The other day I visited a friend—I’ll call her Amy—whose mother had just passed. A close friend of Amy’s had also recently died, and her dog had passed as well. All within weeks of one another, although only Amy’s beloved dog’s passing had been unexpected.
Still, even when a death is expected, it’s often a punch to the gut when it happens—a pretty amazing thing, really, when we’ve already projected and think we’re ready, only to stand in the midst of pent-up emotions flying free when it occurs, facing down a new paradigm of knowing zip about the enormity of loss—of knowing zip about anything, actually.
Amy told me about packing up her mother’s clothes and books—and then we talked of the photo albums—in this case, dozens of photo albums that her mom had so carefully put together; every photo captioned and arranged just so. Catalogs of life—all intended for her progeny.
My mother died young and I inherited her albums and my grandfather’s as well, so I know about this photo album conundrum. As a little girl, I’d loved sitting beside my mother, listening to stories about the people and events documented on her and my grandfather’s album pages—it was one of our sacred pastimes.
But I have not looked at my mom’s albums since she died, except to find a photo that a relative requested.
But can I just toss those albums out?
Can I just stick a rusty fork in my eye?
So I said to Amy, “It’s sad about these books, that someday when we’re gone, our mother’s books will be gone, too, and all their stories lost.”
But Amy said, “Does it matter? Are any of us really that important?”
I didn’t dismiss Amy’s words. I examined them instead, turning them over and over in my head—which wasn’t at all pleasant. But I kept thinking, Even if I don’t want it to be true, what if it is? What if our stories don’t count for anything?
Then what’s it all about?
Open for Business
Now, I have this perception of the universe as analogous to a big invisible computer hard drive holding all the answers (and even the questions) about, well . . . everything. But in order to see or hear the answers, revelations, affirmations, what-have-you’s, we have to be open for business, all senses attuned.
So that same night, still pondering Amy’s words, I sat down to dinner with a newspaper, and wouldn’t you know it, on the front page of the local section was a piece about Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
Here’s the story: When Rebecca Skloot was a biology major, she was constantly running into references about “HeLa cells.” (HeLa is code for Henrietta Lacks.) When she asked her teachers who Henrietta Lacks was specifically, no one seemed to know.
Well, Skloot found out. She spent ten years finding out, and when she published her biography of Henrietta Lacks, a poor tobacco farmer and mother of five, it became a mega bestseller. Huge.
Long story made shorter (because you must read the book), Henrietta Lacks had a diagnosis of cancer and wound up at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where doctors removed two pieces of her cervix for research. Henrietta died at 31, several months after this.
Turns out, Henrietta had some remarkable cells. Strong, sturdy cells—and those amazing cells of Henrietta’s became the first human ones successfully grown in a lab. And since then, billions of those cell lines have been grown in labs, and the medical treatments they’ve given birth to changed the world. For example, by 1954, Dr. Jonas Salk was using HeLa to develop a vaccine for polio.
I went up to bed that night with Baby Rae and a smile, not only because the universe had delivered the goods, but because I’d liked its answer:
Henrietta Lacks had mattered. Amy’s mother had mattered—and Amy’s friend mattered, and her dog mattered, too.
My mother mattered.
Every story matters.
It just took a writer to dig up Henrietta’s (another big smile here), so we could all know just how very much Henrietta mattered.
I post on Thursdays and Mondays, and sometimes more, but sometimes less—and thanks for coming by, because you matter.