“I’m not hard of hearing Sojourner, what you want or you just messing with me like you always do?” Wilburn said as he shifted his rail thin body trying to get into a comfortable position in his bed. He twisted his mouth pretending he was irritated knowing full well there was nothing Sojourner could ever do in his lifetime, as short as he now knew it to be, to upset him.
“I just was checking to see if you were still awake. You had your eyes closed again,” Sojourner said. “You’re a terrible host.”
“That’s called thinking,” Wilburn said. “It’s about all I can do now, reflect on my thirty-nine years of life on this earth. And by the way I offered you what’s left of my dinner that I was too full to eat and even my applesauce, so that shows I’m a stellar host.”
Sojourner took a deep breath in before slowly exhaling. She felt this feeling of dread crawling up her skin like an inchworm.
Sojourner glanced at Wilburn’s food knowing that he hadn’t touched any of it. It looked like he just moved it from one side of the tray to the other after mixing his peas and carrots in his mashed potatoes, and cutting off a corner of his meatloaf and plopping it on top of everything.
During his first week at the hospice, he had asked Sojourner to go to his favorite bodega on his old block in Brooklyn to get him a turkey hero and to tell the man behind the counter it was for Mr. Wilburn.
When she did as asked, leaving work early to go there, a wide smile mapped the man behind the counter’s face once she mentioned Wilburn’s name.
“Ah, Mr. Wilburn. Good man, good man,” he said. “How is he, I haven’t seen him in a while.”
Sojourner wouldn’t tell him Wilburn was dying, that he was in a hospice. Word would spread like wildfire in his old neighborhood once the end came. Wilburn had given her a black and white notebook with a list of people to notify when he passed.
It was almost completely full with names and addresses and phone numbers and e-mail addresses. Wilburn was well loved.
The man behind the deli counter started making Wilburn’s sandwich and the owner forgot that she hadn’t answered and started shouting He likes his sandwich with extra mayo, Swiss cheese, and a pickle on the side.” He waved me off when I tried to pay and threw in a free orange Fanta soda and some salt and vinegar chips in the paper bag.
“Tell Mr. Wilburn, “Hasta pronto amigo,” he said to Sojourner. Even though she was far from fluent in Spanish, she knew it meant, “See you soon, friend.”
Wilburn’s appetite diminished each passing day. Sojourner had stopped her gentle fussing at him to eat because she soon realized his body was shutting down, preparing for death. Slowly, like the sand falling in an hourglass, Wilburn was leaving his earthly body and his best friend.
It was difficult for her to think about her life without Wilburn in it. He was the brother she never had. When he and his family, his two brothers and mother moved into her apartment building, he was picked on from the start.
Often after school Wilburn would go to the rooftop of their building to feed the pigeons to avoid his brothers until his mother came home from work. Sojourner found this out one day when she went up to the roof with a boy she liked. She was thirteen then and thought she was old enough to French kiss. She went up to the roof with a boy she liked ready to swap tongues and saliva but when they pushed open the roof door, there was Wilburn.
“What you doin’ up here?” Sojourner asked matter-of-factly shaking off her want to be boyfriend’s arm off her shoulder.
“What you doing up here?” Wilburn asked eyeing the boy she was with.
“We came up here to see the pigeons,” Sojourner lied.
Wilburn started naming all the pigeons he was feeding as if he was introducing his family. After a few minutes the boy Sojourner liked left but by then she didn’t care. She enjoyed talking to Wilburn. They talked about school, about him wanting to be a writer, until Wilburn looked over the ledge and saw his mother coming. He grabbed his bookbag, and he and Sojourner headed back downstairs to their apartments.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said when he got to his floor.
Sojourner nodded not saying whether he would or wouldn’t but most likely she’d be there.
There was a dark side about Wilburn’s life that Sojourner would soon find out on that rooftop. Wilburn’s two brothers, jealous because he was their mother’s favorite and had a different father, one who’d visit him every month and take him for two weeks in the summer after school was over and to the Bronx Zoo and Coney Island and bring him a new pair of sneakers or a bike for his birthday that they never had the luxury of having, started bullying him.
They would pummel him with their fists whenever he walked by them, tease him about his name or call him Church-boy or Mama’s boy. They even would throw water in the middle of his bed and call him a bedwetter in front of their friends. They did anything to taunt and torment him.
He told Sojourner everything, even showed her his bruises on his arm, purplish blue splotches that he’d cover up by wearing long sleeve shirts even in the heat of summertime. And he’d make Sojourner swear she wouldn’t tell anyone. Not even her father who would have snatched them up by their collar and given them a good scare. It was their secret.
