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Death and Life and Death





Michael Allender


Copyright 2014 Michael Allender


Shakespir Edition


(The tenth in a series of fourteen stories)


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Death and Life and Death

(Story # 10)


April, 1956. All across east Texas the fifteenth of that month was a bright spring day heavy with the scent of wine cups and bluebonnets, and rife with the song of mockingbirds. I remember it especially well because two things of note happened at about the same time. Ben and I were walking in a grassy field to the west of our house when we frightened a nighthawk off her nest. We each took a quick look at the two eggs, then retreated a good distance so the mother would return, but she would not. She soared and dipped, her long thin wings beating the air in a staccato frenzy, but she would not light. It was as though once her cover was exposed and her secret brought to light, there could be no going back. The eggs were gone the next day.

Later that evening our mother’s sister, Aunt Sherry, who to me always evoked the flighty spirit of an overly energetic bird, entered the hospital in Bryan in the terminal stages of ovarian cancer. Her silky cheeks, which seemed to reflect the petal-pink hue of Indian paintbrush, a crop of hair that I once represented in a drawing as a lion running across a field, its mane on fire—these outward appearances of radiant health were a facade. Her cover too, had vanished, and the deadly secret she had held within her for an unknown time, was laid bare for all to read. The disease had spread to her kidneys, bowels and liver, and there was very little time left, in that variable measure we call a life span.

She wasn’t the first woman on our mother’s side of the family to suffer the ravages of this disease, nor would she be the last. But for the three Joules children, it was an oddity. Outside of seriously ailing livestock, the kids of the Joules’ family had never been exposed to the dark, corporeal secrets of hospitals. Not until Sherry’s case. We didn’t know what to make of it, nor how to act, though we did have a kind of reverent faith in Dr. Hobsome, our family physician. His bedside manner alone instilled the tonic of good cheer and hope in his patients, and no matter what misery visited us, his words, potions and hands-on-deeds always guided us toward recovery. But this was a pox beyond the curative reach of worried smiles, strong will and potions.

The other cancer sprouting from our family tree had been Grandma Quint, Mom’s mother, who died of the same disease before we were born. So for us, cancer was little more than an uncomfortable word, one that raised eyebrows and sharpened hearing, an evil that happened to old people, those known only through stories told around family albums. It was a word that pertained to the unlucky, and to others. Now, however, it became a part of our family vocabulary, a thing to face, ponder over and wait out.

We had just celebrated Sherry’s thirty-fifth birthday a month before, and she had the energy of a spring lamb searching for its first drink of milk. Her auburn hair, still endowed with the bounce of youth, fell in beautiful curls down her back, and the glow in her cheeks reminded me of sun blushed peaches. Her hazel eyes were inquisitive and kind, an effect that was enhanced by the prominent cheekbones that gave her a permanent, crinkled smile. She was the picture of country health. And forgotten or unknown? Not Aunt Sherry. A well-loved personality in our tight little community, she frequently visited our home. I cannot remember her ever arriving anywhere, even unexpectedly, without a freshly baked pie of some kind tucked inside a round wicker basket and covered with an embroidered cloth. Her specialty was persimmon, and when it came to pie making, luck played no role. Perfection showed in every detail, right down to the intricate latticework that was her trademark.

I don’t know if one can cultivate luck or not, but she was certainly proved bereft of its charm. At a birthday party for me on April the seventh she developed severe pains in her abdomen.

“It’s probably just a touch of food poisoning,” Dad told her.

Ben had been in charge of barbecuing some pork ribs that evening and he paled at the thought that he might have undercooked the meat. “You’d better go see Doc Hobsome,” he said nervously. “He’ll give you a physic,” meaning any kind of medicine.

Aunt Sherry insisted on staying and finishing the meal, saying it was probably just a female cramp. Oh, to have been so lucky. Nearly three weeks later she heard the diagnosis: ovarian cancer, probably terminal. I knew what ovaries were, and I knew that cancer named a mysterious and terrible disease, but I had to look up terminal to see how it might apply in this case. ‘Terminal—pertaining to or causing the end of life’, leered up at me from the dictionary. On the day Mom and Dad told us the news, I went in search of Ben to begin some of that pondering.

I finally tracked him down on the wild side of Peach Creek under a giant hickory, his pant legs still wet. He sat staring up at the fox squirrels that were trying to go about their business while keeping an eye on the intruders. I sat down on the farm side of Peach Creek, a muddy waterway of less than fifteen feet in width, and I too sought comfort from the activity and zeal of the squirrels. I couldn’t get the word ‘death’ out of my mind, and the thought occurred to me that you never find a dead squirrel in the woods. Except when you kill one yourself, they seem to live forever.

