Meeting Mr. Kelly

 

People ask me about Mr. Kelly all the time. So, I figured I would write a few things about the first time I met him.

For those that don’t know me personally, I am not a full-time photographer. I have a regular 8-5 Monday-Friday job. The place I work at is on a highway and directly across the street is a little country convenience store. One day after work, I got into my vehicle to head home, and as I was turning onto the highway to head home, out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of an elderly man having difficulties changing a flat tire. He had a little Mazda pickup truck pulling a 10’ open trailer that was loaded down with sweet potatoes. The flat tire was on the rear passenger side of the sweet potato trailer. I was already on the highway headed home when I noticed him, and as I got further away from the store, I felt like I needed to turn around and go help change the tire. Usually I ignore those things, but I didn’t this time. Mr. Kelly would later tell me, "God wouldn't let you go no further".

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I pulled into the parking lot, rolled down the window of my Prius rental, and asked if I could help. He asked if I had a pipe wrench (which the Prius did not have). He was having trouble breaking the seal on the rusted lug nuts. I offered to try to get them off without the luxury of a pipe wrench, which I did. He had another tire in the truck, but it did not fit the trailer. It was already late in the afternoon (I remember it being around 6pm), and Mr. Kelly’s plan was to unhook the trailer, leave it in the parking lot of the store, go home and bring another tire the next day. I told him I would be glad to take him to the local Walmart to let him get a new tire. I knew they stayed open until 7. He declined, saying he didn’t have the money on him to get a new tire. I asked him to let me do my good deed for the day and get a new tire for him. Having been the recipient of such kindness before, I figured this would be a good time to pay it forward. 

We get to the Walmart tire center, they start replacing the tire, and Mr. Kelly and I stand outside in the parking lot talking for the next hour like we were old friends. We talked about everything...race, religion (he used to be a pastor), raising kids (of which he has 17), etc. He reminisced a few times and told stories about his childhood. I found out he is a pig farmer and the sweet potatoes were for his hogs. He asked questions about me, and of course I told him I was a photographer. I explained to him that some people enjoy landscape photography, and other people are more interested in portraits. I told him I much prefer portraits of interesting people, and I asked him if he would mind if I came by his house sometime and make a few portraits of him. He gave me a big ole smile, and I knew the answer was yes. 

A few weeks later, I met up with Mr. Kelly at his house. He hopped in my Jeep, and we rode down the road to his pig pen. On the way there, he was giving me an account of the conversation he had with his wife after he got home from letting me get his tire fixed. After giving her all the pertinent details, he said his wife asked him, “what kind of person does that?”. His reply? “He’s...he’s...he’s just a white man!”. 

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I’ve been back and visited Mr. Kelly many times now. Sometimes it will be a few months between visits, but after every single visit, I leave with this overwhelmingly good feeling in my soul.

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My last days with Harpo

 “There ain’t nothin’ wrong with my liver. I’ve been picklin’ it for forty years”. - Harpo

January 4, 2017, I got a call from Chad. He had just talked to Rebecca, one of Harpo’s three kids. Rebecca told Chad, “Daddy needs to go to the hospital, and he said he ain’t goin’ unless you or Foster take him”. Chad was three hours away, so it was up to me to get Harpo to the hospital.

We get to the emergency room in Oxford somewhere around 10pm. They get Harpo in a room and ask the usual questions. “What’s going on with you tonight, Mr. Harpole?”. His reply? “Well, I’m trying to croak”. It wasn’t long before they had him in a hospital gown, and several nurses took turns rubbing the veins in his arms to try and find one they could tap into to get an IV started. Every nurse that came in that night was cuuuuute, and after they all left, I asked Harpo to swap places with me. “Why?”, he asked. “So they can ask me to take off my clothes and rub my arms”. He laughed. And apparently getting an IV started on him takes an act of God. They tried both arms and his neck before finally finding a cooperative vein in his thumb. If that vein didn’t hold, the doctor said they would have to tap into a bone to get an IV started. Luckily, it never came to that.

After all the poking and prodding was done, the doctor came in sometime after 2am. He closed the curtain to the room behind him. It was just the three of us...the doctor on a little stool on the left side of Harpo’s bed, me, half-asleep in a chair on the other side of Harpo’s bed. The doctor never asked me to leave. “Mr. Harpole, you are a very sick man. You have a mass on your liver, and it’s probably cancer. You have fluid on your stomach, and it’s probably cancer. Your lymph nodes are swollen, and it’s probably cancer”. He continued on, and after everything came “...it’s probably cancer”.

The doctor left the room, Harpo rolled over and faces me, smiled and said, “Well, that wasn’t a very good prognosis, was it? Do you still want to swap places with me, Mr. Foster”. “I would if I could, Mr. Harpo”. “I wouldn’t let you, Mr. Foster”.

When Harpo went home on hospice, he only had two requests.

1. He wanted to go on one last trip.

2. He wanted to die in the RV that we bought him after his trailer burned down.

The Saturday after he got out of the hospital, Chad and I set about making sure he got his last two requests. We went and checked on his RV, but there was no way hospice was going to let him stay there. So Chad and I decided to go pick him up and take him on his one last trip. We rented the Electric Blue shack at the Shack Up Inn. He was already on morphine by the time we picked him up, and he was quickly becoming hard to understand when he talked. He was sitting in the front passenger seat talking to me as I was driving, trying to tell me stories like he used to, but the morphine got in his way. I listened as hard as I could. I took cues from his stories and responded like I thought I should. I didn’t want to stress him out anymore or make him try to be any clearer. So I smiled when I thought I needed to smile. I would nod when I thought I needed to nod. I would laugh when I thought I needed to laugh. But all along I could barely understand a word he said.

 The Electric Blue shack at The Shack Up Inn, Clarksdale, Mississippi

The Electric Blue shack at The Shack Up Inn, Clarksdale, Mississippi

 When we got to the Shack Up, Chad and I got Harpo under each arm and helped him shuffle up the front steps of the Electric Blue. Ashley, Chad's wife, kept a hand on him from behind to make sure he didn’t fall over backwards. The front door of the shack leads directly into a bedroom with a wingback chair and a fireplace, and the three of us managed to get him into the chair in one piece. That short walk from the car to his chair had him worn out already, and he just wanted to rest. Chad covered his legs up with a blanket, and Harpo just sat in his chair while we unloaded the car.

For the next hour and a half, Ashley, Chad and I sat around and listened to one of the greatest storytellers to ever live tell his last. He’d had enough.

We got him to the bed. He was ready for his next round of morphine, and as Harpo slipped off to sleep, Chad stepped outside to smoke.

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 I ended up falling asleep in the wingback chair at the foot of Harpo’s bed. He didn’t sleep well at all that night. At one point, he was stirring around enough that I got up and went to check on him. “What’s the matter, Mr. Harpo?”. “I’m aggravated, Mr. Foster”. That’s what he always called me. Mr. Foster. “What are you aggravated about, Mr. Harpo?”. “It’s taking too fucking long to die”.

He fell asleep not long after only to wake up again a short time later. This time he didn’t say anything. He pulled the covers back and sat there on the side of the bed. I woke up from my chair long enough to raise my camera and take a picture of him sitting there. It was the last picture I would take of him alive.

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 We took him back to his family’s house that Sunday morning and got him situated in his bed. He didn’t even know we were there or where he was. We each took longer than usual saying goodbye this time. This one would be for good.

Harpo passed away on January 11, 2017.