Sick, weary, Diane Bailey endures to help others

by | Dec 21, 2014 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Chemotherapy can burn, but right now Diane Bailey is cold. With gloved hands, she holds a warming pack to her mouth and tightens a scarf around her neck. The dripping chemicals slide down a tube and enter her bloodstream through a port in her chest.

When she turns, she can see the wintry Detroit afternoon through a single hospital window and the skyscraper Fisher Building a few blocks away. She works there, for a janitorial company, and she will go back to work after this treatment, once she wakes up from “sleeping all day.”

It has been her routine the last few months: Stop work, get the chemo for four hours at Henry Ford Hospital, wear a chemo pack home, return to the hospital two days later, get the pack removed, drive to work, get the cleaning supplies, get going again.

She would like not to sweep floors and wipe down sinks while she battles something inside that could kill her, but after the surgery in July and missing weeks of her job, “they told me I couldn’t get my benefits if I stayed away.” So she returned. She fights a battle within, as she has fought many on the outside.

This is what poor looks like in Detroit. It endures. At the hospital, because it is nearly Christmas (although she freely admits she was not always church-worthy), Diane Bailey wears red tights and a red scarf and a Santa hat with fake fur.

“How are you doing, Mrs. Claus?” a nurse asks, checking her chemicals.

“I’m fine, fine,” she says.

A 57-year-old battling colon cancer is less than fine. Bailey does not mention the dark blotches the chemo has caused on her shoulders, chest and arms, or the lost hair now covered by a blondish wig, or the metallic taste in her mouth, or the nausea, or the dragging fatigue, or the swollen hands that are discolored and stiff. When the nurse leaves, she takes off one glove and her fingers look as if they have been dipped in varnish.

“I can’t crochet anymore,” she says. “I just …”

She starts to tear up.

“Not gonna cry. God is taking care of me.”

And Diane Bailey is talking care of everyone else.

‘She shares with everybody’

This is what poor looks like. The poverty rate for Detroit households is 52.3%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, when headed by a single female with only a high school education. Like Bailey. And Detroit grandmothers responsible for grandchildren more than double the number of Detroit grandfathers doing the same.

Bailey is a daughter, mother, grandmother and sister, and each role has tethered her to a financial responsibility. Her mother suffers early stage dementia, so Bailey tends to her. One of her daughters is on public assistance, leaving Bailey to tend to her children.

Bailey’s brother, Kevin, suffers from “schizophrenic issues,” she says, doesn’t work, and only leaves the house occasionally for treatment with Gateway Community Health. She tends to him, too, living on the floor above him in the home she grew up in, on Riopelle near East 7 Mile. She even sleeps in her old childhood bedroom, a cloistered dormered space with a low, slanted ceiling.

When she’s home, she cooks for everyone. Cleans. Does the dishes. Sometimes, after her night shifts, she will park her 2003 Ford Explorer outside of food pantries and sleep in the seat, to get a good spot in line come the morning. Then she will take what food she gathers and distribute it between brother, mother, children, grandchildren, even coworkers at the Fisher Building.

“She shares with everybody,” says her supervisor, Sharon Durley. “Whatever food she’s got, with staff, with the security people, she’ll give you her last, even though she can’t afford it.”

Bailey’s pay from GDI omni, a janitorial service company, is $11.32 an hour. Last year, according to her returns, she earned $21,274 before taxes. She has no credit cards (“can’t afford that,” she says), no checkbook or savings account (“Lord, no,” she laughs), she has one credit union account to pay off her used car ($3,600 still owed), which has a balance of $4, and a debit card that she feeds as it feeds her.

“I’m hand-to-mouth,” she says.

She rifles through her bag for a tissue, finds one, and, as if on cue, lifts her hand to her mouth. Lately, having passed her eighth chemo treatment, the tissues sometimes fill with blood. She will cough it up or blow it out her nose. Her throat is constantly sore. Her feet sometimes feel like someone is poking them with needles. The bags that drip into her contain oxaliplatin, leucovorin and fluorouracil, a chemical cocktail for fighting cancer cells.

She shakes her head. The Santa cap dips over her wig.

“This chemo,” she sighs, “ain’t no joke.”


‘He hit me bad’

Bailey is the type of woman to endure. The youngest daughter raised by a Detroit cement mason, she has long shown a similar ability to handle the hard, dirty work.

But there was a time when she ran.

It happened in her 20s, when Darrell, the man she lived with, the father of her first child, turned physically abusive, she says, when she was pregnant with their second.

“He monitored everything I did,” she says, speaking during another interview in her small home on Riopelle. “He didn’t want me going out of the house by myself. He didn’t like me being around my parents. …

“He started to beat me up. He hit me bad. He busted my teeth. I had to get dentures. He gave me this mark, still here after 30 years —”

She points to a small dark circle by her left eye.

“When I was working, he’d take my check and go spend it. When I got pregnant and got assistance, he’d take that check and go spend it. When I said anything, he beat me. The house we was staying in was right next to his grandmother, and it was one of those old houses when you could go from one to the other through the basement.

