The family circled around the hospital bed, the mother at the head.
Brenda Langley, 71, using a walker for two artificial hips and one metal knee, her purse as empty as a bill collector’s heart, put her hand on her son’s forehead.
John Wesley Smith, called “J.J.” all his 34 years of life, could no longer talk. He had HIV, his mother said – AIDS. He had been hospitalized for the last week after a month in the hospital in July.
His mother sat bedside every day.
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Brenda Langley is the Rock Hill mother who spent a lifetime cleaning nursing home rooms. Her oldest daughter, Kathy, was murdered five years ago after a life of hard living. The next day, a tree fell on Langley’s house and crushed it.
She did not run. She adopted Kathy’s three youngest kids and fought on, with son J.J. beside her. She fought through rents that could not be paid, lights about to be turned off and choices of food or heat. She went hungry so her grandchildren had Christmas toys. She always found a way. After a story in The Herald about her courage, a landlord donated a home for several months.
But months turned into years, and the reality of being broke is that, like HIV, it often is terminal.
In July, Langley was supposed to have a cataract removed from her eye. It cost money she did not have. The choice was food for her grandkids. She bought food first and walked on through life with her walker and one eye working and the other one a cloud. The rent was due, the light bill was overdue and the cupboards were almost barren.
“He helped me raise those young’uns – he never said no,” Langley said of J.J. “He was like a daddy to them. And when I was sick and having all those surgeries, he never left me. He was sick then and I didn’t know it. I don’t know about such things.”
There was talk in the hospital that J.J. was suffering so badly Langley would have to make a hard decision. The hardest.
“There was talk I should pull the plug,” Langley said. “I couldn’t do that to my son. I wouldn’t pull no plug on my boy.”
J.J. had seen a preacher days before, he had found Jesus, and his mother and sister said he was saved right then and there as he lay in the bed.
“I knowed he was going, so I put my head on top of his head, and I said, ‘Jesus is waitin’ on you, and Kathy is, too,’” Langley told her son who could not speak.
She said he lifted his head, somehow, a little bit. His mouth found a smile from the depths of love unseen.
“It was like he moved his mouth, like he was tryin’ to say something,” Langley said.
With his mother’s hand on his forehead, J.J. Smith’s eyes fluttered. His chest heaved one last time.
“And then my son was gone,” Langley said. “He died right that minute.”
It was four minutes to 8 at night, Tuesday.
Then through the tears, Brenda Langley had to look in the mirror there in the hospital, and she realized again that she was a matriarch whose strength would be tested. She did not have a dime to put her son in the ground.
A family mourns
J.J. Smith had a daughter and three siblings – including his dead sister, Kathy, who was shot to death by a boyfriend in 2011.
“My momma loved him,” said Kathy’s son, Jamie Ballard. “He loved her, too. J.J. loved all of us. He was like a father to me.”
Ashley Taylor, J.J.’s sister who lives in Georgia, where she is raising her three kids and working so hard to give them a life, said her brother was a kind soul. Ashley had rushed back to Rock Hill when she heard the end was near.
“He was a good brother, a good son, loving to the kids,” Taylor said. “The last time he could really see, I asked him if he wanted to see momma. He nodded his head. He lifted up his head and he turned toward the door and he saw her and he laughed and he smiled so big.
“And then when he was surrounded by his family and he tried to say something and he smiled, and then he went home,” Taylor said.
J.J’s older brother, also named John – John Whitesides – said J.J. was a good person.
“I stood there in that room and I told my brother that I loved him,” John Whitesides said. “And then I watched my brother die.”
Thursday morning, sleepless for so long, Brenda Langley and her grandson Jamie and her daughter Ashley went to Parker Funeral Home on Saluda Street. Parker buried Langley’s daughter Kathy five years before, when so many people she had worked with for so long at White Oak Manor nursing home and other places chipped in money to pay for the funeral and the burial in Rock Hill’s Barber Memorial Cemetery.
But the hip and knee surgeries and all the other problems have left Brenda Langley unable to walk much, let alone clean toilets and sheets at a nursing home.
Still, she told the funeral home people she would get them their money, somehow. She signed a paper saying so.
And then she went home, and she used her walker to go up the cracked steps of her house on Cummings Street. She sat on the second-hand couch.
And she cried again.
“I can’t understand why death didn’t come for me first, why it skipped me and took my daughter and now my son,” Langley said. “At the end, he was just trying to survive. His organs was shuttin’ down. He just died right there. Now I just want to get him buried and send him to heaven where Jesus and his sister are waiting for him.”
Want to help?
Parker Funeral Home is accepting donations to help pay for funeral expenses. It is located at 870 Saluda St., Rock Hill; 803-329-1414.