The One That Is Waiting
We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.
—Joseph Campbell (attributed)
Charles Patterson died on April 20, 1930. His obituary appeared two days later in the Morristown Daily Chronicle. “Charles Patterson, 35, mechanic, of 89 Russet Lane,” it begins, “died a little before midnight Sunday after an illness of four years.” It identifies the time and location of the funeral service and concludes with a list of Mr. Patterson’s survivors: a widow, a son, two brothers, and three sisters. Every person is named, except the widow; only her new role is given to her.
Obituaries are meant to be brief. This one does not inform the reader that the Sunday Mr. Patterson died was Easter Sunday. And, though his occupation is given, no employer is named. Nor is the particular illness from which he suffered and died identified. It is a typical obituary, the kind used to report the death of an ordinary person.
Patterson died of pulmonary tuberculosis. At the time of his death, he had been unemployed for over two years. When the disease had weakened him to the point that he could no longer climb the stairs to his and his wife Winnie’s second-floor bedroom, his father-in-law, Mr. Lee Fleming, chair of the board of deacons at Sweet Grove Community Church, arranged with friends of his on the board to build a small bedroom for Charles on the ground floor of his home in Russet Lane. Mr. Fleming oversaw the work and paid for the materials from the deacons’ discretionary fund. The friends provided the labor at no charge.
The bedroom was created by dividing a large room at the back of the house on the ground floor into two rooms. The builders, thoughtful and kind men, selected the space against the rear wall of the house for the bedroom and cut out a large window in it that would allow Charles to look out on the family’s backyard. A photograph of Charles was taken shortly after the work was completed, standing in the backyard, the house behind him. His new bedroom window can be seen just above his right shoulder. In the picture, he is wearing a thickly knit cardigan. He is bareheaded, his hair thinning. He is pale, visibly ill, but smiling and standing as straight as a soldier, with fragile dignity about him.
Charles was particularly grateful for the window. It connected him to the world outside. From his bed, he could see the oak tree he and Winnie had planted soon after buying the house. He could hear birds singing in the early morning and in the hour just before sunset through the open window. In summer, the sweet scent of garden flowers would be carried into his room on the afternoon breeze, the breeze rustling the white lace curtains that Winnie had made for him, gathered and tied to one side so he could more easily enjoy the view.
Positioned as it was at the back of the house, the room was sufficiently distant from the street to reduce traffic noise, allowing Charles to sleep undisturbed, even during the day, while, at the same time, located directly across from the family’s kitchen, it kept him in touch with the day-to-day lives of his wife and his son David. On a nightstand within easy reach sat a radio Winnie bought for him when he moved into the new room. A small chest of drawers stood against a wall, and there was a gateleg table with two chairs by the window where Charles could take his meals and where family or friends who came to spend time with him could sit. There was also a moveable patterned screen for setting between Charles and his visitors.
Charles and Winnie met at a social hosted by Sweet Grove Community Church in the summer of 1914. Before Charles had left the family’s farm for Morristown, his father had advised him that the first thing he should do after securing adequate room and board was to find a good church. The elder Mr. Patterson had said this more as practical advice than spiritual guidance, instructing his son to seek out men in the church who could help him find steady, honest work and who might be willing to assist him when in a tight spot. He added that a church was also an excellent place to find a wife, though there was no need, he said, to rush things on that front. John Patterson, a dirt farmer, barely able to eke out a living sufficient for himself and his family, was a pragmatic man, the current incarnation of a long line of forebears who had suffered recurring bouts of physical and financial insecurity.
Winnie, on the other hand, was a lifelong member of Sweet Grove Community Church. She had grown up in its Sunday School, been baptized by its pastor, and served on the church’s event planning committee. It was as a member of the committee that she helped plan the 1914 summer social. Her task at the social was to staff a table that had information about the church’s volunteer opportunities and answer any questions people might have about them. She sat at the table, a cloth banner on the wall behind her stating in big, bold black letters: The harvest indeed is plenteous, but the laborers are few. Luke 10:2.
