1987, Los Angeles, Houston, and Albuquerque
By Sandy Chartrand Webb
The flight from L.A. was itself uneventful, but my mind and body were mercilessly stressed to a possible breaking point.
For many months, I had been working to save the life of a very special person who needed a heart/double lung transplant. His name was Will Sampson, and he was my friend. Many remember him as the big Indian who played the role of ďChief BromdenĒ in ďOne Flew Over the Cuckooís Nest,Ē or as ďTaylorĒ in ďPoltergeist II.Ē Other films included ďBuffalo Bill and the IndiansĒ with Paul Newman, ďOutlaw Josey WalesĒ with Clint Eastwood, and ďOrcaĒ with Richard Harris.
It was now the spring of 1987. And the big Indian was down.
By now I had transferred him to Houston, Texas, where he was accepted into a new transplant program. While we waited and waited for the precious heart and lungs, we rented an apartment where Will lay in a hospital bed, attended by visiting nurses and family members from Oklahoma.
I was working on a film in L.A., and each weekend I would fly to Houston to be at his side. Each Sunday evening my heart would break more as I would say goodbye for another five days.
This particular Friday evening I was feeling vulnerable and stretched to my limit, working 12 hour days and then flying to Houston to be with ďSonny.Ē We knew he was dying, and week after week after week we both wondered if that ďgoodbyeĒ was the last.
Exiting the Houston airport, the rush of sticky, dripping wet heat fused to my clothes and hair, matching a droopy appearance to that of my emotional stamina.
ďGet it together,Ē I told myself. ďYouíre Sonnyís hope, his rock.Ē
Whispering a prayer to God, I drove a long 50 minutes to the apartment.
The temperature was 97 degrees. The humidity was 98 percent. When I arrived at the apartment, there was no relief, for the air conditioning had not worked for a couple of days.
I rushed inside, then stopped dead at the bedroom doorway. Will lay on top of the sterile white sheets, on top of the stainless steel hospital bed. He wore only thin cotton pajama bottoms, and an oxygen tube that ran from his nostrils to a tank behind the bed. His eyes were closed.
Slowly, his frail brown chest, once large and magnificent, gently rose Ö then fell.
Strands of long graying hair looked silver on the pillow, but most stuck to his neck and forehead like wet seaweed.
I stood in the heaviness of the heat, the heaviness of the moment, and looked at Sonny with a gaze as full and as broad and as intense as ever I can recall with physical eyes. Then I was drawn to something on the wall, something new at the foot of his bed.
It was a cross in a glass case. A prayer from Willís mother.
My sight was drawn into it, and I became mesmerized by the slow turning of the old ceiling fan reflected in the glass. Turning round, and round, and round, the world was going round in the framed glass while the Cross of Godís son was ever present behind.
The room was silent, save for the ďdrip drip dripĒ of Sonnyís sweat, falling from his chest, his arms, his forehead, to the floor.
Now it was Sunday. No change. The thought of returning to L.A., returning to a normal, upbeat lifestyle, returning as the person I had known as myself many months before became a ridiculous quest for the ďTinker BellĒ I was, perhaps an inverse reflection of the now sorrowed and broken messenger of hope.
And yet, Will called me ďAngel.Ē
Unable to stand another goodbye, another five days of angst, worry, pity, anger, torture, I stumbled across the street into the hot, steamy forest of dried mesquite, fallen logs, and thorny cactus. I screamed at the sky. I screamed at God.
ďI canít take it anymore! We canít take it anymore! If there is a donor out there somewhere, please, please give us the organs to save his life! And if you donít intend to do that, then for Godís sake, please just take him home! I hate you! I hate what you have done to us! I hate that you are making us go through this week after week after week! Dear damned God! Either give us a donor now, or take him! But stop doing this to us!Ē
I ran frantically in all directions, stumbling and falling, scratched and bleeding, thorns stuck in my legs and arms. I screamed and cried and screamed and cried until no thorns, no cuts, no bruises, no sounds could change the eternity of the moment. Sonny was going to die. And God allowed us all to suffer.
5:00 p.m. It was nearing the time for me to leave again, go to the airport, fly home to work on a film for five days, and come back to the proud, strong Indian I knew, called Sonny. I put on the happy face once more, and told Sonny it was time to leave. I would call tomorrow. He slowly rolled his head on the damp pillow, so that his thin, brown face, his deep, mysterious eyes fused with mine.
ďGet my medicine bag.Ē His raspy voice was barely audible.
I dug it out of a drawer, hidden behind socks, underwear, and sage.
He clutched the bag close to his chest, closed his eyes, and was silent for a time. Then we placed it under his pillow, a secret from everyone else. He then asked me to remove his earring and gave it to me.
His large hand gently held my own as he whispered, ďI will never leave you.Ē
And with that, I could no longer be the bearer of hope, the bearer of optimism, the rock. I was a woman Ė human, frail, and most importantly, a friend who was losing someone. I was sacred.
My head fell onto his chest, and I wept uncontrollably. My tears washed his breast, and my surrender allowed every centimeter of my being to dissolve into despair and fall into the darkness of his withering existence. We became one in our loss.
Three days later, a donor became available. Oddly, it was someone who knew Will, and who unfortunately died in a car accident in Austin. God obliged and gave us a heart and lungs.
