What does Henrietta's final request tell you about her in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?
Henrietta’s final request is that her husband Day Lacks take care of her children. This tells that she really did care about her children, and she was selfless.
Gladys called Henrietta’s husband Day the night before Henrietta died.
She wants you to take care of them kids—I told her I’d let you know. Don’t let nuthin’ happen to them.” (ch 11, p. 86)
Henrietta was especially worried about her daughter Deborah, who was just over a year old when she died.
Henrietta had wanted to hold Deborah, to dress her in beautiful clothes and braid her hair, to teach her how to paint her nails, curl her hair, and handle men. (ch 11, p. 86)
Henrietta’s last request tells us that she cared deeply for her children, and she was worried about what would happen to them when she was not around. It also shows that she felt a deep connection with her little daughter, and wanted to see the baby grow to become a woman. She wanted to be a part of her children’s lives.
Unfortunately, the odds were against the family. Elsie had mental disabilities and was in an asylum, and she died just after her mother. Day himself later developed cancer, and Sonny went to jail for stabbing a boy. Many of the family members had health problems, including Deborah. If the family had made money off of Henrietta's cells, the story might have been much different.
Right before Henrietta Lacks died, she turned to her sister Gladys and said, "Don't you let anything bad happen to them children when I'm gone" (page 86). Henrietta had five children but perhaps was particularly thinking of her youngest daughter, Deborah, who was only a little over a year old when her mother went into the hospital. Henrietta was thinking of everything she would miss in Deborah's upbringing.
Henrietta was also likely thinking of her older daughter, Elsie, who was developmentally disabled and institutionalized at a "Hospital for the Negro Insane" in Crownsville, Virginia. Henrietta had been to see her daughter in Crownsville, and she was relieved to find Elsie apparently well cared for. Unbeknownst to Henrietta, this was the last time anyone would visit Elsie. In 1955, Elsie died in deplorable conditions at the hospital. The hospital was overcrowded, and the doctors experimented on patients without consent. After Henrietta died, no one visited Elsie until her death four years later.
It is apparent that Henrietta was a conscientious and caring mother who constantly thought about her children, including the daughter whose epilepsy and intellectual disabilities were likely caused by syphilis. Henrietta was worried about her daughter's well-being and wanted her husband, Day, to take care of her and their other four children after her death.