Monday, April 18, 2016

The finish line.

I took this photograph of myself at a red light. I was driving to the funeral of a woman I've known for over twenty years; the mother of my sorority sister and good friend, Ebony M.


It wasn't sudden. Mrs. M had been fighting a nasty malignancy for quite some time. That said, it's not even being cliché to say that she handled it like a true gladiator. Brave and tenacious, yet somehow never lost the tenderness that made her so special.


Since Ebony is from Birmingham like my dad and, like my parents, hers also attended our alma mater, I was immediately taken in like family by her mom and dad. They treated me like a bonus daughter and never missed a chance to let me know they were proud of anything I accomplished. Especially Mrs. M. She had this special way of showing a person how proud she was of them. I was lucky to be one of the recipients of that gift.


So here's the thing: Even though I'm a doctor, the mortality of those around me--particularly the ones of the generation ahead of me--is something I struggle to get my head around. But the older we get, the more these types of phone calls come. They used to be freakish and far-fetched. Not any more.

At 45, most of our parents now have government subsidized health care and AARP cards. Some have body parts that have been replaced or bypassed or even removed altogether. Feet are moving a little more slowly and, in some instances, so are minds. But the other part is that we, too, are sliding closer into the realm of "people old enough to have stuff happen to them." Which, to me, is this point where, instead of people saying, "Oh shit! How crazy is that?" they instead just tell you how very sorry they are to hear of whatever it is they just heard. Kind of like this threshold where you are entitled to have something messed up happen to you.


And this? This is the only part of the 40-and-up frontier that I don't like so much. Like, I always said to people that your teen years are weird, your twenties are great but you're just too damn broke to enjoy them, your thirties are pretty cool since you're still young and a little less broke, and the forties seem to be where the party is happening. And you know? I would say that the fifties will trump the forties except for this aforementioned thing that throws a wet blanket over a part of it.


Wouldn't it be awesome if parents just sort of halted in their late forties and early fifties for you to join them? Like, where you could just hang out and talk shit with all of your collective wisdom and send kids in the kitchen to get you a glass of ice water and then talk all about the really cool vacation you just took that ten years ago you would have just admired on line due to broke-ness? How cool would that be?

Proud to be my sister's keeper: Ebony and me

But the clock ticks. It ticks hard as hell, man. And on Friday, it screamed loudly in my ear that beautiful, loving, amazing people do not live forever. That long time loves may have to part involuntarily and that a new normal at some point awaits us all.

Damn. I'm sorry. I don't mean to be negative. I don't because that's not how I feel. I mostly just feel sort of reflective and aware, you know? And the look on my face in that picture tells how I was feeling. Which wasn't negative. Just sort of. . . mortal, you know?

Yeah. That.

Mrs. M had the most uplifting homegoing service I've ever attended. Tambourines were shaking and voices were singing jubilant songs. She'd been a part of her church choir and every single member showed up. The soprano section sang with extra vigor since that was her section and, for once, overshadowed the low, dusky melodies of the altos. A dance troupe clad in white gowns with angel wings affixed to their backs celebrated her heavenly transition through movement. And all of it was elegant and the most amazing tribute ever.

Sorority sisters from Tuskegee standing in support of Ebony M.

It hurt my heart to see my dear friend and her sister clinging to one another and weeping. But that, I expected. It really wasn't until I was listening to the choir singing this amazingly thoughtful medley of her favorite hymns that I came unglued. Mr. M, her husband of 45 years, was doing that thing that church folks (at least the ones who look like me) do when the music is so good that it makes your bones rattle inside. He stood to his feet, arms folded and head shaking from side to side. Face twisted into an emotional grimace--partly the familiar one of people in the praise and worship zone but, in this case, partly just unspeakable grief. This man was calling on his God quietly. But especially? He was missing his wife in the most intense way ever.

And that? That did it. That's when I lost it.

I can't say her death was timely. She was too young for this. She was. And that man that stood on his feet in that church still had a lot more years of love in his heart to share with her. This I could see for sure. But. We are all mere mortals. No matter how much we try to think otherwise, we are.

The exuberant preacher at her service said this:

"From the day we are born, we are in a race to the finish line of death. We don't want to run there too fast, but we all cross that tape whether we want to or not."

And I took out my phone and jotted that down because I knew I'd want to read those words again.


You know? That preacher man was right. Even if that sounds slightly macabre, it's the honest to goodness truth. And so. I guess the goal is to run the best race you can, you know? Get your form right and do your best to clear some hurdles. Pass the baton often and run hard at certain times but definitely slow down sometimes for breaks. Hit some high notes like Mrs. M and love somebody so hard that the thought of you causes them to stand to their feet, fold their arms and shake their head. And do so much cool stuff while you're at it that the people who thought they knew you later realize that they had no idea what kind of bad ass things you were doing on your race. None at all.

Growing older is dichotomously awesome and awful at times. But that's cool. My goal is to just to make my run the best one ever, to encourage the runners beside me, and to pause at the water stations whenever I can. And ultimately to cross my finish line without regrets.

That's what Mrs. M did. I'm glad I got to run beside her for part of her race. Because what I now know is that it was a part of my race, too.


Happy Early Monday.


  1. I am 68 and am dealing with being what I call "being the only one left who remembers." At one time there were parents and siblings and aunts and uncles but as death has claimed them one by one, the circle of people who share my memories has greatly diminished.

  2. What did I read in a book the other day? I can't remember (oh, the mind as we age...) but a woman said, "Child, some people run to the finish line and some people walk but we all gonna get there." And it's true. And if we weren't given the gift of these hearts which we can fill with so much love, we wouldn't hurt so damn bad when we lose someone we loved and were loved by. Which is a sort of solace, I guess, but not enough sometimes.
    What a beautiful homegoing. I'm so glad you went because the true solace comes from being held up by others. Oh Lord. You've got me crying. Thanks, Sister Doctor for touching that tender part of my heart again.
    May there be peace.

  3. I think that you kind of said it, maybe without thinking about it. It's a home going. Sooner or later we will all be there in our timeless and agelessness. We will sit around and ponder without all the yuck that comes with sinfulness between us. That is just a part of the promise that we have.

  4. These reflections are so beautiful, thoughtful, and true. Life is such a gift, and the more we can appreciate the beauty of the people in it and the opportunities we are given to enjoy it to it's fullest the better.
    Thank you for writing!

  5. Beautiful. I turn 45 tomorrow and have been thinking about the race I'm running. I'm glad you're one of my water breaks. (Which reminds me: dinner!) I'm sorry for your and your sister's loss. <3

  6. As I watch my mother slip further and further into the clutches of dementia, I feel so much more aware of my own aging and mortality. Thank you for this moment and the sharing of your memories. They give me life.

  7. Dear Dr. Manning,
    I started working at Grady almost 1.5 years ago. Soon, I discovered your blog. For a while I was reading things as you posted them, or picking random ones. Eventually, I decided to go back and read them all, like a book: starting at the beginning. And I just want to say, thank you for writing. Thank you for reflecting. Thank you for wanting to be your best self, for working so hard to love and dignify the people around you, and teaching me to love them too. Thank you for the window you give into your life, experience, heart, and mind. Connecting with you and the people you so lovingly describe in this blog has made many a day brighter and filled me with interesting, wise-making thoughts. Thank you for writing.
    A Learner


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