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Friday, July 29, 2016

This NYC woman gave her former teacher a powerful lesson on coping with mortality

And we’re going to meet our death one day
Going to meet our death one day
Going to judgment after a while
We got to greet death with a smile
Oh we got to meet our death one day
— Blind Willie McTell


The first time I saw Daijha Brown, she was sitting with three other students at a rectangular, wooden table in the back of a loud classroom, wearing a pink T-shirt and denim shorts, with a ponytail sprouting from the side of her head. It was the beginning of the school year in 2004, and I was starting as a student-teacher at the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, a middle school on the border of Carroll Gardens and Red Hook. Eighth graders arrive in many different sizes, but Daijha stuck out as especially miniature, a cute little kid less than five feet tall, who was not in any way teen-aged.

A few days later, the class was walking to the library at Grand Army Plaza, and I was with Daijha and another girl in the back of the line. “She has cystic fibrosis, so you better be nice to her,” the girl said, an arm draped protectively around Daijha’s shoulder. I knew enough about the disease to understand it was a death sentence and, at 23 years old, it hit me like a sucker punch. Everyone has that moment when they wake up to mortality as more than an abstraction, and this was mine. Daijha just smiled and shrugged. We kept walking, and soon were chatting about something else.
The following year, we both moved over to the adjoining Brooklyn Collaborative High School — Daijha, to begin her freshman year, and I, now a rookie teacher. I worked with Daijha during that school year and the following one, and didn’t see her again after I left teaching in 2007. Sometime later, she friended me on Facebook, and I would see occasional posts, nothing remarkable, and nothing that indicated that the end was near. Then, on the morning of Feb. 8 of this year, people started writing on her wall that she had died at age 24.

Considering how long it had been since I had seen her, the news hit me unexpectedly hard. Sitting at my kitchen table, I called my wife at work and started sobbing, so hard I was gasping for air.
For more than half a year, now, I’ve been reflecting on the impact she had on me, and speaking with people who knew her better. Daijha Brown wasn’t a celebrity or a star athlete or a newsmaker, or anyone whose name you’d likely ever hear. She was just a girl from Brooklyn who moved people by living and dying with quiet grace.
***
Four months after Daijha passed, I visit the apartment in the sprawling Starrett City complex in East New York, where Daijha lived with her mother, Teisha Russell. Her father, Kevin Brown, floated in and out of their lives and hadn’t lived with them since Daijha was 10.

Sitting opposite me on a couch in her living room, Russell, 48, recounts the final weeks and months of her daughter’s life. She admits that even she didn’t realize the imminence of her daughter’s death, even as the trips to NYU Langone Medical Center in Manhattan became more frequent.
“I was like, I wonder why you keep getting sick,” says Russell, who was as much a best friend to Daijha as her parent. “I think she knew something. She knew her body better than anybody.”
Eventually, Daijha started coughing up blood. During one of her hospital stays, doctors found a malformation in her hip, where the veins had become gnarled and intertwined. That made it painful to walk, so they ventured a procedure to fix it, and the surgery caused a lung to collapse. Her infections were increasingly resistant to antibiotics, and she had developed a bacteria that made her ineligible for a lung transplant.
By the second week of January, Daijha’s heart rate had accelerated to 200 beats per minute, more than double what it was supposed to be. This was usually a sign of infection.
On Jan. 12, Daijha, feverish, weak and coughing, said that she needed to go to the hospital immediately. Over the next few weeks, doctors gave her Motrin and aspirin, and her fever would actually rise, from 101 to 102 and beyond — the first time in her life that the medication failed to knock her temperature down.

Without saying exactly what was happening, the hospital staff began dropping hints. At some point, the phrase “pain management” became a common refrain, and the chaplain began appearing.
Still, Daijha was texting and exchanging Facebook messages with her friends and relatives as always, with the same buoyant and cheerful tone they had always known.
“Love you Ariel,” she typed to Ariel Jackson on one of her final days, and her high school friend later told me that she assumed that this hospital stay was no different than countless others.
By Friday, Feb. 5, Russell had been sleeping by her daughter’s side for weeks. At one point, she told Daijha that she was going to the bathroom, and would be right back.
“All right,” Daijha said, grinning. “Well, I’ll be right here.”
Russell smiled and rolled her eyes. This kid, hooked up to machines and unable to move, was still joking around.

