A few months ago my father received the call to pick up my mother’s cremains. With a mixture of dread and curiosity, I asked him later what he was given.
He said it’s surprisingly light. A small box. Not a throw-away shoebox, he quickly reassured me. It was respectful.
Well before she died two years ago, during her marathon battle with breast cancer, my mother decided to donate her body to Science — an amorphous capitalized force — which, she was sure, would use it for the power of good.
And while there was a sense of disconnect during the initial stages of mourning — there was a memorial service, but the guest of honor was absent — in a way I was happy to have been spared the sight of her white-shrouded body flip-flopping into an open grave, as is the custom in Israel, where I live.
“Let’s bury her ashes on top of Nick,” I suggested to my father. Interring her scant physical remains with the son who preceded her by almost 20 years seemed fitting to the rest of the family, and this summer, when her progeny from three countries gather at my brother’s graveside in his US military cemetery, we’ll have a mini family reunion in honor of them both.
A life-long educator, my mother didn’t think twice about allowing a corps of first-year medical students dissect her corpse. Medicine, with a capital M, had given her five relatively good years after her initially dismal prognosis of three to six months.
And since she had left Judaism at age 18 and was, by this point, a devoutly spiritual Christian minister, there were no compunctions regarding tradition (a word she would never have capitalized).
For me, a “returnee” to Judaism, if only in a mostly secular form of it, not being able to experience the catharsis built into our mourning rituals was difficult. As if her story ended one note before the finale.
But I imagined the medical students using her body as a map to find the “treasures” she had left them to explore. What did they make of the metal cage that was embedded in her spinal column in place of several tumor-consumed vertebrae? Did they note that it prolonged her life, but made her a few inches shorter?
Did they find the tiny tattoos that were used as guide marks for her several bouts of radiation? Did they see the remnants of the drug ports for her chemotherapy?
I wonder if her vocal chords showed she was a life-long professional singer. Did they understand her muscled fingers were witness to the hours of piano practice she had enjoyed in her retirement?
In seeing the stretch marks on her stomach, did they think about the life this lifeless body had once borne?
And I wondered, as the students learned about human anatomy, did they learn anything about humanity?
As in my chosen profession of journalism, a doctor must be able to compartmentalize and objectify. But the best ones, in both fields I suspect, somehow allow these worlds to bleed.
Breathlessly walking my naughty dog Happy in the breathtaking Judaean Hills this morning, I briefly met my jogging neighbor who was taking advantage of the temperate sunny spring weather that precedes our scorching summers.
I recalled that his brother, killed tragically young in a car accident, had donated his organs and changed countless lives. I am already a registered organ donor. This could be my way of donating to Science and Medicine, I thought, while still allowing my husband and six children the chance to purge their grief through Tradition.
Or maybe, in conjunction with their wishes, I’d too do as my mother did.
With a swipe at my sweaty brow, I shrugged off my morbid mood and thought about the aspects of my mother I prefer to memorialize.
Today, my maternal idée fixe is an image of her in her mid-40s, flexing her arm and showing off her newly formed biceps. She was at the top of her game and touring a popular musical school show she had produced and written on her own.
Her new physical strength was earned through carrying huge speakers and props. Also metaphysically, for once, she was earning a good living through her creativity.
The mother I choose to call up is laughing after a tennis game of doubles with another musician couple; she’s sweaty after Jazzercize and running from my attempts to smell her armpits — my happy place. Life, love, and laughter cascade from her, alongside strength and vitality.
But as easy as it is to pick and choose my memories, to build her up to virtual sainthood and delete all the pain, tears and anger, I wonder if, in her final act of donating her body, was she again teaching me a life lesson?
For in our receiving her desiccated ash and bone so long after her death, we are sent a timely reminder from beyond the proverbial grave that she, like all of humanity, was once only the stuff of flesh and blood.