I have just attended the death of my nearly 94 year-old mother. She was at home in the dementia unit of an assisted care facility in Playa Vista, CA., where she had lived for the last several years. I arrived from Brooklyn just an hour and a half before she passed.
During her death and its aftermath while we kept watch over the body until my daughter and her baby arrived, my brother and I were held and comforted by or we held and comforted the black and brown caretakers who also loved my mother.
“I loved her,” said Ariana, Kenya and Gina. Joshua searched in vain for a final pulse, and Barbara closed her eyes. They wept. They came and went from the room, part of an extended family, careful, respectful, but needing also to participate in the death.
My brother and I were stunned by their out pouring of emotion, genuinely moved by and grateful for their comfort and for the fact that my mother died not only with her two children at her side, but with a larger community of people who had seen her daily and performed for her all the intimate tasks, and some quite frivolous. Bianca, her main caretaker just happened to be off that day; but the bright red nail polish she had applied was still fresh.
And, not so many days before, she had put on the false eye-lashes my mother favored, and the rest of her make-up to “make her feel gorgeous” as she wished, for she delighted in being a beauty. “She was a diva,” said Bianca. Ariana, relatively new to the job, told us that our mother, who was a warm, out-going person, made her feel immediately welcome and at home. Gina, the enrichment organizer, said, “Whenever we played Triva, Doris won. She had the most amazing knowledge of history and events.”
We are a devoutly secular family but death is a spiritual experience no matter what one believes. I was sitting near my mother’s bed, writing notes about my feelings when I felt her spirit leave her body. It was a sensation. I got up immediately and went to her side, touched her, tried to hear her breath, spoke some words, pulled an eyelid up. She had been on morphine and oxygen so she needn’t struggle and had been mainly unconscious. I am not at all certain she knew I had come from New York just in time. But I am certain I felt something vital depart at the very moment of her death. Or so I think. Joshua, the med-tech, a cuddly, warm, big black man, was brought to the room by my brother. Joshua searched for a pulse and thought, perhaps, he found a slight one in her left wrist—closest to her heart. He was reluctant to give her up. He decided to get a stethoscope and returned a short time later with Barbara, the black supervisor of the fourth floor who had counseled us through her final illness. “She is gone,” Barbara said; “let’s take this off her,” she removed the plastic oxygen tubes from her nostrils.
There were hugs for the four of us by the four of us. Then, questions from Joshua and Barbara: did we need anything? What did we want? Yes, we should wait for my daughter’s arrival before we called the cremation service to remove her body. Let’s turn the air-conditioning way up. Barbara tried to close her jaw.
How many white people have died surrounded by the love and care of black and brown people? How many white people have been born this way? At the start and end of life, in the North and in the South, black and brown people have attended to white people, taking and talking us through.
I was giving birth to my daughter in Manhattan, after a very long labor and facing the prospect of a C-Section, it was not until a black nurse from the islands came into my room and said, “now, you are going to have this baby,” that I knew what to do. Suddenly, I had a guide, not my own mother, but a wise black motherly woman.
How infrequently have white folk have returned these gifts. How many black and brown people have died at the hands of whites? White people, too often, have murdered rather than love.
White people benefit without thinking from the spiritual, emotional and physical knowledge of black people and brown people who do the most important work of all—guiding one through the passage of birth or death—who bring all the richness of their various cultural heritages and share them with whites so generously they don’t even make us feel lacking, though severely lacking white culture most certainly is in negotiating these deep passages—and this may account for its over-arching cruelty.
Every one of my mother’s caregivers is paid just around minimum wage by the large corporation for which they work that has made care of the elderly its corporate mission. The stock-holders are doing quite well, but for the care-givers, their minimum wage job remains a “labor of love.”
In so many ways does dominant white culture undervalue what is most valuable. The hugs we received. The love my mother received as her body weakened and she needed to be changed and dressed like a baby. Yet her make-up was also put on; her jewelry, her big hats and her scarves. She was made elegant. She was listened to; her words were valued. She was wept over while she died by the black and brown people who had kept her alive—who told us she was like family to them and who stood by us like family.
I think of James Baldwin as I often have these days with his rhythmic insistence on love.
I am reminded of a quote of Baldwin’s I recently read, that roughly says white people are afraid to give up their hate because they would then be forced to face their pain.
We are a racist society that has been kept from our sorrows but just as often accompanied through them by the nurture of black and brown people. It should be possible, if white people could really know (that is: if we could feel) this, to banish racism from within our white selves.
We could then join our black and brown sisters and brothers and allow them more fully to initiate us into the mysteries of birth, life and death.
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