In January 2009, Rebecca pulls into the town of Clover to realize that all of Clover is gone—the businesses have all closed. She fills her pockets with dirt in order to hold on to what remains of the town. She recounts that in 2002, Gary died of a heart attack, and that a few months later, Fred Garret died as well. Next Day passed, and then Cootie committed suicide. Deborah calls Rebecca after every death and cries.
After the joy of JaBrea’s christening, the inevitable hardships once again strike the Lackses, and all these deaths are inherently contrasted with Henrietta’s “immortality.” Also, in a hugely symbolic moment, Clover itself is now gone—the symbol of Henrietta’s childhood, and of Deborah’s lost past.
After the baptism, “not much changed for the Lackses.” Lawrence and Zakariyya occasionally think about suing Johns Hopkins, Sonny has a quintuple bypass and ends up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, Zakariyya attacks a woman and is kicked out of his housing, and Deborah leaves her husband. She works for her daughter LaTonya at an assisted-living facility, but soon quits because her body can’t take it. She lives on nothing but Social Security Disability payments and food stamps.
The fact that Sonny can’t pay for his lifesaving bypass procedure is particularly infuriating; the medical establishment owes his family a great deal, and yet he is the one in debt. Henrietta has finally been getting some recognition and credit, but this hasn’t translated into any real, tangible success for the Lacks children.
When Rebecca finds the remains of Clover, she has not spoken to Deborah for several months. The book is done, but Deborah has not been returning her calls. Even after the visit to Clover, Deborah does not respond. At last, in May, Rebecca calls Sonny to see where Deborah is. Sonny tells Rebecca that he has been trying to reach her, but has not been able to find her number. He says that only a week and a half ago, after a celebratory Mother’s Day, Deborah died of a heart attack. Sonny has cut off a lock of her hair to keep with Henrietta’s and Elsie’s. He tells Rebecca that his sister is with the two of them now.
We now come to one of the book’s most tragic truths: that Deborah dies before Skloot publishes her story. In order to soften this blow, however, Skloot recounts the peaceful, even joyous circumstances surrounding Deborah’s death. Rebecca is now carrying on the Lacks family story not just for the absent Henrietta, but for the absent Deborah as well. Her responsibility to these women is heightened since they are no longer here to tell their own narratives.
Rebecca explains that at the time of her death, Deborah was happy. Her grandsons, grandnieces, and grandnephews were getting an education, even going to college and grad school. After learning about Deborah’s death, Rebecca looks at a picture of Deborah that she has, and listens to the hours of tape that she’s collected from interviewing Deborah. She remembers an old BBC interview with Deborah, in which she said that she would be glad once she died because she would get to see Henrietta. After watching the interview herself, Deborah had told Rebecca that, “Heaven looks just like Clover, Virginia. My mother and I always loved it down there more than anywhere else in the world.” She also wondered if she would one day “come back as some HeLa cells like my mother, that way we can do good together out there in the world.”
At the end of her story, Skloot relies not on science, but on spirituality—the language of the Lackses, and of Henrietta. She increases the symbolism of the long-lost Clover, comparing it to Heaven, and recounts the Lacks family belief that Henrietta (and Deborah too) might be reincarnated or immortalized as HeLa—something used to save countless other lives. Ultimately Skloot cements the idea in our minds that this book is as much Deborah’s as Henrietta’s, and that the story of the human Lacks family is just as important as the story of an immortal cell culture.