It’s funny how your mind works when you have a little down time.

The girls and I were enjoying a trip to Panama City Beach, filling our days with waves and sand, a little mini golf, time at the pier, and travels to nearby Seaside and Rosemary Beach. Maybe because we jam-packed our vacation with fun, I found myself experiencing bizarre dreams when my head finally hit the pillow at night.

One nightmare in particular stood out, and I couldn’t shake it. Finally, it dawned on me that this unpleasant dream carried a taint of truth.

In my dream, I uncovered a family secret that my maternal grandmother’s family had been slave owners. As the dream played out, I struggled to put this history into place. I tried to explain to people who, after learning this secret, asked how I could possibly claim to be Edwina’s friend and advocate when I came from such a prejudiced past.

I awoke shaking off the absurdity of the nightmare. But then, a reality that I often push to the side slid in to take its place.

My grandmother, and her brothers and sisters, were racist in the extreme. All my life, I heard them utter slurs that even at a young age seemed shameful to me. My mom used to say that that’s the way my grandmother and her siblings were raised. Fortunately, my parents offered a very different example, always teaching me to treat people with respect.

When I was old enough to begin dating, my grandmother would tell me not to ever bother coming around with “any boyfriends who were N______.” All black people were the same in her book, and by same, I mean all of the worst assumptions that can be made about a person.

As we drove home from the beach and the girls slept in the car, I filled the silence with thoughts about the memories behind my nightmare. I wondered why I’d never thought about this side of my grandmother in all the time I’ve known Edwina, Lumon, Roderick, Lisa and others.

I guess I’ve been focused on the friends I’ve met and not on the color of their skin.


An erasable threat

Emily Walsh, the Community Outreach Director for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, asked me to post a fact sheet about the threat of asbestos:

Did You Know Facts

Aesbestos causes mesothelioma, the disease that my friend Lumon Layton died from in August 2011. Here’s the post I wrote about him back then:

For more information, see the Meothelioma Cancer Alliance website:

snapshots from a life

A snapshot I took of Lumon after our first and last meeting

Today, I went to the funeral of Lumon Layton, Jr., a man I met just once close to two years ago. He made an impression.

When I was interviewing cancer survivors for the “Homeless With Cancer” story, Lumon strolled into my life briefly out of the blue. He’d come with a friend that he met at Cooper Green–Roderick Turner. He didn’t know Roderick all that well, but when Roderick told Lumon that he was planning to go to Church of the Reconciler for breakfast and that the people there were “real nice,” Lumon decided to check it out.

My exchange with Lumon must have gone on for close to two hours. We talked about his life–the death of both of his parents and a brother, his own son’s incarceration, his daughter’s generosity in letting him stay under her roof, his grandchildren.

Lumon had worked for years for a series of construction companies, helping to build some of the government and office buildings in downtown Birmingham. All that work on asbestos-laced walls and ceilings–most completed without any kind of mask or protective gear–eventually caused mesothelioma. He told me that back then, nobody ever told him or the other workers that what they were doing could be harmful. He wasn’t sure his bosses knew at the time, but “they sure did,” Lumon said, when he and several others were “called in to testify that they were sick” and hadn’t been told to follow any safeguards, and “wasn’t given any equipment anyway.”

Lumon’s light green eyes lit up when he talked about his family and the kind of life he’d had. He grinned as he admitted that it hadn’t all been something to be proud of, and he was sorry about some of the choices he’d made. He gripped my hands and wept when he described how one day, he just couldn’t ride his bike or mow the lawn the way he used to. That’s when his daughter told him, “Daddy, there’s somethin’ wrong. We’ve got to get you to the doctor.”

I came across Lumon’s picture in the newspaper last Friday quite by chance. Ever since I started working with the homeless with cancer, I check the obituaries to see if I recognize anyone. Too often their deaths, like their lives, escape under the radar. I’ve never believed in fate, but I was in fact thinking about Lumon when I suddenly saw his face. And immediately, I thought about the picture I’d taken of him some time ago.

When I went to Roderick’s funeral service a few weeks ago, I was disturbed by the picture on the front of the program handed out to guests who had come to remember Roderick’s life and pay their respects. The photo had been taken after Roderick was brought to the funeral home, his eyes closed and smoke-like effects added around his face. This last look at Roderick was upsetting: it didn’t show Roderick in action, funny and animated as he often was in life, and there were other photos out there–those taken by Rachael, Sylvia, and me. Fortunately, one picture taken by Rachael was placed at the front by the urn. But it was the late Roderick who graced the cover of the bulletin and who would be carried out to the streets.

Friday night after reading about the service scheduled for today, I sifted through my photos and found one of Lumon. I made several copies and sealed them in an envelope to give to his daughter, Sherita.

When I got to the funeral, I realized that I needn’t have worried that Lumon’s family had no pictures. The program was filled with snapshots from his life, picturing him staring out with those clear, green eyes. Now there’s one more.