The comedian's wife of 30 years tells PEOPLE her grief "comes in waves"

By Hilary Shenfeld
August 15, 2008 08:45 AM
Ed Geller/Globe

When Bernie Mac was admitted last month into a Chicago hospital with a fever and trouble breathing, his wife, Rhonda, thought he’d get treatment and would be home in a week. But after no signs of improvement, she faced her biggest fear.

“He didn’t look good to me and I knew this could be it,” Rhonda, his wife of 30 years, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue.

The 50-year-old comedian – who suffered from sarcoidosis, an immune system disorder that can affect the lungs – died Aug. 9 of complications due to pneumonia.

The couple had their last exchange a day before his death, as Rhonda stood vigil by his bedside. “I said, ‘Hey Bernard. How are you?’ and I kissed his forehead,” she recalls. “He shrugged his shoulders, like ‘I’m tired’ and I said, ‘I know you’re tired.’ Later on that night, it took a turn for the worse.”

Rhonda and the couple’s daughter, Je’Niece, 30, were ushered into a waiting room, where they received the grim news. “[The doctor] came in and I said, ‘He’s gone, isn’t he?’ and she said ‘yes,’ ” Rhonda recalls.

The family now prepares for Mac’s memorial service, to be held at noon Saturday, Aug. 16 at the 10,000-seat House of Hope in Chicago. His wife says she’s comforted by the support of her family and memories of the man she met when she was a 16-year-old junior and he was a 17-year-old senior at Chicago Vocational High School. She was immediately charmed by his humor.

Memories of Courtship

“He said, ‘You never seen a black man as pretty as me.’ And I said, ‘No, I sure haven’t.’ And he said, ‘Girl, you know I’m so beautiful,'” she remembers.

A few months later, on Valentine’s Day, he asked her to come to his shop class so he could give her something. When she got there, “I said, ‘What do you have for me?’ And he kissed me. That was our first kiss.” The couple wed in 1977 when both were 19-years-old. Daughter Je’Niece was born the following year.

Now facing her life without Mac, Rhonda says her devastation “comes in waves,” adding she still feels her husband’s presence. The day after his death, she listened to the song “Thoughts and Wishes” by Hamilton Bohannon, a tune the couple considered “our song,” Rhonda says.

“I was singing it and a chill just came over me and I knew it was him,” she said. “I get through because I know he’s in a better place now.”