I have begun to second-guess my decision about declining an invitation to observe my mother having her organs harvested. The guilt waited eight months to show up, but now it whispers, “Maybe you should have been there for her through that.” “And what about the cremation of her body? You were long gone across the country when that was happening.” “You left her.”
The beginning of the end was out on the Mar Caribe, but the last time we would see her was in Puerto Rico. By the time she reached the hospital the diagnosis was brain death, so my brother and I found ourselves on a midnight flight from San Francisco to Old San Juan. After ten hours in the air, we arrived the next morning to find my father crumpled over her bed.
She was swallowing tubes that orchestrated a slow, strange, mechanically calculated breathing rhythm. It was disorienting to witness her chest rise and fall with the cadences of a beeping machine. They call it life support even though they said her life had ended; each breath was a tease, a mirage of survival. Her body was luke-warm and her eyes were closed forever.
A Puerto Rican doctor called Paloma and an English-speaking translator approached us to explain, “The surgeons will be harvesting Mrs. Smith’s organs tomorrow morning, would you like to observe the procedure?” An image of her body under bright lights on a surgical table flashed into my mind, forcing a sharp “NO” into the conversation. “We just want to take her home,” my father pleaded shifting his eyes back and forth between the doctor and the translator. “Sus estados de licencia de conducir que es un donante.” “Her driver’s license states she is a donor.” The hospital wouldn’t release her body without harvesting her organs. This is the law. This is what she wanted.
The corner was cramped with the five of us gracelessly huddled around my mother in the bulky bed. “Tómese todo el tiempo que necesita, lo siento por su pérdida.” “Take all the time you need to say goodbye. I’m sorry for your loss.” The two men walked away after drawing a curtain between us and the open floor littered with beds holding dying bodies. I saw broken bones, blood, and barf in the hallways. “This place is unfit for our mother,” my brother said hopelessly. There were no walls, there was no door. No money or water in the country. There were mandatory water rations; this was an island government teetering on economic default. Everything was makeshift, including our final goodbyes.
My father, brother, and I stood over my mother, trembling, sniffling, hearts breaking irreversibly apart. We took turns offering our last words. I leaned over the gurney and pulled myself near her. Grasping the nape of her neck I drew my lips close to the side of her face. I inhaled the scent of her pheromones, a fragrance I have loved my whole life, holding my breath tightly in an attempt to lock her deeply inside. My heartbeat slowed, sluggish from the weight it was hauling. I nuzzled my face deeper into her hair while fighting with the railing of her bed to get closer. In a moment void of time, void of space, in a moment made of pure love I clung to her. “Thank you for being my mom,” I squeaked out with a dry mouth and a wet face. “I love you mom.”
Next I watched my dad and brother struggle to cut themselves loose from this moment. They paced back and forth, agonized, adjusting her pillow, tucking the blanket closer to her luke-warm body, trying to understand if she was really dead. It’s very confusing to look at her while the heart monitor tells bald-face lies.
My brother kissed my mother, held her hand, climbed onto her bed and grabbed her whole body. He was like a bear cub begging his mother’s corpse to rise. Like Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee pup that recoiled into oblivion a month after his mother’s body stopped being animated.
My dad choked and heaved. “I love you so much,” he wailed silently. “I can’t do this. I’m going to miss you so much.” He kissed her lips and tucked his cheek to hers. “I’m going to miss your hugs, you give the best hugs,” he sobbed as he clung to her luke-warm body. “Oh god. Oh god.”
We went on like this for quite some time, unable to walk away, unable to do anything but cling to her. Her heart is beating. Her lungs are breathing. “It’s so hard to leave,” my dad cried. I was the first to walk out from behind the drawn curtain. I waited, silently, petrified against a doorframe until my brother followed. We waited, each in our own bewilderment, until my dad finally emerged. I turned to look at her one last time as the curtain fell behind my dad when he walked out. Then we left her forever.
