I've known Henry Moses for about five years; he was one of founders of the Rhythm Workers Union -- an activist African Drumming group I've been playing with since early 2003 when we went to NY City to drum in the big peace march. He's been a teacher, friend and an example of how to live boldly and love fearlessly.
On Saturday (October 20), I read an e-mail from his close friend and former lover Kristen, that he was in the hospital so I called him there. I tried to be cavalier---- I said, "What the hell are you doing in the hospital, Henry-- that's no place for you." He said, "Well, this isn't bad as hospitals go. I've got cancer kicking my ass." He'd been having trouble breathing and abdominal pain. He said they'd found cancer in his lungs (metastasized) from somewhere else. He said he was scheduled for a biopsy to locate the cancer on Monday. Then they'd discuss treatment.
I could hear the oxygen hissing as we talked-- Henry was surprisingly upbeat. "Don't know exactly what's going on inside me, but don't worry, James, my MOJO's still work'in," he said. We both laughed. I heard his cell phone ring and he asked me if I could hold on. (I'd called on the hospital phone.) I held on, but Henry didn't come back on the line. Called back a few minutes later and his partner, Jim picked up and said Henry'd had four or five calls since mine and had some visitors too. So I figured I'd wait a few days and see how he was doing.
Went to the beach over the weekend -- it was hot (in late October!) and I kept thinking of Henry as I swam in the Ocean. He loves the water. I kept wondering how long he would live and whether he would ever get to swim in the ocean again.
On Tuesday, I called and Henry didn't answer. On Wednesday, I called Kristen who was sobbing and said that if I wanted to say goodbye to Henry, I'd better go soon. She said he'd gone into respiratory distress when they'd put him out for the biopsy and was on a respirator and heavily sedated.
I sent the following message to the other Rhythm Workers after my visit with Henry:
Cycled over to GW hosp to be with Henry mid-afternoon. Held his hand and called his name softly -- he did not open his eyes. I thought of my memories of Henry. About the Ailanthus tree that bucked back and almost crushed us as we were cutting it last spring... About getting lost in NYC subway after the peace march...
I didn't know whether to continue-- I sat quietly and watched his smooth, shiny ebony face, his long eyelashes, his beautiful round shoulders and his perfect, bronze toes sticking out from the blue cooling blanked that covered most of his body. Then I looked out at the (much-needed) rain starting to fall gently onto the trees and people below the window -- umbrellas popping open as commuters came up the Metro escalators, and the bronze bust of George Washington glistening in the rain. How exquisite. Life and well, not death but actually another part of life.
Henry's doctor (Ratliff) came by and explained that they'd sedated him because he'd tried to pull the ventilator out when he woke up. I sat with Henry a while longer and then around 5, the nurse, Jennifer, came and had to do some evaluation and asked me to wait outside for 15 minutes. As I was leaving to get a bite, the elevator doors opened on the ground floor and Mark, Kristen, Alexandra and Hawah got on, so I rode back up with them.
The bed next to Henry had been occupied when I arrived but they moved that patient this evening and the nurses didn't seem to mind four or five of us being there with Henry-- we weren't disturbing anyone.
When we were all in his room, Henry opened his eyes (a bit droopy but open and looking at us-- actually looking at Kristen mostly) and he nodded, "yes" that he was comfortable and "no" he wasn't cold. His eyes opened about a fourth of the time for the next few hours as we talked and sang and remembered things that had happened with him and massaged his feet, hands and head. He winked and wrinkled his forehead in response to what we were saying and doing. He looked straight into Kristen's eyes as she talked and sang to him and his face became placid -- the creases in his forehead and between his eyebrows smoothed out -- when Hawah massaged his feet. We chanted and sang softly and there were tears in all eyes...
Jim, his brother and Brian(?) joined us for much of the time. Jim seemed to be surprisingly composed and is acting as Henry's advocate. Kristen was sad and teary but also very strong, brave and incredibly sweet towards Henry-- offering him peace and love and so much empathy.
We're planning to do some quiet drumming and singing tomorrow around 3 and Katy has offered her place for an evening vigil for Henry.
I don't know the details of his condition, but I understand that Henry isn't expected to recover, though the nurse did say they would be putting food into his tube tomorrow which they hadn't done since Monday-- he's being nourished on an IV feed.
I felt pain and yet incredible sweetness to be there to let Henry know how much we love him and to remember a few of the moments we've shared.
I was struck by how strange it is that we are each in these bodies all alone-- no one can feel what he feels, or what I feel, and how much we struggle to connect and communicate because we so desperately want to be known and understood by others and to understand and know them. This almost unbearable distance and our struggle to connect felt so much magnified by the breathing tube and sedatives that kept the ever-vivacious and social (not to mention musical and rhythmic) Henry from speech.
It's very hard to accept Henry as anything less than the quirky force of nature that I've always known him to be.
It's a cliche, I guess, but I was struck by the fact that we all came from the same stuff and that we all must somehow be reduced to it again. Henry is going out like a supernova-- a big, bright, searing flash.
When I saw him, I wanted to pull him out of that bed and run out of that hospital into the streets we occupied and sang and drummed and chanted in. And yet I also want to go with him into that peaceful place that I saw in his face when Kristen sang to him.
Separation -- is it the excruciating price we pay for begin alive, for loving, for every breath?
What a wicked and sacred scheme.
How is it that I feel both profound gratitude and incendiary outrage?
Post Script: Henry pulled the respirator out at around 1 PM on Thursday (October 25)-- He had given instructions not to be resuscitated and Jim courageously honored them. So we played softly to Henry's now-peaceful body in the hospital room. No more tubes or beeping machines. To us, he seemed to have a slight smile on his face. It was sad and beautiful to say our goodbyes musically.
We played at Katy and John's house that night and I don't remember when we've ever sounded better. Henry's musical spirit seemed very present. He was gifted at supporting other musicians and we were truly listening and supporting. We sang his favorite-- "I want to thank you for letting me be myself, again" and one he composed called "I put my roots down into the Earth."
His funeral a few days later was overflowing with people of all ages and diverse colors whose lives he'd touched. His family, his loves, his friends, the girls he mentored in the Young Women's Drumming Empowerment Project, were all there. We gave him a fitting tribute in word, song and rhythm. Once again, Henry brought together his African-American family, his friends in the GBL commmunity, his colleagues in the labor and environmental movements and his musical collaborators. I only wish it hadn't taken his departure to connect us so emotionally and primally.
Henry seemed to live and love fearlessly. I'm noticing an extra urge to make every day count and to give a bit more to others as he did. Henry worried me sometimes-- he showed up at my place with bruises after a fight with his partner, and he seemed to push himself beyond what his body could handle-- especially when we were on the streets marching and drumming for peace and social justice. But I think Henry knew what he was doing.
I find myself asking why am I alive and he's not. He was only 39. He is free. I feel such gratitude to have known him.
Goodbye, dear Henry. You leave a big hole in my heart. I didn't know how much I loved you. Thankyou.