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Her wings restored

[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]

When she was a child, a Tampa woman dreamed that a pair of heavenly wings bore her name. Her baptism was her way to reclaim them after a life punctuated by drugs, pain and betrayal.

By LANE DeGREGORY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 12, 2001


TAMPA -- The baptismal pool at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church is six steps deep, a gray-green hole in the dark tile floor, the size and shape of a grave.

You have to go down and under before you can come up.

Isabella Scott knows the feeling.

"Wonder if that water's cold," she says, snapping a white rubber bathing cap across her forehead. Four months ago, when she was so sick it felt like her bones were frying, she would have jumped into anything icy. But now that she's taking 19 pills a day and she feels less like dying, she worries the water might be cold.

"Wonder where my family's at . . ."

photo
The Rev. Robert Glass, LifePath Hospice chaplain, says a prayer as he prepares to immerse Isabella Scott in the baptismal pool at Tampa's New Hope Missionary Baptist Church.
They were supposed to be here by now: Mama, Ruby Lee, Kat, Mario, Albert, Maurice, Dimitrius, little Rico. She wanted them to be here, wanted to go to Ryan's steak house after, taste a little bite of sirloin, maybe a biscuit or bit of chocolate cake. She hasn't had much appetite lately. But this is something to celebrate.

She scans the crowded sanctuary one more time and stretches the cap over her ears. Two church women flounce the long sleeves of her white cotton robe, straighten the hem, tie a satin cord around her withering waist.

"Is there a phone anywhere I can use?" Scott asks anxiously. "I got to find my family. Dear God, they must be on their way or something."

This is supposed to be between her and God, she knows, between her and Jesus.

But she really wants her family to see her do this. Finally, something good, something right.

There's not much time.

The urgent need for God

Scott is 40. She has deep-set, serious eyes, high cheekbones and a strong jaw. She cries and laughs a lot. She has been cheated by her father, raped by someone she trusted; she sold crack cocaine and had a baby in jail.

She wasn't supposed to live this long.

Last April, doctors gave her less than a year. Workers with LifePath Hospice started helping. She moved into Crystal Springs Nursing and Rehabilitation Center and tried to will away the pain. The HIV that had infected her body for 13 years had sparked a side disease, mycrobacterium avium complex, or MAC, an infection that causes high fevers and withering of the organs.

"Oh, you don't realize how much God means to you until you're half dead," she says. "Oh, he makes things happen in the weirdest ways! I'd always been spiritual. But I'd never been baptized. Then, three weeks ago, he sent me a sign.

"Now, I got to do that and got to learn to read so I can study the Bible. Got to get right before it's too late."

A promise of flight

She isn't really from anywhere, or she's from everywhere, depending on how you look at it.

"My family was migrant workers. We just went around picking, all 'round North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, all peaches and tobacco, cucumbers, tomatoes, okra, pole beans, watermelon, apples and eggplant. Time I was 8, I'd go down the rows of sweet potatoes myself, picking in the dirt with a bucket on my shoulder, fill it up, drop 'em into the truck, go back and do it again."

She has three sisters and six brothers. She's in the middle. When they were young, they all traveled in an old school bus with their folks and other migrant families, bouncing between seasons, between states, between dark adobe rooms in dusty work camps. She never had a home. Never stayed anywhere longer than a couple of months.

"Didn't much hardly go to school. I wanted to. But my father said I was a better worker than I was a learner. He took that from me, that and my money I made. I didn't go at all since seventh grade."

"But we were a close family. And we had fun. I loved the music! We had a juke box, on most camps. And I'd spend all the money I could hide on that juke box. Three songs for a quarter: the Temptations, Otis Redding, Aretha -- of course I loved Aretha. Oh, and I loved to dance!

"Dancing and dreaming -- that's what gets you through. That and God."

Her father could read some, and he had a big family Bible with shiny full-page pictures. At night, she and her sisters would flip through worlds filled with angels and apostles and heaven-lit clouds. When she slept, that's where she went.

"Every night I'd be dreaming and flying with my own yellow wings. Then, one night, Jesus took my wings. He told me I had to go on a journey. But he'd hold onto them for me. They were my wings, and I'd get them back someday. I think about that dream all the time. But I ain't never dreamed it since I was little."

