I Married My Anthropology Professor
This blog is in remembrance of our wedding day on March 9, 1968.
As a white college student in the 1960s, I married my anthropology professor who was a hereditary Mende chief from Liberia, West Africa. After 30 years of marriage, we wrote together Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia, which describes the effect of racism upon his home country, comparing it with America’s racism. Just as we were having that book published, we received an ominous doctor’s report. Below is an excerpt from our love story, Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief. In my words:
Gripped with Fear
One afternoon, the nurse called from Ben’s doctor’s office after routine blood work. She said, “The lab must have contaminated Ben’s blood sample. His liver enzymes are extremely high. The doctor wants him to retake the test.”
While I was gripped with a nagging fear, Ben said, “God made every part of me. He knows how to fix it.”
The lab results came back the same. After more medical tests in July, I talked at length with the gastroenterologist, who told me, “Ben has a fatal liver disease. If you want to visit your children, I would do it right away.” Death, that inevitable intruder, was making a visit, and I was about to face my greatest challenge and crisis—life without him.
Telling My Husband He was Going to Die
I tried to collect my thoughts and calm my racing heart before I walked into his office, where he was lying in his recliner, weak and thin. I thought, I’ve got to be brave for him. I said, “Honey, the doctor said we can continue testing at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, but he’s sure from your latest test results that your liver disease will give you only 3 to 5 months to live.”
He looked at me and said, “Should we do the testing in Tampa?”
I said, “I don’t think so. The doctor said the testing would be very hard on you, and it wouldn’t extend your life. I want you to live as long as possible. Let’s talk with the people at Hope Hospice.”
He said, “This means I’ll never return to Vahun or Somalahun.”
I said, “I’m so sorry. I know how much it means for you to return.” I was in shock—beyond tears—as if I were on auto-pilot. I prayed silently, Lord, what can I say? You’ve given me seventeen more years with him since his prostate cancer.
We signed up for Hope Hospice and a nurse came to our house to check Ben each week. I never admired my husband more than when I observed the noble way he dealt with dying. We had a year and a half to say good-bye. Our love for each other and our faith in God were the only things that mattered, the trivialities of life instantly fading in the presence of death.
I Couldn’t Let His Dream Die
Ben was dying, but I refused to let his dream go. I wanted him to see his book in print. After Algora Publishing accepted our shortened version of the book, I told them I’d like to show them the longer edition as well. In the end, we compromised on a combination of the two. By September of 2008, the publisher had edited the manuscript and I reviewed it online for mistakes. I skipped the final review so I wouldn’t delay publication in November.
Before he died, he wrote love letters to me and all of his children. He dictated farewell letters to Vahun and Somalahun. He witnessed to visitors: “Jesus said, ‘In my Father’s house are many mansions.’ He’s prepared a room for me.”
God gave me strength moment by moment during that time. We continued our devotions morning and night, playing chapters of the Bible on CD. I read Christian books about death. In the morning, I prayed, “Lord, thank You that we can get out of this bed today and do something.” At night, I played gospel hymns and would soon hear Ben snoring.
One night, during our evening devotions, I prayed, “Father, when Ben stands before you, he won’t tell you about his PhDs, his years of teaching, or even his work in Africa. He’ll just say your Son, Jesus, died for his sins.” While I was expressing this, Ben said yes at each phrase, which assured me that he was trusting in God’s grace alone. It was a great comfort knowing I would see him in heaven.
Our life together continued in a quiet routine. We attended church until the month before he died. While he took long afternoon naps, I watched the Turner Classic Movies network. I never saw the endings of the movies, because the minute he awoke, he wanted to watch something else. He remained a CNN news junkie, and we also watched The Newshour with Jim Lehrer. In the late afternoons, he enjoyed sitting on the sun porch, watching the squirrels play in our tree-shaded backyard.
In the morning, he listened to gospel radio; in the afternoon, the BBC World Service. He spent long hours reading the Bible with his remaining good eye. Before he died, he had read the entire New Testament and one fourth of the Old Testament.
Each morning, I scrubbed his back in the shower, and after drying him, I rubbed Pond’s cold cream on his ashy legs and Ben Gay arthritis cream on his back. I helped him get into clean pajamas and slipped his watch on his wrist. He then used his walker to go into his office for his morning nap. One day, as he was lathering up his washcloth, I said, “You are the only person in the world who uses so much soap when they bathe.”
He looked at me and said, “How many people have you watched bathing themselves?” He never lost his humorous perspective.
He loved his evening bubble baths almost to the end. When I became nervous about him falling, I sat in the bathroom, watching as he bathed. As he stood in the bathtub and scooped water in his hand to rinse the sides of the tub, it was as though he were in a river on the outskirts of Somalahun. He methodically rinsed his washcloth, wrung it out, and dried himself with it before using his towel.
One day, as we were watching TV, he said, “My work is finished.” He knew the end was coming.
He Realized the End was Coming
One day, when our pastor was visiting with Ben on the sun porch, Ben began to cry, expressing his gratitude for all God had done for him in his life. He said, “I was afraid if I took Anita to my village, she’d divorce me, but she loved my people. God spared us when I wanted to take my family to Liberia before the coup. He’s been so merciful to me.” As he wept, I realized he was reviewing his life before his death.
That December, he said, “If I’m going to live through the celebration of Christ’s birth, I want a Christmas tree.” I put up our little tree next to his hospital bed on the sun porch.
My Husband Died so Bravely
I will always admire my husband’s deep faith in Jesus Christ and the way he died. I hope I can die like that and give a witness to my children and grandchildren.