When Sojourner asked him why he didn’t tell his mother or father, he told her he didn’t want his mother to worry because she had a stew pot full of worry already with overdue bills and his brothers. That’s how Wilburn talked. He always was an old school wordsmith even at a young age whenever he explained something to you.
He told Sojourner then he didn’t want to add anything else to her already burdened life. He knew if his father found out he’d call social services to get him taken away from her and he’d have to live with him and his stepmom and their children, and he didn’t want that. He was not going to abandon his mother as he put it. She was his dream keeper. She knew he was going to make something of his life from the time he was born, and she and his father named him Wilburn after his great grandfather who was a stonemason.
Sojourner’s heart ached for Wilburn but knew there was nothing she could do but listen to him when they snuck up to the roof.
When his brothers’ wrath became too intolerable and they couldn’t go up to the roof if the weather was bad because there was nothing to shield them from the elements, Wilburn would wait in Sojourner’s apartment for his mother to come home.
They’d do their homework together and Sojourner’s mother would feed him dinner and smile from ear to ear as Wilburn cleaned his plate, leaving not even a drop of gravy on it if Sojourner’s mother had smothered some meat or mashed potatoes in her red-eye gravy.
Her father would firmly shake Wilburn’s hand when he saw him and call him, young man. Wilburn would stick his scrawny chest out with pride each time her father called him that too, as if he was grateful for someone to notice what he was becoming. When the sun set early evening, he’d look out Sojourner’s kitchen window knowing his mother would be home soon, watching to see her stroll up the walkway. He’d hurriedly pack his textbooks and notebooks up, and race the two flights upstairs to the ninth floor, knowing his brothers wouldn’t dare bother him with their mother momentarily walking in the door.
Thinking about those times when they were young on that Brooklyn roof, although Wilburn shared more than Sojourner ever did, were bittersweet for Sojourner. It still sent shards of guilt through her being that she never told anyone what was going on with her friend. And it still astounded her that Wilburn made it out of that situation in one piece, from his home specifically, but also from the neighborhood that spit and chewed out Black and Hispanic boys like him if they weren’t strongminded. He became a successful writer and was able to move his mother into her own house in Long Island, leaving his evil spirited brothers behind, cutting all ties with them.
He and Sojourner never lost touch all the years they had gone their separate ways to figure out their own lives. After graduating college, through his coming out, through the publication of his first book which he dedicated to his mother, through his book tours, his failed relationships, her divorce, his mother’s death from cancer, through all the political unrest and deep conversations they had on the phone about systematic racism and how it affected the lives of black people and what needed to be done to create change, they were as close as gum stuck on the sole of one’s shoe. Nothing could scrape them off of one another’s heart or from applauding the loudest, when need be, or stop either one from offering a shoulder to carry the weight of grief or any other problem.
Sojourner thought about the day Wilburn told her he had cancer. He stuttered and his words came out in bits, as if he was breaking off stale pieces of bread for the pigeons they used to feed on their Brooklyn rooftop as children.
They were in Sojourner’s new apartment, a second-floor walk-up, the size of a large closet, in Park Slope, where she had moved after her divorce. She poured them both a glass of wine and sat down beside him on her Ikea couch, the only shared marital property she wanted after her divorce.
“I have… prostate cancer,” he said practically in a whisper. She turned the volume of her radio down and moved closer to him.
“They’re only giving me a few months to live if that. I made arrangements to go to a hospice. I left a letter for you that my lawyer will send to you when that time comes. It has my final wishes for my memorial service, my insurance information and what to do with my possessions, mainly my books and some artwork by some up and coming artists. And when the time comes don’t be intimidated by my brothers. I know they’ll come around to claim things like scavengers even though they never claimed me…or loved me as their brother for that matter. You’re the only real family I have, so promise me you’ll take the helm no matter how hard they try to persuade you that because we share the same DNA, they should be in charge.”
“I promise Wilburn,” Sojourner assured him. “I’ve never been afraid of them even when we were younger,” she added. “I was just afraid for you.”
“I know,” Wilburn said. He closed his eyes and drifted off to some unknown place and the room except for the unsettling and constant beeping of the machines around him fell silent.
Sojourner was not ready for this somber part of their friendship. Here she was in Room C419, listening to a constant streaming of Barry Manilow’s “Mandy,” Louis Armstrong’s “It’s A Wonderful World,” Judy Garland’s “Over The Rainbow,” and Patti Page’s, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” playing over the intercom instead of Meek Mill or Coltrane which Wilburn was a fan of. Here in this room, she hoped each evening she visited wouldn’t be their last time together.
