Issue May 20, 2009

Deathwatch

ATLANTA — Those of you who read the Message regularly know the last two have been breaks from the norm. Last month, I wrote about my daughter turning 1. I wrote about two of my best friends, their children and their commitment. I wrote about life.

Yes, that Message was about life, even though at least one reader took the narrow-minded view that I was writing negatively about black women. I have grown to expect no better from such people. Sad, small and typical. No matter. This month I write about death.

My grandmother, my mama, is three feet away from me in a hospital bed — dying. We are in a hospice facility as she prepares to exit this life. Could be hours, could be days, according to the doctors. Mama’s tough, though. She may fool them again. She’s done it before.

Death is in this room. I can’t see him, but I know he is here. I feel him. I see him pressing on Mama’s chest as she labors to breathe. I see him dragging her back when she opens her eyes but can’t communicate with me. He is here. We have fought him — he is winning.

My grandmother cannot talk now. She is not lucid. I don’t even know if she knows I’m here, but I stay. Yesterday, Mother’s Day, I sat next to her bed and held her hand for hours. I talked. I don’t know if she heard me. I talked anyway. What I wouldn’t give for her to wake up and have one last conversation with me.

Words cannot express what this woman has meant to me. Without her, I don’t know what would have become of me. My mother wasn’t capable of being a mother when I was born. At 15, she was little more than a child herself. She got pregnant the first time she had sex. Fate? Destiny? All I know is I’m here. The circumstances made for a tough life. My grandmother stepped in and made it easier.

She has been a great mother and a great woman. As many people constructed reasons not to work, my grandmother took her sojourn to wealthy Atlantans’ homes every day without complaint. She raised me on that housekeeper’s pay. Illiterate, she made sure I learned to read. Not well-traveled, she watched as I left home at 17 to explore the world. Not professional, she smiled as I made my bones in a notoriously elitist career. She was proud of me — fancied me the family hero. One of my greatest joys was making her so.

Cancer attacked my mama three and a half years ago. She was a vibrant 72-year-old at the time. She didn’t look 72. She looked 60 at most. Cancer has aged her. At the end of 2005, she was active, still working and doing everything I had known her to do for the last 35-plus years.

Then one morning, as she prepared to go to work, she fell and fractured her hip. She was never the same. A few months later, she underwent spinal decompression surgery and we thought everything would be all right. We were wrong.

I’ll never forget the Saturday night my sister and I visited my grandmother after the spinal surgery. The scene was like one out of a horror movie when you know something bad is about to happen. There was no one on the floor except me, my sister, two nurses and a doctor. The place was eerily quiet. 

When I asked the doctor what the typical recovery time from such a surgery was, he was nice enough to read Mama’s chart. He kindly looked, gave the recovery time and then said, “… and they are advising chemotherapy for the myeloma.”

“Chemotherapy?” I asked. “Wait. When you say chemo, I think you’re talking about cancer.”

“Multiple myeloma is cancer,” he replied soberly.

My sister sank to the floor and moaned, “Ricky, make this go away!” Of course I could not. This was beyond the “family hero’s” capacity.

And so we began. Now we are at the end, and I am heartbroken. Peace be with all of you who have experienced or will experience this loss.

Dr. Ricky L. Jones is the author of “What’s Wrong With Obamamania?” His column is published the third week of each month. Visit him at www.rickyljones.com.