High, Wide and Lonesome: Growing Up on the Colorado Frontier, p.18Hal Borland
I was right. It was a quarter of twelve before I saw Mack and the buggy turn in at our trail. I went down to meet them. But when I was close enough to see, Mother was alone.
Mother stopped the buggy and I got in beside her. The first question I asked was, “Where’s Father?”
She tried to smile, but it was an awfully tired smile. “I left him in Brush,” she said. “He’s pretty sick. He’ll probably be there a couple of weeks. How are you? How did you make out? Were you worried when I didn’t get back last night?”
“No,” I said. Then I said, “Well, a little. But I knew you would be home today.”
I let Mother out at the house and took the buggy to the barn and unhitched Mack and put him away. He kept nipping me until I put a few ears of corn in his feed box. When I went to the house Mother had changed her clothes and was heating the chicken and noodles for dinner.
We sat down at the table, but Mother didn’t seem to have much appetite. She picked at a piece of chicken and finally said, “Your father has typhoid fever.”
That meant nothing to me.
“I had typhoid when I was a girl,” she said. “I almost died. They had to keep me wrapped in ice and wet sheets. Afterward I lost all my hair.”
That was hard to believe. Mother had heavy hair so long it reached below her knees when she combed it. I couldn’t imagine Mother without any hair. But it wouldn’t matter so much with Father. He was partly bald anyway.
Mother talked about cases of typhoid fever she had known in Nebraska. It seemed that most of them died. I didn’t know whether she meant Father was going to die too, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask that question. She said the doctor said he was a very sick man, but that the crisis wouldn’t come for another week and that she might as well come home meanwhile. You caught typhoid, the doctor had said, from water or milk. Judging by the time when he took sick, and the fact that Mother and I weren’t sick, Father probably got it before he came home from the mountains, maybe from the stream water he drank while he was fishing.
Finally Mother said, “You know what this means, don’t you? Your father being sick and in the hospital.”
“It means we’ll have to get along with Mack this winter. And we’ll have to make out the best we can with what we have. There will be doctor bills, and the hospital. Oh, I’m so glad we didn’t go right out and spend that money for another horse!”
She sat staring out the window for a moment, then slowly shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said, talking mostly to herself, “I don’t know why things happen the way they do. Unless it’s like Job, in the Bible, God seeing how much a person can bear.… Oh, I shouldn’t talk that way! You are all right, aren’t you? Here, let me feel your head.”
She was satisfied that I hadn’t any fever. “And,” she said, “the way you eat, there’s nothing wrong with your stomach. I guess you’re not going to be sick.” She got up to clear the table. “We’ll just have to do the best we can. That’s all anybody can ask. We’ll make out with what we’ve got, and that’s all there is to it.”
So we settled down to a week of waiting, meanwhile doing the chores and whatever things we could to get ready for another winter of skimping. I put corn through the coffee grinder and sifted out the coarse part and Mother stowed the meal. She hadn’t much grease to make soap, so we dug half a bushel of soapweed roots. Mother tried them and said they might do for washing clothes, but she doubted that soapweed root would get all the dirt out. Hopefully, I dug a buggyload of sagebrush roots and hauled them home to see if they made a good fire. They were hard to burn and they made such a smell that Mother said she’d rather pick up cow chips. So we gathered cow chips and stowed them in the half-empty barn.
And all the time I kept thinking about Father. Remembering the way he looked, and the way he talked, and the stories he told. About the time he was riding a skittish pony and it shied at the railroad tracks and threw him off. He broke one wrist when he fell, but he grabbed for the reins with the other hand. The pony stepped on the other wrist and broke it too, and one of his sisters—he was just a boy, then—had to feed him at the table for two weeks. Or the time he and his brother Walt were swimming in the mill pond and Walt dived and hit his head on a rock and didn’t come up. Father dived in and hauled him out, and when Walt had coughed up all the water in his lungs he had a fight with Father because Father had hauled him out by the hair. The stories about swimming, and fishing, and skating. About the way he and his brothers begged a chicken from their mother and took it down among the horse weeds by the creek and plastered it with mud and roasted it in the campfire. After a while they cracked the baked mud off, and the feathers came off too and they had a fine roast chicken. Except they had forgotten to take out the innards.