When Charles saw Winnie, he was drawn to her immediately and wandered over to her table. He found her engaged in conversation with a well-dressed young man standing beside her.
“Hello,” he said.
Winnie turned and looked at Charles.
“Hello. I’m Winnie Fleming. May I help you?”
“Charles Patterson,” Charles said, nodding his head at her.
“Are you new to Morristown, Mr. Patterson?”
“I’ve been here a couple of weeks.”
The man standing beside Winnie extended his hand to Charles.
“Steven Burkett,” he said.
Charles shook the man’s hand, which he found soft and cold, the grip limp.
“Where are you from Mr. Patterson?”
“Oh, just a small crossroads about twenty miles north of here. Hasn’t got a name, really. My dad farms there.”
“Well, welcome to Morristown, and a special welcome to Sweet Grove,” Winnie said.
“Do you have any questions about the church? We have many activities and many opportunities for you to put your shoulder to the wheel. Is there anything you might be interested in, in particular?”
“I was wondering if you have a choir. I like to sing.”
“How wonderful! We have an excellent choir, and you’re in luck. Mr. Burkett here is our choir director.”
“Now I have to tell you,” Winnie said, “that although the choir is all-volunteer, you do have to audition for it, and you should also know that Mr. Burkett is quite serious about regular, and punctual, attendance at rehearsals.”
Charles smiled. “I understand,” he said.
“Have you ever sung in a choir before, Mr. Patterson?” the man asked.
“Please, just call me Charles. I sang in a choir back home, but you didn’t have to audition for it or anything. It was just kind of like if you wanted to be in it, you were in it. I also did some singing with men I used to work with, informal, of course.”
Burkett smiled. “Not to worry,” he said. “Rehearsals are on Wednesday evenings at eight o’clock, downstairs in the choir room. The stairs to the choir room are over there,” he said, pointing to a corner of the room. “If you can stop by at, let’s say, seven-thirty this coming Wednesday, I will be glad to give you a listen.”
“Thank you,” Charles replied.
“Good! And if things work out, you can stay on for the rehearsal afterward. We finish at nine. By the way, this fair young lady,” he said, pointing at Winnie, ”is our star alto.”
“Don’t believe everything Mr. Burkett tells you,” she said.
Wednesday night, the choir director listened to Charles sing, accompanying him at the piano. He was impressed and welcomed Charles to the choir. As a musician, it was easy for him to recognize and appreciate Charles’ voice. However, as he walked Winnie home after rehearsal and listened to her speak so enthusiastically about the new choir member, a tiny worm began gnawing at his heart. Perhaps this country boy with his simple manners and good looks might prove to be attractive, too attractive, to someone in whom he had an especial interest, to someone he thought of as already belonging to him.
“My only concern,” he said to Winnie, standing next to her on her front porch, “is that Mr. Patterson’s voice may be too good for the choir. That may sound silly to you, I know, but it can be a problem sometimes if a voice stands out from the rest, doesn’t blend in, draws attention to itself. We’ll have to see how it goes.”
“You never cease to amaze me, Steven Burkett,” Winnie said. “God sends you a beautiful baritone, and instead of giving thanks for it, you worry that it may be too beautiful.”
She kissed him on the cheek, said good-night, and entered the house.
Walking home, enjoying the pleasant warmth of the evening and humming to himself, Steven would periodically rub his cheek where Winnie had kissed him. Soon he forgot all about Charles Patterson.
One weeknight, not long after Charles joined the choir, Winnie helped her mother clear the dinner table and then walked into the family sitting room. As she expected, she found her father seated in his usual chair, reading. Winnie took a book down from one of the shelves and sat down on the sofa at the end closest to her father. Periodically she would look up at him.
“What are you reading?” she asked.
