By Djenaba Dioum Kelly
It was a day like any other in June 2010. I had just dropped off my daughters at preschool and was driving on the freeway on my way to work. Since it was rush hour, traffic was stop and go. In between sips of coffee and bobbing my head to whatever song was on the radio, I took a peek at Facebook from my iPhone (yes, while driving. I know, I know). I saw a post from my friend Fina about how angry she felt at God for taking her baby boy away from her. I could not believe what I was reading. I knew from reading her posts the day before that she had been at the hospital with her nineteen month old son Justin.
Justin had been born several months prematurely and had always had health problems stemming from this. From what I understood, he had been in and out of the hospital since his birth. As a matter of fact, when he was born, he was not expected to live. But he did.
Fina, Justin’s mother, was a long time friend of mine from college. Although we had not seen each other in several years because I had moved to another state, we had kept up with each other, mostly through our mutual friend, Grace. I had recently moved back to Northern California and had gotten back in touch with her through Facebook.
As I stared at Fina’s Facebook post, I started to cry. I didn’t understand why I was crying, exactly, since I did not have any real information yet, but I did. I cried. I remember thinking, “Why am I crying so hard?” Yes, it was sad, but surely I shouldn’t be this affected.
After a few moments, I composed myself and called my friend Grace. I didn’t want to disturb Fina in case I had somehow misinterpreted her post. Grace confirmed that Justin had been declared brain dead that morning.
I remember feeling a physical ache in the middle of my chest. To this day, I don’t know why, but I felt compelled to be there with my friend. I had never even met Justin. Why this was so important I couldn’t tell you, but I asked Grace for the hospital information. I went into work and requested the day off after telling my boss the situation. I headed to the hospital, which was not far from where I worked. I remember I got lost and went to the wrong building. I called Grace and she was able to finally direct me to the right place.
I was so nervous on the elevator ride up to the floor where Justin was. I felt like an interloper. After all, I hadn’t seen Fina since my wedding day seven years earlier, and even though we had been good friends in our youth, did I really have any business being there on such a painful occasion? Not to mention the fact that I had never even met her husband, Justin’s father, nor had I met Justin. I almost turned around and left but she already knew that I was coming and was expecting me. There was no turning back at this point. I told myself that I would offer her whatever comfort she would allow and that I would not stay long out of respect for the family. I ended up staying 12 hours.
As I got off the elevator, I saw Fina. She was talking to someone on the phone. I was struck by how great she looked. She turned and looked in my direction. She had a big smile on her face when she saw me, as if she was actually glad to see me. Whatever I expected, it wasn’t that. I guess I’ve seen too many movies because I really did expect her to look more broken. Perhaps she’d be in a wheelchair because her legs could not bear the weight of her despair, wearing big black Jackie O sunglasses to hide the swollen eyes, with a scarf around her head, again, Jackie O style. You know, glamorous grief. What I saw instead was Fina’s pretty face and her big radiant smile. That first moment we made eye contact we were simply old girlfriends who had not seen each other in years. It was joyous. Then, I remembered why I was there and I think she did too, because sadness came into her eyes and I felt it in my chest. We hugged. We cried a little. I told her that I was so sorry. She thanked me for coming.
She took me in to the waiting room that had been reserved for the family. She introduced me to everyone. I met her husband, Russell. Grace was not there. She had left to shower and change and would return later. The only person there that I knew was Fina. I was in a room full of strangers; a family in shock, not even grieving yet, I don’t think. I sat down after the introductions. I felt so inadequate and inappropriate. Really, what the hell was I doing there? I couldn’t answer, but somehow I had to be there. It was as if some force was propelling me, I couldn’t help myself and I did not understand it. So, I just sat. I made small talk. At that time, there were no tears in the room. There was laughter. I felt the love they all had for each other. It was perfect. I saw Fina and Russell’s family gathered around them, offering love and support silently, just by being there. It wasn’t the overly dramatic scene my mind had conjured, full of raw emotion, loud screaming cries, fists raised toward the heavens at God’s injustice. Instead, it was a group of people who loved each other, gathered for the common purpose of offering each other support and getting through this terrible tragedy as best they could. Still, I felt as if I didn’t belong, but I could not make myself leave.
