Blackness Be Spreadin All Inside -The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta knew nothing about her cells growing in a laboratory. After leaving the hospital, she went back to life as usual. She’d never loved the city, so almost every weekend she took the children back to Clover, where she worked the tobacco fields and spent hours churning butter on the steps of the home-house. Though radium often causes relentless nausea, vomiting, weakness, and anemia, there’s no record of Henrietta having any side effects, and no one remembers her complaining of feeling sick.
When she wasn’t in Clover, Henrietta spent her time cooking for Day, the children, and whichever cousins happened to be at her house. She made her famous rice pudding and slow-cooked greens, chitlins, and the vats of spaghetti with meatballs she kept going on the stove for whenever cousins dropped by hungry. When Day wasn’t working the night shift, he and Henrietta spent evenings at home, playing cards and listening to Bennie Smith play blues guitar on the radio after the kids went to sleep. On the nights Day worked, Henrietta and Sadie would wait until the door slammed, count to one hundred, then jump out of bed, put on their dancing clothes, and sneak out of the house, careful not to wake the children. Once they got outside, they’d wiggle their hips and squeal, scampering down the street to the dance floors at Adams Bar and Twin Pines.
“We used to really swing out heavy,” Sadie told me years later. “We couldn’t help it. They played music that when you heard it just put your soul into it. We’d two-step across that floor, jiggle to some blues, then somebody maybe put a quarter in there and play a slow music song, and Lord we’d just get out there and shake and turn around and all like that!” She giggled like a young girl. “It was some beautiful times.” And they were beautiful women.
Henrietta had walnut eyes, straight white teeth, and full lips. She was a sturdy woman with a square jaw, thick hips, short, muscular legs, and hands rough from tobacco fields and kitchens. She kept her nails short so bread dough wouldn’t stick under them when she kneaded it, but she always painted them a deep red to match her toenails.
Henrietta spent hours taking care of those nails, touching up chips and brushing on new coats of polish. She’d sit on her bed, polish in hand, hair high on her head in curlers, wearing the silky slip she loved so much she hand-washed it each night. She never wore pants, and rarely left the house without pulling on a carefully pressed skirt and shirt, sliding her feet into her tiny, open-toed pumps, and pinning her hair up with a little flip at the bottom, “just like it was dancin toward her face,” Sadie always said.
“Hennie made life come alive—bein with her was like bein with fun,” Sadie told me, staring toward the ceiling as she talked. “Hennie just love peoples. She was a person that could really make the good things come out of you.”
But there was one person Henrietta couldn’t bring out any good in. Ethel, the wife of their cousin Galen, had recently come to Turner Station from Clover, and she hated Henrietta—her cousins always said it was jealousy.
“I guess I can’t say’s I blame her,” Sadie said. “Galen, that husband of Ethel’s, he was likin Hennie more than he like Ethel. Lord, he followed Hennie! Everywhere she go, there go Galen—he tried to stay up at Hennie house all the time when Day gone to work. Lord, Ethel was jealous—made her hateful to Hennie somethin fierce. Always seemed like she wanted to hurt Hennie.” So Henrietta and Sadie would giggle and slip out the back to another club anytime Ethel showed up.
When they weren’t sneaking out, Henrietta, Sadie, and Sadie’s sister Margaret spent evenings in Henrietta’s living room, playing bingo, yelling, and laughing over a pot of pennies while Henrietta’s babies—David Jr., Deborah, and Joe—played with the bingo chips on the carpet beneath the table. Lawrence was nearly sixteen, already out having a life of his own. But one child was missing: Henrietta’s oldest daughter, Elsie.
Before Henrietta got sick, she took Elsie down to Clover every time she went. Elsie would sit on the stoop of the home-house, staring into the hills and watching the sunrise as Henrietta worked in the garden. She was beautiful, delicate and feminine like Henrietta, who dressed her in homemade outfits with bows and spent hours braiding her long brown curls. Elsie never talked, she just cawed and chirped like a bird as she waved her hands inches from her face. She had wide chestnut eyes that everyone stared into, trying to understand what went on in that pretty head. But she just stared back, unflinching, her eyes haunted with fear and sadness that only softened when Henrietta rocked her back and forth.
Sometimes Elsie raced through the fields, chasing wild turkeys or grabbing the family mule by the tail and thrashing against him until Lawrence pulled her off. Henrietta’s cousin Peter always said God had that child from the moment she was born, because that mule never hurt her. It was so mean it snapped at air like a rabid dog and kicked at the wind, but it seemed to know Elsie was special. Still, as she grew, she fell, she ran into walls and doors, burned herself against the woodstove. Henrietta made Day drive her and Elsie to revival meetings so preachers in tents could lay hands on Elsie to heal her, but it never worked. In Turner Station, sometimes Elsie bolted from the house and ran through the street screaming.
By the time Henrietta got pregnant with baby Joe, Elsie was too big for Henrietta to handle alone, especially with two babies. The doctors said that sending Elsie away was the best thing. So now she was living about an hour and a half south of Baltimore, at Crownsville State Hospital—formerly known as the Hospital for the Negro Insane.
Henrietta’s cousins always said a bit of Henrietta died the day they sent Elsie away, that losing her was worse than anything else that happened to her. Now, nearly a year later, Henrietta still had Day or a cousin take her from Turner Station to Crownsville once a week to sit with Elsie, who’d cry and cling to her as they played with each other’s hair.