“David Copperfield by Mr. Dickens,” her father replied without looking up.
“Is it a good book?” she asked.
“What’s it about?”
Her father marked his place in the book with his finger and looked up at his daughter.
“A boy named David Copperfield,” he replied. “Once I’ve had a chance to read a little more of it, I’ll be able to tell you more about it,” he said.
“Sorry,” Winnie said. She opened her book, one her mother had given her recently titled What A Young Wife Ought to Know by Mrs. Emma F. Angell Drake, M.D. Her mother had given it to her in anticipation of certain events that she hoped lay in the not too distant future of her daughter. She was reading Chapter IV, “The Choice of a Husband.” After a few minutes, she cleared her throat.
“Yes,” Mr. Fleming sighed, not looking up from his book.
“I was wondering if I might ask you a question.”
Mr. Fleming closed his book and set it on the table beside him. He placed his hands on his knees and looked at his daughter.
“Of course,” he said. “What’s on your mind?”
“Well, I’ve been wondering about something. Let’s say, theoretically, that…that a person A has been going out with a person B.”
Her father was silent.
“And then, let’s say, that person A decides that she, or it could be a he, no longer wishes to go out with person B.”
Still, her father was silent.
“In that case, what do you think person A should do?”
“Hmm,” her father replied, “speaking as you say, theoretically, it would depend.”
“Depend? Depend on what?”
“On what person A’s plans were.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Well, let’s say that your person A is not sure about person B, for whatever reason, but would still like to leave open the possibility of restarting the relationship with person B at a later date perhaps.”
“Oh, I see.”
“In that case, person A could tell person B that she, or he, needs some time to think about things, to take a break, for instance, or even to go away for a while.”
“On the other hand, if person A is certain that she, or he, does not ever want to continue the relationship with person B, maybe there’s a person C, for example, person A should be straight with person B, and tell him, or her, that their relationship is over.”
“Oh!” Winnie said, inhaling. She rose from the sofa and returned her book to the bookshelf.
“Thank you, Father.”
“Winnie, I have always found,” he said, looking at his daughter, “that being straight with someone is best.”
“I understand,” she said. She turned to leave the room. As she neared the door, her father called after her.
“Yes?” she said, turning around to face him.
“There’s one other thing. Person A needs to understand that if she follows the second plan, and regrets it later, for whatever reason, it would forever be unfair to return to person B.”
He paused for a moment.
“By the way,” he said, picking his book back up from the table, “Person A might suggest to her mother that it’s time to invite person C to Sunday dinner.”
Winnie lowered her head, and smiling, put her two hands together.
The following Sunday, Charles Patterson joined the Flemings for dinner. It was the first of many dinners to come over the remainder of the summer, the coming fall, and winter. The following spring, the couple got engaged. They selected the anniversary of their first meeting as the date for their wedding. Every member of the church was invited, and most came. Steven Burkett declined, however, indicating that, unfortunately, he would be out of town on the day of the wedding.
It is impossible to know when the Mycobacterium tuberculosis entered Charles’ body and settled in his lungs. Before moving to Morristown, he had lived and worked in a quarry. Conditions there had not been ideal. He had shared cramped living quarters with many men in various states of health. The quality of his food had been poor, and sanitation a constant problem. Perhaps, when Charles met Winnie at the Sweet Grove Community Church social in 1914, the seeds of his illness had already been sown. But then, it is also possible that the seeds were planted in Morristown by an infected stranger, who failed to cover his mouth while coughing, sitting next to Charles one morning, riding the tram to work.
Every winter after Charles and Winnie were married, Charles would suffer a series of colds, sometimes developing into bronchitis, accompanied by a persistent cough. There seemed nothing especially alarming in this, however. Charles was strong and always recovered. Then, two years in a row, he contracted pneumonia. The first time, under Winnie’s care, he was able to recover at home. Walking pneumonia, the doctor had called it. The second time, however, required hospitalization. While Charles was in the hospital for the second bout of pneumonia, his doctor took the opportunity to run some diagnostic tests. The results were alarming, confirming what the doctor had suspected for some time, but had hoped was wrong, that Charles had tuberculosis.
