Losing Miss Classie: Photographer Carol Guzy set out to capture a 104-year-old's last journey -- but along the way was captured herself

By Carol Guzy
Sunday, January 3, 2010; W10

The casket sat beneath a massive religious mural in a stunning Baltimore church. Like a tiny angel, the body of Classie Morant appeared to be glowing from within. For the last time, I kissed her cheek, painted with a wintry chill. The hands I had so often held were now folded under white gauze. She had kept her promise to the Lord, and he was taking her home. A home she will never have to leave.

The congregation honored Classie, describing her as a woman of extraordinary strength who had endured two world wars and a terrorist attack and lived through segregation to see Barack Obama become president. I sat in the last pew, missing her -- and distressed that I had been denied permission to photograph the touching service.

Death is not like in the movies. It isn't pretty and doesn't always come fast or easy, but rather like a slow withering. My role as a photojournalist was to document. Classie had respected that role and trusted me to follow her journey to life's greatest mystery. At a certain point, though most of the family wanted to honor Classie's wishes, two relatives requested new parameters: I could visit and write the story but no pictures. It wasn't too personal for Classie, it was too personal for them; and I had to respect that. For a visual storyteller, it was a difficult turn of events. I thought not even the greatest poet could find words to match the images of Classie that were never made.

***

When I met her while on assignment for a May 10, 2009, Magazine story about home health care, Clarice "Classie" Morant was a feisty little 104-year-old dynamo. Her 92-year-old sister, Rozzie Laney, had been aide Marilyn Daniel's client for 11 years. Classie had made a promise that, if given the strength, she would care for Rozzie until the end. She displayed a tender, unconditional devotion to her sibling, who suffered the ravages of Alzheimer's and had wasted to a state of complete dependency. Classie pureed Rozzie's food, slept in the same fraying pink-wallpapered room, changed her diapers in the night and remained steadfastly independent, refusing any thought of a nursing home for either of them.

Classie was a tough cookie and didn't easily accept strangers, especially ones with cameras. I had been warned to proceed with caution. She had a knack of quickly sizing people up, and if you didn't meet her standards, you were out on your butt. For whatever reason, she welcomed me as family. "You're one of the bunch now, honey," she declared.

I was with her on Dec. 31, 2008, when Rozzie passed -- in her own home, with Classie whispering, "You can go to sleep now." I thought that Classie still had lessons to teach, and I'd grown fond of her, so I continued to document, hoping to photograph her 105th birthday in late August.

After Rozzie's death, Classie curled up in her departed sister's bed, as if she were simply taking Rozzie's place in the universe. "God has given me a good life," she said. "Lived a long time. But when I go, I hope I go like Roz. Just go on to sleep." As medical staff had predicted, her health began to fail soon after. Without Roz, she lost her purpose. Until then, Classie had been puttering around and baking her famous peach cobbler, but now she would forget a pot on the stove. She seldom heard the phone ring anymore. And she would lock herself in as if it was Fort Knox.

The constants in her life were her caregivers: angels in practical shoes. They walked with her through the valley of the shadow of death -- the 23rd Psalm was a comfort -- and didn't flinch. Marilyn and neighbor Thelma Mobley served the family for a decade. Ann White, a family friend, covered the nights and called her "Sassy Classie." They reminisced with her about old times: fishing, dancing, catching boyfriends. They tended to her needs: cooking, singing hymns, carrying her and easing her heart when she was scared. "I would give you anything if you could just make me well," she told Ann.

They also faced cantankerous moments from the woman used to doing the giving, not the taking. Like many elderly people feeling a loss of power, Classie would lash out at those closest to her. A tantrum over Tylenol was particularly combative and quite out of character. From her time with Rozzie, she also knew all the tricks. She would hold the pills she didn't want in the back of her mouth until no one was looking, and they would find their way into a folded napkin destined for the trash.

Classie began facing her own mortality. She sent Ann looking for a pink outfit, presumably for her funeral. "She's giving up," Ann said, "a little more each day." Sometimes anxiety would overwhelm her, and she would repeat a phrase for hours. "Oh, Lordy" would reverberate through the house.

She witnessed things others couldn't see. She saw Roz at the door and frequently called out for her. An invisible black cat ran around her bed -- her former pet. The last name she shouted was "Mama!" According to a hospice minister, this is not uncommon; he says it is wrong to assume the dying are delusional or reeling from medication. When they seem to be deeply sleeping or agitated, that may actually be a life review. Sometimes they hold on, concerned about the welfare of remaining loved ones. They need permission to let go.

I tried to portray the honesty of Classie's decline yet maintain the dignity of her humanity. And I had managed a professional distance of sorts initially. But when I was asked to stop taking pictures and no longer had my lens as a shield, I completely lost my objectivity. Even hardened journalists would be challenged to hang on to that detachment in the wake of a Miss Classie. I became vulnerable to raw feelings; I, too, was losing someone I loved. I was left exposed, like film in the back of a camera that is opened too early.