A nurse came in and asked me if I was the mother. Fina was offended. In typical Fina fashion, she cracked a joke about it. The whole room laughed. The ice was broken. Just like that, I felt included, part of the family of support.
After a few more people arrived, Russell calmly explained to everyone what happened. The day before, they had brought Justin to the hospital. When he was an infant, a shunt was installed in his skull to drain fluid built up around his brain. Yesterday, for some reason, the shunt had failed and too much fluid had collected causing pressure and swelling in and around his brain. The doctors did all that they could do to relieve the swelling but Justin had no brain activity. Presently, Fina and Russell were waiting for the results of a second round of tests to confirm that there was still no brain activity. The results would be in that afternoon. It was only about 10am. As Russell was speaking, emotion overcame me and I had to leave the room. It was a shock to hear all of this. It was the first time I heard of all that Justin had been through in his young life. I knew that he was born prematurely and had some health problems as a result, but I had no idea to what extent! I went into a hallway and cried privately. I cried for Justin. I cried for Fina and for Russell. For all that they had been through these last nineteen months, and all that they would go through in the next few days. It seemed too much to bear. I couldn’t imagine being in that situation. It was so unfair. How could this happen to such decent people? How can such a sweet little boy’s life be over so soon? Why would God allow Justin to survive the seemingly insurmountable obstacles present at the time of his birth only to take him nineteen months later? What was the point?
I pulled myself together and went back in the room with everyone. Fina asked me if I was ok. I stared at her blankly. She was asking me if I was ok?? I was embarrassed. After awhile, she asked me if I wanted to go meet Justin. It seemed important to her that people see him and spend time with him. Someone in the family was always in the room with him. They took turns so that he would never be alone. Even though I was afraid to see him, I said yes. The first time I met Justin, he had already died. But he didn’t look dead. I was surprised. I understood why Fina would want people to see him. He was lovely. He was laying on his back, arms out, head to the side. He looked like any sleeping toddler. Except for the swelling of his head, and the tubes attached to him, keeping his body alive. I touched his socked foot. He was adorable. I wished I had known him, seen him animated. Right now, he just looked asleep. Fina talked to him and rubbed his hands. It was poignant; a mother caring for her baby, making sure his socks were on so his feet wouldn’t get cold. I was moved beyond words or thoughts. I felt her love for him as if it were a physical presence. For her, he was right there. She could touch him, hold him and talk to him. I knew that she wasn’t in denial. She understood better than anyone the situation. But, for a few moments, she could just be a mother caring for her child.
That afternoon, Justin’s death was confirmed. Fina and Russell explained to us all that he was indeed gone. Then, they said that they were going to donate Justin’s organs so they were going to keep him on the machines until organ recipients were found and his organs could be harvested. I was floored by their generosity. Five years earlier, after my mother died, I was asked if I wanted to donate her corneas. I adamantly refused. It seemed so wrong that they would pick apart her body – a desecration! I couldn’t comprehend this kind of generosity. In my grief, I could only think of myself. Here were two people who had just lost their son and they were able to do what I could not. I was inspired and I was humbled.
Justin’s kidneys were donated to two different women – mothers whose lives were saved so that they could be with their children. And there are countless others who were touched by him; his family, friends, caretakers, medical staff. All were touched by his sweet smile, the love he radiated. Justin was loved. Justin was Love.
We often think of the death of a loved one as some sort of punishment – as if God is making us suffer in retribution for some sin we committed. We question Him. We lack understanding. Sometimes, though, the reason why we lose our loved one is clear. Justin was a gift. He came here specifically to save the lives of those people who received his organs and to change the lives of all who came in contact with him. His survival at birth was a miracle. He made people believe in miracles! His entire life was a miracle and his death created miracles for other people.
I believe that before we are born our souls choose the parents to whom we are born. We choose the people who are going to teach us the lessons we need to learn in order to fulfill our purpose on this planet. I believe that Justin chose his parents for their strength- he knew that they would not be forever broken by their grief. He also chose them because of the tremendous support system they have – he knew that they had people around them who would love and comfort them through their pain. Finally, he chose them because they are the kind of people who would not prohibit in any way, the fulfillment of his purpose. They had such a great capacity to love that they were willing to donate Justin’s organs so that other lives would be saved and other families would not experience the loss they were suffering. What a gift, indeed!
Categories: Spirit Matters