After returning home from the hospital, Charles voluntarily segregated himself from his son, following his doctor’s advice. David was nine years old. From that time on, it was only from behind a cloth screen or through an open window, catching an occasional glimpse of his son, that Charles would see David grow. He would no longer kiss him, hold him, or be kissed by him. Concerning his relationship with Winnie, the doctor told the couple that they should no longer sleep in the same bed. It would be better, he added, not to sleep even in the same room, and, of course, they should no longer engage in intimate relations. Winnie followed only part of the doctor’s advice. Against both his and Charles’ wishes, she chose to continue sleeping in the same room as her husband until, in the last two years of his life, Charles was moved to his own, separate bedroom downstairs, and sleeping in the same room was no longer possible.
The week after Charles returned home from the hospital, Winnie opened her front door to a man she didn’t know.
“Good morning,” Winnie replied.
The man held up a card.
“Lawrence David Kaplan,” the man said, “Morristown Department of Health.”
“Department of Health? How may I help you?” Winnie asked.
“I’m here to help you, Mrs. Patterson,” the man replied.
Winnie stepped back and motioned for the man to enter.
“If you don’t mind, Mrs. Patterson, would it be possible for us to conduct our business here, on your front porch?”
Winnie sat in the porch swing, and the man sat in a rocking chair next to her. He removed some papers from a briefcase and glanced at them.
“Doctor William Lindsey has informed the Department of Health that a man,” he paused to check his sheets, “Mr. Charles Patterson…” He looked at Winnie.
“My husband,” Winnie said.
“…that Mr. Patterson has an infectious disease and resides here at 89 Russet Lane.”
Winnie was silent.
“Ordinarily,” the man continued, “a person in your husband’s condition would…” he paused, as if searching for the right words, the correct phrase, something clear but inoffensive, “would elect to enter a sanitarium.”
Still, Winnie remained silent.
“The city strongly recommends that Mr. Patterson voluntarily enter a sanitarium. I have information on the various ones available here, and elsewhere in the state, their costs, services, and locations,” he said, handing her a brochure. “Should you qualify, the city is also prepared to help you with the expense of sanitarium care. Mrs. Patterson, in a sanitarium, your husband will receive proper care, and by his being segregated from the population his illness will no longer pose a threat to the public, or, need I say, to his family.”
Winnie turned her head away from the man and looked out in the direction of the street.
“Kaplan,” the man replied.
“Mr. Kaplan, is it really necessary, a sanitarium I mean? The people who come to visit my husband already know that he is ill. Others, like yourself, don’t come in. We don’t know how much longer Charles will be with us. We should like to spend that time, whatever it is, together. Charles would like to die at home.”
She looked back at the man.
“Mrs. Patterson, if you are asking if the law requires you to place your husband in a sanitarium, the answer is no. It doesn’t. Neither I nor the city is without a heart. We understand that the choice I have presented to you is difficult, not always possible, or even desirable in all cases. It is only because we have a responsibility to all the citizens of Morristown, including you and your family, that I have brought it to your attention.”
“Thank you,” Winnie said.
“There is something I will need from you,” the man said, handing Winnie a form attached to a clipboard, “and that is your signature here,” he pointed to a place on the sheet and gave her a pen, “acknowledging that I have explained to you the city’s recommendation concerning your husband’s care, provided information on the various options available to you, and that you fully understand what I have said.”
Winnie signed without reading the form.
“You can always change your mind later.”
“Thank you. Good day,” Winnie said, rising, entering her house, and closing the door behind her.