She wanted to carry Wilburn far away from there. Free him. He was reed thin and she knew she could carry him in her arms and make a quick getaway. She longed to take him to that new poetry café in Brooklyn and sit him at a small table with his laptop and a mason jar of sweet southern style tea and buttermilk biscuits with sausage gravy which they were known for, so he could write. She hated that he would have no new works forthcoming, that she could never press her nose into the straight off the presses binding of his new book he always gave her before they hit bookstores and then trace her fingers over the two names it was dedicated to, Wilburn’s mother and herself.
Wilburn’s words were lyrical, like poetry you wanted to repeat to whoever would listen even when what he was talking about was raw…what others might judge him about and what he prayed would change. He wanted you to know the sewer part of his life as a young black man growing up impoverished and muted, but he also wanted in the end for you to see how it made him who he was and helped him stand in his truth not giving a damn what the world thought about him. That was why he started going into middle schools all over the country to talk about his life to students.
“I want to teach them early to be brave and have the audacity to be themselves, now, not later,” he told Sojourner.
“Did you sleep okay last night?” Sojourner asked when she saw Wilburn had opened his eyes back up again.
She poured him a cup of ice chips from the blue plastic pitcher on his night table. And then she took one of them and rubbed it slowly across the corners of his mouth where his skin was cracked and dry.
“Not really. I woke up around three AM. I wanted to grab my notebook and write something. Something humorous for you to read at my funeral. But I was in too much pain. Asked for another shot of morphine from my angel nurse. That’s what I call her. She comes in and tucks me in, these big lumberjack feet of mine anyway, because they are always cold and out from under these covers. Anyway, I wanted to write. I wanted to write something tongue in cheek because I don’t want a memorial service where people are crying more than celebrating my life. But I know you’ll do me justice …you’ll know exactly what to say to get a few chuckles,” Wilburn said as he smiled at Sojourner.
“Yeah… Sojourner, I told you I’m not hard of hearing,” he said.
“Are you scared? Sojourner asked looking deep into his brown eyes.
“No… death is easy,” he answered. “Living is what was hard most of the time.”
“What is it Sojourner?”
“Come on and run away with me. We can escape this place. I promise they’ll never find us. I’ll rent a blue thunderbird convertible, 1957 like the one you always dreamed of having, and we’ll be the black version of Thelma and Louise, except with a happier ever after ending,” Sojourner said.
Wilburn started laughing until his pain halted his amusement. He reached for Sojourner’s hand and gently caressed it. In a low-slung voice he started singing the gospel song, “Going Up Yonder.”
“If you want to know, where I'm going, where I'm going, soon…”
Sojourner fought back her tears. It was getting late, past visiting hours. She bent down and kissed Wilburn tenderly on his forehead as she imagined his mother would have if she was there hovering over him like a Mama bird, aguishly preparing for her child’s transition.
Wilburn once told her that a forehead kiss healed a multitude of sorrows. She prayed it did.
Sojourner tucked Wilburn’s huge lumberjack feet under the covers before his angel nurse came in to do it, and then gathered her belongings. She left his room knowing that his tomorrow wasn’t guaranteed… and that it just might be the day he got in that blue thunderbird convertible for a solo road trip without his best friend, and drove 130 mph to his freedom.
Jeanine DeHoney: “As a freelance writer, I have had my writing published in Essence, Mused Bella Online, Wow: Women on Writing-The Muffin's Friday Speak Out, Mothering.com, TimBookTu, Skipping Stones Multicultural Magazine, The Children's Ark, The Write Place At The Write Time, Mutha Magazine, Literary Mama, The Mom Egg, Metro Fiction, Underwater NYC, Booklocker, Jerry Jazz Magazine, ScaryMommy.co, Parent Co., Brain Child Magazine, Your Teen For Parents, Today's Caretaker Magazine, Rigorous Magazine, and Funds For Writers, and upcoming in Sisters-AARP. I am a essayist in the anthology, Theories of HER, the Chicken Soup for The African American Woman's Soul, Here in The Middle; Stories of Love, Loss, and Connection from The Ones Sandwiched In Between, and the Chicken Soup For The Soul Anthology, I'm Speaking Now. I was a contributing writer to Dream Teen Magazine which highlighted the accomplishments of outstanding teens. I was the 2013 Finalist and the 2014 Winner of the Brooklyn Arts & Film Festival's Nonfiction Contest and was picked as a 2020 Semi-Finalist in their latest contest. I was also a contributing blogger at Wow: Women on Writing.”