Monday, May 25, 2009


My friend B died a few days ago; the cancer in her throat spread and took her almost two years to the day after she was initially diagnosed. I had known her for a decade-and-a-half, saw her almost every Sunday at an AA step meeting, and through the more than 600 encounters there, learned about her life, her struggles, losses and victories.

Beth was a good, average woman. She'd been wedded briefly with no children, and her husband was not the man she had thought she would marry. She had hoped against hope that the one she wanted--her high school sweetheart--would return to her but he never did. She was an administrative assistant in a big firm, a job she found suitably interesting. She had sick days, took vacation, traveled out of state to see family. Most of her life, B lived with other people--housemates, her sponsor for awhile, friends. A few months before the cancer was detected, she moved into a one bedroom by herself and often spoke about what a change this was, living alone. She wasn’t used to it and sometimes the noises that came with the night frightened her and she couldn’t sleep, so she read, paced, journaled.

BC (Before Cancer) and AD (After Diagnosis) showed marked differences, but not in the way one would expect. BC, she was another face in the crowd, attractive, with snow white hair that appeared in her thirties. AD, my friend found a source of inner strength that both flustered and amazed me. She spoke of her illness calmly, as if it were a distant and fractious cousin who had come to visit and stayed. She went through chemotherapy and radiation and for a brief time the doctors thought she might be saved.  The cancer in her throat seemed to go away, but months later it reappeared, bigger and more virulent. 

Acceptance was far from immediate, yet she seemed to work through Kublër-Ross’ grief cycle quickly.  Her shock, denial, anger and bargaining vanished in a matter of weeks.  For a while she was deeply depressed, and we had a couple of conversations where, for once, I had no advice to give. The testing stage, the seeking of realistic solutions to her problem, saw her go through all the usual peregrinations of the terminally ill. She read voraciously, toyed with the idea of trying alternative therapies, joined support groups, changed her diet, and then, when she faced the inevitable, a remarkable change came over her. She became calm, spoke with radiant authority; she glowed.

Another friend, an older man I have known for about five years, is now in the same situation. D is short, round, and I have never once seen him not wrapped in a red golf sweater. His pancreatic cancer, initially thought by his physicians to be operable, is not. D always spoke of the Big Guy, his higher power whom he trusts implicitly. The Big Guy saw him through the death of a daughter and more recently, of his wife, and now D gazes upon his own future with a degree of calm curiosity. He credits his quiet acceptance to 24 years in the program.

There are no great conclusions to be found here. People live and they die, and whatever your beliefs on the afterlife or lack thereof, the good folks leave something behind. My friends have, and I’m a better person for having known them.

Here is installment 89 of Wasted Miracles.

Comfort spent two days in the efficiency apartment taking stock of his situation. The Zulu was dead, as where the two hired thugs. Obviously, the girl had not perished in the blaze. Comfort had watched the early and late news each night on his black and white set, he had purchased the Washington Post and Washington Times. Nowhere was there a report of a female body found in the burnt out house. He wondered if that had been the intent of the raid: to rescue the girl. He wondered to whom the blonde addict could have been so important. Addicts seldom were.

     Obviously the man he had fought with in the yard had been a policeman. And the policeman had died. Comfort felt no responsibility for this particular death; the man had a gun, they’d struggled, shots had been fired but he, Comfort, had not pulled the trigger. His recollection of the fight was hazy, dreamlike. It had been over so quickly, not even a blink-of-the-eye moment. Death, he knew, came to many just that way.

     It worried him that it had been a policeman because he knew the death would lead to a much greater investigation than would the death of almost anyone else. Policemen were the same all over the world--the murder of one brought out the fury of their brotherhood. But it had been dark, there’d been no witnesses—none, at least, who would cooperate with the authorities. And if one did, what of it? What had made Comfort the excellent acolyte was his total anonymity. He was a faceless black man in a city of faceless black men.

     Still, during the two days, he’d come to one basic conclusion. It was time to leave, to go home to Nigeria and live the life he’d been preparing for.

