For those of you who don't know me, I'm Mikey. I'm the little boy Kerry takes care of towards the end of She Can Fly. I'm also the author. I suppose that's a spoiler if you haven't read the book yet. I'm sorry, but clever literary devices don't seem all that important right now.
Kerry Keyes passed away Sunday night at the age of 63. The staff at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis kept her in relative comfort during her final days, but that's a big 'relative.' Upon reviewing her medical history, Kerry's doctor said, "I don't know how she's made it this long." See, Kerry's entire life has been a case study in the indomitability of the human spirit.
A decade of tortuous domestic abuse, two prison sentences, a rape and botched abortion - all of this before the age of 28, the age I am today. Then seventeen years spent living as a fugitive before being rearrested and, eventually, exonerated. But the scars never go away, and while the emotional pain may get better with time, the physical pain only gets worse.
You would think someone upstairs would say, "Okay, she's had enough," but fate had other ideas for Kerry. A necrotic bite from a brown recluse spider nearly killed her, and a stroke left her with a temporary verbal aphasia. One winter she slipped on an icy parking lot, landing hip-first on the curb. She dusted off the snow and went to work, hauling buckets of cleaning supplies up and down the stairs of a wealthy doctor's house. Despite the twisted spine featured on the cover of She Can Fly and a now growing pain in her leg, she had to keep working. Keep surviving.
That weekend she finally went to get an X-ray. The diagnosis? A fractured femur. The radiologist said, "I've seen grown men cry like babies with this injury. How did you continue to work?"
Kerry tilted her head at him. "What else was I supposed to do?"
So when Kerry went in for an emergency surgery last Saturday, everyone, including her, expected a full recovery. She called me in LA from her hospital room to explain the situation: instestinal ischemia, also known as 'dead bowels.' I talk to Kerry often on the phone and the previous time we had spoke, her voice was weak and shaky. She said she'd been having terrible stomach pains, most likely due to an unhealed esophageal tear that had been plaguing her for some time. To raise her spirits I told her about the message we had just received from a woman in Atlanta, saying She Can Fly had helped her leave an abusive situation. The message came in on the one year anniversary of publishing the book, and it more than justified all the hard work and vulnerability we had put into sharing Kerry's story.
As I told her the details of the woman's situation and the steps she had taken to escape with her children, Kerry's voice regained its usual tone, an almost child-like excitement. "Oh, honey, really?! That's so wonderful. I guess we did good, huh?" Kerry's always had the ability to 'shelf' her suffering for others. And this was no exception. Little did we both know, the ischemia was already spreading. While she was living for others, Kerry was literally dying on the inside.
After a second surgery on Tuesday night it was determined that nothing further could be done. The damage had spread too extensively. They would keep her comfortable while things "ran their course." A day or two at most, the doctor informed us. She would at least have a chance to see her four sons, her sisters and her mother.
I made it to St. Louis on the second day after her surgery and headed straight to the hospital. I was thankful her room was the first in the hallway. I didn't have a chance to lose it emotionally. Now it was my turn to keep it together for someone else. I found her hand under the blanket and her eyes found my face. "It's me, Kerry," I said. "It's Mikey." She smiled, and I stayed with her while the painful grimaces increased.
It was time for direct morphine. It was time for me to say goodbye. I kissed her head and told her I loved her. "You did good, Kerry," I said. "You can rest now." The nurses said the morphine would put her to sleep until the sepsis took over - most likely that night - but despite losing consciousness shortly after I left Kerry held on for three more days. Giving up just wasn't in her DNA.
Kerry's son Jermaine and I went to her apartment from the hospital to clear out her fridge. Her power was off due to an unpaid bill. Dwindling health and constant hospital visits made working difficult for Kerry. Proceeds from the book's sales helped a little, but She Can Fly was never about the money. There were more bills shoved into her drawers, surrounded by empty bottles of medication. The only thing that filled her apartment more than her hardships were her memories. We found boxes and boxes of photos. Of her family, her boys, her friends and all the people she's taken care of over the years - all familiar faces to me in the family you become apart of by being one of Kerry's 'adopted children.'
One photo in particular caught my attention. Kerry couldn't have been much older than 10, but it was her expression that grabbed me, a sort of emotional precociousness. At an age when a person's world should be full of wonder and joy, Kerry wore the face of someone who knew life was not going to be easy. There's a calm resolution present too, however. It makes you question whether some people were put on this Earth to demonstrate just how much pain humans are capable of enduring. But even at that age, Kerry knew her purpose was not simply to endure, but to care for others as well. And she was resolved to do just that. As she might say, "What else was I supposed to do?"
I don't remember my life before Kerry. I don't remember meeting her either, on her first day of work as my nanny. I'm told I ran to the top of the stairs in my footy pajamas and screamed, "IS SHE DOWN THERE?! GET HER AWAY FROM ME!" until my father scooped me up and carried me to breakfast. For an entire week this routine continued. Kerry was always down there. She never got discouraged by my protests. She simply did her job the best way she knew how - with steady love and care - and within two weeks she had won me over completely. An only child who always wanted a brother, I got something better in Kerry: a best friend.
Hers was the first telephone number I ever memorized, and to this day the first I dialed when I needed someone to talk to. Now I don't know who to call, so I tilt my head skyward and ask, "Is she up there?"
The answer, of course, is yes. Someone has to take care of the angels after all...
Though the final chapter in Kerry's life has been written, I am confident we have still only seen the beginning of the effect her story will have on the world. It is time to make abuse - in all its insidious forms - a problem of the past. We don't need anymore case studies. We don't need anymore martyrs. Cautionary tales like She Can Fly can show us the way, but it is only through proactive examples that we will be able to lay this pandemic to rest.
Please don't be a bystander. Share Kerry's story. Listen to those like it. And take a stand for those who can't. Now, more than ever.