My serendipitous Maryland playground meeting with Safi Ingram, the Savannah real estate agent, turned out to be a life-changing event for Connie and me. We’d already decided to explore Savannah as a possible retirement home, having been somewhat smitten with its history and charm during our occasional day visits from our time–share in nearby Hilton Head, South Carolina. As we began our “exploratory” trip, in early September 2005, I emphatically decreed to Connie that we were only going “to look it over; we’re not going to buy anything.”
Famous last words. I was wrong, very wrong. We met with Safi, warm and exuberant, and looked at several possible future homes. We never intended to buy on this exploratory trip, but – by the end of our second day — we’d made an offer to purchase what became our new Savannah home. It was a two-story, brick home on a quiet tree-lined street in a pastoral subdivision situated in west Chatham County. We looked at one another in that silent agreement known all too well between partners. We knew that we had found our new home.
Things moved even more quickly once the homeowners accepted our offer. In fact, within a month, we had sold our Maryland home – for more than our asking price –– and we three, including our Welsh Springer Spaniel, Tango, took possession of our new Savannah home on October 25, 2005.
Our decision to leave Maryland wasn’t an easy one emotionally. We had lived there for over 30 years, developed a wonderful network of friends and colleagues, and were active in our church and community activities. My good friend Melvin Brown and I regularly met over coffee for male-bonding sessions. My son, Scott, now 43 and well into adulthood, was having a plethora of personal problems. While these problems were beyond my immediate control, privately I felt as if I was abandoning him. Other than Safi Ingram, who became one of our most cherished friends, we didn’t know a soul in Savannah.
That would soon change.
DOCTOR, LAWYER, MINISTER
A friend once counseled me that, upon arrival in a new city, one should quickly seek a doctor, for any medical needs; a lawyer “just in case;” and a minister for our spiritual side. I took his advice to heart, particularly in light of my “under-functioning kidney.” I used the Internet to find nephrologist Dana A. Kumjian.
Dr. K. and I clicked. He was cheerful, upbeat, and straight–forward. He was thorough and carefully explained each item on the hard copy of my lab results. Sometimes, I got a smiley face of approval, just like in grade school. He also refused to attend my “pity party,” about my inability to receive a kidney transplant.
Unlike my D.C. nephrologist, Dr. K believed I was a good candidate for a kidney transplant and referred me to both Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, and the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, Georgia, for further evaluation. Dr. K. defined his treatment goal as to keep me off kidney dialysis until I could receive a transplant. It’s called a preemptive transplant.
Years later, Dr. K. told me that he was amazed that at our initial meeting I was so clueless about the dire nature of my condition. My condition was far more serious than I realized; I might need dialysis within months.
I felt that I was in good hands with Dr. K. I began to believe that our move to Savannah was far more fortuitous and life-changing than Connie and I had expected.
I’m a Type A personality. I hate waiting. Hate it. So imagine waiting for a kidney transplant as your condition declines.
Both Mayo and the MCG exhaustively evaluated my medical, psychological, social, and financial conditions. Each found me suitable for a kidney transplant and placed me on it’s transplant waiting list. Interestingly, my age — I was 74 then — by itself, wasn’t a disqualifying factor, at all. I had no other potentially disqualifying conditions: heart disease, diabetes, recent cancer, etc. Doctors at each transplant facility stressed the inherent risks of a transplant, that it wasn’t a cure, that on average, a deceased person’s transplant lasted an average of nine to ten years in this region of the country. Waiting time for a kidney transplant was about three to three–and–a–half years.
One doctor took his informed consent evaluation very seriously. Moving within what seemed inches of my face, he somberly asked, “And finally, Mr. Johnson, do you realize that you could die as a result of this surgery?” Sobering, but, yes, I knew and accepted that possibility.
Money was also a consideration. Mayo, for example, required that its post-transplant patients and caregivers remain within a half hour of the hospital for five weeks so that they could be carefully monitored. Those expenses were not covered by insurance. And we didn’t know anyone in the Jacksonville area. This transplant business was going to be an expensive proposition.
Once again, in what I was becoming to believe was my charmed life, fate smiled on me. My Maryland retirees’ health insurance carrier was changed; my new policy included expenses for transplant travel, meals, and lodging. Wow!