It is not only adults who mistreat one another; children do as well, and they don’t seem to need any training to learn how to do it. Their behavior shocks us more than that of adults because we expect children to be innocent. But even the Bible tells of brothers who sold a brother into a life of slavery because they had reason to believe he was their father’s favorite. How much more cruelty is possible when no blood connection or ties bind the persecutor and the persecuted.
One morning, not long after the visit to the Patterson’s home by the Department of Health worker, David arrived at school to find a piece of paper lying face up on his desk with a picture of a skull and crossbones drawn in red ink on it and the word “kuntayjus” scrawled beneath the image. He quickly covered the paper with his hands, wrinkled it up, then placed it in a pants pocket. Incidents of name-calling, spitting, and singsong refrains of “DP’s got TB” occurred almost every day for David at school. When they became aware of them, the teachers would punish the offenders. But teachers can’t be everywhere. David said nothing of these things to his mother.
One afternoon after school, Winnie heard David come in the front door and go upstairs immediately. She walked to the foot of the stairs.
“David,” she called, “come into the kitchen. Your snack is ready.”
“I’m not hungry,” he said.
“Not hungry?” Winnie mounted the stairs quietly, knocked, and entered her son’s bedroom.
David was standing with his back to her, his hands in his pockets, rocking back and forth on his heels, staring out the bedroom window.
“Is everything all right?” Winnie asked.
“Yeah. Everything’s fine.”
Winnie walked toward her son at the window. She noticed that he consistently kept his back to her as she grew closer.
“David, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong.”
“Something seems wrong, ” she said. “Son, please turn around.”
David didn’t move.
“David, turn around.”
David slowly turned around, careful to keep his head down, looking at the floor all the time. Winnie placed a hand under her son’s chin and gently raised his face to hers. She turned his face to the light of the window. His left eye was bloodshot, circled in black and blue, and there was a cut bleeding between his nose and left cheek.
“David, what happened?”
“I ran into a door,” he said.
“A door? Must have been some door.”
David did not respond.
“Well, I can see what you look like,” she said. “I’m just curious about what the door you ran into looks like.”
David raised his left hand and pointed to his left eye with his index finger.
“It’s got two of these,” he said.
Winnie quickly turned around so that her son could not see her face.
“Seems to me like it deserves them,” she said, walking to the door. “Wash your face, and when you’re ready, come downstairs and say hello to your father. Just make sure,” she said, turning to face him and pointing to her left eye, “that you do it from behind the screen.”
It is said that Lord Byron once commented to a friend of his that he thought he would like to die of consumption, the name for tuberculosis in Byron’s time. When his friend asked why, Byron replied that because then women would say, “See that poor Byron, how interesting he looks in dying.” It is hard to imagine any more incredible ignorance of the reality of death by tuberculosis than this. Nothing is interesting about dying from tuberculosis, nothing beautiful about it, nothing romantic about it, no matter what great poets, or writers, or composers would have us believe, no matter how many old photographs we look at of Victorian sanitariums situated high in the mountains, with inmates lounging out of doors in deck chairs, swathed in woolen blankets, attended by impeccably dressed nurses in starched white uniforms and red capes. Tuberculosis was degrading; it was debilitating.
Before the discovery of antibiotics for treating it, tuberculosis could kill a person quickly, particularly in its meningeal form. More often than not, however, as in the case of Charles’ pulmonary tuberculosis, the most common kind, it slew its victim slowly, over time, disarming the body’s natural defenses one after the other. In the years preceding death, the patient suffered night sweats, fever, constant coughing, fatigue, increasing isolation, loss of appetite, and the consequent loss of weight. It was not without reason that the disease had been called consumption. In the end, sitting alone in his room or lying exhausted on his bed, unable to move, exhaling, and inhaling over and over again the too sweet stench of his decaying lungs, a man died in a paroxysm of coughing, his lungs hemorrhaging, drowning him in a sea of his own blood.
