The Inevitable: Two Days of Death and its Trappings
The Morning Paper
If I believed in fate, I would believe that it tracked me down in front of my house last week.
It was Friday morning and my money had just run out completely. I grabbed my guitar and a cup of coffee brewed with the last of my grounds and headed outside to practice a new song. This seemed like the courteous thing to do since my housemates weren’t awake yet, but as I picked the strings on the front stairs, I realized that I was still directly underneath one of their windows. I crossed the street, opened the back of my cargo van and sat just inside to play, trying not to think about the phone call I would be making in less than an hour.
As a photographer, I’ve shot a wide variety of events – baby showers, weddings, concerts, parties, protests – but never a funeral. I’d been put in touch with the loved ones of a VCU professor who had recently passed away after a 5-year battle with cancer. I hadn’t known her. I was only aware that we had several core values and interests in common. She had taught courses on race, class and gender and had been a social justice activist for most of her life. Her family and friends were calling the ceremonies a “homecoming”, and intended for them to be characterized by a celebration of her life rather than a mourning of her death. I loved the idea, and I needed the money badly. I was supposed to call on this particular morning to find out whether I would be hired for the gig. Soon the time had come to do so, and I headed back across the street toward my house.
As I stepped up onto the curb and into the grass, I froze. At my feet was a single newspaper page, soaked with rain from the previous night. It was laid out flat and facing my direction, as if it had been placed there for me to read. It was an obituary page, and dead center was her name and image
Dr. Melanie Njeri Jackson
I picked up the page and read through the obit with that eerie feeling that sometimes accompanies astronomically improbable coincidences, then placed the call. I was hired.
The ceremony on Saturday was beautiful. There was a Native American drum ritual, an offering of libation, African dance and the sharing of memories by friends, family and colleagues. The most intense moments for me came during a loud and joyful march across the grounds. A brass band joined several traditional drums in a loose, rambunctious version of When the Saints Go Marching In, and the energy was incredible. I confess to losing composure at one point, trying my best to photograph through the tears. I wondered if there will be anyone willing or able to celebrate like this when I pass.
I went home emotionally and physically exhausted, but satisfied with the results of the shoot. I would later be honored by the organizer with his emotional avowal that I had captured the essence of the day appropriately. “Njeri would be proud.” After hours of learning about this woman, that was the highest compliment I could have received.
The next afternoon I received a call that my grandmother had been hospitalized. She’d lost consciousness, and the doctor’s weren’t sure what was wrong. I immediately got cleaned up and headed out to Chippenham Medical Center to see her.
When I was teenager, I swallowed a full tablespoon of undiluted insecticide. The circumstances are complicated, but suffice to say that it was an accident, and my parents, who had both played an unwitting role in the debacle, felt awful. As you might expect, I knew immediately that I had been poisoned and was frantically driven to the hospital. I felt fine for a while, but while waiting in the emergency room I suddenly vomited and lost consciousness. I was hospitalized for several days. I have had a serious Pavlovian aversion to hospitals ever since, and always dread having to visit them. Just the smell of those hallways (it’s the same in every one) turns my stomach. And let’s not even talk about needles.
I walked around for a bit, searching for the room I’d been told my grandmother was in. I tried to keep my eyes straight ahead. When you fear places like that, it’s a bad idea to let your eyes wander into the rooms with open doors. Even the sounds are awful – suction hoses, the beeping of monitors, raspy voices, television. Most of the misery is compartmentalized, but not all of it. Stretchers with feeble and unconscious people passed me in the hallway. Two women passed a cell phone back and forth outside one of the doors, trying to calm someone on the other end of the line.
Did I mention that I hate hospitals?
I finally found my grandmother’s room. She was conscious and seemed relatively well. She was still in a hospital gown with IV attachments protruding from both arms and one hand, having already gone through two EKGs, an X-Ray and three blood draws. My grandfather and uncle were there, and it felt like we had some strength in numbers. She had apparently passed out during a group prayer at church. She told me that the last thing she remembered thinking was, “Lord, please don’t let me pass out. Lord, please don’t let me pass out.” I decided against commenting on this, and instead listened to her explain that God had in fact protected her by causing her to fall in such a way that she didn’t sustain any external injuries. “He just wanted you to sit down for a while,” a visiting friend would later joke.
I was soon feeling jittery and headed outside to smoke a cigarette. Unfortunately, Chippenham Medical Center has made the unfortunate choice of designating their entire campus as a no-smoking area. I don’t smoke much, and mostly wanted a cigarette to get out of there for a minute, but I thought how inconvenient and frustrating the policy would be for habitual smokers who use nicotine to help steady their nerves during times of emotional stress.
Unwilling to travel far, I wandered away from the building toward a grassy area overlooking Chippenham Parkway. I discovered the helicopter landing pad and sat dead-center, puffing my way toward my own health problems, my own grave. A massive storm rushed toward me over the horizon as the cars below rushed toward their own destinations.
Soon the rain fell in sheets, drenching the ground and reasserting the power of the inevitable.