My first encounter with Mr. Pewu* occurred on a dreary Saturday in March 2002. The brother of my daughter’s best friend was getting married and I was in town to attend the wedding. My daughter said we had to stop by the African restaurant that we often visited “to pick up a friend”. As I visited with friends who worked at the restaurant, out of the kitchen bounded a broadly smiling, sharply dressed, and energetic young man who greeted me with a friendly, “How are you, Miss Alice?” as if he had known me forever. And, right there I began to know this remarkable person, Pewu.
Depending on the situation, Pewu and I had different roles for each other. When we were having philosophical discussions we each took turns being the pupil and/or the teacher. He taught me about his culture and I taught him about mine. He was surprised that we, too, had very large extended family and that we gathered to support each other in times of trouble. He was a participant in that process two years ago when we lost my God-sister’s husband to cancer. Pewu sat with us in the Hospice Unit, and like us, fetched and carried food and ran errands; he drove us to the wake, to the funeral and to the cemetery; and he comforted and held us when we had meltdowns and cried. Sometimes we were like mother and son and we talked about mother and son things. Most often, though, we were friends. We were comfortable doing yard work together at their house or mine; watching a movie together and me falling asleep in the middle and waking up at the end; watching the news and having discussions about it; and going to Wal-Mart too often and buying stuff we both could have done without. We were excited about job interviews, interim jobs, and milestones in therapy, family visits, and any other reason to celebrate. We laughed a lot - at ourselves - and at each other - and it felt good.
On a lighter note, just the way Pewu said things
made one stop and think and smile. Bearing this in
mind, picture trying to get him to say all things
Texan. It was a labor of love and laughter - by all
of us - and Pewu seemed the most amused. I believe
he worked hardest at saying, “Y’all”,
which means “you all”. But no matter how
hard he tried or how often he said it, it did not
come out Texan. He and I had our biggest falling out
because he referred to the family as, “You people…”
Oh, I was so offended and we had a heart-to-heart
discussion about that! From our discussion, I learned
that all Liberians say “You people…”
and he learned why I was so offended. If he had only
said, “Y’all”, there would not have
been a problem!
Pewu loved good food but was not too eager to try foods or restaurants that were not familiar. But if he could be convinced to taste something new, usually he would like it. He called these tasting sessions, “more Americanization of Pewu”. We learned that he really liked Mexican Cornbread, Creole Seafood Gumbo, Plain Cornbread, Garlic-Cheese Biscuits, home cooked Fried Jumbo Shrimp, Okra-Sausage-Tomato Gumbo, Patti Labelle’s Over the Rainbow Macaroni and Cheese, homemade and restaurant Barbeque, homemade Buttermilk Pie, and homemade Pecan Pie. During the weeks prior to and following Zachary’s birth, I lived with Pewu and Alisa. I cooked and they ate. Pewu swore that he had to have his clothing altered because of it. In the meantime, he was cooking his favorite Liberian dishes that we were enjoying, too. I put on a few pounds, myself.
On December 12, 2003, the day that his second son was born, Alisa had to be at the hospital at 5:45 AM. Pewu had just started a new job, so after we were settled in, he went to work. Zachary Duyen Johnson Pewu arrived before noon that day, looking just like his daddy. Needless to say, Pewu and Alisa had made me the happiest Grandma on the planet. I immediately called Pewu to give him birth information and a description of his son. The best description I could give was, “He looks just like you”. When he saw Zachary, he knew that the description was totally accurate.
It was heartwarming to watch Pewu and his young son, Zachary. He went from being apprehensive about picking him up, to changing diapers and giving baths. They played and as Zachary grew, they danced. They read books and Pewu even tried to sing a nursery rhyme or two. In my opinion, Pewu was the consummate father and I loved him for that, too.
Pewu’s last year was agonizing and trying. When he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in February, I was convinced that he would make a full recovery. That was my position and I was sticking to it! I beat that drum until the very end. His first course of chemotherapy was pretty uneventful. As a nurse, my assessment of his progress was that he would be just fine. Near the end of the second course of chemotherapy, he seemed to feel worse than ever before. But lab reports still looked good and, to me, it was still possible that he would recover. Through all of this, Pewu seldom complained. It was as if he had been given the strength for God’s perfect will to be done. The fact that Pewu was placed on a ventilator and I saw it breathing for him did not alter my opinion about his prognosis. I had consulted a Higher Authority and my position was not shaken. Not until the day that I stood beside his bed and watched him peacefully slip away, did I concede that it was God’s perfect will that he be transformed to another place.
Pewu spent the last three years of his life as a member of my immediate and extended family. Firsthand, I saw his unconditional love for his children (Deion and Zachary), his abiding love for his family - those near (Alisa and Zachary and me) and afar (the family across the United States and in Liberia), his generosity to others, his quiet and deep spirituality, his quest for knowledge, and his hopes and love for his native country, Liberia. And, while three years seems like such a short time, we are grateful for the time with him that we were given. We are all better for having known and loved him.
Because parents do not expect to survive their children,
Pewu’s departure from this life is very painful
for me. It makes my heart hurt. I miss our Pewu -
my son, my pupil, my teacher, and my friend. I miss
seeing him. I miss talking to him. I miss laughing
with him. I miss watching him and Alisa interact with
Zachary. But I do know that as long as we speak his
name, and have memories of him, and see him in our
Zachary, he will always be with us. He is always in
So, while I may be sad for my own losses, I can be joyful that on October 2, 2005, Pewu’s suffering ended and he has gone to live eternally in a new, glorified - and perfect - body.