When I was in junior high my mother would often speak of wanting to donate her body to science. She worked in the medical field and was very conscientious about the need for medical research. However, I didn’t place too much stock in her desires. I was certain that it was just wishful thinking on her part. After all, I had never heard of anyone who had actually done this before. Plus it was too weird to consider. It sounded like something that a character would do in a 1950’s B movie.
A year and a half before my mother’s death this very conversation surfaced again. I was visiting her at home when she asked me if I was okay with her donating her body. It still felt creepy but I told her that it was fine with me if that was what she really wanted. I could see the look of relief on her face. I didn’t like the idea but I didn’t want to tell her that; I just wanted to change the topic.
A few weeks later she asked me to write down a number. She said “When I die I need you to call this number. Put it somewhere safe because it’s important that IU receives my body in a timely manner. (She held up her small Anatomical Will card) I even have to keep this on me at all times. Feeling very chilled to the bone I replied, “Mommy, don’t say that, you are not going to die!”
I programmed the number in my cell phone with dread. I didn’t ever want to have to dial that number! I knew that my mom was pretty ill but I didn’t want her to be so accepting of it! I didn’t want to think about her dying. I had to choke back tears. I knew my sadness would worry her. I wanted her to think that I was stronger than what I really was.
The day she took her last breath and gave into death I thought of her instructions. I hesitated briefly to make the call. I felt horrified at the thought of both students and instructors discussing her in impersonal tones and dissecting her diabetes ravaged remains.
A little while later I managed to compose myself enough to make the call. The people at the IU Anatomical Gift Program were very kind. However, they were appalled that the hospital staff had allowed me to make the contact–asserting that they should have made the arrangements. It was a difficult call to make but I remained encouraged by the notion that I was carrying out her final wishes.
It was strange not having her body at the service. I knew many people were wondering if she had been cremated. On her program I made note of my mother’s contribution. I was undone with emotion when the funeral director read the statement.
I felt so blessed to have had the generous, gracious, and thoughtful mother that I had. She wanted to help advance the research for diabetes, a disease that has all but annihilated our family tree.
Three weeks after her death, I received a letter from the IU School of Medicine. It read: “The generous donation of Mrs. D. Cooper is much appreciated. Human bodies used for teaching are obtained entirely through donations. This gift has contributed significantly to the advancement of health science education programs in our state. Teaching and research programs at the IU Schools of Medicine and Dentistry rely on these generous body donations to teach physicians, dentists, physical therapists, nurses and other allied health professionals. Those who decide to bequeath their bodies to the health sciences have made a significant contribution that benefits the quality of life and care for the living.”
I was simply overcome with admiration, pride, and solace. I could not stop my tears from flowing or my smile from forming. I realized that my mother was beautiful in life as well as in death. It was a bittersweet yet triumphant revelation.
I know that my mother cared enough to carry out this final act of grace in hopes that her children and grandchildren won’t have to suffer the same fate as she did. Or her mother, baby sister, only brother, and great-aunt did. Not only would we benefit from her selflessness, others would as well. My mother, the giver, had one final gift to share with the world–herself.