     There was really nothing in the apartment worth keeping save the gray pinstripe suit the Zulu had bought him in a rare fit of generosity. He’d never worn the suit, it hung in his closet in the original Hecht Company garment bag. There was also a pair of soft black leather shoes Comfort had purchased for himself for no other reason than he’d never had such shoes. A few shirts, socks, some underwear, that was it. He made a small pile of the clothes he would wear during the trip and packed the rest in a Wal-Mart suitcase. Traveling overseas without luggage might arouse suspicions.

     He spent the next day going to the twelve separate banks where he had accounts and withdrew one quarters of what he had in each. He asked that two-thirds of what remained be wired to the Banque Nationale de Lausanne in Switzerland. Not a single teller seemed interested in the transaction except for a Nigerian woman at First National  in Tyson’s Corner. She’d smiled at him, asked, “Going home?” He’d lied and said no, unfortunately Nigeria was no place to call home these days. She’d clucked, shaken her head and agreed.

     It pained him to leave the rest of the money behind but that had always been his intention. Closing out all the accounts might also arouse suspicions.

     When he added up all the money, he found he’d underestimated the sum by $182. He’d forgotten to tabulate the interest earned in a month. That seemed like a good omen.


In her bright blue turban that matched the bedspread, her hands folded above the covers and a half-glass of dark red wine on the night table next to her, Aunt Mim looked a like a dark primitive painting.

     She said, “A lot of people in the neighborhood are calling me that dwa-yen word. I just don’ know how that got around.” She shot the elderly George a suspicious look which George ignored. Mamadou noticed that today Aunt Mim’s paramour was reading a hardback version of Grey’s Anatomy. He pored over the words with an old-fashioned magnifying glass.

     “Man refuses to wear glasses,” Aunt Mim chided. “Whatcha gonna do? I tell him, ‘Pride goeth before the fall,’ but he don’t listen to me. Never did.”

     George looked up briefly, said, “Glasses, huh?” and returned to his reading.

     Aunt Mim reached over, found her wineglass, took a dainty sip before returning her attention to Mamadou. “So you got that white child out? “

     Mamadou poured himself a little wine, drank two swallows. “Yes. She’ll be all right--as all right as any addict can be, in any case.”

     “Lotsa death, though,” Aunt Mim sipped again.

     “The Zulu. Two of his men.”

     “And the white policeman.”

     Mamadou nodded. “And the white policeman.” There was a note of resignation in his voice.

     “Bad business,” Aunt Mim intoned.


     “Lucky for you, nobody saw anythin’.”

     Mamadou looked up. Aunt Mim met his eyes. “Don’t worry yourself. That nice neighbor lady, she’s a friend of mine, her name’s Mrs. Thornton. Bethany Thornton. Got seventeen real nice grand-children. Imagine that, seventeen.” She paused sipped, continued. “She told me, soon as things started happenin’, she went down to her kitchen--it’s in the back of the house, on the other side--and started makin’ pancakes and bacon and eggs. All that fryin’ sound, she didn’t hear nothin’. Fire worried her, though. She was afraid her own house might burn down.”

     George looked up. “She didn’t have a thing to worry about. Her house is on the east. The wind was from the northwest. She wasn’t in any danger at all.”

     Aunt Mim shook her head, annoyed. “Hush up, George. Wasn’t talking to you. Why you always gotta know everythin’, anyway?”

     “That’s what the weather channels said. Both of them,” George persisted.

     Aunt Mim ignored him.

     “One man got away,” Mamadou said. “The man who shot the white policeman.”

     “That so? Does it matter?”

     Mamadou took a second to think. “No. I guess it doesn’t. The Zulu’s gone. He was the one. The last one. Amelie--”

     “Your sister, she can rest in peace now.”

     George looked up, nodded, resumed his reading. Aunt Mim lit a Vantage cigarette, made a face. The smoke hung in the room like hazy curtains. “These things got no taste at all. None.”

     George shook his head. “Doctor said for you to stop altogether. Said your lungs probably look like smoked hams.”

     Aunt Mim snorted. “Doctor? I put that boy through school, look what he does to me? I don’t have that many pleasures left in life.” She stubbed the cigarette out in a crowded ashtray. “Anyhow. That’s it. It’s over, ain’t it?”

     Mamadou drank the rest of his glass in one swallow. “Just about, Aunt Mim. Just about.”


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