| Guarded intimacy
A prisoner, a patient, a lover
Go to 'Freedom, deferred'
published March 9, 2002
The room reeks of death. It's in the hospital's intensive care unit, but the two-patient room is also prison. The smell of death pours from the various fluids flowing to and from his body via the intersecting tubes. The varied redness of his blood competes with the urine yellowness of another fluid--all in the midst of a sometimes clear, sometimes mucusy liquid also meandering through the tubes. The muted tones of the light behind his bed casts a yellow pall over everything, similar to the subdued tones of floor lamps found at the head of a casket in a funeral parlor.
When I walk into that sick death room, he's on his side watching a small TV. The sheet covering his body highlights his gauntness. The sharp bony part of his hip thrusts upward. Immediately I'm reminded of his mother, Emma Lee. She died a painful death after a slow deterioration over several years. She spent her final days lying in bed curled in the fetal position and finally died a few weeks after he graduated from high school. That's who he looks like lying there in that room. Curled in the fetal position just like his Mama. Is he just wasting away, too? It was said Emma Lee got sick and died a slow death because she had been messing with somebody's husband and somebody had "worked roots" on her. They took her to the "root doctor" in the Alabama countryside. Her death certificate lists the cause of death as "natural." She was forty-seven years old, had borne eleven children, and had never married.
One of her sons, this one named Kenyatta, was now near death thirty years later--December 1994--in St. Agnes Hospital in upstate New York. He was being kept in the hospital's "prison ward," which houses inmates of New York State's Fishkill Prison. A prison nurse had called me--"the person to notify," according to Kenyatta's records--to tell me that he was admitted December 21. Since I was a non-relative and only "immediate family members" were allowed to visit, I had to get special permission from the Fishkill warden to see him.
My own life-long woman's psychic illness of indecision continued to parallel Kenyatta's physical illness. I've always had the tendency to say one thing and feel the opposite on certain issues--to feel one thing and do the opposite. Getting permission from the warden to visit him brought up one of those issues: marriage. For many reasons, we had decided not to marry under his conditions of incarceration. But I had often wanted marriage as a kind of validation of our relationship and now I thought how much easier it would be if I were the "wife" and could visit without special permission. I worried about whether I would have to get a court order to see him. I thought about all the years I had been with him (more or less since 1969) and all the traumas and joys of our journey.
Eventually, the Fishkill prison superintendent granted me permission, and I made the trip to the upstate hospital, traveling on the commuter railroad to White Plains, New York. Despite the fact that he was in a hospital, I still had to be processed--my identification checked and my body searched by a female prison guard before being escorted inside. It was strange to walk the corridors of a hospital that doubled as a prison.