Black people are disproportionately afflicted with underlying conditions, conditions that can lead to kidney failure and the need for a kidney transplant. Blacks awaiting transplants die disproportionately, in part, because they lack the resources to have transplants. My kidney disease was a perfect example of what can happen to a Black person’s health; my access to good insurance for a transplant was not typical.
I settled into my routine of waiting. I had no available compatible potential live donors among my family and friends. There were – and are — far more people awaiting transplants than there are kidneys available. Hundreds of people die each day waiting for a kidney transplant.
I had to wait my turn – and hope that I would not become one of those death statistics. My kidney function steadily declined. Dialysis was an increasing possibility for me; I even went ahead and had a surgical access port created in my left arm to facilitate dialysis if and when it was needed.
Meanwhile, life continued.
Then, at about 9 p.m. on February 16, 2009, after 2½ years on Mayo’s kidney transplant, I received a call from Mayo’s transplant procurement coordinator. Her excitement was palpable. “Oh, you’ve got a good one!” she said. I didn’t know what she meant by “good” and I did not ask. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that I was going to get a kidney transplant.
It took a moment for everything to sink in. I was excited, happy, grateful, humbled, fearful. I also felt guilty. Someone — I didn’t know who because of the anonymity of the process — had died suddenly, giving me a new lease on life. Was I worthy of this precious gift? Contrary to the coordinator’s advice to “get a good night’s sleep,” I didn’t. Connie and I joined in a prayer of thanksgiving, for peace for the deceased and his family, and for the skill of our transplant team. Several years later, I inadvertently learned that my donor was a 19-year-old Black kid from a Southern city.
We were treated like royalty on our 6 a.m. arrival at Mayo’s emergency room; it looked like an upscale hotel lobby. Everyone was waiting for us, from security, to the admissions clerk, to the nursing staff in my huge room — that included a full-sized, pull-out bed for Connie. They wanted her on hand to alleviate our anxiety and to be available should an emergency arise.
Nurses, technicians and others swarmed over me in what was clearly well–rehearsed protocol. I was cleared for surgery, but when unrelated issues resulted in a delay, my surgeon. Dr. Darrin Willingham, brought Connie to stay with me in the surgical suite. Imagine my surprise when they talked, not about my pending surgery, but about the relative merits of Costco’s steaks. Truth be told, it reassured me that Dr. W. was that confident of a favorable outcome.
The surgery was relatively uneventful; my new kidney started functioning right away. Hooray!
Prior to discharge from 5he hospital five days later, I was given a bedside quiz: Identify each of seven or eight transplant medications, its dosage, and purpose. They wouldn’t release me to stay in an adjoining hotel until I could do so.
We stayed in that hotel for the next five weeks. Granddaughter, Troi; my daughter Alison; and other family members and friends visited me in quick one-day turnaround visits from Savannah and elsewhere. Though weakened from the surgery and not good company, I was humbled and appreciative by their expressions of love and concern for both me and Connie.
Other than a re-hospitalization later that year for excessive fluid in my kidney, my recovery was relatively uneventful, at least by Mayo transplant standards. Over the years, I’ve had a few other transplant crises, which were successfully treated.
Lesson learned. Our future is not guaranteed, especially at 88 years, but my transplant reached its twelfth birthday in February 2021. I sent my Mayo transplant team a note of appreciation, and hoped that I was worthy of that young man who gave me this gift of life.
NEW FRIENDS AND ACQUAINTANCES
Our move to Savannah was the first long distance relocation we had ever made. We had to adjust to a new home, new neighborhood, new city, and a new culture. I’d read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a non-fiction novel that many say defines the city’s peculiar mix of Southern grace and secrets. I’d read it primarily for entertainment, but now we’d have to learn about the city on our own. It was an adventure that continues to this day.
First impressions? The warmth of the city’s residents. Total strangers, often greeted us with a nod or a smile. Maybe this talk about Southern hospitality was real after all. Second, traffic was very light. Unlike D.C., rush hour traffic was so light that I took pictures and sent them to family and friends elsewhere. Our neighbors in our upper middle class, predominantly white community, were warm and friendly. After we moved in, one came to our front door with a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies.