“His grandmother seen how he used to push me around. She let me know the bottom door was open. When he would call on the phone, and I could hear that he was drinking and it was gonna be bad, I knew to get out of there. …

“I’d go down in the basement and cross over to her house. She had a safe room that I could sit in. I took my daughter and we’d stay there until morning.”

That daughter, Crystal, her oldest, now a 35-year-old Navy personnel specialist in Virginia, remembers being carried underground between the houses and hiding. “It wasn’t an adventure,’ ” she recalls in a phone conversation. “If there’s one word I remember from that time, it was ‘scared.’ “

Bailey recalls being hit so hard once, she had swelling all over her face. She asked young Crystal to hand her cold, wet rags. “I told her if Mama’s eyes ain’t open when the little hand gets on the 5, you run and tell the neighbors.”

When Bailey is asked why she stayed with such a violent man, she responds, “Because when I was coming up, we was raised that — regardless to the fact — you stay with that man so that your kids will grow up and learn with a father.”

In time, she saw the folly in that.

And she plotted her escape.

One box at a time.

Ready to go

On her job at the Fisher Building, Bailey cleans four floors a shift. She mops. Cleans under the desks. Dusts. Sweeps. Wipes down the sinks and toilets. “I want to know that stool is clean enough for me to sit on it.”

She takes pride in hard work, even though her supervisor has let her serve more as an overseer in the later stages of chemotherapy. “She’s an awesome worker,” Durley says. “It was very emotional for us when she got cancer. I still cry over it today.”

Bailey has cleaned since graduating from Pershing High School in Detroit. Her first job was housekeeping at a convalescent center, and her most recent jobs before the Fisher Building included custodial work at Ford Field after football games.

Cleaning up her own life proved more challenging. When her abusive partner left the house, she would pack one box with dishes with household supplies and take it to the Greyhound bus terminal. She sent it off to a friend in Evansville, Ind.

After six boxes, she was ready to go herself.

She waited until a day that Darrell was gone, having once again “taken my check to spend it on another woman — the last time he’d do that.” In a single afternoon, she sold off every possible item in the house to neighbors. She pocketed the money and left only a mattress in the middle of the floor. She put a note on top of it.

“It said that he would never, ever, in this life, put his hands on me again.”

That night, she was on the bus with her two daughters.


‘A miracle worker’

“What did they remove in the surgery?” she is asked.

“Five inches of my colon,” she says, “and two lymph nodes.”

She sighs. Around her neck is a thin pair of red earbuds, through which she listens to a local gospel station, Praise 102.7 FM, to get her through the treatment. She drove to the hospital alone and will drive home alone.

“I can walk after the chemo, but sometimes I stumble,” she says. “Or walking down a hall, I’ll need to lean against the wall. Those halls in the Fisher Building, they’re long, and my walking is really slow now.”

She pushes up a lovely smile, sweet, almost seductive, which has won her many friends — and perhaps too many admirers — in her past.

“I’m not as fast on my feet as I used to be,” she says.

In Evansville, she tried to find cleaning jobs, but there was nothing available. Her best girlfriend, Helga Loving, with whom she stayed, suggested adult dancing, Bailey says, “because they paid big money — like $7 an hour back then.”

Bailey recalls going to the Busy Body Lounge in Evansville and getting the job. For the better part of the next 15 years, she danced in different bars and lounges around Indiana.

“I believed in making people laugh, ’cause of all the things that I had been through,” she says. “I would always crack jokes … always do funny stuff to make a person smile… and I would talk to them, have conversations, because I believe you don’t never know what another person has been through if you don’t walk in their shoes. …

“I wasn’t proud of dancing. But I did what I had to do to feed my kids. I put my pride in my back pocket and went and made that money. I’d take some of the tips and put them in glass jars and when they were filled up, I’d give them to my kids and we’d buy toys and things.”

She had two more children in Indiana, with two different men. Neither of them married her. Neither of them stayed. Bailey raised the family, three girls and a boy, as she did most things, on her own.

“Despite all that, I remember mostly being happy,” Crystal, her daughter, recalls. “We had food on the table and a roof over our heads. It’s hard for me to figure out sometimes how my mother made all that possible, one woman with four kids. She was definitely a hard worker. More of a miracle worker, really.”

Early in her time in Evansville, Bailey got a phone call from Detroit.

Darrell was dead.

“My father said someone beat him up real badly and left him in a car in a garage. You reap what you sow. …

“That man had put the fear of God in me. I was scared of him. Petrified of him. And I thought I was obligated because I had two kids by him.”

She came home to attend his funeral. She looked at his body in the casket.

“I said, ‘I told you, you would never again touch me in this life.’ I ask God to forgive me for the feelings I have, but I know I would not be here today if he had lived. He would have come after me.”

At the urging of her parents, Bailey returned to Evansville that same night. She lived there, all told, for nearly 20 years. Her dancing career ended abruptly, after spending an evening at the club with a tall, thin, well-dressed man in his 30s.

“We drank and laughed and played pool and played on the pinball machine,” she says. “We had a good time. He stayed there until the bar closed.

