As attendants wheeled Willa into the Chappie Indiana County Hospital emergency room, her arms flailed, pushing the doctor and nurses away. They heard her repeat a slurred, “Aki, aki…”
“What’s she saying?” asked the doctor.
“Dun’t know,” the attendant shrugged.
“She’s going to hurt herself. Hold her arms. Now!” barked the doctor.
The nurse and attendant held her while the doctor swiftly prepared a syringe and administered morphine. Four seconds later, Willa’s body relaxed. She’d suffered a severe concussion, a fractured jaw, a cracked hipbone, and injuries to her liver, bladder, and uterus––as well as lacerations of her face, of which several required multiple stitches.
For the next fortyeight hours, Willa couldn’t hold a thought in her head. She drifted in and out of sleep. Her first recollection came three days after the accident.
Opening her eyes, she saw an image of someone obscured by gauze. Her hand rose to her face, and the figure gently restrained it and lowered it to the bed.
“Don’t,” Willa heard her mother say. “Don’t touch the bandages.”
“Mmumm…Mmmm.” She tried to speak but couldn’t open her mouth. She knew she was in a hospital. She couldn’t see but could feel a cast on her hips and left leg.
“Good morning, baby girl.” Willa heard her mother’s voice next to her ear.
“Willa woke up.” Hallie Mae spoke to a new person entering the room. “Nurse Pettaway is here,” she told Willa.
“I spoke to you before,” said the nurse. In her cloudy state of mind, Willa found the dark resonance of Pettaway’s voice as comforting as clover honey.
“You can’t talk, because your jaw is wired shut. If the world is a little distorted, it’s because we’ve given you morphine for the pain. Today, the doctor lowered your dosage, and we’ll lower it every day from now on. You should be hungry. You’ll be taking your nourishment through a glass pipette.”
Willa must have fallen asleep. She didn’t remember anything else. When she woke again, she had a glass tube pressed to her lips. She sipped chicken broth that tasted like a copper penny.
The bandages covering her eyes were removed early the next morning. Finding no surprises in her darkened hospital room, she fell back to sleep. She awoke later to the sound of her mother’s voice. “David and Charles are going to sign on to do farm labor with a crew out of Farmington. They’ll be gone most of the spring and summer.”
Willa assumed that her mother was talking to her. Had she been awake and fallen asleep again? She didn’t remember; she only knew that the world around her felt and sounded different, as if the laws of gravity had been restored. She felt pain. Her cast chafed, and her head hurt.
“And yesterday, your professor, Dr. Miller, tried to visit you, but they’re only letting your father and me in,” her mother continued.
Willa motioned to her mother to stop talking. She asked for paper and a pencil by miming writing on the palm of her hand.
When paper arrived, she wrote, “Jim?” and handed it to her mother.
Momma Brown’s silence told Willa the answer.
It took several deep breaths before Hallie Mae could continue. “Jim was buried today. Baby girl of mine, I’m so sorry. Your father went to the funeral.”
Perhaps Willa’s lack of sensation was due to morphine residue, or maybe she was still in shock. She felt vacant, like an empty room in an empty house. The one image she had was of Jim tossing the quilt over his shoulders. Willa also remembered her baby word name for that crazy quilt, aki.
Head Nurse Pettaway, a formidable woman in a stiff, starched uniform, took an interest in the young teacher. Willa had sensed the nurse’s presence from the beginning. Her voice had the familiar deep timbre of someone who sang contralto in the choir.
After the wires were removed from Willa’s jaw, Nurse Pettaway noted that she wasn’t much of a talker and didn’t ask for anything to read. She sat in bed staring out the window at the dark, barren trees. The bouquet of flowers and notes from her students didn’t cheer her. When her hip cast was removed on Christmas Eve, a cause for celebration for the hospital staff, Willa gave them a polite, “Thank you,” and that was that.
Nurse Pettaway didn’t work on Christmas Day, but she dropped by with her gospel group to sing for the staff and patients. She found Willa much the same. The Christmas decorations, the carolers, the gifts and visits from her parents and brothers had had no effect. While alone, Willa sat in bed staring out the window.
The day after Christmas, Nurse Pettaway entered the room, sat on Willa’s bed, and took her hand. “How are the headaches?” she asked.
“They’re fewer,” Willa replied.
“That’s good,” she said, massaging Willa’s palm. “After thirty-two years of nursing, I know a little about healing. Now that the cast is off, you need to get up and walk around.”
“I will,” said Willa, “but I can’t right now.”
“You were lucky. Can you imagine me saying that?” confided Pettaway. “Very few people survive what you went through. You’re lucky because your spine is perfect and your hip is mending. You’re going to walk. But in order to live, you need to get active.” She leaned closer and whispered, “If you don’t get on your feet, you’ll die here. And I don’t want to see that.”
Willa didn’t respond. Nurse Pettaway punched up the pillows and helped her patient readjust herself on the bed.
“You haven’t talked much. Most folks want to get their scary-accident stories off their chest and tell them over and over. How about you? You want to tell me about the accident?”
Willa shook her head.
“Then, what about your young man? What was he like? Was he kind?”
Willa again shook her head. “I can’t,” she said softly.
“That’s all right,” Pettaway said, squeezing Willa’s hand. “I’ve seen lots of folks lose loved ones. It’s different for everyone. I’ll look in on you this afternoon. We’ll get you on your feet.”
As the nurse stood to leave, Willa grasped her hand. “I was driving,” she blurted; a painful sob broke from deep inside. Willa clutched the nurse’s hand and wept. Pettaway lifted her and held her in her arms. Willa cried for what seemed a quarter of an hour before the nurse felt her patient’s grip loosen.
“Here, let me help you lean back,” said Pettaway. She moistened a towel and wiped Willa’s face.