The woman walked, slowly, with help from the grandchildren she had adopted when their mother was murdered, toward the grave. Somehow, Brenda Langley did not fall.
Her son. John Wesley “J.J.” Smith, 34, was in the casket. She had sat at his bedside for weeks, as he withered. He died Tuesday night from AIDS.
Brenda Langley went home that night without a nickel to bury him.
But Smith did get buried, and he did have a funeral fit for a human being, because the readers of The Herald decided that he must.
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The story of his death and his mother’s despair at being in the most common of all predicaments – broke – was published in Wednesday’s edition and online. By Friday morning, more than $2,000 had been donated.
“This one man, he comes in and he hands me a thousand dollars and he says to put it toward that man’s funeral who was in the newspaper,” said Charles Parker of Parker Funeral Home. “He turned around and left.”
Another man arrived with $500. The guy was holding the newspaper, nearly transparent with moisture from his tears that had fallen on it.
“Bury that man the best you can,” the man said.
He turned on his heels and got in his gray Buick LeSabre and drove away.
Others arrived at Parker Funeral Home with $100 and $50, and $20. A woman pulled into the lot, who was 90 if she was a day, driving a Pontiac Bonneville made when Bill Clinton was president in the mid 90s. There wasn’t a hubcap on it, and the paint was a rumor.
The lady strode up the ramp to the funeral home like Queen Victoria past the guards into Buckingham Palace.
“I’m here to help,” the lady stated louder than any bullhorn in a fog.
She held out an envelope with $100 in it. She spoke of a world where old ladies are living broke with their kids murdered and dying from HIV and the courage to not quit. She was not happy that in America, such suffering exists.
“I ain’t got much, but what I got I offer with all my heart,” she said.
She marched back down the ramp and got in her old Pontiac and readied to pull out of the lot. She didn’t look either way, not even a glimpse, as she roared onto Saluda Street in Rock Hill where she said she had lived all her life and as long as she was living here still, no momma was going to not be able to bury her son “decent.”
During the short funeral at Parker Funeral Home Friday afternoon, the Rev. Billy Wilson, a bishop who did not know Smith but was sure going to offer his very best for a family that needed him, spoke of the Greek “agape” kind of love from centuries past. It’s the kind of love that is shared, with a community, that buried J.J. Smith by its generosity and its love.
The burial was at Barber Memorial Cemetery, owned by the city. The city of Rock Hill is not digging a grave without payment to open the hole and close it again and pay for the spot even if the pope is in the casket. Parker was able, through all those donations, to pay the city its money. The hole was dug.
Langley cried at the graveside alongside her surviving children and grandchildren and then walked with help back to the limousine provided by Parker Funeral Home. She said she had lived in Rock Hill “all my life, 71 years.”
She cried at the thought of a son having no funeral, and lying cremated in a box at the county corner’s office in a dark closet because she was too poor to bury him.
She had refused to “pull the plug,” or end her son’s life, when the end was imminent Tuesday. He finally died on his own, with her head on his face.
“No way I could burn up my boy,” Langley said.
She stopped so she could address the help that strangers gave her.
“My boy got a decent funeral, and burial,” Langley said. “I appreciate it. I hope some day I get the chance to help somebody like they helped me. I thank everybody. My son just went to see Jesus in heaven, and this whole town sent him there.”