On April 20, Easter Sunday morning, Winnie arose early and dressed for church. Alice, one of Charles’ sisters, Winnie’s favorite sister-in-law, had made her a beautiful Easter dress. She took down a hatbox from a shelf in her closet and carefully removed a new hat. Charles had selected it for her specifically for Easter. A local milliner had been kind enough to allow Winnie to bring home several hats to model for her husband. The hat was large-brimmed, with a slight curve, cornflower blue, with three multi-colored bird feathers attached by a thin black band. Charles had liked it immediately. He told Winnie that it reminded him of the heavens, the blue sky, and the birds. She checked herself several times in front of the mirror in the bedroom, making minor adjustments to her appearance until she was finally satisfied.
Before going downstairs, she knocked on David’s room to make sure he was up and reminded him to get ready for church. David, already up, asked if he could stay home with his father this morning. From time to time over the last six months, Winnie had given him permission to do so, understanding how valuable the time spent together was for both Charles and David. Afterward, she would ask David what he and his father had done together. Usually, he had read to his father from the Sunday paper, the screen always standing between them, or they had listened to the radio. They especially enjoyed the music of Jimmie Rodgers. She told him that she would ask his father.
When Winnie entered Charles’ room, she walked around the end of the screen and stood at the foot of his bed. As soon as he saw her, he smiled.
“Winnie, you’re the prettiest girl I have ever seen,” he said.
Winnie bowed politely and replied, “Well, thank you, Mr. Patterson. You’re not too bad looking yourself.”
She told him that David had asked to stay home with him this morning. Would that be all right?
“Not this morning,” he said. “Today is special. Tell David to listen carefully to Pastor Hawk’s sermon. He is to repeat it to me when he gets home.”
Before leaving for church, David opened his father’s room door and poked his head in.
“Happy Easter, Dad!”
“Happy Easter, Son! Take good care of your mother.”
A little past noon, the family returned from church. While David was getting himself a glass of water in the kitchen, Winnie walked into Charles’ bedroom. She found him lying in a pool of blood, weak, barely able to move, his nightshirt and top sheet stained. She told David not to enter the room but to go across the street and ask Mrs. Book to send one of her boys to get Doctor Lindsey.
“Then wait on the front porch until he gets here,” she said.
Winnie carefully washed her husband’s face, combed his hair, and replaced his nightshirt and top sheet.
When Doctor Lindsey arrived, he told Winnie that it was just a matter of time, a few hours at most. There was nothing to do but wait. Before leaving, he told Winnie to send for him if she needed him.
“It would be good,” he said as the two of them walked to the front door, “if a friend could sit with you.”
In the late afternoon, Mrs. Book brought over some food.
“I made more than we needed,” she said. “After my family is done eating, I will come back and sit with you.”
Winnie took some of the food up to David. She found him, sitting at his desk, writing down the morning’s sermon from memory to be able to share it with his father tomorrow.
“I’m not hungry,” he said. “I need to finish this for Dad.”
“I’ll leave the food here, then,” she said, setting it down on his chest of drawers, “in case you change your mind or get hungry later.”
True to her word, Mrs. Book returned. The two women sat together in silence at the small wooden table in Winnie’s kitchen. Winnie took a blue glass oil lamp out of one of the cabinets, lit it, and placed it on the table between her and Mrs. Book. The women drifted in and out of sleep, the lamp’s dim light flickering shadows on the dark kitchen walls. Winnie experienced a jumble of dreams, sometimes feeling that she was falling, waking to find her hands pressed hard against the table’s top, stopping her imagined fall, sometimes thinking Charles had asked her a question, or was trying to get her attention and was standing in front of her in his nightclothes. A little before midnight, something woke her. Believing Charles had called her, she rose and stepped across the hall into his bedroom.
Gershon Ben-Avraham writes short stories and poetry. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image), received “Special Mention” in the “Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition.” His short story “The Plan” appeared in Issue 11 of The Dillydoun Review. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021.