Her Final Wish
The oncologist’s gaze swiveled from my father to my brother, my sister, and me as we stood in a circle in the hospital’s family conference room. Then he focused on Dad. “We found this in your wife’s things,” he said. He unfolded a piece of lined notebook paper on which was written a single sentence: “I wish to donate my body to science.”
“Do you know what she meant by that?” the doctor asked. “Do you think she wanted to give her remains to the anatomy board?”
I stifled a gasp, turned on my heel, and stalked off, as far away from the others as I could get, where I broke down in tears. I was a first-year medical student, two months into a semester of gross anatomy. I couldn’t deal with the prospect of my mother as a cadaver.
I’ve replayed the scene numerous times over the intervening decades. On this morning of the forty-ninth anniversary of my mother’s death, I recall it again. Looking out the window at the waning crescent moon among the sparse October leaves of the maple tree, I watch the infinitesimal progress it makes across the eastern sky, the barely perceptible strengthening of pre-dawn light. I return to bed for a little more sleep, but my eyes remain wide open.
When I rejoined the doctor and my family that day, we reached a consensus: we would interpret my mother’s cryptic message as a request for an autopsy. Then we would not have to contemplate the awful prospect of her remains being pickled in formaldehyde for several months and dissected by a future group of medical students. It was a relief for all of us, no doubt, but especially for me, the one who, four days a week, had to shower off the anatomy-lab stink as soon as I got home.
Now, still sleepless, I contemplate the ceiling while turning over a troubling thought: what if Mom actually “wanted” to donate her body to the anatomy board? What if we’d deprived her of that opportunity? Such a gift could be seen as the ultimate generosity, after all, a true “mitzvah.”
My mother was not one to confide in people. She gave the appearance of openness, but much of her inner life was a mystery, even to those closest to her. She’d said things in her last years, though, especially after her cancer diagnosis, that indicated she’d wanted to pursue a career in medicine. Her father, a talented musician, was a tyrant who insisted she major in music in college and squelched any medical ambition she may have expressed. She never said explicitly that she wanted or expected me to become a doctor in her stead, but she didn’t have to: I got the message.
And, on that sad day forty-nine years ago, we had taken the easy way out. Sure, an autopsy might indicate which parts of her body were most affected by the lymphoma that killed her. But it was a stretch to think that it would reveal any startling new truths about the disease itself that might help other patients in the future. If my mother’s body had become one of the silent denizens of the anatomy lab, she could have taught some essential knowledge to at least a handful of medical students. Since she’d been an elementary school teacher before her last illness, teaching medical students after her death would have been a legacy to make her proud. We may have unwittingly prevented her, not just from doing one final good deed, but from being part of the medical community she’d admired so much. Did we close that door on her a second time?
Or perhaps I’m imagining all this, seeing a wrong where none exists. There’s so much we can’t really know, even about the people we love the most. This is especially true when the person in question grew up in an atmosphere where subterfuge and indirection were a survival strategy, where life was of necessity a game of emotional hide-and-seek. Or perhaps my mother wrote that note when she was too physically frail and depleted to communicate exactly what she meant. But it’s telling that neither my father nor her oncologist knew about the note until the day she died.
Forty-nine years later, I’m almost twenty-three years older than my mother was when she died. I’ve experienced a long and happy marriage, mothered three wonderful daughters whom my own mother never had a chance to meet, and spent over thirty-four satisfying years practicing medicine. My life has been fulfilled in ways my mother’s never could have been, mainly because she died too soon. I’m genuinely sorry if we—or, more accurately, I—inadvertently denied my mother her last wish. But I’ve also learned, especially through her failures, that wishes need to be spoken openly and articulated clearly, not scribbled on pieces of paper and hidden away.
This beautiful October day has turned out to be much like the day of my mother’s death. Now I gaze out the window at the vivid afternoon sky and gentle autumn sunlight, the yellow leaves clinging to the branches and carpeting the lawn. I dress all in black to honor her passing. And I contemplate the ineffable mystery, the ultimate unknowability, of another human being, even one we love fiercely and irrevocably.
© Kay White Drew
Kay White Drew is a retired neonatal physician. Her work appears in Bay to Ocean Journal 2021, This Is What America Looks Like, and Grace in Darkness; and online in Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine and Maryland Literary Review. Two poems and a short story are forthcoming. She lives in Rockville, MD with her husband.