October 27, 1995. The corridor was too narrow for me to walk alongside her as the paramedics rolled the gurney through the triage unit of the emergency room. I was left to walk closely behind them, but still near enough to gently whisper into her right ear, “Kimmy’s still here.”
But as I looked down at her, I knew she wouldn’t last the night. The woman getting transported through the naked-walled hospital passageway was no longer recognizable to me. Her jaundice-colored skin tone and deep sunken eyes marked only the shell of a once thriving human being. She was just barely hanging on to life. But she waited for me.
My mother knew I was flying in to be with her, and waited for me to come home.
As they reached Triage Station 3, one paramedic softly whispered to the other, “She’s arrested.” I knew what that meant. My mother spent many years as an ER nurse at UCLA before becoming one of the Deans for their School of Nursing. When I was a child, she taught my sister and I phrases and terms the medical doctors used on TV shows like St. Elsewhere and ER, also getting a kick out of commenting how inaccurate the medical performances were as opposed to real-life emergency room traumas. “Arrested” was an easy one. It meant heart failure.
My mother’s heart had stopped beating.
“Wait!” I cried. “She’s arrested?!!” I flushed panic red. “Do something!!!” I screamed. They needed to try and electrically shock her heart into beating again with those paddles – defibrillators. But the nurses, doctors and paramedics weren’t doing anything. No one was trying to resuscitate her. No yells of “code blue” were taking place with people scrambling to attention. Everyone was just standing around.
“Do something now! You need to help her!!! Why are you just standing there?” I cried. Suddenly I began to feel violently nauseous. The attending doctor standing beside the two paramedics looked puzzled. He looked up from his clipboard and calmly replied that her paperwork stated orders for “DNR”. He held up the clipboard in front of me as if I would somehow be appeased with a piece of paper in his hand that meant their non-action was acceptable.
“Miss, the instructions we have regarding her care clearly state – Do Not Resuscitate.”
That wasn’t possible. We’d talked about DNR. I was there when she said what she wanted if ever something like this happened to her. He then added, “The DNR orders are per request of her family.”
Rage overcame me. “I am her family!!!” I cried out to him at the top of my lungs. I was now causing a major scene in the emergency room triage area in front of fifteen or so witnesses from other families in crisis. “Do something! Do something now, please.” I begged. “I don’t care what the paper says! There’s been a mistake!!! I am her family. I am her daughter!!!”
It then hit me. He had no idea who I was. To the others, I didn’t look like her. She didn’t look like me. From what he could tell, my mother and I weren’t related.
See, for those last few moments of her life, my mother was white.
And I was black.
I sat in the waiting area for close to 45 minutes wondering what I would say to my father and sister when they arrived. I’d already called my grandmother and uncle in the Bay area, also spending time with my mother alone for several minutes after the doctors finally tried to revive her. Just as I placed my head down in my hands, my father and sister rushed into the smaller waiting area where I was sitting – looking to me intently for a sign of hope. All I could do was shake my head.
“She didn’t make it…did she?” My father asked cautiously. My sister looked like a wax museum mannequin – so beautiful, tall and thin, wearing a gorgeous black cocktail dress for her homecoming dance that evening, her long renaissance curls flowed effortlessly down her back. She stood motionless, soft and still, as I told her our mother was gone.
“Okay, let’s come together, we need to pray,” my father whispered as tears rushed down his cheeks. And we did. In those few moments, I was able to forget just how much my father and I didn’t get along, letting go of all the hurt and fighting that lingered between us for close to a decade. This was one of the first times in several years that I held his hand. We stood in the center of the empty triage waiting area and prayed that God had received her into heaven, and that we would all be okay without her. When my father was finished, we sat for a few moments before they went in to say their final goodbyes.
“We could sue them,” I said. “What happened here tonight should never have happened. They didn’t even know who I was. We could sue them all.” The irony that my mother spent the majority of her life nursing other people only to face neglect by members of her own profession in her final hours fueled me with rage. I wanted them all to pay for what they had done to her. My father then raised his head and looked me squarely in the eyes.
“Kim, honey, it was her time. I know you want her here, I do too. But it was her time to go and be with God.” He then put his head in his hands and cried. I wanted to hold him, but couldn’t. I was too angry.
It would be well over a decade before we’d speak of the circumstances of that night again.
Three days after her funeral I was preparing to board a plane for Oakland International when once again my father reached out his hand to mine.
“Kim, now that your mother is gone, I’m going to need you to come home and help take care of your sister. I know you have plans of your own, but your sister needs you. And…I need you.” I was plotting my path to becoming a civil rights attorney, fighting for the rights of the underrepresented. The LSAT exam was in less than ten days. I also had a job with the University which I loved and a boyfriend anxiously awaiting my return to the Bay area.
“I understand Dad. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ll be back soon.” I reached out and hugged my father goodbye.
But of course I would have had it any other way. Just the thought of moving forward in life without my mother seemed absolutely unbearable. Now I would need to put my plans on hold and move back home with a man who I soulfully despised, and raise a sister who would be preparing for her senior year in high school. I was angry and resentful, scared, sad and numb all at the same time. In essence, I was lost, and the home I would be returning to could never be home without her…
Author’s Note: “When I first set out to write this memoir in 2006, I thought I would be writing about a brown girl’s love for her white mom. But this story became far more about the relationship with my father. Both fathers really, – a Holy Father and the one who led me to Him here on earth.
After the death of my mother on October 27th 1995, I navigated two worlds: one of ornate privilege and the other of blatant disadvantage in attempt to find a sense of purpose and belonging. Even though my mother was white, and my father is black, my sense of feeling “lost” wasn’t at all about race – even though race plays a significant role in my journey.
My feeling lost came from a painful disconnection from the love of God.
While passing out goody bags and “rubbing elbows” with the celebrity elite, I also sat in prayer with incarcerated children who’d most likely never make it out of the criminal justice system. My father said that these kids he served needed God and someone who believed in them, especially when their circumstances looked hopeless. I could relate.
This week my father will be 79 years old. His prostate cancer has now metastasized into his spine and kidneys. I was with him when he was first diagnosed in December of 2016. The first words out of his mouth at UCLA medical weren’t, “What will I do,” or “How long do I have to live,” instead they were, “How will I minister to them if I can no longer walk?”
I’m not going to lie. I don’t think I have that sort of spiritual conviction on most days. But his faith has inspired me to tell this story. Our story…”
“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” – Exodus 20:12