“If we all looked alike, like squirrels do,” I said aloud, hoping to fill the uncomfortable space between us, “maybe we’d never die. Or least you’d never notice it. There’d always be another one, just like you.” Ben remained silent, but I knew he understood the drift of my talk. “You think maybe that’s right?” Even at that time I felt him wise beyond his years, and he usually had a good way with language. But strong emotions cloud the mind and make words hard to track down. At such times speaking becomes like getting clean after mucking out milking stalls: you simply have to start somewhere, just say something to get things going.

“Sherry’s not like anybody else,” he said. I’d never seen such darkness visit him, and I had never seen him so despondent and sick at heart. There was nothing I could do, but I had to get it out of me. That word was stuck like a crosswise bone in my throat.

“I looked up terminal,” I said. “You know what it is?” Ben stiffened, then he picked up a fallen nut and thumped it with his thumb into the creek. He quietly watched the ripples, then got up with the deliberation of an old man.

“Remember the railroad station?” he said. “The one used to be in Navasota—the terminal? Well, it’s gone, Ab. Here one day, and then it’s gone.” He thumped another nut into the creek and walked into the woods.

He was certainly right about our aunt: Sherry Grayson was a woman apart. Not so much the way she looked, though even in her physical aspects you could always pick her out in a crowd. Though endowed with a heavy frame capable of bearing considerable weight, she was lean as a field chicken. “There’s not a lick of fat on you, Sherry,” Dad liked to say as he pinched her in the side, and that always brought a smile from Ben and a frown from Mother. Unlike my mother, who was forever turning away second helpings at the table but still had to battle the bulge, Sherry often wore her favorite old gingham dresses, ones she had acquired fresh out of high school. Sometimes I think it was just because she could, a little ribbing of Mother.

It was her energy that stuck in your mind, though. The busiest person I ever met, seemingly unable to find a place to settle for more than a few seconds at a time. Dinner at her house was like being waited on hand and foot by a pack of servants, and I doubt she ever spent more than ten minutes, all told, seated at the table. “I just remembered the potatoes,” she’d say, and away she’d go to the kitchen. “We need a plate for those bones, don’t we?” After another bite for herself, “I’d better check on that pie.” Up and down, changing dishes, recharging drinks, chattering constantly. And she wouldn’t be ignored, either. She wasn’t just talking to exercise her jaws; she wanted your attention. “Horace Joules?” she’d say, “Look here at me. Will you eat the rest of these baby carrots?” and she’d hold a spoonful of them up for him to study.

I sometimes felt she actually fed on other people’s energy, sucking it right out of them and re channeling it to herself. Which made her disease ironic, for it sucked the strength from her body and channeled it into worthless tissue that swelled within her like a dozen giant leeches.

Sherry was a favorite relative of all of us, but Ben had a special relationship with her, one that went beyond her persimmon pies. Though married, Sherry had no children of her own. Since the time of Ben’s birth she had doted on him, teaching him to read, knitting sweaters for him, even helping with his 4-H projects. He truly became the child she never had, and though she treated me with affection as well, Ben captivated her, and I think he liked Sherry more than he did his own mother. No wonder he felt so frustrated when she became ill, for he was unable to do anything to help. Ben’s very nature was to help, and his frustration led him down a path he could not have imagined.

The advanced nature of the disease forced the doctors to offer a difficult choice. Surgery was useless, but there were a handful of poisonous drugs they could give that might offer a few more months of agonized life. Or they could make her as comfortable as possible when the body functions began to deteriorate and the pain increased, which would happen all too soon. There was precious little else medicine could offer.

Sherry had to make the choice, and in the end no one second-guessed her decision. The chemotherapy would require hours of sitting still while the drugs were infused into her veins, then hours more of unbearable nausea as the chemicals coursed throughout her body. I could not imagine her busy self-accepting such forced agony. Though a very kind and giving person, she was also quite vain, taking great pride in the thick, lustrous hair that fell from her head and brushed the lower half of her back. She was not prepared to suffer the loss of her crowning glory. Her husband, Travis, wanted her to try anything at all that might offer hope, but she was adamant: there would be no chemotherapy. “I’ll live whatever life I have left with as much enthusiasm as I can muster,” she told Travis. “And I plan on being buried with a full head of hair, thank you very much.”

And so it came to be, though her energy and enthusiasm for life lasted only a scant one more month. “Never mind how long life is,” were words Ben and I heard her say the last time we saw her in the hospital. “One day at a time; that’s all you get. Make each day your life, and help where you can. Death comes knocking soon enough.”