Henrietta had a way with children—they were always good and quiet when she was around. But whenever she left the house, Lawrence stopped being good. If the weather was nice, he’d run to the old pier in Turner Station, where Henrietta had forbidden him to go. The pier had burned down years earlier, leaving tall wooden pilings that Lawrence and his friends liked to dive from. One of Sadie’s sons nearly drowned out there from hitting his head on a rock, and Lawrence was always coming home with eye infections that everyone blamed on the water being contaminated by Sparrows Point. Anytime Henrietta got word that Lawrence was at the pier, she’d storm down there, drag him out of the water, and whip him.
“Ooooh Lord,” Sadie said once, “Hennie went down there with a switch. Yes Lord. She pitched a boogie like I never seen.” But those were the only times anyone could ever remember seeing Henrietta mad. “She was tough,” Sadie said. “Nothin scared Hennie.”
For a month and a half, no one in Turner Station knew Henrietta was sick. The cancer was easy to keep secret, because she only had to go back to Hopkins once, for a checkup and a second radium treatment. At that point the doctors liked what they saw: her cervix was a bit red and inflamed from the first treatment, but the tumor was shrinking. Regardless, she had to start X-ray therapy, which meant visiting Hopkins every weekday for a month. For that, she needed help: Henrietta lived twenty minutes from Hopkins, and Day worked nights, so he couldn’t take her home after radiation until late. She wanted to walk to her cousin Margaret’s house a few blocks from Hopkins and wait there for Day after her treatments. But first she’d have to tell Margaret and Sadie she was sick.
Henrietta told her cousins about the cancer at a carnival that came to Turner Station each year. The three of them climbed onto the Ferris wheel as usual, and she waited till it got so high they could see across Sparrows Point toward the ocean, till the Ferris wheel stopped and they were just kicking their legs back and forth, swinging in the crisp spring air.
“You remember when I said I had a knot inside me?” she asked. They nodded yes. “Well, I got cancer,” Henrietta said. “I been havin treatments down at John Hopkins.”
“What?!” Sadie said, looking at Henrietta and feeling suddenly dizzy, like she was about to slide off the Ferris wheel seat.
“Nothin serious wrong with me,” Henrietta said. “I’m fine.”
And at that point it looked like she was right. The tumor had completely vanished from the radium treatments. As far as the doctors could see, Henrietta’s cervix was normal again, and they felt no tumors anywhere else. Her doctors were so sure of her recovery that while she was in the hospital for her second radium treatment, they’d performed reconstructive surgery on her nose, fixing the deviated septum that had given her sinus infections and headaches her whole life. It was a new beginning. The radiation treatments were just to make sure there were no cancer cells left anywhere inside her.
But about two weeks after her second radium treatment, Henrietta got her period—the flow was heavy and it didn’t stop. She was still bleeding weeks later on March 20, when Day began dropping her off each morning at Hopkins for her radiation treatments. She’d change into a surgical gown, lie on an exam table with an enormous machine mounted on the wall above her, and a doctor would put strips of lead inside her vagina to protect her colon and lower spine from the radiation. On the first day he tattooed two black dots with temporary ink on either side of her abdomen, just over her uterus. They were targets, so he could aim the radiation into the same area each day, but rotate between spots to avoid burning her skin too much in one place.
After each treatment, Henrietta would change back into her clothes and walk the few blocks to Margaret’s house, where she’d wait for Day to pick her up around midnight. For the first week or so, she and Margaret would sit on the porch playing cards or bingo, talking about the men, the cousins, and the children. At that point, the radiation seemed like nothing more than an inconvenience. Henrietta’s bleeding stopped, and if she felt sick from the treatments, she never mentioned it.
But things weren’t all good. Toward the end of her treatments, Henrietta asked her doctor when she’d be better so she could have another child. Until that moment, Henrietta didn’t know that the treatments had left her infertile.
Warning patients about fertility loss before cancer treatment was standard practice at Hopkins, and something Howard Jones says he and TeLinde did with every patient. In fact, a year and a half before Henrietta came to Hopkins for treatment, in a paper about hysterectomy, TeLinde wrote:
The psychic effect of hysterectomy, especially on the young, is considerable, and it should not be done without a thorough understanding on the part of the patient [who is] entitled to a simple explanation of the facts [including] loss of the reproductive function. … It is well to present the facts to such an individual and give her ample time to digest them. … It is far better for her to make her own adjustment before the operation than to awaken from the anesthetic and find it a fait accompli.
In this case, something went wrong: in Henrietta’s medical record, one of her doctors wrote, “Told she could not have any more children. Says if she had been told so before, she would not have gone through with treatment.” But by the time she found out, it was too late.
Then, three weeks after starting X-ray therapy, she began burning inside, and her urine came out feeling like broken glass. Day said he’d been having a funny discharge, and that she must have given him that sickness she kept going to Hopkins to treat.
“I would rather imagine that it is the other way around,” Jones wrote in Henrietta’s chart after examining her. “But at any rate, this patient now has … acute Gonorrhea superimposed on radiation reaction.”
Soon, however, Day’s running around was the least of Henrietta’s worries. That short walk to Margaret’s started feeling longer and longer, and all Henrietta wanted to do when she got there was sleep. One day she almost collapsed a few blocks from Hopkins, and it took her nearly an hour to make the walk. After that, she started taking cabs.
One afternoon, as Henrietta lay on the couch, she lifted her shirt to show Margaret and Sadie what the treatments had done to her. Sadie gasped: The skin from Henrietta’s breasts to her pelvis was charred a deep black from the radiation. The rest of her body was its natural shade—more the color of fawn than coal.
“Hennie,” she whispered, “they burnt you black as tar.”
Henrietta just nodded and said, “Lord, it just feels like that blackness be spreadin all inside me.”
Blackness Be Spreadin All Inside -The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks