THE BLOG
02/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Inauguration Through the Eyes of the Dying

Ninety-one-year-old Aline Johnson has been told by doctors she is dying of congestive heart failure. She rarely leaves the bed of her house in Queens, N.Y., and her voice creaks like a porch door as she speaks, flirting with the uppermost registers. Since being admitted into hospice care a year ago, she has never been given much longer to live, and now she is almost nothing but bone.

But Johnson has had reason to defy her prognosis. Having grown up in Columbia, Tenn., during an era when she couldn't enter a restaurant because of her skin color, in a neighborhood where Ku Klux Klan members lived nearby, Johnson was resolved to hang on until last November, to witness Sen. Barack Obama become the country's first black president-elect. Next Tuesday, she will watch him seal his place in history.

Johnson is a member of the country's most vulnerable group of Obama supporters: the terminally ill and dying. Bed-stricken and artificially oxygenated, tied down by tubular shackles and chains, these determined men and women see Jan. 20 not simply as Inauguration Day, but as a finish line. Despite their cancer, or lung failure or other terminal maladies, they intend to keep breathing until the Oath of Office, sustaining the beat of a heart won over months ago by a pioneer offering hope.

During a decade that's witnessed terrorism, war, Katrina and a spiraling economy, the dying have reason to grasp for something positive, say their nurses and counselors -- something offering solace in their final days.

"For those at the end of life, the inauguration of Obama can bring confidence in the future of the world they leave, with an incredible amount of peacefulness, gratitude and grace," said Rev. Paul Metzler, a psychotherapist and chaplain for Visiting Nurse Service of New York, which supports about 550 patients.

There is evidence that dying patients can willfully extend their lives long enough to experience anticipated momentous events. David Phillips, a sociology professor at the University of California, San Diego, who studies the psychology of mortality, has argued that people are less likely to die in the days leading up to their birthdays. This phenomenon, which he calls the "death-dip," also seems to occur before presidential elections and, for Jews, Yom Kippur, he said.

Phillips is hesitant to predict whether the death-dip will manifest itself during this year's inauguration, and he uses the example of Obama's grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, who died the day before the election, to explain that the phenomenon has limitations.

But hospice workers, without knowledge of the science, say they believe in the power of the will to live.

"There's a fairly wide-held belief among hospice professionals that patients are able to hang on through the [December] holidays," said Spencer Levine, a spokesman for Capital Hospice, the largest in Washington. "In a lot of hospice organizations, the number of patients who die seems to increase the day after Christmas."

A few weeks ago, Johnson was out of bed and in high spirits when her social worker paid a visit. She sat upright in her living room easy chair next to her oxygen tank, dressed in a pink velvet jumpsuit and pink slippers, sporting a freshly coiffed perm and manicured nails. The lipstick surrounding her crooked-tooth smile was painted on perfectly.

Resting back, she said, "I never thought -- never thought, no way, no how -- that I would live to see a black man become president." She managed to lean forward with anticipation, rapidly flicking her thumbnails with her middle fingers in a way no dying woman ever could. "It makes me very happy. Very happy." She paused. "And then I feel sad that the others won't be here to see it."

Obama's achievement has been characterized as a victory for youth, the passing of the torch to a new generation. But his victory is also a triumph for the oldest Americans -- those who remember when the pall of the Great Depression gave rise to a Great Generation, when leaders sought to unite, not divide, and citizens pledged to give back to their country, asking not what it could do for them.

It is a triumph for the black Americans who were the least among that Great Generation, the octogenarians and nonagenarians who have grown wrinkled and frail, weathered by age and bigoted injustice, never believing they'd see this moment come.

In a lifetime spanning nearly a century, Johnson has survived cancer and mourned the deaths of her parents, husband and twin sons. Her friends have all moved away or died. She knows her heart is failing but doesn't like to think about it. She said there's a God somewhere who will take care of her. Asked if she believes in heaven, she politely excused herself and followed the slow tap of her cane into the bathroom.

Then she returned and settled back into her chair, where she said she will spend the next few days crocheting, reading and watching The View, awaiting the inauguration.