My Mother was 73 when she died on April 22, 2004, following a stroke on April 2 which left her fairly vegetative. My siblings, my Father and I had to make many difficult end-of-life decisions in those 20 days. Given that my Mother was an elderly and sickly woman (congestive heart failure, hypertension, diabetes, severe arthritis, breathing problems and 30+ year cancer survivor), she occasionally mentioned over the years that, while she believed in the Gift of Life, she felt she had nothing to donate, especially with her post-cancer status. “What would they want with an old, decrepit body like mine?” she would rhetorically ask in discussing these issues. I am happy she was wrong.
When my phone rang at about 5:25am on April 22, I already knew in my heart what the cryptic “You’d better come quick, she’s deteriorating” call meant. Driving on I-75 from Grosse Ile to Dearborn’s Oakwood Hospital, I noticed that the sky was still the edge of night but not far off in the clearing the dawn lurked. In that one moment watching the sky, I knew instinctively she was gone.
As my siblings arrived one by one, it was my brother, John (who trained as a chaplain at Children’s Hospital, Detroit) who had the presence of mind to respond to the hospice nurse who said there was a call from the Gift of Life. Despite the many disagreements my siblings and I had had in the last few months of my Mother’s life, when the suggestion came to donate her corneas, this was the one thing we could peacefully and unanimously agree upon.
My only experience with organ transplants up to that day was based on items I was on news shows or other TV programs. I remember one episode of NYPD Blue where a detective needed a heart transplant and received one only because a young rookie officer had been shot in the head in the line of duty. I remember vividly how the senior officer had to talk to the young, soon-to-be widow about how a man on his squad needed a heart. The wife was bewildered, shocked, and kept saying that was the kind of thing her husband always would have decided. Finally, she consented when she understood that the man her husband had been had ceased to exist due to brain death. It was a very touching moment of television. Somehow, in the midst of my sorrow that morning in April, that episode played over and over again in my mind. Still, I had no idea what would happen to my Mother’s eyes, or even if they could be used in other people. At the very least, I knew they would go to medical research.
My Mother was a “closet” doctor in that she loved the pursuit of medicine, though she never went to medical school or even to college. She had medical books – I mean treatises and textbooks from college bookstores – that she routinely referred to regarding her ailments or anyone else’s. She was extremely proud of my sister, Joan, who is a pediatrician. When Joan was a med student and still living at home with my parents, she and my Mother would talk about whatever surgical procedures, diseases or techniques Joan had just learned.
Even in my Mother’s last years, with all of her ailments, no doctor could get anything past her without 100 questions and, God forbid otherwise, 100 answers that met her satisfaction. She would have been fascinated with the entire process of removing her corneas and how the transplant process worked. I can just imagine her spirit hovering over that operating table as her corneas were placed in the two gentlemen who received them. I think of it almost in humorous terms, like the Junior Mint episode of Seinfeld. Had my Mother been able to see into the future, the details of this procedure would have been not-miss dinner table conversation when we were growing up.
The gentlemen who received my Mother’s eyes should know that she was a voracious reader. She could never adjust to bifocals and always read with her glasses off. Even after she had several mini-strokes and lost some peripheral vision, that didn’t slow her down. She read everything from cookbooks to Vanity Fair Magazine to Andy Warhol’s Diaries – pretty hip stuff for an older woman, huh?
The men who received my Mother’s eyes should also know some of the things she saw in her lifetime. She worked, met my Father, got married and entered the suburban life of Donna Reed, circa the late 1950s. She lived in Chicago, where my three youngest siblings were born, for about five years. She was an award-winning cook at the Michigan State Fair; she had lots of correspondence with famous writers (cranked out on her old Remington typewriter); she wrote various cooking columns for local papers over the years; she hunted for treasures at estate and garage sales (she had a real eye for a bargain); she loved the ocean, seashores and seashells, vintage clothing from the 1940s and earlier; she dabbled in antique refurbishing; she collected Native American and Mexican art.
My Mother saw Italy twice. She was a bona fide Italian aficionado. She was transfixed by the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the statue of David in Firenze and the canals in Venice. She saw the famous Three Tenors tour at the old Tiger Stadium, even though it was very hard for her to walk by that time. She saw all five of her children graduate from college, four from professional school with a commitment to helping others.
My best memory of my Mother is when we were waiting for our flight to the U.S. at the Milan Airport. It was 1994 and the war in Bosnia was raging. My parents and I were sitting there at 5am and we had these box lunches from the hotel for our breakfast. My Mother was not a morning eater and didn’t want hers, and asked me for mine, too. When I asked her why, she told me she was going to give them to these four Bosnian refugees sitting near us. When I tried to explain to her that these were the same people who were engaged in raping and ethnic cleansing, she told me it didn’t matter – they were hungry. So she took my box and hers and gave them to these people, who were too proud to beg but quickly and discreetly devoured the contents. I am 51 years old. That is the most profound memory I have of my Mother, and the incident I believe best demonstrates the type of person she was.
I have an organ donation notation on the back of my driver’s license, as do a number of my brothers and sisters. The experience of my Mother’s Gift of Sight has made that medical possibility a more real thing in my life, not just something that happened on a TV show. My Mother didn’t die a tragic or horrific death, like the people did on September 11th or a young person killed by a drunk driver or a police officer killed on the job. She was an elderly person whose time in the natural cycle of life came to an end. Still, the pain and sorrow of the morning she died was no less to my family and me than if she had died in some tragedy. When I am having a bad day or a tough time about missing her, I think back to that morning and how we woke up to sadness, grief and a forever-changed reality… Yet I also now go to the thought that, somewhere, two other people who were blind or nearly blind woke up that same day with no hope, but eventually heard news that was joyous for them and forever changed their realities for the better. Talk about the circle of life – it reminds me again of that morning in Milan.
The men who received my Mother’s eyes need to know that they didn’t just get corneas, they got beautiful, big, sparkling, brown eyes that first attracted my Father to my Mother – eyes that always had an impish gleam, no matter how dire the situation. But they also need to know about the person behind those eyes.
Nobel Prize winner Eli Weisel (who survived the Holocaust) says whoever survives a test, whatever it might be, must tell the story; that this is the person’s duty. I have survived the test of losing my Mother – not perhaps a horror test like losing a child or something worse, but a test for me nonetheless. My Mother was my best friend. In this letter I have tried to tell my Mother’s story. I hope it serves whoever reads it well. If my story about my Mother and the profound impact of her Gift of Life has had on me changes just one person’s belief in organ transplantation and donation, then I guess God’s work on earth has truly been my own (to quote former President John Kennedy, another one of my Mother’s heroes). I welcome the opportunity to become an Eye-Bank Ambassador and to share this experience with whoever wants to listen.
Thank you for the opportunity to have shared a part of my Mother with people who I know are grateful, happy and curious about her big, brown eyes. Here’s hoping that those brown eyes are never blue again.
Rosanne C. Less