Later, she had other dreams, dreams of breaking away from her drinking, dice-playing dad, making it on her own, settling someplace, wherever.

Florida is the last place to pick produce before winter. The fall after Scott turned 22, her family was working at a camp just west of Orlando. She took off for Tampa and has lived here ever since. If you could call it living.

The pitfalls of escape

"I got used to the bar scene here, right off. Did me a lot of disco. Got a job sorting, cleaning laundry, tablecloths, napkins for some restaurants around. Did that for two years, got an apartment at Robles Park. Then got to be a barmaid at the New Lounge, across from the railroad station. I was real good. Smiled a lot. Made a lot of tips. Best job I ever had. That's where I met this man, a man from New York."

They'd been living together for three years when someone shot him. In the hospital, a doctor told him he had AIDS. Scott stayed with him two more years and got AIDS, too.

"I was in love with him. What could I do?"

After he died she started smoking crack, started dealing it, started staying up three, four days at a time. "But I never did no one wrong. Never treated no one mean or cheated nobody. The devil really tried to destroy me. But I still had some God inside."

By the time she was 33, Scott's life was drugs and deals and crashing on other people's couches. She'd never been married, never had a child. Addiction and AIDS were all she had.

"All my sisters and brothers had kids, and their kids had kids, and here I was with nothing, no one," she says. "I'd wanted me a son since I was 19. Only thing I ever asked God for. But I didn't get it, not then. And I got real, real down for a while."

Four times during the next two years, Scott tried to kill herself.

Every time, she says, God stopped her.

"Oh, he wanted me alive. He had plans for me. He found me when I wasn't even looking."

An evil turns to blessing

One night six summers ago, after a four-day crack binge, Scott passed out on her niece's sofa. As a dealer, she had a bodyguard. He was supposed to be watching over her.

"Instead, he got on me. My brother walked in, caught him and run him out of the room. Bodyguard got fired for that.

"I got me my son.

"I told you," she says, laughing. "God works in weird ways."

When she was seven months pregnant, Scott borrowed her brother's car and got caught speeding without a driver's license. She spent the next six weeks in jail. "Can't smoke no crack in jail. Those last six weeks, I got clean."

She got prenatal treatment and vaccines to protect her baby. Dimitrius was born without HIV. She got out of jail before he learned to sit up.

"My boy knows I'm sick. And he loves me to death," she says, smashing tears into her eyes with both fists. "He says, 'Mama, you can't die because I love you too much.'

"I pray to God, now, for one more thing. I'm not asking for a miracle. I'm just asking for a good blessing: I want to be with my son for a little while longer, see him grow up and graduate like I never did."

Dimitrius is in kindergarten.

"And I'm pretty sure God's going to give it to me. If he don't heal me here, I'll be healed in the next world, and I'll get to see from there. Ain't no way I can lose now."

The signal from heaven

She got the sign on a Sunday in February.

She was standing at the nurses' station at the nursing home when a bearded man in a minister's collar walked up to sign the visitors' book.

"You here to see Isabella Scott?" she asked.

"No," the Rev. Robert Glass answered. "I'm here to see two hospice patients. Who's Isabella Scott?"

"I am," she answered. "And I'm a hospice patient. I think you're here to see me."

They talked about God and Jesus and life after death. She told him her fears. He told her his favorite scripture readings. He walked out to his car and brought her a New International Bible. Those shiny pictures she'd seen so long ago? Those were true, he said. There are angels, apostles. There is a heaven. Maybe even with comfortable, colorful clouds.

She said she'd always had it in her head to be baptized. "But I was too lost in that world out there for too long to do anything about it."

Last week, Glass visited Scott again. "How about Monday?" he asked.

"For what?"

"You want to be baptized, don't you? I can do it. We'll work on reading after that."

"Oh, I'm ready," she said. "I'm ready to get my wings back. I'm ready to get right and fly."

On the brink of rebirth

About 7:45 p.m., Glass pulls on rubber chest waders and zips his white chaplain's robe over the top. He ushers Scott and six other baptismal candidates -- five adolescent girls and a boy about 7 -- into the front pew. Scott sits on the far right. She still hasn't seen her family.

