Frequently I say “Mornin’ Mack. How you doing?” when I walk by the photo above that hangs in my office. At other times I have been known to say “I know Mack, I shouldn’t have done that” or simply “I miss you man”.
Mack Jones Pettigrew was one of the best friends of my life. He died in 1994. We met when we both worked at the same place in 1975 and for the next 19 years we became closer and closer friends. The time we became the closest was during his illness. In typical Mack J. style he made that time uniquely memorable.
The time is clear in my mind when in 1988 I met Mack for lunch on a workday as I frequently did. He was quieter and less animated than usual and mentioned he did not feel well. Close to the end of lunch Mack looked up at me with tears in his eyes and said something like “I’m really sick man. I gonna to die and I haven’t told anyone until now. Not even my Mama. I’m scared”. I was dumbfounded and did not know what to say but asked “what’s going on”. He proceeded to explain that it had all started with sickle cell anemia and now had turned into full blown leukemia of an incurable type. I wanted to know if there was treatment that could help and Mack said there were only things that could buy him time. Nothing else.
To know the man that Mack had been prior to his illness would be to describe a good man with some bad habits. Frequently cash flow challenged he cut corners that were not always legal but never of the sort that gets a person in serious trouble. His life was also a constant flow of women. He had been married for a few years to someone he truly loved and the union produced a child that was dear to him. His bad habits caused the downfall of the marriage and at the time he became ill he had been single for close to 10 years. I knew his faults and I knew his heart too.
Over lunch the day he told me he was sick, he explained that the Doctors told him he had 12 to 18 months to live. But, if he would clean his act up, stay on a strict diet and get serious daily exercise he could buy himself time. And buy himself time is what Mack did. He became extraordinarily picky with his diet and he committed even more to working out.
Three years passed and it was hard to know Mack was ill. He seemed so healthy and normal except when his pancreas would be hurting and he’d put his hand over that spot. He became a serious body builder and as you can see from the photo above he was handsome with his rippling muscles and killer smile. Mack went on to take every state of Ohio title for body building for 40+ men. I remember sitting in the audience watching him flex and show off on stage looking so vibrant and filled with vigor. I knew what others in the audience did not know: My friend was dying.
Mack became one of the most loving, caring and gentle souls I have ever known during the seven years he lived from the onset of his illness. That’s almost 4 times what the doctors originally predicted! During those years he always hugged me when he first saw me and again when we parted. Mack also always told me he loved me each time just before we went our separate ways. It was with him that I adopted that habit where today I hug those men and women dear to me before leaving. It is an enduring legacy of my friend who taught me it’s OK to show how I felt.
During those years of his illness we had some long and deep conversations that I learned so much from. Once he said to me something similar to “You will never know what it’s like to be black. Every day I am reminded what color I am and it’s been going on since I was little. Some days it’s how people look at me or how they treat me. Other days I remind myself when I look in the mirror and notice the color of my skin”. He gave me that perspective and much more I would never have acquired had Mack not been my friend.
The last year of his life he took a job down south and I only saw him once. We talked on the phone every 2 or 3 weeks and he always told me he was doing well. Even though I knew he was ill, it just seemed like Mack was going to just keep going and going.
That’s what I thought until I got a call on Wednesday March 16, 1994 from his ex-wife who said he had been in the hospital for over two weeks and had come home to die. I learned she was breaking her word to call me as Mack had made her promise not to until he was gone. He did not want me to worry and be upset. She said she knew how close we were and just couldn’t keep what was going on from me any longer. I broke every speed limit getting to the hospital and when I got there my old friend was no longer conscious. But when his wife called his name and told him I was in the room he moved and tried to raise his head even though he was unconscious. He knew I was there.
So for the next few hours I sat on one side of the bed and his wife on the other (he remarried her in the hospital so she could receive benefits). I held Mack’s right hand and she was held his left as he struggled for breathe. To glance at the man who lay there all rippling with muscles it was difficult to grasp what was going on. Over about three hours the breaths became slower and slower until there were no more.
Mack was as an MP in the army when he was young and was always proud of his service. It came as no surprise that he had told his wife that he wanted to be buried in a Veteran’s Cemetery. And so he was on Monday, March 21, 1994. Rest in peace my dear friend. The tears I have shed writing this are for the joy of having known you and for what you taught me with your courage and caring. I will love you always and be grateful for the gift you were to my life. Happy Memorial Day Mack. ”Ciao, ciao”
Pettigrew, Mack Jones, b. 06/20/1951, d. 03/16/1994, US Army, PVT, Res: Fairborn, OH, Dayton National Cemetery- Plot: 25 0 862, bur. 03/21/1994