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