A Death Bed Dawning
I got the call from my brother Glenn.
“You’d better take Che up to the nursing home and see Dad now. He had another mini stroke and he’s been in a coma the last two days. The doctors say he won’t come out of it. He probably won’t last through the night.”
“Okay. Thanks for calling, Glenn.”
Calmly, I told my 16-year old son that we were going to see Grandpa. He was dying. We had been bedside companions to death before and we both prepared silently.
I hadn’t been to see my stepdad since he was admitted to the nursing home, just a couple of weeks ago. In fact, I hadn’t spent time with him in several years, although he lived less than a mile from my house.
“I haven’t seen Grandpa since I was twelve,” my son said with a guilty look, as we got in the car.
“I know.” I didn’t feel guilty. I had long given up trying to be a caring daughter to such a cold, callous man. I wished my son could have had a grandfather, but Kelly had hurt me too many times for me to deal with him. It’s hard to forgive a person when the damage lingers. I remembered my dream of a little girl and her father, living in a green dumpster, such a perfect metaphor for our life then.
We arrived in just a few minutes and made our way down the sterile white hallway. Carmen, a close family friend who had been one of his ‘working girls’, was by his side. After chatting for a few minutes, she left the room, giving my son and I time alone with Kelly.
He looked so small, so frail, in the nursing home bed. His light brown skin had the translucent look of a person close to death. Without his dentures, his face looked sunken. Arms flat at his side and a white blanket tucked up to his shoulders, his thin body looked nothing like the stocky, muscled ironworker of my childhood. Deep in a coma, his breathing was shallow and his body utterly still, as if his spirit was already gone.
We stood on opposite sides of the bed. I spoke a few gentle words to Kelly and stroked his arm. Funny how the nearness of death can melt away so much. Big boulders dissolved into sand and major events showed themselves to be superficial and transitory. My tongue began to flow, and I listened as the stories came loose.
“Kelly was born in Kankakee, Illinois in the 1920’s, at a time when a Black man had no chance to do anything. Here you are, about to go off to college, but your grandpa never had that choice. He was just as smart as you, but he only had a third-grade education. Can you imagine?” My son looked stunned.
“He and his brother moved to Chicago to try and make it and his brother was murdered. I know that really affected him. He was very close to his brother. He told me that his brother was the only person he ever trusted.”
“Kelly was mean, and he could be really cruel. But life was cruel to him. He had to be very hard. Life was very rough for Black folks back then, even worse than now, and life was very dangerous for a strong Black man.” My son’s eyes widened.
I had an eerie sensation of being a listener to my own words, hearing them to discover what I was going to say next. My son listened with hungry, reverent eyes. A Black teenage boy with no father around and a grandfather he barely knew, I suddenly realized the impact on him of cutting off this relationship.
Kelly’s right arm, the one closest to me, began twitching, as if he was trying to reach for me. I reached under the blanket near his arm, taking his hand in mine. His hand was hot and shaking, while the rest of his body was as deathly still and cold as before. I knew he was hearing me, clearly reacting to my words of respect for him.
I remembered my attempt to talk with him several months back, after his first fall down the stairs, when he laid on the basement floor for several days before Fred found him. Perhaps finally, knowing death was coming for him, he would admit what he had done to my sister. But no crack in his armor. “Carla is crazy,” was all he said, not looking me in the eye.
My son and I listened as the words continued to flow.
“Your Grandpa was a very smart man. He ran all kinds of operations, gambling joints, after hours, he sold drugs and fenced stolen goods. He handled hundreds or thousands of dollars a day and kept tabs in his head. Nobody got off owing him money. Nobody messed with him, and nobody ran a game on him. He ran a game on other people.”
“That’s why I don’t play cards, to this day,” I told my son. “’Cause he taught my little brother every trick in the book, and I couldn’t stand cheating!”
My son smiled. This story he knew well, since I was always trying, with mixed results, to train him to be fair and not use his abilities to take advantage.
“Your Grandpa made a whole lot more money hustling than he ever made on his job. But he always went to work every day, even if he’d been up all night. ‘Always keep your day job,’ he told us kids. He worked in the iron smelting mills. Hard, hot work. One of the few good paying jobs for black men back then.”
“But that pay was chump change compared to his nighttime operations. And he wasn’t like those stupid, flashy guys you see. He used his money for the long term. He bought that beautiful house with the lake view that your Uncle Glenn lives in now.” The tender look in my son’s gaze toward Kelly made my heart ache.
“But, of course, he always drove the latest model Cadillac.”
“Yeah” Che says. “I remember that gold Cadillac he had.” We both laughed.
“He had the police on his payroll, like the gangster movies you watch. Every Friday about 4 o’clock, two white detectives would come knocking. I remember one day, hearing the knock at the door. ‘Take this to the door, Boo Boo’, he said. I handed the brown paper lunch bag with cash to the strange white guys who looked just like the detectives on TV.”
My son’s loud laughter seemed a shock in the depressed, silent space of the nursing home.
“He owned three houses in the Central Area.” (Two were whorehouses, including the one we lived in, but I didn’t mention that). “We think that is why they finally raided him. A Black man not knowing his place.”
Kelly’s hand was burning hot as I held it in mine. A warm flood gushed through my heart. I told my son more stories, about the big barbeque’s we had, how his Grandpa Kelly taught me how to cook greens and roll joints (when I was 12). How he surprised me by showing up for my high school graduation; dressed up in a white suit to hear my valedictorian speech.
We continued our vigil a few more moments. We talked quietly about my son’s college research, so Kelly could feel included in the present. I felt a deep sense of peace when we left and was not surprised when my brother called early the next morning. Kelly passed on that night.
Three days after the funeral service, I drove on the familiar street near my house, past the funeral parlor where we held his memorial. Suddenly, it dawned on me. What a waste! To be bitter all these years. So focused on who he was not, I forgot who he was.
I was the one holding a dark gray cloud over my head. Wallowing for years in the acrid taste of bitterness, as if life should have given me something different than what I got. Ridiculous! Stubbornly focused on my resentment that he was a terrible father. Number one: He wasn’t my father! I chuckled out loud. How silly. Number two – The fact that he even agreed to try this role, with a white woman who moved in with her four kids, showed his magnanimous spirit.
What model was I using to judge him by? Clearly one that had nothing to do with him. He was exactly who he was. For so long I blocked out any glimmer of positive memories. I blocked out the totality of our relationship, preferring a pity party instead.
Sunlight broke through the Seattle clouds as I continued driving with a smile on my face.
Jagati works to include multi-cultural and low income folks in affairs that effect their lives. She runs a business, Emerging Design Consulting, supporting diverse nonprofits and people to build community, equity and justice.
Written for the From Darkness to Light event. If you’d like to be a part of the challenge, find more information Here. But first, leave a comment and let Jagati know what you think about her words, and be sure to visit her over at Emerging Design Consulting when you’re done.