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Beneath an Angel's Wings: My Story of Struggle and Longtime Survival, Part Two

August 19, 2011

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Occasionally we here at are lucky enough to hear from readers who've volunteered to craft their own articles sharing their stories and thoughts. This is one of those articles.

Read Part One of Jessie's two-part story.

Jessie Irene Snyder

Jessie Irene Snyder

"I was born April 2, 1973. I am a 38-year-old college student at Nashville State Community College where I am pursuing a career as a medical secretary. I have lived with HIV for 24 years and AIDS for 17 years. I contracted HIV from a blood transfusion in 1987 when there was very little known about the disease. I was only 14 years old and told by the doctors that I probably wouldn’t live to see my 18th birthday; and yet here I am, still very much alive and healthier than I have ever been. I have two children: one girl who would be 24 on November 23, 2011, if she were still alive; and one son who will be 29 on July 29, 2011. This is my story on how I have lived almost a quarter of a century with this horrible disease."

Carlton and I decided to get married on April 3, 1999, for the sake of my daughter, so she would have a father before she died. We didn't get married for love, for God knows what we had wasn't love. We had a lot of problems in our relationship. However, we managed to act like a family.

Then in September I decided I was going to try to get clean. I went through the VITA (Vanderbilt Institute for the Treatment of Addiction) outpatient program at Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital. I completed the program; on my graduation day I tested negative for cocaine and received my medallion. I walked across the campus to the children's clinic, where my mother was with my daughter. There was a Department of Children's Services (DCS) worker there to give me a drug screen. She said I tested positive for cocaine. I told her that was impossible since all I did was walk across the campus. However, she wrote in her report that I tested positive. They admitted my daughter into the hospital that day, and she spent seven days there. When she was released there was another DCS worker there to take my daughter away from me and place her in foster care. I never regained custody of her after that, and she died in a foster care home.

After they took my daughter away from me, I relapsed. On Dec. 31, 1999, I had been up all night smoking crack. It was around 8 in the morning. I had just put a big hit on my pipe when the telephone rang. It was Carlton's aunt; she said that she had some bad news. She told me that they had found my mother dead in her apartment. I dropped the phone and started screaming hysterically. It couldn't be true; the last time I saw my mother alive we had gotten into a big argument. I yelled at her, and I didn't even tell her I loved her.

There were some people staying with us, and they agreed to give us a ride to my mother's house, so we could identify the body. When we arrived, the police and coroner were already there. They told Carlton that my mother's body had already started to decay. She had been dead for approximately three days and the heat was set on 90 degrees. So he went in and identified her body. He tried to keep me from going in there, but I'm the kind of person that, if I didn't see it for myself, I wouldn't believe it.

I went in and saw her. She was lying there with her arms folded across her chest, holding a book that she was reading: Death and the Life After by Billy Graham, a guide to being ready to die when the time comes. She was already turning black, blue and purple. The smell was horrendous. Sometimes I wish I'd never gone in there, but I had to see it for myself.

The last few years had proven to be full of tragedies: I had started using crack cocaine; I lost custody of my daughter; and worst of it all, my mother had passed away. However, my rough times were not over yet. My mother didn't have any life insurance, so I didn't know where I was going to get the money to bury her. So I set up an appointment through Social Services with an organization that helps families who don't have enough money to bury a loved one.

The same day I had an appointment with DCS to get a drug screen. However, because I didn't have transportation of my own, I could not make both appointments, and I had to choose. My mom had already been dead for two weeks and her body was still at the city morgue. She needed to be buried. Her body needed to be put to rest. So I chose to make that appointment instead.

Meanwhile, since I missed my appointment to get the drug screen, DCS went to the court to have my visitation rights revoked. The courts granted the request. Now I couldn't even go see my daughter at the foster home, because I chose to get the paperwork done for my mother's burial. The courts were really against me.

Jessie's mother, Fredia Mae Johnson, in 1988.

Jessie's mother, Fredia Mae Johnson, in 1988.

We buried my mother at Boudreaux Cemetery, and my daughter's foster parents were kind enough to bring her to my mother's funeral, so she could say goodbye. The next week after we buried my mother, I had to go back to court to have a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order signed for my daughter. My daughter and I had discussed it, and she did not want to live on a machine. She was very intelligent, way beyond her years, and fully understood what that meant. She was tired of battling this awful disease.