And the later stories. How, after he learned the printer’s trade, he worked for a man in Iowa who owned a furniture store as well as the newspaper and was also an undertaker. Father slept in a back room where the man stored his coffins. The story about how his father died of kidney trouble when Father was nineteen. For weeks before he died, Grandfather Borland had been working at some secret project, tapping something on the anvil and hiding it when one of the boys came into the shop. After he was dead, when they went through the desk in his blacksmith shop looking for a record of the money people owed him, they found a dozen tiny horseshoes. Perfect little horseshoes, calked and burnished, just about as big around as a silver dollar. Father’s brothers said Grandfather Borland must have been crazy, but Father said he wasn’t crazy at all.
There were so many stories, and I couldn’t remember them all. There must have been many stories he never got around to telling me. I hoped he would get well soon, so I could hear the rest of them.
The week passed, and Mother said she was going to town the next day. I wanted to go along, but she said, “Not this time. Maybe he’ll be well enough to come home, and it’s pretty crowded with three in the buggy, especially if he’s not feeling very good. But I won’t stay overnight. I’ll come home, even if it’s late.”
All that day, while she was gone, I kept planning what we would do tomorrow, with Father there. He wouldn’t be feeling very well, so I would go ahead doing all the chores. He could rest. And I planned all the things I wanted to ask him, all the stories I wanted him to tell me again.
But Father didn’t come home. Mother didn’t get there till almost eight o’clock and she looked grim and tired and red-eyed. “Your father,” she said, “is an awful sick man. His fever has gone up a hundred and five and they can’t break it.” She sat there in the lamplight, just staring for a moment. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m to phone the doctor from Gary day after tomorrow.” She stood up. “You’d better go to bed, son, and get your sleep.”
Later, in the night, I wakened and heard her crying.
We drove to Gary two days later and Mother telephoned the doctor. When she had finished at the phone she said, “He said he’s still the same. They can’t break the fever. I’m to call him again day after tomorrow.”
Two more days and we went to Gary again. That time when she called the doctor she listened a moment and began to cry. She said, “All right, Doctor, we’ll come right on in.”
I didn’t have to ask any questions. I untied Mack at the hitch rack and we started right to Brush. “He’s worse,” Mother said. “The doctor says his bowels are punctured and he’s getting weaker. He wants us there.”
A little later Mother said, “If we’d thought, we could have stopped and asked Jake to milk Daisy tonight. But I didn’t think we’d have to go on such short notice. Well, Daisy will just have to go unmilked tonight. That’s all there is to it.”
I pushed Mack along at a steady trot, but it was almost five o’clock when we got to town. We drove over to the doctor’s house. There wasn’t a real hospital in Brush. The doctor had fixed up rooms with hospital beds in the lower floor of his house and had a nurse and his wife, who had been a nurse before he marrie
The doctor’s wife, in a white uniform, let us in. “Mrs. Borland,” she said, whispering. “And this is the boy. I’m so glad you got here. Doctor’s been expecting you.”
“How is he?” Mother asked.
The doctor’s wife forced a kind of sympathetic smile. “He’s a very sick man.”
She led us to a room at the end of the hallway. It smelled of strange drugs, the first hospital smell I had known. Something about the doctor’s wife and the whole place made me aware of sickness and death as I had never before been aware. I tried to walk on tiptoe and I felt the tears pushing up inside.
The door of the room was part way open. Inside I saw the doctor beside the bed. In the bed was a stranger who looked a little like Father. His face was all bones and a tallowy white color. His mouth was partly open. He was breathing in little quick gasps. His eyes were closed. His hands lay on the sheet, his stubby fingers looking too big for the thin bones of his arms.
The doctor saw us and beckoned us inside. As we edged over to the bed I felt the tears on my cheeks. The doctor said, “They’re here,” speaking to Father.
Father opened his eyes. They were as big as saucers. He looked at us but he didn’t see us. He ran his yellowish tongue over his dry lips and whispered, “Sarah. Sarah, why don’t you come? I want to talk to you, Sarah!” He sighed, and for a long moment there wasn’t any breathing at all. Then the quick respirations began again. His eyes closed and he seemed to sleep.
“He was rational just a little while ago,” the doctor said. “Now he’s in delirium again.”
Mother took Father’s hand, but it was no use. His hand was listless.
We left the room. The doctor followed us. He took us to a small waiting room at the front of the house. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Borland,” he said. “I thought he might know you. You’d better wait here. He may have another rational period, and I’ll call you.”
“Doctor,” Mother said, “tell me the truth. Is he dying?”
The doctor fingered the lodge emblem on his watch chain. “It’s touch and go,” he said. “We’re doing all we can.” He drew a deep breath. “I’m afraid he’s pretty near at the end of his strength. That’s why I told you to come.”
For a moment there was a look of panic in Mother’s face; then her jaw tightened and her eyes flashed. She looked the way she had that night after Dick and Shorty got the death camas. “Doctor,” she said, “I didn’t come in here to watch him die!”
The doctor cleared his throat. He looked at his fingers. “We’re doing all we can,” he said, and he turned and left us.
We sat down and waited. We waited an hour, and Mother got up and went to the front window and looked out. Her back was stiff as a poker. I could see the muscles along her jaw working in little knots. She came back and sat down, not even seeming to know I was there.
We waited another hour. Supper time came and went, and we weren’t even aware of it.
It was almost eight o’clock when the doctor’s wife came and motioned to us. As we followed her, Mother asked, “What happened?”
“He wants to see you.”
I didn’t know who wanted to see us, Father or the doctor. We went to Father’s room. The doctor and the other nurse were there. Father lay just as before, but this time he really saw us. From the moment we entered the room he followed us with his eyes.
We went to the bedside and Father whispered, “Sarah! Son!” He tried to lift his hand. It fell back on the sheet and tears came to his eyes.
Mother said, “Will, you’re going to get well. I had typhoid like this, and I got well. Do you understand?” There was iron in her voice.
There was a faint movement of his head. He was trying to nod yes. His hand moved again and Mother took it between hers. He looked at me and I took his other hand. It was so hot and weak that I let it go, then took it again, and he squeezed my fingers, very hard. He whispered, “I’m so tired,” and his eyes drifted shut. He forced them open again and looked at Mother.
“Will,” she said, “you’re going to get well. You’ve got to!”
His eyes closed, but I saw his nostrils quiver the way they always did when he fought the tears of emotion.
We went back to the waiting room. A few minutes later the doctor came in and said, “At least, he recognized you. All through his delirium he’s been talking about you.”
“Has he passed the crisis?” Mother asked.
The doctor hesitated. “I’d say he’s at the crisis now. This afternoon and tonight. If he hasn’t lost too much blood, from the hemorrhages, and if his heart holds out—well, he may make it. Three hours ago he didn’t have much chance.” He started to go, then turned back at the doorway. “You’d better stay right here tonight. Here in the waiting room.”
When the doctor had gone Mother said I’d better take Mack over to the livery stable for the night. When I got back the doctor’s wife had brought a blanket apiece for us. Mother told me to lie down on the couch; she said she wouldn’t sleep a wink anyway, so she would sit up in a chair.
