This week Michelle Obama spoke out against the Republican nominee for president, and his alleged sexual assault of women. She implored Americans to “get on social media” and share “your own story of why this election matters, why it should matter for all people of conscience in this country.” This blog post is inspired by Obama’s New Hampshire speech and “Dedicate Your No-Trump Vote” a website created by novelist Julianna Baggott. I’ve been reading posts daily from writers, humanitarians, clergy, and other extraordinary citizens. They are responding to hatred with hope and demonstrating the power of storytelling in shaping a compassionate America, the America I know, and the America my mother believed in.
I wasn’t supposed to read the letter. My mother kept it in a dresser drawer, tucked beneath her sweaters. Those sweaters still held her rainwater scent even though she’d been dead for a week. I was 21, alone, and desperate to find my way back to her. I wanted to understand how a juvenile diabetic could die while wearing an insulin pump. I needed a clue, an answer to this impossible question. But what I really wanted was my mother returned to me, as if her death had been a misunderstanding or bad dream. I thought I could find her in the possessions she left behind. So I rifled through her drawers, until I came upon the letter.
My mother had typed it in 1998, four years after an experimental organ transplant saved her life when I was 13. In 1994 surgeons placed a dead man’s kidney and pancreas inside her body. The surgery suppressed the effects of juvenile diabetes on her kidneys, which had begun to fail. She’d suspected her donor was a man she’d read about in The Baltimore Sun. He’d withdrawn $50 from an ATM after leaving work late. An unknown assailant knocked him to the ground, left him dying as night faded to dawn. He was not a registered organ donor. It was his mother who said, “yes” when hospital staff asked. Amid her grief, this mother thought of other suffering families. She thought of how her son could live on in another person’s heart or corneas or kidneys. She thought of the hope he could bring to people she would never know. She did the extraordinary. She shared her child with strangers. Her name was Gerda, by the way.
The letter I found beneath my mother’s sweaters was the first letter she sent to Gerda. I’m not sure why my mother saved a copy, but I am not surprised she reached out to connect. Gerda’s loss of her child was the worst thing my mother could imagine, even worse than dying before her own children. She needed to share her gratitude. She needed to say, “thank you” for Gerda’s generosity, which allowed my mother to live seven years longer than she’d expected, allowed her to mother my sister and me.
In that time, a friendship bloomed between these two mothers. I remember cards coming in the mail, and long phone calls. I remember how my mother exclaimed, “It’s Gerda!” when the name flashed on our caller ID, as if Gerda were a member of our own family. When I deleted my mother’s e-mail account a few months after her death, I discovered an e-mail from Gerda. I don’t remember what the e-mail said, only that I replied. I delivered the bad news, then shut down my mother’s e-mail forever. I did not reach back out to Gerda until 2011. I wanted to understand her generosity. I wanted to know her story. I needed to thank her too.
Like my mother and me, Gerda was Jewish. She lived in Berlin when Hitler came to power in 1933. Her family fled Berlin for Holland in 1939, never imagining that Nazism would trail them across the Continent. After Holland fell to Nazi occupation, a clergy family hid Gerda in the countryside. At night she slept in the forest, not knowing the whereabouts of her own family, not knowing if she’d survive the night. Her parents died in a death camp, but Gerda avoided imprisonment. She emigrated to the United States after the war, attended college and graduate school, began her own family.
I often think about what would have happened if Gerda hadn’t survived, if she hadn’t encountered strangers willing to risk their own lives to protect a denigrated class of people –– my people. Would my mother have died at 41 instead of 48? Who would I have become without her to raise me? My mother believed in miracles –– she thought I was a miracle. She thought her entire life was one continuous miracle. She thought Gerda’s survival was a miracle. I believe in interconnection. I believe one action affects another action in a great, unknowable continuum. I believe kindness ripples through our lives, across generations and decades and continents. I believe Gerda’s experience of being saved by courageous people lit the spark that allowed her to save other lives many years later. This is why I dedicate my No-Trump vote to her, to Gerda.
Today, when I hear a presidential candidate talk about banning Muslims, or deporting undocumented people, I think of her. When I read of first-grader Abdul Aziz being beaten on the school bus for being Muslim, and his family fleeing the United States for Pakistan because they no longer feel safe here, I think of her. When I read of hate crimes against Muslims escalating, I think of her. When I hear a presidential candidate stumble over denouncing David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan, I think of 1939 Berlin. And I think of Gerda’s family escaping to Holland.
When I hear white supremacist hate speech normalize violence and sexual assault and the torture of human beings, I think of Gerda. I think of her separated from her loved ones, hiding from the unimaginable. I think of her sleeping in the woods, wondering whether her parents were alive or dead, not knowing if she would survive the night. I imagine her heart opening in that darkness, her face turning toward the stars’ distant light. Even in her most terrifying moments, she knew the saving power of kindness. She knew only hope can conquer fear.