We joined our subdivision’s clubhouse and took full advantage of its well-equipped fitness center, outdoor pool, dining room, and a seniors’ bridge group and men’s group. We met several fairly enlightened people, white, but generally there seemed to be an unwritten agreement to avoid the third-rail of social discourse – in Savannah and elsewhere – race.
In a much–appreciated act of kindness, following our return home from my transplant, several friends from the clubhouse joined together and treated us to a week of catered dinners.
It was through the clubhouse that we met two other Black couples – Cliff and Di Broadnax and Lou Fair and Blenda Wilson. We’d all been raised in the North in humble circumstances and became our own unspoken Black caucus. We often joked about the irony of six Black folks enjoying the subdivision’s amenities of this upper middle class, overwhelmingly white clubhouse.
Unlike most of my neighbors, I never flew an American flag until after the 2008 presidential election, when I told a group of my white friends at the clubhouse that now, with Barack Obama elected president, I could fly the flag Why? Because America was my country, too. One of the group, an active duty Army helicopter pilot, asked whether I’d fly a flag if I had one. Sure, I said. A few days later, he came to our home and presented me with his American flag, flown during his recent tour in Afghanistan. I fly it to this day. Some friends look at it and say, “You?” and I explain about this story of helicopter pilot, Afghanistan, and Barack Obama.
Blacks, like us, who’ve “made it,” superficially at least, in a white-dominated society are skillful at navigating that world, while holding our heads high and maintaining our integrity. We know that, but for our common residential circumstances, many of these people would regard us disparagingly. We can never forget where we came from. We are no more than the least of us.
My friend’s counsel about seeking a doctor, lawyer, and minister, upon arriving in a new town, left out another important occupation – one that’s crucial for a guy like me, who still has a full head of hair. A barber.
Connie inadvertently solved that problem when, a week or so after our arrival, she got lost and sought directions at a nearby barber shop. It was a Black-owned barber shop named “Bee Smooth” on nearby Ogeechee Road. She was so excited by her discovery that she called me immediately.
That serendipitous event marked the beginning of my 15-year relationship with Malcolm and Lenny, my barbers. For me, as with most Black men, the barber shop is a community center. It’s where we learn what’s going on in the street. For me, I learned about such important street matters as allegedly crooked cops and that someone wasn‘t around because he was “away” (incarcerated).
A normal 30-minute haircut easily took at least an hour at Bee Smooth.. They didn’t hold it against me that I had been a career prosecutor. To the contrary, they knew my progressive stance on social issues and, in fact, admired my ability to excel in a hostile, white-dominated society.
One day, while waiting my turn at Bee Smooth, I was musing about how I missed my guy-talk meetings with my Maryland friend, Melvin Brown. A local dentist, Mark Stewart, was getting his hair cut, and as I waited for my turn, we became engaged in an extended conversation on living in Savannah and sundry social issues. As we left to go our separate ways, Mark invited me to join him for lunch. Our lunches soon became regular. Mark encouraged me to apply for membership in the 100 Black Men of Savannah, a well-regarded youth–mentoring organization.
I was honored by the invitation. I knew of the 100 Black Men, a national organization, from my days in New York City. It was very prestigious; its members included such luminaries as Jackie Robinson ,; Dave Dinkins, a future New York City mayor and also a Howard graduate; future Congressman Charlie Rangel; and others. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever consider being even indirectly associated with these legendary Black men.
Cliff Broadnax and I, followed shortly afterward by Lou Fair, joined the 100 Black Men of Savannah in 2006.
Meanwhile, Safi Ingram, our realtor, became one of our dearest friends and remains so to this day. At a holiday social gathering, Safi introduced us to Tammy Stokes, a sitting Savannah Recorders Court judge. Tammy and I became good friends and she encouraged me to join the Port City Bar Association, Savannah’s Black bar association. There I met another judge who has become a valued confidante, Judge James F. Bass of the Chatham County Superior Court.
Within a year of our arrival in Savannah, initially knowing no one but Safi Ingram, our network of friends and acquaintances had expanded to include many people, Black and white, from all walks of life.
Yes, Maryland would always be our home. But for this, perhaps, the closing chapter of our lives, Savannah is where we belong. We feel a part of this vibrant, complicated, but welcoming city.
TAGS: Next. 29. Loss, the “Fish Rule”, Mentoring
© 2021. Lloyd A. Johnson. All rights reserved.