Saturday, March 10, 2012


Noon came and went before the doctor finally got there, Marlene Mae Haegar’s blood still wet on his clothes.


Like a tribe worshipping a false idol, we sat bowed around the big Philco radio in the living room, leaning forward not to miss a single word Rochester said about Jack Benny and his cheapskate ways. My brother Hursey came busting in, raring to tell Mother something or other. Although I motioned him to wait a minute, it was too late – we’d missed the funny part. It was done without giving it a thought, that hand I held up to stop Hursey from interrupting, but there was a look on his face I’d never noticed before, maybe because I wasn’t much interested in anything that didn’t have me in the center of it. Yet the hurt I sensed come over my brother at that moment came over me as well.

Grandma told me the story about when my brother was sick. It wasn’t like him not to be underfoot every minute, but one day he took to laying around, all the energy sucked out of him. Then he started complaining of a headache and felt warm. By suppertime he was burning with a fever that compresses didn’t do a thing to bring down. Next day he was vomiting and said his neck hurt, so the company doctor in Lynwynn, that’s the coal camp where they were living at the time, was sent for. But first he had to deliver Marlene Mae Haegar’s baby up Yell Again Holler. Marlene was having some trouble, so the doctor couldn’t say when, but he promised to come when he could.

Yell Again Holler got its name because it was so narrow ever little noise carried so far that if you wanted someone who lived along the flats, you just stood at the bottom and yelled the name of who you wanted to come down to meet you. You were sure to be heard by the first house; they’d yell again to the next, and so on, until word got to the right person.

The doctor delivered a baby boy to Marlene, a blue baby who never took his first breath. She was bleeding bad, so he’d had to tend to her, the baby dark and lifeless in her arms, before he could start for our house.

Noon came and went before the doctor finally got there, Marlene Mae Haegar’s blood still wet on his clothes. Grandma heated a basin of water and sliced off a piece of lye soap so he could wash up before he looked down Hursey’s throat and in his ears and up his nose and listened to the gurgles of his stomach and the beatings of his heart, prodding and poking at his little boy body. She remembered a streak on the doctor’s forehead where he’d pushed his hair aside with a bloody hand when he was tending Marlene. Funny how some little thing like that will stick in your mind.

Grandma stewed an old rooster until the meat on his bones fell off, thickened up the broth, and pinched off biscuit dough to make the kind of puffy dumplings Hursey liked. Still, he only ate a bite or two. The doctor was another story. He hadn’t eaten a hot meal since the day before, so he made up for it by downing a big portion of that rooster along with generous helpings from the pot of leatherbritches simmering on the stove - potatoes, onion, and a hamhock jiggling in the broth. Leatherbritches were green beans threaded onto strings and hung from the ceiling to dry, which toughened up the shells. If you wanted a mess of leatherbritches ready for supper, you had best put them on the fire before you measured out the coffee for breakfast.

He sure hated to eat and run, the doctor said, pulling off the napkin he’d tucked under his collar to protect his stained green necktie, but there’s a baby over yonder past the tipple just waiting to be born. Pray to God this young’un has a better outcome than the last. Try to get some broth down the boy, he said, and keep on with the wet rags too. There’s little else to be done.

All that time he was talking to Grandma, looking right past my mother.

Let me tell you, being ignored like that did not set well with her. When the doctor picked up his black valise to leave, Mother reared right up on her hind legs and told the doctor this was her child, and she knew a place something else could be done. She had driven a car since she was fourteen years old, so she’d picked Hursey up then and there and carried him out, all swaddled in a quilt, and laid him on the back seat.

My daddy and Grandpa were both down in the mines and there was no way to get word to them, so Mother drove through a snow storm to the hospital in Beckley, leaving Grandma to tend to my sister Vonnie, her still a babe in arms.

A man saw Mother struggling up the icy hospital steps, Hursey a dead weight in her arms, and took him from her and carried him inside. The man smelled of antiseptic and another odor she couldn’t name, camphor maybe, and when she followed him through the double doors those same odors, stronger still and mixed with bleach, sickened her stomach. She swallowed hard to quell the urge to retch. When she saw a Christmas tree in the corner of the room, she realized it was the pine she smelled. Unable to think of Christmas now, only days away, she turned her back on the tree and its hateful red and green lights.

The overheated waiting room steamed with faceless people in woolen sweaters and scarves and coats that gave off the odor of wet dogs. They hadn’t made her wait in that room though, and she was grateful to the man for that. Turned out he was the first of many doctors brought in to shake their heads over this child who was sick unto death.

The doctor ordered the nurses to strip Hursey and put him in and out of an ice bath until they got his temperature down. Over the next day or two they put him through every test they knew to do. The worst were the spinal taps, holding him down while they stabbed long needles into his back that made him scream like an animal. And the next day they did it again. Finally the big shot doctors who were pretty near as useless as the company doctor from home, least by her way of thinking, came up with a name for what my brother had.
Spinal meningitis.