Her words whipped and stirred my emotions into a froth, and my lack of control seemed to transport me back into childhood where questions were a game, only this time no one had any answers. Angry, and disappointed, I could not understand how she would let this thing get her. It wasn’t like a case of scours that can ravage a calf in a day. There were no visible wounds to shock and convince the mind of hopelessness. Only a young woman, she was a vibrant peach one day and the next, her bloom grayed and covered with terminal decay. I couldn’t understand why she couldn’t direct some of her energy for living against death’s knock. Just don’t answer it, I said to myself. Don’t go through that door. Ben had to console me, though his hurt was much the greater.

And from his comforting there arose a determination as well. “Help where you can,” she had said. No stranger to charity, Ben decided to spend some additional time doing just that, and where better than at the hospital. Maybe he was visiting his personal demons, getting to know the enemy better, or perhaps he sought answers to weighty questions. He wouldn’t explain it, but after the emotionally charged funeral of Aunt Sherry, Ben went to the hospital in Bryan and enrolled in a volunteer program that brought high school students into the realm of the hurt, sick and dying. Besides fostering an interest in the field of medicine and providing help to the always overworked hospital staff, the participants received valuable lessons about the role of love and compassion in the face of hurt and fear. They also learned something of the wisdom of maintaining a safe emotional distance.

Ben first took on the role of employing the business end of a mop and broom, then he became a gopher, ferrying supplies from place to place. Designated an orderly next, he began to acquire the vocabulary of emergencies and nursing. At first he pronounced it a graduation, a step up from the slosh of antiseptic on linoleum, a reprieve from an intimate acquaintance with unknown recesses in toilet bowls. But he discovered that there are indignities at every level of human health care.

One of his jobs was assisting patients being readied for X-rays by showing them to the changing rooms, instructing them on how to put on the cotton gowns, then leading them down the hall to the proper room. One patient, having trouble breathing, was due for a chest X-ray, and Ben followed close behind him in the narrow hall, ready to offer a hand if he stumbled. A frail old man, he had not been able to properly tie the string that held the blue gown together in the back. Ben closed in, trying to knot it and relieve some of the discomfort that he, at least, felt, on viewing the man’s backside. What the patient had failed to disclose to the admitting nurse, was that he was also having bowel trouble. Ben later found it to be a fairly common theme among elderly patients who were merely trying to reserve some shred of dignity and control, even when control was conspicuously absent—as it turned out to be with the old man. Unaccustomed to walking barefoot, he stumbled slightly, and as Ben grasped him with a steadying hand, the open partition in the rear of the gown erupted with the watery contents of the man’s bowels. The old man was horrified, Ben was soiled and speechless, and dignity vanished completely. Ben told us how he just stood there for the longest minute of his life, afraid to move, trying to reassure the old man, until a nurse arrived and restored a sense of order and control.

“Go to the janitorial supply and get a mop and bucket of water,” she told Ben. “Then change clothes. I’ll take care of the patient.”

As a child I thought of hospitals as safe refuges, and I’m sure Ben did too. But there were other lessons he discovered as well. He heard frequent talk, spoken quietly among the doctors and nurses, of secondary infections. Cleanliness was a kind of religion, and antiseptics were used like baptismal waters. But invariably, several times a week, another patient would face a fight with invaders acquired during his or her stay for unrelated illness or injury. Ben befriended one of the patients when he learned of the man’s past as a government trapper. Admitted for surgery to remove a bone spur on a toe, he had developed a staff infection in the wound. The disease did not respond well to antibiotics, and when gangrene set in, the leg had to be amputated at the knee.

“It’s not fair,” Ben told me that evening when he came home. “You shouldn’t get sick when you come to the hospital.” But then he learned something about resilience when the grizzled man shrugged it off. “Save the thing for me, will you, Sonny?” he jokingly said to Ben. “I’ll skin it out and maybe stuff it. It’d make a nice lamp.” The macabre thought and the man’s indomitable spirit cheered Ben enormously.

Lesson number one on how to deal with loss. Lesson number two came from a pretty teenager named Meredith Lindsey Wise. Ben was absolutely captivated by her, and found that she lived in Houston. She had become ill with tonsillitis while in Bryan to visit friends. When her throat became so sore she couldn’t speak, she entered the hospital to have the inflamed tonsils removed. Ben spent as much time as he could spare, regaling her with stories of his life on the farm, intoxicated with her smile and the way she squeezed his hand at the end of each story. When Ben asked her if he could do anything for her before her surgery, she wrote out that she would like a set of Crayons and some paper. He obliged her and said he would return when she had awakened from the anesthesia. It was the last time he ever saw her, however, as other events kept him on the farm until after she had gone home. When he got back to the hospital and inquired about her, the resident nurse on that floor handed him a piece of paper. She had drawn a yellow sun above a field of black-eyed Susans, through which walked a young couple holding hands. At the bottom was a poem, one apparently inspired by her shining knight in a bright yellow smock.



