They called her the island’s mayor. Which is funny, because of course there is no mayor out here. But truly, she was at the center of every effort to improve life in this rural, African-American community.
If you couldn’t afford to fix your roof or heat your house, she’d send the right somebody. She’d get you hot meals, job training, free child care - the list went on forever. And if your son landed in jail, no worries. The Sherriff took her calls personally, whatever the hour.
Before retiring back home, she’d owned a jazz club in New York City. Tough, proud, and immensely savvy, she commanded the respect of the island’s most powerful men. They didn’t cross her often. And when they did, she could usually outsmart them.
Her good works were accomplished through about 20 people I called her lieutenants, and many more they could quickly summon. Pre-cell phones, she’d run us down anytime, anywhere: “Honey, I need you like a dead man needs a coffin!” She was utterly selfless - who could say no?
So dozens of us might be out there in the hot summer dawn, under the wide oaks in the pale, steamy light. Maybe a food truck had arrived unexpectedly, so we were rushing perishables to needy families. She was hot under her big wig, bracelets jingling, ankles swollen, old high heels mashing into the sand as she dashed after a deacon. “Hey Deac! Deac! Don’t forget Miss Ella Jenkins. She’s all alone now.”
For eight years we lived in each other’s pockets. I was a lawyer and fundraiser working for community groups. She was an incredible political strategist, and so brave she made my head spin.
We got white folks and black folks working together like they’d never done before. We changed laws. Reworked zoning. Stopped a five-lane highway from bisecting the island. Also - a real coup - we helped protect an island up the coast from all development, forever.
And, we visited doctors. They patched her up. Kept her going. Once a rude young doc asked, “Do you realize it took $100,000 to bring you back from your last illness?” I looked away, embarrassed for him. He had no idea who he was talking to.
In public, we never let on how close we were. But I knew about the red sequin fishtail dress she wore one night to her jazz club. And how her husband beat her until her eyes swelled shut because he thought she looked too good.
I also knew how Jesus had once appeared at the foot of her hospital bed and brought her back from death. He was robed and hooded in white, she said, with no face. Just pure love shining.
She knew about me too. That I was disappointed with work and relationships. That I had little relish for life. That I dreamed vaguely of being an artist. “What kind of artist?” she asked gently. I didn’t know. “Well, baby, you’ll be the bes’ artist. That’s what kind. The bes’.”
Her last illness was blessedly brief. We met with a kidney specialist, whose eyes widened at the sight of a few dark drops of urine she’d brought in an old milk bottle. I took her straight to the hospital. She dropped into a coma, and two weeks later was gone.
At first, she fought death. Tossed in bed. Tugged at tubes. In the fluorescent ever-day of hospital nights, as I slept in a foldout chair, she visited me in dreams. “No way,” she’d fuss. “I’ve got too much to do.”
Her husband came once. Sat in that same chair and said cruel things. I thought she’d tear open her eyes and fight right back. But then, as the days passed, it was sweet to watch her grow peaceful.
One day I arrived to find her nurse elated. “Go see your patient!” she said. I tiptoed over and gazed at her soft, relaxed face.
Suddenly, her eyes opened wide. I flew back and hit the wall behind me. Because it was so unexpected. And because there was something in her eyes I’d never, ever seen before.
We held hands for the longest time. Then she slept again. And slipped away two days later.
What was that look in her eyes? So charged with meaning. I was praying, searching for an answer. Here’s what I got:
“She’s given you her guts, her grit, her drive, her determination. Nina, her desire to live. You won’t feel it right away. It’s a gift you’ll keep opening for the rest of your life.”
It’s been twelve years now. And just last week, I think because of my intense focus on Radical Acts this summer, I finally got through most of the gift wrap.
Inside, I found the same white-robed presence that once stood at the foot of her hospital bed. Just pure love shining. But so bright, so fierce, that it cracks open an entirely new day.
By Nina deCordova
HEAL the sick, cast out evil, raise the dead
LIVE more abundantly
Topics: Christ Jesus, Healing