“The next day I came to work and someone said he killed himself. Hanged himself. I just started crying and screaming. To have someone just be sitting at a table with you and then he’s gone. It threw me for a loop.”

She shakes her head.

“I quit dancing the next day.”


A major turn

Back in the hospital, a nurse comes to unhook the chemotherapy from the IV drip. She adjusts new tubes inside a portable unit, wraps up the soft black case and hands it to Bailey. They go through the motions with familiarity, no questions, no advice. Bailey, the drugs still dripping in through her chest, is asked whether she will be escorted out or taken in a wheelchair.

“Oh, no,” she says, leaning forward and pushing down on the footrest. “I’ll walk to the garage and drive myself outta here.”

Bailey is used to steering her life; she took a major turn in Evansville. After quitting adult dancing, she turned to the church and got involved with the Evansville Christian Life Center. She worked with its food donations programs, and the center helped her with her bills. She later worked with AmeriCorps VISTA, and helped establish a recycle shop called Teacher’s Treasure, which salvages scraps from companies and turns them into art supplies.

Eventually, in 2002, she came back to Detroit to be closer to her family. She got — and remains — very involved with the Love Joy Ministries Church of God in Christ on Greeley Street. Two years ago, her father, Eddie Bailey, passed away. Before he died, he revealed that he was not Bailey’s actual father.

“I always felt different from my brothers and sisters,” she said. “I never knew why until then. I asked my mother why she never told me, but she just said, ‘Don’t worry about the man who was your father; worry about the man who cared for and provided for you.’ He made me the strong woman I am today.”


Modest wish list

Diane Bailey is not widely different from many women heading Detroit households. The fleeting fathers, dependent relatives, health issues, and addictive or violent characters that dot her life recall many stories told on our streets. And a recent United Way survey showed that 67% of Detroit families can’t afford to cover their basic needs, even if someone in the household is employed.

Bailey has supported herself and others for nearly 40 years, never seeing any job as beneath her. She recently, reluctantly, requested medical disability, with her doctor endorsing it in a letter that cites side effects from chemotherapy as well as “chronic lower back pain, arthritis in her knees, hypertension and CAD with a cardiac stent” — none of which Bailey mentions in discussion.

“I wouldn’t mind sitting down for a while and just trying to get better,” is all she says.

But with that, she rises and walks through the infusion room, stopping at the nurses’ station to tell them “I love you.” She waves at several people, who smile at her Christmas getup. She may look like a Santa, but given her economic situation, that’s as close as she will come this year.

“I didn’t get my children nothing last year,” she says. “Or the year before. I tried to get the grandchildren something, but if I can’t afford anything, I crochet them a pillow or a blanket. With the chemo now, I can’t crochet no more.”

She lifts her gloves.

“My hands.”

Her wish list, when asked, is modest. A bed for her brother, and maybe one for herself, because she sleeps on an old mattress atop a rickety frame. Some cleaning supplies for her mother. And a game of some kind for her grandchildren.

“It won’t happen this year,” she says. “But it is what it is. We make do.”

She tightens her coat over the black pack. “Nobody need to see this,” she says.

This is what poor looks like in Detroit. It wears a Santa hat and portable chemo, and drives itself home to sleep. On the way out of the parking lot, the mechanical arm lifts and Diane Bailey notes that, when you get a chemo treatment, you don’t have to pay the $2.50 parking fee.

“So I save some money there, that’s good,” she says, turning toward home, enduring all the way.


Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter@mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go


Where are they now …

In August, Free Press columnist Mitch Albom wrote the first installment of his new series, “What Poor Looks Like: The spirit and struggles of people getting by.”

He told the story of a brother and sister — Margaret Terry, 72, and John Glover, 66 — who lived in the deteriorating house from their childhood on 25th Street. The house, on a nearly abandoned block in Detroit, had rotting floors and no running water.

Terry had taught Stevie Wonder to play piano with two hands. Glover had been his earliest musical partner and eventually enjoyed a successful songwriting career, which included the No. 1 single “You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be In My Show)” in the 1970s.

But in the past decade, they hit rock bottom financially and could do nothing to repair their home, which, Albom wrote, was “slowly being reclaimed by the earth.”

The fortunes for Terry and Glover have improved immensely in past few months. They will enjoy Christmas in a refurbished home in the Warrendale neighborhood, provided through a housing program by S.A.Y. Detroit, a charity Albom started after the Super Bowl in 2006, and Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries. Terry and Glover received the house at no cost but must pay for the utilities and taxes.

A gold record Glover earned hangs on a wall. And the old piano that launched Wonder’s career has an honored place in the living room. However, plans are under way for a private donor to purchase the piano and give it to the Motown Museum.

How you can help 

Donations to help Detroiter Diane Bailey and her family can be made to S.A.Y. Detroit Seniors in partnership with Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries. To donate, call 313-993-4700 from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. today or weekdays; go to (specify for Diane Bailey), or send a check to S.A.Y. Detroit Seniors, c/o Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries, P.O. Box 312087, Detroit 48231 (specify for Bailey).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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