As the choir starts to sing and the minister starts to speak and the girl next to her fiddles with her white lace-capped socks, Scott tips her head back to take in the pulpit, the altar, the tall roof. This time, she doesn't wipe the tears.

"What we're doing here tonight is what Jesus did when he went down in the grave for us all," Glass says, his deep voice resonating through the room. "You're going down in a liquid grave and coming back up with a new life. I'm not going to drop you. You're not going to drown. You just have to trust yourself, and me, and God -- and know you're doing the right thing."

"Amen," Scott whispers. "Amen."

She's sure, but nervous. Couldn't eat or sleep for the last few days. Not like when she was partying, she says, but she's got a high keeping her up just the same -- only this is better, it's lasting longer.

After a long prayer and a reading from the book of John, the two church women tell Scott and the other candidates to hand over their shoes, line up along the pool. Again, Scott is last. Someone else starts praying.

"Thank you, Lord, for our sleep last night. For watching over us while we slept. For waking us up this morning, thank you, Lord Jesus. We thank you, Lord, for these candidates tonight. Yes, thank you, Jesus. They're leaving the old world and coming into the new."

"Amen," Scott says, this time loudly. "Coming on!"

Isabella's family leans in during the baptismal ceremony.

The old is washed away

She wants to learn how to work computers and be a missionary. She wants to get her teeth fixed and move back into her own apartment. She wants to watch Dimitrius grow tall -- doesn't want his grandmom to have to raise him. She wants to tell folks how good life can be, no matter how bad it seems.

The little boy gets baptized first, then all five girls. The congregation claps and shouts and sings. The chorus crescendoes as each candidate climbs down the stairs: "Oh, have you got good religion? Certainly Lord!"

Just before Scott's turn, familiar voices rise in the room. Behind the gold chain at the far end of the pool, her three sisters are waving their arms and swaying. Kat is snapping pictures with a disposable Kodak. Ruby Lee has little Rico by the shoulders with Maurice and Mario close by. Dimitrius is in front of them all, dressed in a little blue suit and crisp Oxford shirt with a tiny pearl stick pin through his big-boy tie. His wide brown eyes are fixed on his mama. He has never seen her in a rubber bathing cap.

"Reverend Glass?" a woman calls from the far side of the room.

"Yes, Sister?"

"I present Sister Isabella Scott."

Slowly, Scott steps toward the pool and stops. She waves to her son, beams and looks at the ceiling, closes her eyes for a split second. Then she starts climbing down, one step, two, three. She stops again. Catches Dimitrius' eye. Glass and another minister are waiting in the water, waist-deep in the gray-green depths. Four steps, five.

"Thank you, Sister," Glass says, wrapping his left arm around Scott's shaking shoulders. She crosses her arms on her chest, left over right. She stares straight ahead.

"We come tonight, now, Sister Isabella Scott, to baptize you in the profession of your faith." She closes her eyes. He folds a white towel into quarters, lays it across her face.

"Baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." He dunks her backward until her entire body is submerged. It's dark and quiet down there; she can't even hear the choir.

Is this what it's like when you're dead? she wonders.

It doesn't matter. She just got a second life. At least she didn't have to die for it.

She climbs the stairs slowly, wringing out her robe.

"You made it, girl!" Kat calls, running toward Scott and hugging her hard. "Baby, I'm proud of you!"

"Hallelujah!" Scott answers, dripping water down the church hall. "What a good feeling! I had my good times before, but not like I'm going to have now, now that I got God!"

She dries off in the church ladies' room, brushes out her eggplant wig, pulls on jeans and black boots and a black long-sleeved shirt to hide the lesions on her arms. Just before 9 p.m. she comes out. Ruby Lee and the others want to snap a few photos. But then they have to go back to their homes, their lives. No time for Ryan's. Not tonight. A hospice volunteer will drive Scott back to the nursing home. Dimitrius will go back to his grandmom.

She hugs her nieces and nephews, says good-bye to her sisters, cuddles her son in the church cafeteria -- one last time.

"The water was warm," she tells him, laughing and crying and stroking his soft cheek with her finger. "It felt great.

"You'll see."

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