The back of his hand was peeling off. He grabbed a plastic bottle of lotion to slather on.
“What’s that?” I ask.
He looks at his wrinkled fingers, huge flaps of top skin hanging loosely, and then looks up into my eyes.
I don’t look away.
I’ve seen his artist hands at work for over three decades: working wood, canvas, and paper; wielding knives, brushes, and pencils. I remember us laughing about the nicks, cuts, stains and bruises; that was just part of the cost of being the type of artist he was.
Walking through the arches in Congo Square at Jazzfest, Africa-inspired images sticking up thirty feet in the air; that was Doug’s art. The Tamborine & Fan flyers from the seventies. The design of Ashe Cultural Center in the new millennium. All of that, Doug’s artwork. From drawings to drums, flyers to architectural designs, all graceful examples of his artistic efforts.
A squeamish part of me wanted to avoid confronting Doug’s deformed hands but I didn’t turn away because, well, because this was one moment when he needed me to look without embarrassment. He was sick. I was well. If he could look, I should be able to also. But it wasn’t easy. Observing a man weakened and suffering is difficult.
Doug was always slim, but now he is almost skeletal. And those black gloves with white stripes that looked like bones that Doug wears to cover the raw patches disfiguring his hands don’t help.
“What?” he asks.
I answer immediately, “I was asking what that lotion was.”
I could not help but think back a couple of weeks to when I was holding Doug, his hands shaking uncontrollably, his head toppling over and going down to the table top. As I had embraced him, I felt the retching wracking his body, but there had been nothing left to throw up. My left arm all the way around him, I used my right hand, thumb to ear and little finger next to my mouth, to motion for Carol to call the ambulance.
“Talk to me, Doug,” I implored but he was near unconscious. “Talk to me.”
When he mumbled a few words I breathed a bit easier. Eventually, with both my arms around him, he was able to stand and we had inched over to the sofa and he lay down.
I ran downstairs to make sure when the medics arrived they would be able to get into the locked bottom floor door, onto the elevator and up to #314. As I sat outside hearing a siren draw closer, I was thinking and thinking and thinking. And hurting. A month or so ago, Doug had had a seizure. The subsequent diagnosis was brain tumors. And lung cancer. Radiation treatment for tumors and now chemotherapy for cancer.
Doug had weathered the radiation, but the cost had been high. First they cut his locks. Soon the short hair disappeared, and then the scalp wrinkled leaving mini-hills and valleys rutting his skull, with only a small, horizontal tuff of hair remaining at the base where the back of the head hits the shoulders. Morbidly I wondered were those ridges solid or soft, but I had been neither brave nor invasive enough to reach out and finger the bumps.
After checking his vital signs (which were strong), the EMS techs assured us the reactions Carol and I were struggling to deal with were normal for chemo patients.
That’s life in New Orleans post-Katrina: everybody is valiantly trying to keep it together, everybody is dealing with some kind of trauma. Every extended family has someone ill who needs care, or someone who needs shelter, or someone who needs… there are so many needs. We just have to keep pushing.
I exhale, look over and smile at Doug standing there cupping a hand full of light-colored goo. “Yeah, that cocoa butter is good for your hands,” I said quietly.
Doug sat on the sofa and vigorously rubbed in the lotion. I sat up in the straight back chair. We were spending another of beaucoup hours with each other.
I pull the night shift and make sure that Doug takes his medication at 9pm. It’s hard. Hard for Doug to take the handful of pills, some of them the size of lozenges. His tongue has lost its normal taste, no food has an agreeable flavor. Something in the treatment has made his throat raw, even a tiny pill hurts to swallow. Radiation and chemo are killing good cells while trying to wipe out bad cells. To get well, Doug has to get sick.
As hard as it is for him, it’s also emotionally taxing for me. I gather myself everyday and take the elevator to the third floor to spend hours with my friend. I’ve been following this regime for over a month now. The routine will go on for who knows how long—I psyche myself up to share energy with Doug. Day in, day out. Over and over.
It’s hard but it’s beautiful.
As tired as I be when I drag home at night and force myself to work for another hour or so, getting to bed usually between midnight and 1am, no matter, I’m always ready for the next day, renewed by the goodness of sharing life and love with a man I love.
The Last Redd Light!