My other senses became keen now that I was not on professional autopilot: feeling the texture of Classie's paper-thin skin, hearing her breathing change, growing aware of the ache of my heart breaking. My role changed. Lines blurred. I became more of a caregiver, even pitching in with diaper duty.

But, most of all, I was her friend. And she was like the grammy I never knew. She would say, "Good night, honey. I love you. ..." And I would cry all the way home.

***

Pictures not taken are records gone forever. Indelible images of her are etched in my mind: blowing kisses with an impish grin; the butterfly that landed on her arm as she sat on the porch with a magenta rose in her hair and the sky reflected in her eyes; the gentle hospice chaplain calming her with prayer; Ann's tears as she viewed her in the lavender coffin. But no one will see them.

The little things gave Classie the most pleasure: her porch, a nearby dove's nest, a bowl of grits, Ann's jokes. "Just sit here and hold my hand, honey," she said to me. And then her soft voice, "Have mercy on me, Lord."

The last night of Classie's life, she tenderly touched her niece Gloria's face, as if to imprint the image on her soul. It was a heartbreakingly beautiful picture that I couldn't take. Later, as I sat at her bedside, she reached up and also touched my face so lightly that it was like the kiss of a butterfly. I didn't realize then, but it was her goodbye to me.

The next morning, as Marilyn went about her routine, she tenderly hummed a lullaby and murmured, "Love you, baby." Color was fading from Classie's skin like an ancient family photograph. Her feet, usually cold, had a different kind of iciness. I pulled up her covers, for she had been frantically picking at her clothes, as if trying to shed her old weary body. Then Gloria and I began chatting. As Gloria started preparing lunch, I went to hold Classie's hand, and there it was -- the stillness. After all the ruckus of the past months, all the "Oh, Lordys," she passed quietly. Death came like a whisper.

But she died hearing the sounds of everyday life, and she got her wish, to just fall asleep like her sister, in the same bed. It was June 10, 2009, five months after Roz. "She floated away like a dove," Thelma said wistfully.

***

Just as I had held vigil at Classie's bedside all those months, I continued at her gravesite. I oddly worried that she was cold. She had always had the heat cranked up to sweltering heights. And it was hard to go and leave her all alone. Silly thoughts. But spending time at the cemetery proved to be cathartic, my therapy. I lay down in the grass for the first time in forever. A gentle evening light caressed the landscape, giving the flowers an ethereal glow like the one Classie had in the casket. I didn't need to photograph her body, I thought: This was the reflection of her soul's essence. Hope.

I grieved for Miss Classie and for the images that were never made. But the torture of those missed moments had led me to this place of serenity, and to what my shrink calls a "sacred pause." It all came into focus, as if a camera lens were turning to a point of clarity. So I started taking pictures -- of everything. The sheer joy of making images was irresistible, and no one could tell me to stop. Were the photos cliched? Yes. But you can't choose your epiphany. I would still have preferred to document her entire journey, because that's what we do: We tell stories, and Classie's was special. Yet graveside epiphanies are infinitely cheaper than a shrink.

So here it was. The reason. The loss of my little friend opened my eyes and taught me lessons. Photography is half of my heart, but the living part gets put aside with the frenetic business of documenting everyone else's lives. I thought this story would be Classie's legacy, but it was her final gift to me.

I looked around at all the other graves, wondering about their occupants' lives. Everyone has a story. I noticed a tattered flag that said "Mom." Then felt the guilt, realizing I had spent more time this year with Classie than with my own mother.

***

Two weeks later, I find myself in vigil again at the bedside of another fading life, holding my mother's frail hand in the hospital where I was born. My mom, my constant, the first who loved me. My heart. Watching her decline in those twilight days of end-stage Alzheimer's means facing the deepest, most primal of losses. At what point do you let go?

I am happy to hear her say anything, even: "Oh, shut up! You're full of baloney." Of course, the proper response is, "I love you, too, Mom." But she also says: "Take me home. I just want to go home and die." And my heart breaks. Again.

So another tenacious little dynamo is quieted by old age. Her skin pale. Her hands cold. All the signs I know so well. Please don't let her pick at her clothes, I pray. She talks to people who are not in the room. She sleeps like she's in a coma. The life review. "I'm so tired," she says. I tell her she can go to sleep now, that we will be all right. The permission.

I hold on to the lessons Classie taught me -- it's not pictures and Pulitzers that are most significant. It's loved ones. I've taken leave from work to walk through another valley during my mom's final journey. She doesn't recognize I'm her daughter, but she is aware that someone is paying her lots of attention. The aides paint her nails pink, and we go to activities at the nursing home. The Elvis impersonator was especially popular! Sometimes she still smiles. Small blessings. I pray that when death comes, it's a whisper.

Carol Guzy is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for The Washington Post.She can be reached at guzyc@washpost.com.

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