I was a hayseed in Chicago when I met Ms. Emma in 1996. She took sick for a spell, was appointed a guardian, and admitted to our facility for care. Our director assigned me to do a social history interview. She said, “This lady won’t talk to you. She won’t talk to anybody. I just introduced myself and she threw me out. So just go up there and then chart that she declined.”
I went up there. And me and Ms. Em? We talked for two hours.
I can’t say for sure how she ended up there, but I can tell you it almost killed her. She was diabetic, but that’s not where things went wrong. It’s more to do with geography. When Dad’s blood sugar dropped, when he was pale and sweating and started talking crazy, I’d rush around for some sugary orange juice to solve the problem. But that was in Lucerne. In Chicago when you pull a stunt like that, and you’re estranged from people who know you, they load you up on psychotropics and put you in a home.
And if you are extremely unlucky, they assign you a psychiatrist who later becomes known as the Clozapine King (check it out, and here). We didn’t know that then, of course. They say that some patients died of prescribed over doses under his care, but Ms. Em wasn’t one of them. He came to visit her one night, sometime after 10:00 pm. We were expecting our annual survey at any time, so I was there late, charting at the nurses station which was across from her room. He didn’t wake her. But he did write up a big, long note about his session with her. He also abruptly changed her med regimen, adding in the drug he was paid to prescribe. She was hospitalized almost immediately. We invited him not to come back. Once he was out of the picture, she began feeling a lot better. She hand wrote letters to the judge who appointed her a guardian. We rode the L downtown to court many times while he tried to figure her out. And when he granted her a hearing, and finally emancipated her, we celebrated at Burger King.
She started traveling to Memphis by train in her seventies, by plane in her eighties (the same decade she also started dating again), and learned computers in her nineties.
She was always wondering what she could do for someone. She kept an eye out for who she could help. Nearly blind and on a stick (that’s what she called her cane), she rode PACE, a train and 3 buses to reach a friend who was moved to a nursing home far from her.
She would call me up and we’d go visiting her friends who had moved from their apartments, to assisted living, and then nursing homes.
We liked to be together. We were regulars at Edna’s and Old Country Buffet. We loved the jazz concerts at the Chicago Theater. The last show we saw together there, a year ago to the day she died, was History of Bronzeville. From our upstairs box, we watched the Lindy Hoppers, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holliday among others, and talked about what life was like for her when she moved to Chicago from Memphis in 1948.
Ms. Emma had been everywhere she wanted to go in the contiguous United States, but she thought she might like Hawaii, so we were headed there in the fall.
Two straight nights before I got the call, I dreamed of her. She was wearing a coat and hat, and dressed much like she always dressed when we were going somewhere. I had a trip planned to see her in a couple of weeks, so at the time, I attributed the dreams to that. But now I think she was letting me know that she was setting out without me, and that she was all right.
It wasn’t unusual for her niece to call me, but when I saw her number on my phone this time, I didn’t want to answer. It looked wrong. It sounded wrong. I said hello anyway, but before she told me, I already knew. The work day wore on and I forgot to eat, so I was pretty shaky by the time I left the first job for the second. I missed my turn and what I thought was my last shot at lunch well past 4:30. I had just decided I could make due with another cup of coffee when I saw the Burger King sign. I remembered the BK gift card in my duffel, that I bought her but hadn’t sent yet. I stopped and bought us each a sandwich.
I don’t eat meat very often, but I ate my hamburger and then I ate hers, too. I could feel her shaking her head at me, looking to the sky and laughing like she’d do, with a soundtrack of smooth jazz in the background. How can the world go on without that? There is no other one like Emma Earline Keaton. I wouldn’t be who I am without her good self. The first half was Lucerne, and the second was Ms. Emma and Chicago.
There is something we carry, Like a rhythm that tells us who we are. It’s the rhythm of living… And I can see it in all things, all, but especially Emma. ~Kurt Elling, paraphrased