In Memory of

Brenda Williams-Joiner

February 21, 1952 – November 7, 2016
Minneapolis, Minnesota

I think everyone should know my mom’s story. She was a living miracle and because she was, so are my brother and I.

She was a miracle – not even doctors knew how she was alive through all of the suffering that she endured. She was an angel here on earth and the donation was her final act of giving back.

I moved my family to MN in 1991 after my mother was diagnosed with brain cancer. She had moved here a year before in search of treatment for the headache that she’d had every day of her life. The neurologist at Mayo said that the only time he’d seen that particular form of cancer advanced to that stage was during an autopsy. No one knew why she was alive but they knew she needed surgery immediately. So, a surgeon from Michigan was brought in and they did some brain surgery by going through her nose. It was less invasive but within a year, the cancer was back.

It was about 3 years later that she had her second surgery because at this point, somehow, the growth was in her skull, right behind her left eye. It was causing her skull to protrude and literally push the eye forward. More pain. That surgery went well but again, within a year, the cancer returned. This time, doctors were less optimistic but did suggest one final surgery to see if they could eradicate it since it was still localized. This time, things didn’t go as well. She was having a hard time recovering; so much so that my brother and I sent for my grandmother to come and help. It was after her arrival that we learned that my mother was actually diagnosed with cancer when she was 2 years old. There was no surgery for it back then and, as poor black people, my grandparents couldn’t have afforded it anyway. They took her home and vowed to cherish every single moment until she died – they never told her that she was sick. She was 12 years old before she realized that others did not live with the level of pain that she did.

Having my Grandma here was exactly what was needed and, after taking her out of the hospital against doctors orders, within 2 weeks, she was back to her old self. Within a year, again, the cancer was back and the doctors recommended chemotherapy. She tried one session and it made her so sick that she determined never to go again. Doctors gave her 6 months to live. This was back in 2000, I think. My mother continued to be very successful in her employment at Traveler’s and US West/Qwest/CenturyLink – she earned national recognition several times and received paid trips to Alaska, Hawaii, and the Bahamas. She also obtained her 2nd degree in I.T. She would often say that as long as she could get her mind over the pain, then she was fine. Or, she would put it in a little box and push it to the back of her mind. Then, trigeminal neuralgia struck. So, in addition to the pain she already had to endure, she now had lightning, stabbing, and spiking trapped inside the lower left quad of her face and jaw. This pain would not be boxed or ascended.

Her pain was such that she would go days without speaking or eating because moving her mouth, her jaw, was unbearable. She was one of the first patients at the CyberKnife Center as they pioneered the surgery that would deaden the nerve endings and stop the pain…except something went wrong and now, instead of being confined to the lower left quad, her pain was free and took over her entire face. Days of not speaking turned into weeks, months…she was forced to retire early. Weight began to drop off. After everything that she had overcome, this was a fight that she could not win. Still, she hosted gatherings for all of her children and grandchildren, continued to travel as she could, and just absorbed every drop of joy out of life that she possibly could. She went to every doctor that she could and worked closely with Mayo and the U of MN but they told her that there was nothing to be done. The nerves were damaged permanently and her pain would only get worse. She was forced into early retirement and disability.

In July 2015, my step-daughter was diagnosed with esophageal cancer – and given a 4% chance of living 2 years. She died in January of 2016 at the age of 29. My mother was my rock as I navigated waters that no parent should ever have to (I was with her for 20 years and helped raise her so that was my baby, too). It was hard on my mother to watch Jamyia suffer but her death, which became a prison for us, was a release for her. She poured into her children and grandchildren, continued to travel and just love life until I received the call on November 7, 2016. My Dad came home and she was unresponsive. By the time I got to the hospital, she was breathing and they were checking for brain activity but I knew – I knew that my mother did not want to wake up in the prison of suffering that her body had become. She had done her part – birthed 2 children and raised 6. At that time, she had 13 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. She had traveled the country by air, car, and sea. She had mastered her craft such that she was able to be very successful professionally and enjoyed her work for as long as she could. She had obtained 2 degrees and survived an abusive marriage to reunite with her childhood sweetheart and live for over 30 years together. But she’d also been suffering for 64 long years and I could not let them revive her to suffer even a moment more. Somehow, we let her go.

That is when I found out that she was a donor. I didn’t know but the thought that even one person could possibly be helped from her gift was more than I could hope for – she was already a miracle for us, now she could be a miracle for someone else, too. It was my honor to sign the papers and do the other things that are just a blur in my mind so that she could donate. It was her final act of giving.

Tasha Williams-Hudson, Daughter