve experienced this with traditional physicians and with a psychotherapist. At the same time, I can’t use these organs once I die. And I have a different relationship with thoughts of death at almost 33 years old versus 21 years old when my mom passed away. Though I don’t want to die today, I appreciate mortality. I am not interested in immortality in a theist sense, though I do know that energy is neither created nor destroyed, it just alters form, so perhaps something comes once my heart stops beating. I am not certain, hence the “agnostic” part of my agnostic atheism. Either way, that heart and the other organs can help someone else. (Please don’t let my organs go to some blithering bigot when I die…)
I respect people’s choice to not be an organ donor or to be one. I don’t respect the idea of organ donors shaming people into doing so, especially when it is Black people. We’ve had enough Black bodies as “donors” without our permission for centuries.
I walked into this decision from my own thinking, not pressure or shaming. I thought about how I feel about life itself, how I support the right for people to end their own lives with dignity, how I support DNR; I wouldn’t want advanced life support for myself. I respect people having the choice to live and die the way they choose, if possible.
Though seeing that red “organ donor” label under my photo on my license is a quick reminder of my own mortality, honestly everyday is that reminder. Not even another minute is promised. I just want to do things that are bigger than my own personal existence as much as possible. This is just a small one of those things.
Oh and…I always miss my mom. Like every second…