I lay awake a long time, almost afraid to go to sleep. I didn’t quite know why; I’d already had the shock of thinking Father was going to die, and the relief of knowing he didn’t die when I thought he was going to. I kept thinking about the was he looked when we saw him the first time. I kept feeling that tight squeeze of his fingers. And I was aware of the strangeness of the hospital, the strange smells, the rustle of a uniform in the hallway, the quiet. I thought about the homestead. I listened for the sound of the sheep, and the bells. I thought about that night out there, the first night on our own land, when we walked out in the darkness to get the horses, and came back and Father pointed out the stars. And then I slept.
Once I wakened and saw Mother sitting there, staring at nothing, that never-say-die look on her face. Another time I wakened and she saw me move and said, “It’s all right, son. Go back to sleep.” And finally I wakened and saw that it was daylight outside. Mother was asleep. She heard me sit up and wakened with a start.
A few minutes later the nurse came to the door and Mother asked, “How is he?”
“Sleeping,” the nurse said in a whisper. She helped Mother fold the blankets, and a few minutes later she came back with two cups of coffee. “Doctor’s wife,” she said, “said you ought to have something.”
The coffee was hot and strong and wonderful, but it made me remember that we hadn’t had any supper. Then I heard the doctor’s voice in the hallway. He came in and said, “Well, he weathered the night. And his fever’s down half a degree.”
“Then the crisis is past,” Mother said.
“Let’s say it’s passing. His heart is still doing pretty well. Now we’ll see if he’s too weak to hold his gain. If his heart can keep on—” He hesitated.
The doctor sighed. “All I can say is that it isn’t quite hopeless this morning.”
“When will the next crisis come?”
“We’ll have to watch his heart as the fever subsides. The next crisis probably will come in a couple of days.”
“Should we stay?”
“That’s up to you.”
“I can stay if you want me to.” She glanced at me. “He can go home and do the chores, and I can stay.”
“Why don’t we wait until ten o’clock and see if he holds his own. If he does, and if the fever continues to recede, I’d say you could go home. And phone me tomorrow.”
“And plan to come back the next day.”
Father was still sleeping at ten o’clock. His fever had gone down another half a degree and his heart was doing pretty well, the doctor said. We went home.
When we drove to Gary the next morning and phoned the doctor he said that Father was still holding his own. “That is all we can expect at this point. You’re coming in tomorrow?”
On the way home from Gary we stopped at Jake Farley’s and he said he would milk Daisy and see that
Father was delirious that afternoon and early evening, but about midnight he had a few clear minutes and recognized Mother and talked to her. The next morning he was asleep. The doctor said the fever was down to just over a hundred and the hemorrhages had slowed up. “His heart keeps laboring along,” he said. “I don’t know how, but it keeps going. And now we have a pretty good thread of hope.”
For the next week we drove to Gary every day and telephoned. The reports were just a little better each day. “I don’t know how he does it,” the doctor said. “He has some shred of strength there, something, that keeps him going. His heart is getting a little stronger, just a trace, day by day. Why don’t you come in tomorrow? He has more and more lucid periods. I think it may help if you come and see him.”
Apparently it did help, though Father was too weak to say more than a few words. But when Mother said to him, “You are much better now. You are going to get well,” he managed to nod, a real nod. “Don’t worry about us,” Mother said. “We’re making out all right. All I want is for you to get well enough to come home.” He smiled, the first real smile. And we knew he was going to pull through.
FATHER WAS IN THE hospital six weeks. Mother drove in and got him the Monday before Thanksgiving, and the doctor said as he was leaving, “I’ll tell you now that I never expected to see you walk out of here. Come back and see me in a couple of weeks.”
When he got out of the buggy at home I could hardly believe it was Father. He never had been a big man, only about five feet seven and slender, but now he was so thin a good wind would have blown him away. In his thin face, his eyes and his teeth looked twice their natural size. I had to push Fritz away or he would have knocked Father over in the eagerness of his greeting. Father hugged me and just stood there, one hand on my shoulder, and looked around. It was as though he’d wondered if he’d ever see the house and the barn and the draw and the flats again, and there they were.
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