‘I asked if he was in pain and he said no’: Earl Sewell, died aged 72, of Covid-19 | Society

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Earl Sewell was born in Jamaica and was part of the Windrush generation. His parents came to the UK in the 60s, to work in healthcare and construction, leaving Earl and his brother behind to be raised by their grandmother. By 1967, Earl’s parents were settled and sent for their children. Now aged 20, Earl arrived in the UK on a Saturday – and started work the following Monday, at a mattress factory in Birmingham. (His aunt had lined up a job for him.) “He couldn’t believe how cold it was,” says his wife, Jean, 68, a retired social worker. “The winters!”

“I was a bit oblivious to racism before I met Earl, to be honest,” says Jean. Being a mixed-race couple in the 70s was not easy. Some people assumed Jean was a sex worker and Earl was her pimp. On one occasion, their twin sons, Leon and Lloyd, were playing outside the family home when Jean overheard a woman telling them to “go back to where they belong”. Earl told Jean to leave it be, but she marched outside and confronted the woman.

Although Earl lived in the UK for the rest of his life, his heart was in Jamaica. He would regale friends and family with stories of his wayward boyhood years. “He covered his grandmother’s cat in flour and water once and the cat stiffened, like starch,” says Jean. “His grandmother was fuming!” (The cat made a full recovery.)

Earl Sewell and his wife, Jean
Earl Sewell and his wife, Jean, on their wedding day in 1981.

Jean and Earl visited Jamaica every year, to see his family. He seemed visibly to relax back home. “You could see how much he loved it,” says Jean. “He’d have a smoke and drink a Red Stripe or a little rum.” Earl avoided being caught up in the Windrush scandal, because he had applied for and received British citizenship in 1981.

When in Jamaica, Earl would talk to everyone: tourists, locals, workers. He would encourage guests in their hotel to come on tours of the island with him and hire a minivan. “They’d be the sort of people who’d be too scared to leave the hotel,” says Jean, “but Earl would persuade them and we’d take them to lots of places and make friends.” One time, Jean drank cannabis tea on a visit to Bob Marley’s house – cannabis tea is legal in Jamaica – and then she overheated and couldn’t cool down back at the hotel. Earl dragged the mattress off their bed and took it outside for her, so she could be comfortable.

In his retirement, Earl lived a small, contented life. “He would go out and buy a newspaper, put some horse bets on, then watch the horse racing on the TV,” says Jean. “He liked to watch antiques shows or history programmes about Egypt.” Earl had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and had been hospitalised twice with pneumonia, once in December 2017 and once in January 2020, although he was released both times after relatively short stints.

Earl, Jean and their sons
Earl with his wife, Jean, and their sons Lloyd (left) and Leon.

On 13 March, Earl began complaining of breathlessness. Jean called an ambulance, which took him to City hospital. Before getting into the ambulance, Earl checked that Jean had packed his cocoa butter and his comb. At the hospital, Earl was tested for Covid-19 – the results would not come back for a few days – but staff told Jean that he appeared to be doing well.

On 16 March, Jean was woken by Leon and Lloyd, who are 37. They had spoken to the hospital and Earl was not doing well. All three went to the hospital. “The doctor said that Earl had been offered a ventilator,” says Jean, “but he turned it down.” To this day, she is not sure why. “Leon thinks he was ready to go,” she says. Jean gowned up in PPE and was taken through to Earl’s room. In an act of kindness, a nurse waived the one-person visitor restrictions and allowed Leon and Lloyd to enter Earl’s room, too. As Earl was dying, a nurse came in and gave his family the news that he had tested positive for Covid.

Earl was calm. He had written down his funeral wishes on a piece of paper. He wanted to be cremated in a wicker coffin and for his ashes to be scattered on his grandmother’s grave in Jamaica. “I asked if he was in pain,” she says, “and he said no. He was very dignified.” The boys had prepared a speech. “They talked about how they’d had a wonderful upbringing and how much they loved him,” says Jean. They showed Earl photographs of his three-year-old granddaughter, Ariya, whom he adored. Jean held his hand as he died at 3pm. He was 72. Jean is very grateful that she could be there at the end, with their sons.

“It was a dignified death,” she says. “It meant a lot, to be there. It’s difficult to explain how much it meant.” When international travel restrictions lift, she will scatter Earl’s ashes as requested. “Some days I’m coping OK,” she says, of the adjustment to life without her partner of a half-century by her side. “And other days, I go into total meltdown. I’m trying to be strong, for my sons.”

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘I asked if he was in pain and he said no’: Earl Sewell, died aged 72, of Covid-19 | Society

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