It was a relief in a way to put a name to the enemy they were fighting.

But that was before she knew exactly what it was they were dealing with. The doctor who carried Hursey into the hospital explained that this spinal meningitis was an infection caused by bacteria that somehow got into the bloodstream and settled in the spinal cord and the brain. He was trying a course of sulfa drugs, but she should know she had a very sick boy. It was a fearsome battle ahead, and make no mistake, this disease could kill him.
If Hursey had only got the spinal meningitis a few years later, they might have given him penicillin shots, and that would have cured him before the disease took its hold. But it was 1937 he got sick. It wasn’t until 1944 that a patient at Fairmont General Hospital in West Virginia became the first person ever to be treated with a full course of penicillin. Fairmont was only a hundred and fifty mile drive from Beckley. But for seven years of time and one hundred fifty miles of distance, my brother might not have lost his hearing.

Of course, everybody was praying God would perform a miracle. Several went with Grandpa to the hospital and layed on hands and prayed that Hursey be delivered from the sickness that had him in its grip, but it wasn’t to be. Days passed with him in that bed, his neck rigid, the slightest movement causing him to cry out in pain. Unable to take more than a few sips of water laced with a little sugar and salt, his baby fat melted off, and muscle too, leaving only the skin and bones of him, at first feverish and convulsing then pale and still. But he was a fighter. And Grandma gave God the glory for that, for giving Hursey that fighting spirit.

No matter how many times he let her down, Grandma could always find something good to say about God.

Doctors came and stood over Hursey’s bed, defeat showing in the slump of their shoulders as they walked away not knowing whether he’d pull through another night. Yet pull through he did. After a few weeks, he began to improve. His eyes stayed open longer. And he was able to eat some. Bananas and custard and melted ice cream began to fill out the hollows of his face. Soon he could sit up in bed, then in a chair. Before long he was walking around the halls. Finally the day came he got to go home and be the child he was meant to be, playing in the yard and getting dirty like little boys will.

One day Mother called him for supper, but he never even looked up. She walked to where he sat holding a wooden car his daddy had made him for Christmas, which they’d put off celebrating until he got home. Hursey Clev, come on and eat before it gets cold, she’d said to him, thinking he was caught up in some little boy daydream of snips and snails and puppy dog tails. But when he still didn’t take notice, she’d reached down and touched his blond head.

It startled him, and he looked up puzzled.

I imagined my brother watching Mother’s mouth form shapes that floated toward him and dissolved into the air without making a sound.

And Mother would have felt the words he breathed out tremble her eardrums and make waves in her head until she finally allowed herself forced herself willed herself to hear what he was telling her plain as day.

Mommy, I can’t hear you.

He was five years old.

I didn’t understand why despite all the prayers of people of unbounded faith God went against his word and turned a blind eye on my brother. And I told Grandma so.

Not thy will, but mine be done, Grandma reminded me, like she’d heard Him say it yesterday.

I wondered why healing my brother wouldn’t be God’s will. From what I knew, Hursey hadn’t acted near as bad as me. Maybe I’d turn up deaf too. Or something worse.

Grandma said it wasn’t for us to know why. One day God would reveal his plan in all its glory and we’d understand clear as could be.

Doctors, specialists in hearing, tested my brother and fitted him with hearing aids, bulky black boxes that strapped to his chest with ugly wires running to earpieces that hurt his tender ears and didn’t help him hear even the loudest sound. He was stone deaf and no hearing aid would ever help. But they sold the useless things to my mother anyway, one after the other, always a newer better one, and for high prices too. Of course, it was really hope she was paying for. And sometimes hope comes in a black box with a high price.

One day Hursey ripped his earpieces out and sent the newest ugly box, wires flailing from it like tentacles, into our backyard fishpond to drown under the water lilies. He refused to wear hearing aids again, or to listen to anybody who tried to get him to. And if my brother didn’t want to listen, he had the perfect solution.

He simply closed his eyes.


Drema Hall Berkheimer, a Beckley native, is completing a memoir, RUNNING ON A RED DOG ROAD and Other Perils of An Appalachian Childhood. Gypsies, moonshiners, and snakehandlers embolden her tales of childhood in 1940’s West Virginia after her father is killed in the coalmines and her mother goes off to work as a Rosie the Riveter, leaving her with devout Pentecostal grandparents. She won First Place Nonfiction and First Honorable Mention Nonfiction in the 2010 WV Writers Competition and is published in WV South, The Beckley Register-Herald Divine Magazine. Plain Spoke, Flashquake, Brevity, Long Story Short, Persimmon Tree, Babel Fruit, Burnt Bridge, Southern Women’s Review, Muscadine Lines, The Dead Mule, Dew on the Kudzu, River Poets Journal, WV Writers, Military Writers Society of America and others. She does readings for groups and has judged various literary competitions. Affiliations include WV Writers, Salon Quatre, and The Writer’s Garret in Dallas.