Forty days later. The weekly visits have continued, except now it was to the ICU. Sonny was on every possible life support system available: blood transfusion, lung machine, heart pump, dialysis, feeding, breathing tube through a tracheotomy in his throat. His existence was almost completely artificial, no resemblance to the once handsome, strong 6í4Ē Creek Indian, who changed the way Hollywood portrayed Native Americans and opened doors for Indian artists.
I had demanded that the doctors do everything to keep him alive, to keep him here for Willís family, for the world, for me.
Damn. It was Sunday again. And I was still working on that film in L.A.
I stood in the ICU, wearing booties and a mask, then entered his room.
More sincere and passionate than any American Idol, I often sang to Will, thinking that even though he was comatose, he could hear me. And this day, I sang again some heartfelt Melissa Etheridge song that I played over and over in L.A. every day since Sonny was in Houston.
And the clock said 7:20.
And I had to say goodbye.
As I started to leave the room, I stopped at the door. ďThis is stupid. What am I doing? Why am I leaving yet again, hoping that Sonny will be alive when I return? Why am I dragging this on? Itís me who wonít let go! Why am I doing this to him? To us?!Ē
I walked back to the side of the bed. I looked at his comatose face and body, rhythmically breathing through the wide tube in his throat, his chest rising and falling with the monotonous pumping of the breathing machine, his person now an ďabsence,Ē occupying the space of his former grand body.
I held his hand, removed my mask, and leaned over to his ear.
ďSonny, I know you are in conference with God. I know that the only reason you are still here is because of your promise, that promise to never leave me. Well, Sonny, I know you will never leave me. I know you will keep your promise. Itís OK to go with God.Ē
I kissed his forehead, and walked to the doorway to leave.
One last time, I turned. The only sound was the ďwhooshingĒ of the oxygen tank. And as I looked at him for a final farewell, tears were streaming down his face. I ran to his side and wiped them as they fell and fell.
ďSonny, please donít do this. Please donít cry. I will always love youÖ.Ē
My sobbing filled the room. It echoed through the halls as I blindly searched for the exit. I sobbed to the airport. I sobbed on the plane. I sobbed all night, and all the next day at work. I did not know that a person was capable of producing a literal river of tears.
A couple weeks later, I was driving from Los Angeles to Houston. I wasnít certain how, but I had to figure out a way to raise money to pay off the medical debt, somewhere in the neighborhood of $250,000. We were still fighting the insurance company to pay for the transplant. At the beginning, however, I had taken full responsibility for his medical expenses. And now my mission was to stage fundraisers, and to also help others who needed an advocate.
It was late afternoon in Albuquerque, and I had wandered through nearly every Indian gallery and shop in Old Town. It was as if the gaze from a portrait, the smell of sage, or the touch of a feather was in some way Sonny.
Sadly I headed down a street toward the parking lot. At an alleyway I paused, almost wanting to go down, but I decided it would be dark soon, and I wanted to get to Santa Fe.
Opening the rear door, I tossed a parcel onto the back seat. Just as I opened the driverís door and made a motion to get in, I heard a voice: ďGo down the alley.Ē
I quickly looked around and wondered who was following. I looked around the car, the parking lot, then checked the back seat.
I thought I was losing my mind, and got behind the wheel.
Again, ďGo down the alley.Ē This time the voice was a little louder, and for a moment I thought I recognized it.
Again I checked the back seat. ďI donít want to go down that alley. Itís going to be dark and I want to get to Santa Fe.Ē
I started the engine.
ďGO DOWN THE ALLEY.Ē Now the voice was loud and insistent.
Although I could have sworn it was my beloved Sonny, I definitely thought I was hallucinating. But with a hallucination this loud Iíd better do as it said.
As I walked down the alley, there were more Native art galleries. I did not enter any, and found myself in front of a door at the end of the alley Ö yup, another gallery.
I took note of the many beautiful paintings, pottery, jewelry, Kachinas, and eventually came to stand by a curtain over a doorway. Suddenly Ė and I know this was not my doing Ė my hand involuntarily went up and threw the curtain aside.
An Indian gentleman sat on a stool painting, his back to me. He turned and invited me in.
I quickly apologized, ďIím so sorry to have invaded your privacy. I donít know what I was doing.Ē
ďNo, no,Ē he said. ďHave a seat.Ē
He asked me where I was from and where I was going, and I found myself telling him about Will Sampson, and my mission to return to Houston pay off his medical bills. The artist leaned back on his stool with arms folded over his chest.
ďI donít believe you just walked in here.Ē
ďI know,Ē I said. ďIím so sorry.Ē
He interrupted, ďNo, I mean I canít believe you walked in here just like that. The last person, the only person to throw open that curtain and land in here the same way was Will Sampson. He wanted me to donate some of my paintings to raise money for books and school supplies for the kids on the rez. And now you need money for Will. How can I help?Ē
As promised, Sonny never left me. That day was to be the beginning of a Great Journey. A journey that has led me down powerful spiritual corridors, revealed secrets of Creation, connected me directly to the Greatest Spirit, God, and answered questions of existence and physics that all want to know.
Will saved my life in San Francisco when a gun was at my head, prevented a robbery in my motel room in El Paso, and would warn me immediately before something unpleasant was about to happen. He taught me about the reality of Spirit, how to connect with my Higher Self, how to leave my physical body to embark upon magical ďfield tripsĒ to learn about true existence, and introduced me to very special people Ė some who had left the physical world and some, like my birth mother, who were still alive.
This was the start of my higher education Ė and the Great Journey.