Yellow is a daffodil, blooming in spring.

Yellow’s a high note that some people sing.

Yellow’s a canary, chirping in its cage.

Yellow the memories that come with old age.

Yellow is happiness, yellow is fun,

Yellow is lemonade, and soft summer sun.

In autumn, when leaves are turning red,

Yellow’s the quilt, warm on your bed.

At Christmas time, when we sing Noel,

Yellow’s a citrusy, wassail smell.

Yellow’s the sound of a baby’s laughter,

Yellow is Ben and me, happy ever after.


Ben made an effort to find Meredith, but she had vanished into the world of the big city. He mourned that loss for several days, moping around and feeling sorry for himself, but eventually the rigors of his duties dulled the memories and lifted his depression.

Most of the student volunteers kept away from the truly traumatic aspects of hospital care, but a few of the more capable and promising individuals were weaned of hand patting and toilet cleaning and moved up the ladder. Ben seemed content working in the general wards, but because of his strength and perhaps due to his experience on a farm, they eventually shunted him to the emergency room to assist however he could. Though not qualified for anything technical, his strong shoulders were needed to help lift gurneys from the ambulance and to transfer patients to examination tables.

The Bryan hospital was quite busy for its size, the best facility within an eighty-mile radius. On weekends the Texas A&M College cadets raced off in their cars to find dates, often finding misfortune on the narrow highways instead. That source, along with plenty of good ole’ boy conflicts and the normal amount of homespun accidents, provided Ben with more shocked faces and bloody limbs than he cared for. But as with most people in continual contact with such sights, he grew used to it enough that he stopped feeling the rush of blood to his face when he opened the ambulance doors onto a scene of gore and organized chaos.

Then one Thursday evening a forty-year old sheet metal worker, perhaps too eager to head to his favorite watering hole, got a little careless. An ambulance took him to the Bryan hospital where an intern doctor, two nurses, two orderlies and Ben were on duty. When the ambulance rolled in, the orderlies pulled a man out whose left hand was wrapped by a mass of bloody bandages, then placed him on a gurney and wheeled him inside. The emergency worker in the ambulance picked up a plastic bucket, reached inside and pulled out a glove, and told Ben to take it to the doctor caring for the patient.

Ben had learned to do as he was told without thinking about it too much. Analysis of the situation was not yet his prerogative, so he reached out and took the glove. The unexpected weight and resilience of the thing in his hand surprised him. His mental workings had already sorted things out, providing a logical explanation, but as he walked into the hospital a normal curiosity pulled his eyes to the glove’s opening and he viewed the end of the hand, severed at the wrist. A butcher’s cleaver could not have done a cleaner job, and the end of the appendage looked like a textbook cross section of bones, veins and muscle. A wave of revulsion washed over him and he barely had time to pass the handed glove to a nurse before rushing out and losing his afternoon snack.

Later in the weekend, when a young boy was brought in from a vehicle accident and pronounced dead while Ben looked on, he had had enough. He transferred back upstairs, immersing himself in the more familiar environs of intact people, even though many were desperately ill. This time it was the oncology ward, its halls infused with the sickly sweet odors of chemotherapy, its rooms filled with false hopes and genuine pain. It became the completion of a circle for Ben, a face-off with fears that were brought into his life from the trauma of Sherry’s death, for in this small wing of the hospital he encountered the ugliest work of the devil. All of the Joules were to be immersed in the experience, and though it marked a rite of passage for us kids, it also marked the beginning of the end of us as an intact family. On a warm June afternoon another patient was admitted to the oncology ward, another woman with yet another case of ovarian cancer.

Ben’s newest charge, the eldest daughter of Vera Quint and the older sister of Sherry Grayson, was Ima Raye Joules, our very own mother.



{Author’s Note: The eleventh story in this series of fourteen stories, Little Stinkers, will be published soon. Go to Shakespir.com to see if it is available, as well as other works by the author, including his novel, Alone, On The Wild Side Of The River.}


Death and Life and Death

Abbie Joules, younger sister of Benjamin Joules (Bendigo), recalls a difficult 'coming of age' for both herself and her brother as they live their lives on a hard-scrabble farm in east Texas during the 40's and 50's. Their aunt Sherry, to whom Bendigo is especially fond, succumbs to a deadly disease, and Bendigo is forced to face this mystery of the end of life. Dealing with his own sorrow, he decides to volunteer at the hospital, and from this perspective he learns additional valuable--and hard--lessons. His final encounter at the hospital not only marked a rite of passage, but also the beginning of the end of the Joules family.

  • ISBN: 9781370273768
  • Author: Michael Allender
  • Published: 2016-08-26 06:05:11
  • Words: 4006
Death and Life and Death Death and Life and Death