(a eulogy of sorts for Douglas Redd, December 1947 – July 2007)
What would you do if you knew
You were going to die tomorrow, or maybe
Just had a vague feeling that the knocking
At the door was a death rattle, or maybe
You just ached real bad and instead of words,
Moans slobbered sideways out your mouth? What
Would you do if your hand wasn’t working and
You couldn’t control your bladder
And just had to lay in whatever…, you know
What I’m saying?…
Life sometimes asks us some tough unanswerable questions like
What would you do if you failed the ultimate survival test?
His flesh was still soft.
I looked down on the calm of his face,
The peaceful repose was the… I can’t make it pretty,
I mean I could describe it with pretty words but
It would still be fucked up.
A man with whom I have spent most midnights
Over the last three hundred and some days,
I was in his presence even when he was too sick
To appreciate that I was there, now, his corpse
Was laying there, unmoving, untwisted, unhacked
By coughs and phlegm. He looked better
Than I’ve seen him for weeks. You know
It’s bad when a cadaver looks better
Than a fitfully breathing body.
When you say someone you love is dead
What do you mean?
Outside the sun was shining, inside,
All inside of me the sky was crying. I was standing
At the last Redd light.
THE ART AND LOVE OF DOUG
Art is the armor of the sensitive. A creative statement that gives to us (actually "gifts" to us) a vision of our environment not just as our neighborhoods and communities are (or were) but also the wonderfulness we might shape our world to become if we are brave enough to give birth to beauty.
Those iconic images Doug drew: we can be that. Walk the beauty walk. Live with our arms embracing each other. Uplifting the young. Beating back evil. Firm standing, deeply rooted people trees. Lovers of music and gesture, righteousness and each other.
Hundreds of thousands of us have gazed in astonishment upon the images Doug created. At Jazzfest we stepped through the spirit gates; thirty feet of elevated African presence, freestanding miraculously on an open field. We second-lined the city’s avenues waving a Doug designed rod, staff, basket or sash. Many of us have cards and letterheads that daily network our dreams and aspirations because Doug knew how to use a line or two or three to accurately convey the business that we hoped to be about doing.
God gave Noah the rainbow sign. God gave New Orleans Douglas Redd.
Beneath the bridge Doug hung banners to announce our revival. His signage proclaimed the profoundness of our dancing. We can not only say Ashe, we can see and assemble, fellowship and worship at Ashe because Doug understood the necessity of creating sacred, self-determined space. He was not only about adornment, he was also intimate with crafting essence circles.
Downtown in Treme where he learned to fly, there is Congo Square. Uptown in Central City where his tree fruited and flowered, there is Ashe Cultural Center. Everywhere there is beauty thanks to Douglas Redd.
Even when the butcher cuts down a mighty tree, as long as the fruit contains seeds that are planted into fertile earth, then the wood will continue to live.
Drawn onto paper, carved into driftwood, sculpted out of metal and bone, there is Doug. His hands. His eyes. His craft. His vision. But beyond all the things that man and woman, child and animal can see, beyond what is evident, there is an internal image indelibly hieroglyphed on our hearts. There. Inside us, beating red as our blood he is named after. There is where the true art of Douglas Redd resides. There, inside us all, there, will always be the art and love of Doug.
FROM THE OTHER SIDE
(To & From Brother Doug)
I speak to you from the other side, hear me
I speak through wind, through rain, sunshine is my smile
Sunset is my daily name, are you with me
I am with you, I am in you, I am you
When you gift a beggar with a dollar
When you build whatever needs building
You do not have to draw or paint to be me
Just do all of whatever you can do
I did me and when you do you
Then we be we, which means as long
As you stand strong we will never die
I come to you from the other side
The place where bullshit is not acceptable
Where backbiting is not tolerated
Where lies are never uttered
A place where love is not ashamed to love
Where love is never a weakness
A place where we are so beautiful
Precisely because we are always ourselves
And never someone else
Touch the other sides of our selves
The rainbow ride of our selves
The soft embrace protected by a proud fist of our selves
The my way is but one of many ways of our selves
The it is more important that your kiss be genuine
Than any concern about what consenting other you kiss
They never asked about sexual orientation
When they enslaved us and we had better not obsess
About sexual orientation if we are going to get truly free
The real question is are we honest about who we are
The real question is can each of us deal with honesty
I come to you from the other side
I advise you not to be afraid
I remind you that you can be both black and red
Be what you are and as beautiful as you want to be
Life is in your hands now
Love life, Use life, Live life, Be life
And pray that you will understand
That you will not fear struggle
That you will make your ancestors proud
That you will make your future beautiful
That you will stand up today, embrace the now
And be everything good you ever saw in me
I speak to you from the other side
Speak to me, I am listening
—kalamu ya salaam