The Sunday before my daughter died, I was able to spend some time with her at the hospital. Little did I know it would be the last time I saw her alive. My daughter was such a loving and caring child. She was an angel sent to me from Heaven above. She was so kindhearted that even on her dying bed she brightened up the day of another dying child. It was this little boy who was in the hospital a lot when she was. They had become good friends. My daughter took all her strength to sit up in bed and color a picture for her friend. Then she had me and a nurse carry her to the friend's room across the hall. She wanted to hand-deliver the picture to him, so she could see him smile.

It was amazing how much courage and love she showed in her last days. She gave the picture to that little boy, and his face lit up like a light. For that moment, they both forgot that they were fighting for their lives. It was heartwarming to see that even in her worst times she could still bring a smile to someone else's face. She had a personality that would brighten any room, always smiling no matter how bad she felt. You wouldn't expect that from a 12-year-old.

My daughter's quality of life had become so poor that she wasn't really living, just existing. She was being feed through a feeding tube in her stomach, and fluids were running through a Port-a-Cath in her chest -- a kind of IV used for people whose veins are hard to find. She had lost control of all her bodily functions, and was wearing Pampers again like when she was a newborn baby. She was receiving platelet infusions every other day. Her body was so weak and frail that she could barely sit up on her own. However, here was this child showing more courage and strength than most of us had seen in a lifetime. The next morning the doctors sent her home with the foster parents to die.

Three days later, on Jan. 26, 2000, at around 8 a.m., I was lying in bed when suddenly the telephone rang. It was one of my daughter's foster parents. She spoke in a trembling voice and said, "It's time. Your daughter is dying." I knew this day was coming. I fought ... oh my God, how I had fought so hard to keep this day from happening. However, in the end it had just become too much. Her little body had had enough. And now the time was here.

Jessie's daughter, Deondra Mae (Dee Dee), holding her favorite dog and cat.

Jessie's daughter, Deondra Mae (Dee Dee), holding her favorite dog and cat.

Her breathing was slow and shallow. I went to my neighbor's to ask for a ride to the foster parents' home, because I didn't have a car and the bus would take too long. He drove me there as fast as he could; but when we arrived, it was already too late. My daughter had already died in her sleep. I cried out to God, "Why did she have to die so young?"

When we arrived the police and coroner were already there. I gathered my strength and I went into the house to tell my daughter goodbye. However, I was still so upset it took me three times to go in the room where she was at. Each time I tried, I collapsed in the hallway in tears. I finally got the strength to go into the room, and I saw she was lying there looking up toward Heaven with a smile on her face. Her skin was pale. Her lips were grey and she had her arms folded across her chest just like my mother's. I knew that she had gone home to be with the angels. However, I felt as though a deep hollow gorge had opened up in me, never to be filled again. From within it flowed a pain like I had never known, and the tears came without any sign of an end.

I called my godsister Mai and told her that Dee Dee was dead. Mai left her work and was there in what seemed like a matter of minutes. She stayed with me the whole day, and she told me I had made the right decision. That God was just ready for her to come home to be with the rest of his angels. She reminded me that our children are only loaned to us for a little while, and when their job here is done they go home to be with Jesus.

Two days later we had my daughter's funeral at Phillips-Robinson Funeral Home. I gave my daughter the biggest, fanciest, most beautiful funeral that her money could buy. She had a pink casket trimmed in 14-karat gold and laced with white satin. She had eight pallbearers and I played her favorite song, "Thanks for My Child" by Cheryl "Pepsii" Riley. The song was so beautiful and the words sounded like it had been written about us. At the end of the song a little child says, "I love you Mommy"; then Cheryl says, "I love you too sweetheart." When that child said those words, it sounded like my daughter's voice, and everyone in the room, even all the men, broke down in tears.

It was such a cold and rainy day, yet all these people had come to say goodbye to my little girl. You would have thought somebody famous had died. The chapel overflowed with standing-room only, and her funeral recession was over three city blocks long. Even in the mist of all the pain and grief, I was happy and even proud that my daughter touched so many lives. As they lowered her body into the ground, I broke down and cried, for I knew that would be the last time I could say goodbye. The reality had set in, and I felt like my life was over. The pain was unbearable, like someone had ripped my heart right out of my chest.

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This article was provided by TheBody.
See Also
Beneath an Angel's Wings: My Story of Struggle and Longtime Survival, Part One
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