Shortly before 9 a.m. on April 12, Cassandra Flores got the call she’d been waiting for: The University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital had a donor heart for her 16-year-old son, Trinidad.
“We were really excited and we were crying,” said his mother, who raced to South High School to bring “Trini” to the hospital. He had suffered from dilated cardiomyopathy for two years. This was going to be the start of a new life.
The 14-hour surgery went well. A room was set up for tribe elders and family to hold vigil. But a couple of hours later, “he crashed and his blood pressure dropped out,” said Cassandra. He had a massive stroke.
Word spread around Little Earth, a poor housing development in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis where the gregarious Trini had become a leader and mentor to other teens. Perhaps 200 of them filled his hospital room and flowed into the hallways. There were so many friends, some had to stay downstairs and come in shifts.
After all, Trini was the one with the quick smile and kind word, the first one to volunteer for an event and the last one to leave. He was the kid who raised the most money for the Indian Cancer Foundation and who brought food to elders.
If Little Earth had a program, Trini was in it, and usually led it. In a neighborhood where many kids don’t graduate from high school, he had diligently put money in a college fund. Not long ago, he was looking for a promise ring for his girlfriend, Danielle Pineiro.
“That’s the girl I’m going to marry,” he told everyone.
Their relationship “gave new meaning to the term ‘first true love,’ ” said his grandmother, Leona Flores.
The teen who still wrote his mother lovely letters, called her “mommy,” and dragged her everywhere, was so thoughtful that when he was 6 he said: “Mommy, I want to be an owner.”
“A what?”asked his mother.
“You know, when you die and give your organs to someone else.”
Trini recently got his driver’s license and made sure his status as an organ donor was on it.
Trini died at 12:55 Wednesday, but he was kept on life support so he could fulfill his childhood wish.
It is Indian tradition to start a bonfire when someone dies, to provide light for the spirit on its way to heaven.
So Trini’s friends gathered wood Thursday and started a fire that will burn for four days. As they worked, a heavy snow began to fall.
“That’s Trini,” said his aunt, Jolene Jones. “He loved cold weather and snow.”
Allicia Waukau knew Trini from Migizi Communications, a program that preaches success for American Indians. He was so proud of his heritage that when they were going to drop an Ojibwe language class he was taking, Trini started a petition and saved it.
“I don’t mean to idolize him, but he reminded me of a very spiritual person like a Mother Teresa,” said Waukau. “In two minutes he could console you, make you laugh and totally change your day.”
Trini was a skilled artist and he had recently begun to produce music. He kept score for Little Earth’s first basketball team in decades, which won the league championship.
“He was very thoughtful,” said his mother. “Everybody he met, he touched.”
Trini recently found the baby book his mother had started when he was born. He decided to write something back to her in it.
“Being your son is the best thing in the world,” he wrote to her.
Friday evening, friends and family gathered for Trini’s wake. Several people tended the fire in the courtyard of the American Indian Center. Inside, elders burned sage as the family gathered around Trini’s casket. Four people thumped a drum nearby.
Trini’s nurse, Jim Lynch, was one of the visitors. He had known the teen for more than two years, when Trini was implanted with a device to assist his heart.
“He was almost like a son,” said Lynch. “He had this facade [of being tough], but he had a big heart. Even with his condition, he was never sad or depressed. He was the class clown.”
“Things can be very hard here,” said Waukau. “But he was someone who could lift up the whole community.”