When other family friends spoke with Daijha over those days, she whispered that she worried not about herself, but her mom, and whether Russell would be able to manage on her own. On Saturday, doctors said that the lung infection wasn’t clearing, so they would need to sedate and intubate her. Russell’s sister arrived for support, and Daijha said, “I’m glad she’s here, because you don’t have to be by yourself, because you’re always by yourself.”
“I love you,” Russell told Daijha as she was about to go under.
“I love you, and I know y’all love me,” Daijha answered, before uttering her final words. “But God loves me best.”
God loves me best . Where did she get that line? Daijha was a religious person, but this was nothing she had ever said before, and it will stay with Russell forever. If anyone had the right to curse God and die, it was 24-year-old Daijha Brown. But she said, “God loves me best.” She was terminal from the moment she was born — but you know what? So are we all. Daijha just knew how to handle it.
Through Sunday and into Monday, as Daijha remained sedated, doctors tried to suction the mucus from her lungs, but it was too thick. Russell would talk to her, read the Bible to her, greet her with a cheery, “Hi Daijha!”
On Monday, the doctors advised her to gather the family. Russell was praying by her daughter’s side, and then stopped. At the end, she was just talking:
God, I want her to be here. I don’t want her to go. But I don’t want to be selfish either. When she’s here she goes through so much. I have watched her go through so much in her life since she was born.
Then she paused, inhaled, and said, “God, your will be done.”
And that was it. Russell went downstairs to meet some family, rode the elevator back up, and was putting on her gown to re-enter the room when the doctor came out. “She passed,” he said.
“I just hugged her and I kissed her,” her mother says. “I was there for hours, and by the time I got ready to leave she was stiffening already. What do they say? Rigor mortis sets in? She was stiff on one side.”
***
Daijha’s body was afflicted, but the disease did not touch her spirit. Any time adults tried to limit her because of her illness, even when she was a little girl, she refused. “I can do anything!” she would say. “I can do anything everyone would do!” In high school, she began plotting an acting career, even as friends found it hard to imagine her shaking off shyness and fatigue to get on stage.


She convinced her mother to enroll her at Barbizon, an international acting and modeling school. The classes were held at a hotel in midtown Manhattan, led by an instructor named Atonia Pettiford. At the end of the semester, Daijha performed at a showcase in front of 900 people, and bested 300 others by winning a monologue competition.
“She put intensity into her monologue performance, and she wowed people,” Pettiford told me. “Every once in awhile, I’ll have a student whose performances are so” — Pettiford paused and searched for the right words — “there are some that already have something, and that’s what she had.”
Pettiford connected Daijha with casting directors, and she contacted them with the same determination that she once brought to her homework. She mailed out headshots, hustled to auditions and accepted any background work she could get. Within a year or two, she was on some exciting sets, playing a college student on “Law and Order: SVU” and finding work as an extra on CBS’ “Blue Bloods”, and in a Netflix movie called “Run.” She can be seen at the 2:14 mark in Mariah Carey’s 2012 music video “Triumphant,” jumping and smiling behind the singer.
Like many others, Pettiford underestimated the impact of Daijha’s cystic fibrosis, because she acted as if it was no big deal. There were times when she would cough, and have to go offstage and sit down until it passed, but no one knew that more than an hour of physical therapy greeted her at home every evening — wearing a vibrating vest to loosen the mucus, exercising to build stamina and being pounded on the back by a nurse, cupping her hand and banging for 15 minutes on the right side, 15 minutes on the left.

And then there were the hospital stays, when Daijha would have to drop out of the scene altogether, just as her career was beginning to gain some momentum. But even those did not stop her from performing, or from finding ways to help others. Her longtime physician, Dr. Robert Giusti, enlisted Daijha to teach medical students how to work with CF patients. It turned out that she was a natural, of course, and had a real impact.
“She would stand up in front of groups, and give feedback about the kinds of things that young people in the hospital experience from young doctors,” Giusti says. “Explaining to them what hurts, and how to approach doing interventions like blood tests … and other things like that, which can be excessive and painful for patients. She really sensitized them to what a patient experiences.”
***
Even though I’d never heard any of this, the stories reflected the Daijha I had known as a teenager. She and her friends at Brooklyn Collaborative High School did hang out with kids who got into real trouble, but that was virtually impossible to avoid. We had Bloods and Crips; a boy who was arrested at age 15 for selling crack; another kid who told me he pistol-whipped a man in the face, a girl who smuggled a handgun into my classroom in her purse. The school itself was mostly warm and peaceful, but many of the kids dragged heavy baggage through its doors. Daijha was wise and mature, and the group of girls who clustered around her stood out in their willingness to stay late and seek extra homework help. Then, they might go and blow off some steam: a few wine coolers and cigarettes, but only after the school work was done. Her mother didn’t like it, but she knew that there were worse problems in the neighborhood, and figured that Daijha needed some kind of escape.
Daijha at an acting showcase, in an undated photo.

