Regarding My Grandfather's Death
I have been unusually fortunate in that neither I nor anyone in my immediate family have ever been extremely ill. My mother recently commented that some unknown ancestor of my father’s must have done something right because, as a whole, my clan has been overwhelmingly hearty. This prodigious health has generally been shared by everyone on my father’s side of the family, including my grandfather, who lived much longer than average. Yet, his death has become a sensitive subject for his children because it is believed by some of them to have been expedited by quietly racist healthcare treatment.
In the fall of 2001, my paternal grandfather died in a Southside Chicago hospital room. Although, towards the end of his life, he battled many illnesses, he officially succumbed to a myocardial infarction – a standard heart attack. He was 96 years old.
My grandfather was born in
My grandfather rarely discussed his parents (I later learned that this reluctance to reveal any information about one’s family was not unique to him. Many African-American Southern expatriates of his generation eschewed self-disclosure. For them, the less strangers knew, the less trouble it could lead to) so not much is known about Morris and Ruby. What is common knowledge is that – for reasons unknown, but probably due to financial hardship – Morris and Ruby packed up and moved North to the
My grandfather recalls that he took to carpentry, “like a fish to water,” and soon became a talented carpenter in his own right. Morris and Arthur worked as father and son until Morris’s death in the mid 1930s. As the oldest child, it fell on my grandfather to become the primary provider for Ruby and all of the children. This he did with great focus and maturity. In addition to carpentry, he became a barber and, later, a mechanic. It was these skills that enabled his family to survive the loss of his father and negotiate the Depression.
In fact, my grandfather was a man who was rich in skills. As an adult, he moved to
I was not present for the death of my grandfather. I was told that he was at peace and was “ready to leave.” Yet, my father and a few of my uncles are convinced that my grandfather received a different class of care. They argue that more assertive medical treatment and an emphasis on preventative care could have prolonged his life. According to them, it was as if my grandfather’s healthcare providers had determined that 90 years on this Earth was enough for a black man and let his health deteriorate. They believe that if my grandfather had been white, he would probably still be alive today. Obviously, my family will never be able to ascertain whether or not this is the truth. But the fact that my grandfather’s physicians were all white, and that white physicians are generally more likely to administer thorough examinations to whites than they are to blacks, makes my father and his brothers skeptical that every measure was taken to preserve his life.
I have always found it amazing that my grandfather lived such a long life given all that he’d experienced. It has only recently occurred to me that perhaps the reason my grandfather lived so long is because he never seemed bitter. He never seemed to internalize any of the destructive racist barbs that society aimed at him and everyone he knew. I asked my father why this was so and he said that it would simply have been suicidal to my grandfather and his family for him to fixate on racial issues. In a very real sense he had to rely on whites for his survival. He intrinsically recognized that it would be unhealthy for him to harbor animosity towards them. As a result, he regarded whites with suspicion but never resentment. Further, although he did prepare his children to face a world in which many would be acrimonious to them because of the color of their skin, he did not teach them to hate or fear. It is, therefore, both tragic and ironic that the circumstances surrounding his death have left his children feeling anger and bitterness.