Chapter 38 Summary


In 2009, Rebecca Skloot drove to Clover for a visit. She thought the road seemed longer than she remembered, and then she realized that she was driving past the Post Office. She stopped the car and stared in surprise at a field full of rubble that had once been downtown Clover. She picked up some of the pieces, with the intention to give them to Deborah.

In the years since Rebecca had completed her research for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, it had begun to feel “like everything related to Henrietta’s history was vanishing.” Gary, Day, and Cootie had already died—and now the whole town of Clover had disappeared, too.

Life went on for Deborah’s children, following the same paths as before, running into both legal and medical trouble. Sonny had a quintuple bypass surgery. Just before it began, the doctor thanked him for his mother’s contribution to medicine. After the surgery was over, Sonny had $125,000 of medical debt.

Deborah and Pullum eventually divorced and Deborah moved into an assisted living facility. For years she worked full-time for her daughter, but when she could not handle the activity anymore, she had to quit. When her divorce went through, her entire income was $723 per month in disability plus $10 per month in food stamps.

In 2009, when Rebecca told Deborah the book was finally finished, Deborah asked Rebecca to come for a visit and read the manuscript aloud. Rebecca promised to do so and made several calls to arrange a time. When Deborah never returned these calls, Rebecca called Sonny instead. He told Rebecca that he had been looking for her phone number; Deborah had passed away.

Deborah had been happy when she died. Several of Henrietta’s great-grandchildren, inspired by the HeLa story, had applied themselves to education, especially in the sciences. Lawrence’s granddaughter, Erika, was attending graduate school to study psychology. Davon, Deborah’s grandson, was now seventeen. He was on track to finish high school, and he planned to go to college as well.

After hearing about her friend’s death, Rebecca spent hours looking at Deborah’s pictures and reflecting on their last visit together. On that occasion, they had watched movies with Davon and talked about Henrietta’s story. Deborah also had mentioned that she would not want to live forever, because then everyone she knew would die and leave her alone. She added:

But maybe I’ll come back as some HeLa cells like my mother, that way we can do good together out there in the world…I think I’d like that.