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The following was originally published on June 9, 2020.
I am a biologist, a worker in a field with a sorrowful history of categorizing human beings by race, arranging them in a false hierarchy to dismiss some as less human than others. That history seems very of the moment now, as anguish about interracial friendship and understanding has emerged as the dominant note in our culture. The following story is true, though, and perhaps it is an antidote to despair.
I have a friend. Let me call her Kia. I met her when she was homeless and had just had a baby. She needed a place to stay — she didn’t want to take her baby back to a homeless shelter where smoke and foul language and worse were everywhere. We had a spare room and had asked at church if there was anyone who needed a place to stay. Kia was the answer.
She was an African immigrant, with no family, who had been working in adult home care. One night she was raped. When she got pregnant, abortion was not an option as far as she was concerned, despite the stigma of being a single mother. This came at some cost to her, even among members of her church. Yet there was no question of her giving up the baby for she had been told she would never be able to have a child.
When her pregnancy was far advanced she could no longer do the work. That left her homeless, living in a shelter.
An Act of Trust
We all agreed that she should move in. It was a gesture of trust for both parties. To share a home is an act of intimacy and of vulnerability. She came cautiously, bringing a friend along to evaluate the situation. No one in her community could believe that anything like this could happen. White people don’t open their homes to poor black people with no status, they all thought, and perhaps some said.
But move in she did. There was soon a parade of visitors from her community. They would stare as they walked by us on their way downstairs to the spare bedroom. They did not approach that “strange” white couple, out of awkwardness and language barriers.
Over time I learned about all the ways of government subsidy — food stamps, WIC, subsidized housing, DSHS, Medicaid. I was both impressed and horrified by what I saw. On the one hand, the government gave food, medical care, childcare, cash, and even housing to the lucky indigent. But they gave barely enough to live on, and reduced the benefits given according to the amount earned. It was an incentive to earn just enough, but not enough to remove you from the welfare rolls. And humiliations abounded. Everything needed documented proof, and petitioners were made to paddle the chartless bureaucratic ocean by themselves, drifting from window to window, unless they had a good social worker to help them navigate the waters.
As time passed, Kia and I became family. The little baby girl became like a granddaughter. We shared faith, and stories. We learned from one another — she learned to eat our bread and we learned to eat flat bread, she learned about knives and forks, and we about using the bread as a delicate means to pick up a morsel of food and eat it.
But it was mostly I who was learning from Kia: what it was to grow up poor — indeed, what it was to be poor in a way most Americans have never experienced. Kia told of sleeping four or more to a bed in one small bedroom, cooking over a fire outside, no indoor plumbing, walking everywhere, leaving school in eighth grade to care for family when her mother grew sick and died. No bureaucracy, but no safety net either.
“No Matter What”
Eventually the social interventionist U.S. government persuaded Kia to take a Section 8 apartment with her daughter. Perhaps they had as much understanding as the Africans did of the arrangement between Kia and my family. It seemed something that must be disrupted somehow. Perhaps they were afraid we would grow tired of the experiment and deposit mother and child back on the street. So Kia moved out. Still, she would return for holidays and we would go to her daughter’s birthday parties.
Then one day Kia became sick. It got worse and worse. She was in and out of the hospital for seven months — she could not keep down food. The doctors thought it was first one thing, then another. She was afraid it might be cancer. She had no one to take care of her, she thought. And in her culture, people with cancer just went back to their country to die. But when I found out what she was afraid of, I said, “We will take care of you no matter what.”
From that time, I stayed by her side in the hospital. Kia found she was treated better when I was with her. The orderlies would say, “Why is she doing this?”, meaning me. The nurses and doctors would ask, “How are you related?” And I would say, “What, don’t we look alike?”
Finally, the doctors determined that Kia did have cancer, stage 4 cancer. It was spread throughout her body. I said she should move in with us again. I couldn’t do otherwise, I couldn’t let her go through this alone.
This time Kia moved in with a four-year old daughter, full of energy and life. Our children had recently all moved out, so we were glad to have the house full of life again. With the support of the local church, we were able to enroll the little one in pre-k. A local oncologist with an excellent reputation agreed to take Kia’s case. And most stores and doctor’s offices took the government food stamps and Medicaid.
There still were barriers, though. People in the mainly white suburban town couldn’t figure out why we were together. So we sometimes got strange looks. One time at the surgery suite the whole staff came to see Kia get an IV. She was so sick and yet so beautiful and exotic to them. This kind of treatment was revelatory for me, who was used to being invisible.
A Peaceful Spirit
As we settled in, this time it was different. There was a sense we really were family, truly committed to one another. We would talk and talk and talk. We would sing, and laugh. I found a peaceful spirit in Kia, one full of trust in God. Her whole life long Kia had practice saying, “I am in your hands,” so saying it now wasn’t hard. We recognized a kindred spirit in each other, though our lives had taken different paths.
It was different with the African people who came to visit also. I made a point to sit and talk to these visitors, because I considered them my friends too. I wanted to show them they were welcome, and that my intentions were good.
Kia began chemotherapy in September. She was scheduled to go every other week.
The chemo seemed easy to bear the first time, aside from having to delay for low blood counts. They removed one of her medications for the second round and pushed it back a week.
I knew that everything Kia was going through must be incredibly hard. To enter into our house, to go through difficult medical treatment, to worry about her daughter — all of this was very hard. But Kia never complained, and only sometimes hinted that this was a struggle.
Sometimes Kia and I would sit around the table and talk after dinner. One night I asked, “What has this been like for you?” Kia smiled and answered, “Before I was lonely. Now I am not. I have peace.”
The thing that stood out most in my mind was how we had become family. Others recognized it too. Kia’s pastor said to us one day, “Do you realize what you have done? You have broken racial barriers, social barriers, economic barriers, cultural barriers, all barriers.” I was embarrassed and thought, “Anyone can do this.”
After the third round of chemo Kia developed a tremendous headache. It proved to be an old subdural hematoma, perhaps from a past fall. That meant she had to have a hole drilled in her head to remove the old blood, and another stay in the hospital. She went home after a few days, then had to go back for a new hematoma. All of this delayed her chemotherapy.
She had another round of chemotherapy and another hematoma. No one knew why. Kia cried out, “What do you want of me?” and then had her third brain surgery.
When she was out of the hospital, it was time for her scan to see how the cancer was. Together we went to the appointment to hear the results. Both were worried that all the complications and delays might have made the treatment ineffective.
“Your scan is clear.” The doctor said it calmly. Kia first shouted, then wept. First the doctor, then I silently held her. She praised God for his mercy. Suddenly the future I had feared was gone. It was December.
What happened next? The treatment continued to make sure all the cancer was gone. Kia passed her final scan after treatment finished and has continued to be clear. Her daughter is now seven. We continue as a black and white family. We are knit together by trials and circumstances and grace.
When I said that anyone can do this, I meant it. What is required is a leap of trust, from both directions. The past errors of my scientific field notwithstanding, experience gives evidence of a healing truth. We are all human together.