Daijha at an acting showcase, in an undated photo.

(Courtesy Teisha Russell)
Daijha dated a little bit, her friends later told me, but there was never a serious, long-term relationship. That would have been hard, when she was always in and out of the hospital.
For months at a time, her life could seem relatively normal, even with the need for constant medication and physical therapy. But then the fevers would come, and breathing would grow difficult. She would up her prescriptions, drink hot tea and rest, but end up in the hospital anyway.
Her condition was worse than the typical CF patient, whose median life expectancy is 37 years. “Even when I met her at age 6, she already had a significant amount of lung disease,” said Giusti, who treated Daijha at the now-defunct Long Island College Hospital in downtown Brooklyn, and later at the NYU Langone Medical Center. “She ... developed a fungus in her lungs and had an allergic reaction to that, and that was causing some scar tissue in her lungs.”
Daijha remained an excellent student, smart and engaged when she was able to attend. When she was in 10th grade, she missed more time, and needed to be excused from several projects. During this time, I was preparing to make changes in my own life. Three years as a teacher had helped me to mature, as well, and led me to realize that I wanted to become a writer. As I prepared to leave, Daijha’s condition seemed to be worsening. Some days, she would need to keep her head down on the desk, and I would gently tap her shoulder to signal when it was time to go to the next class. She’d rub her eyes, thank me and shuffle out of the room, coughing.
As a teenager, Daijha took acting and modeling classes.

As a teenager, Daijha took acting and modeling classes.

(Courtesy Teisha Russell)
On my last day, she was the only student who thought to bring me a gift. Walking in the hallway after dismissal, I felt a tap on my back, and turned around to see Daijha holding a green, plastic-bound planner book. Inside
“I figured you’d need this to keep organized in graduate school,” she said, looking up at me with those big, sweet eyes. I thanked her, and was able to stay composed for the moment. Later that afternoon, thinking back on it while walking in the neighborhood, I collapsed onto a random stoop, and sobbed for a long time.
***
That goodbye stayed with me, and I thought of her often. I still keep the planner on a shelf in my office, with blank pages covering the days between June 2007 and December 2008. The only writing in the book is under “B” in the contacts, where she thought to provide her address, phone number and email, though I never used them. Life flies by.
Daijha (R) and her close friend Ariel Jackson at the prom, 2009.

Daijha (R) and her close friend Ariel Jackson at the prom, 2009.

(Courtesy Ariel Jackson)
The next time I saw her, she was laying in front of an alter at the Allen A.M.E. Church in Jamaica, Queens, on a bitter cold February morning. More than 300 people packed the room, and midway through the service I discovered a kind of comfort and peace that had eluded me since learning, all those years ago, about Daijha’s struggle.
As a gospel singer pounded out a slow but intense hymn on an electric keyboard, and two women in a pew in front of me offered a steady stream of “that’s right” and “praise Jesus,” Daijha seemed to rise from the casket and look down from the rafters. Believe me or not, but it felt like she was smiling. Looking back, I have come to see it as a coda to the first time I heard about Daijha’s illness, when I was young enough to be deflated by the bleakness of her fate. Everything I learned after that showed me that I was focusing on the wrong aspect, though I still didn’t have a way to put it in perspective. But if this moment of benevolence was possible, perhaps death wasn’t as dark as I’d thought.
Back in the living room, Teisha Russell tells me I wasn’t the only one who felt Daijha’s presence on the day of the funeral.
“After I went home I dreamt, and it was so amazing,” she tells me, wiping tears from her cheeks with an open palm. “I saw this square. It was like a box. Like a picture, like a TV screen. And it was a figure that was coming into focus. But I didn’t know at first what it was. And then as clear as the day it came up, and it was her face, and she was smiling. And then I woke up.
She pauses, sniffles, breathes. “It was just so amazing, the peace that came over me,” she says. “I couldn’t believe the peace.”

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