Instead of observing a scalpel draw from my mother’s neck to her pelvis, instead of watching her ribs broken apart and held open as someone reaches inside to take parts of her for free and ship them away to someone somewhere. Instead of watching my mother thanklessly give life to the unknown, we went to Señor Frogs.
We went to Señor Fucking Frogs in San Juan and ordered margaritas. One week earlier, from this same table, my mom had sweet-talked the bartender into giving her the margarita recipe, so long as she “promised not to tell the boss man because he could get fired!”
Now, as my mother was being harvested, my dad, brother, and I sipped foot-tall margaritas into our unsettled minds. The lights, drinks, laughter, and children dancing to reggae tone on the stage were at odds with our grief. We sat around the table in silence. Then my dad started crying.
The waiter came up asking if everything was okay. “The drinks and dip are great, it’s just, our mom just died.” The waiter’s smile sank and his eyes lowered. “I am so sorry to hear that,” he said. “I, I can’t, I’m just,” he sighed, turned, and walked away.
I stood up and held my dad, my brother joined. He softly choked on his grief. My chest was catching on fire. The waiter returned with three other waitresses and together they enveloped us with their embrace. We all held on as this psychologically seismic event shook my dad’s body and cracked his face. We held onto each other while my mother’s lungs were cut from her throat.
A round of free drinks came to our table, we said thank you and took the party margaritas outside to sip on near the water. A massive, 200-foot tall cruise ship loomed over the dock flooding life, lights, and live music across the water. Such contrast to our grief in a city of life.
In the morning, a funeral home representative named Manuel arrived at our hotel room to make plans to cremate my mother. His well-worn suit seemed like it had been black at some point, but now it was faded gray, matching the circles drooping from his eyeballs. In lieu of emotional intelligence and empathy he was quiet. Not a master of his trade, rather a “friend of the family” in the undertaking business. I examined his face wondering what he’s seen in this line of work. I imagined he had seen people obliterated by grief who can’t read, reason, or rationalize what’s happening to them. People like us.
My phone buzzed with a text message form the surgeon, Dr. Paloma. “The procedure is complete, it is expected that your mother will save four lives. Please come sign the death certificate.” We wrapped up the meeting with Manuel, trying to retain the details of all he had said. Things like, “Depending on how many organs and how much tissue she has left after donation will determine if we can transport her to the crematorium or if we will need to hire a casket driver.” “Her ashes will arrive at San Francisco Airport in a few weeks.” “The death certificates will arrive at your home in about six weeks, $20 a copy.” “Sorry for your loss.”
My dad and I set out to meet with Dr. Paloma. It was a beautiful day in the Caribbean. The linen shirt I’d been wearing for three days clung to my waist bound by sweat. As the wind brushed across my face I remembered the beach was near. I looked up but couldn’t see anything behind the compound of the hospital.
As we approached the ER, I envisioned seeing my father sign my mother’s death certificate at a desk in the room where the neurosurgeon explained to us in great detail what had happened to her body over the past 72 hours. Instead, we found Dr. Paloma on the side of the building with the documents pressed under his arm. He nodded his head in acknowledgment of this difficult moment, then handed the papers over. We did not have an invitation to go back into the emergency room. Perhaps some other family was occupying that one office, learning about how bodies break down and cease to operate.
My dad looked around for a place to sign my mother’s death certificate. I sighed and turned my back, pointing to my shoulder. He leaned down pressing the paper to my back. My dad flattened the document gently, trying not to bend it too much. I felt the pen touch the paper, then his name scrawled across a line I couldn’t see, but I could feel. It cut through my bones, tissue, and blood, straight out the front. I half expected to see “Smith” splattered in blood across the wall before me.
Then it was over. My dad clicked the pen spring, tucked the clip behind the death certificate and handed it back to the doctor. Dr. Paloma reached out to shake our hands, with his hands that had just cut open my mother. He wished us the best. She must have been sewn back up by now.
My dad and I walked back to the makeshift hotel on the third floor of the cardiology unit quietly. We packed our bags. We packed my mother’s bags. And we boarded a plane to California without her.