On a sunny Sunday in April, 1936, Bill invited her brother Ennis and his family to dinner. Ennis, Jewell, Doyle and Dorothy Sue arrived at 12:30, after attending church in Friona. Bill greeted them at the door.
“Come in. You have perfect timing. I’m just ready to put the food on the table.”
She hugged and kissed each one.
Joe came in behind them with Joe Mike. “This boy is getting the hang of his tricycle. He rode all the way to the corner and back.”
Joe Mike looked pleased with himself. Dorothy Sue picked him up for a hug and kiss, then passed him to her mother. Jewell gave him a big kiss. “Where is your baby brother?” He pointed toward the back of the house.
Bill spoke up. “He’s asleep in the bedroom. Go ahead and take a peek while I get our dinner on.”
Joe brought extra chairs while Bill put a bowl of steaming beans with ham hock and a basket of cornbread wrapped in a napkin on the table with the bowl of coleslaw she had placed there earlier.
Ennis came from the bedroom. “Bill, there’s something wrong with your baby.”
She hurried to the crib. Jewell and her children were standing there, staring at the baby. Jewell ushered Dorothy Sue and Doyle out of the room, then came back and stood with her arm around Bill, who was bending over the crib in panic. Little Pat’s head was jerking to the left and back to the center. His eyes were staring, unseeing. His left leg and arm were moving in rhythmic spasms.
At her sister-in-law’s touch, Bill straightened and yelled, “Joe, call Dr. Johnson.” She picked up the baby, rocking him in her arms, but when the convulsive movements didn’t stop, she put him back in the crib, not knowing what to do. She sat on her bed, next to the crib, patting his tummy and crying, “Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no.”
Joe came in, “Dr. Johnson is on his way.” He leaned over the crib, his face crumpling. “It’s like Homer Joe, Honey.”
Bill looked up. Joe’s nephew came to her mind with horror. He was afflicted with epilepsy. His seizures, which were mild, weren’t well controlled by the phenobarbitol he took. The medicine sedated him and he was behind in school. She looked back at her darling baby and his continuing spasms. “He has been so well, Joe.” She heard the puzzled denial in her own voice. This couldn’t be happening.
Dr. Johnson entered the room, carrying his black bag.
“Thank you for coming, Doctor.” Joe shook his hand.
Looking grave, the doctor put his hand on the baby’s forehead, then took out a thermometer, put it under the baby’s left arm, and held it.
While they waited for the temperature to register, Bill went out to talk to Ennis and Jewell, who sat in the living room playing “I spy” with the children. Dorothy Sue, with Joe Mike on her lap, whispered guesses to him and he tried to repeat them. Jewell had put the beans and cornbread back in the warm oven.
“Why don’t y’all go ahead and eat?” Bill took a white handkerchief embroidered with red roses from the pocket of her housedress and wiped her eyes.
Her brother and sister-in-law rose and embraced her. “All right, Honey, but you and Joe better eat, too.”
“I can’t. You go ahead.” Bill turned and walked back into the bedroom.
The doctor was reading the thermometer. “A slight fever. Ninety-nine point eight. There’s nothing I can do here. I want you to take him to the Santa Fe Hospital in Clovis.”
Joe rushed out the back door to start the car.
Bill changed the baby’s diaper and wrapped him, still convulsing, in a small, light blanket, grabbed a sweater for herself and her purse.
As she walked out, Jewell, holding Joe Mike, opened the door for her. “This little boy wants to go home with us, right Mike?”
The two-year-old looked confused, torn between being upset and excited. His mother was crying and his daddy was starting the car without even telling him goodbye. Still, he reveled in the loving attention of his Aunt Jewell and her family.
“Thank you, Jewell.” Bill bent to kiss Joe Mike in Jewell’s arms. “Be a good boy, Mike. Bye-bye.” She straightened to look at Ennis and Jewell. “We’ll call you when we know anything. Should I pack a bag for Joe Mike?”
“We can find what he’ll need. Don’t worry, Bill. You go on.” Ennis’s quiet, kind voice brought fresh tears to Bill’s eyes.
She hurried to the car. Joe had the passenger door open, and hardly gave her time to get in before pulling out from the curb, tires squealing.
Thankful that Clovis was only ten miles away, Bill and Joe were disappointed when the emergency room doctor examined the baby and shook his head. “You need to take him to Dr. Overton in Lubbock. He’s the best baby specialist in this part of the country. I frankly don‘t know what to do for your baby.”
By the time Bill had Pat bundled up again and walked out of the hospital, Joe had their new Hudson Terraplane waiting at the door. He floor-boarded the accelerator as soon as they got on the highway and kept it there all the way to Lubbock. It was seventy flat, straight miles. Joe fretted at the time they’d spent driving west to Clovis when they should’ve driven directly southeast to Lubbock.
“It can’t be helped, Honey.” Bill finally let the prayer she’d been repeating silently escape her lips. “Oh, God, please let our baby stop this and be all right.” Little Patrick, still convulsing, his unseeing eyes bulging, was pale and exhausted.
When they arrived on the outskirts of Lubbock, Joe handed Bill a piece of paper on which the doctor in Clovis had written the address of the West Texas Sanitarium, Dr. Overton’s hospital. “The doctor said he would call the hospital so Dr. Overton would be waiting for us.”
The rational grid of Lubbock’s streets made it easy to find the hospital. To their great relief, Dr. Overton was indeed waiting. A kind-looking man in his fifties, he took the baby from Bill and gently laid him on a table to examine him. When he realized the baby had been convulsing for more than two hours, he said, “The first thing we have to do is stop this seizure. I’m going to give him a shot that will do that.” He wrote something on a pad and gave it to a nurse. She left, presumably to prepare the medicine for the shot.
Bill stepped close to the examination table to pin the baby‘s diaper, but Dr. Overton stopped her. “Leave it off. The shot will go in his hip. I must warn you that what we’re giving him is derived from spider venom. It will stop the convulsions, but will cause an abscess. He’ll need to stay in the hospital for treatment for that.”
Bill couldn’t stand to leave the baby on the hard examination table. She picked him up and held him close, as she had for the last two hours, swaying from side to side.
Dr. Overton continued. “We have to figure out what caused the seizure. You said there is some epilepsy in the family, but this could be meningitis, which is contagious, so I’m going to quarantine your baby away from the rest of our patients until we find out. Can you stay with him?”
“Of course.” Bill wouldn’t think of leaving Patrick. “He’s still nursing.”
“I need to get back to my business, Doctor.” Joe looked regretful. “But I can come back anytime I’m needed.”
“The fewer people who come in contact with the baby the better until we can eliminate the possibility of contagion.” Dr. Overton turned to Bill. “We’ll move you and the baby into a room in the basement. No visitors until we get the test results from the lab.”
When the nurse came in with a large hypodermic syringe on an enamel tray, Dr. Overton said, “Mrs. Isbell will take care of the shot. I’ll go arrange for your room.” Bill didn’t realize how comforting his presence was until he left.
Bill started to put the baby down, but the nurse motioned her not to. “Just hold him on your shoulder, Dear.” She bared his little butt, wiped it with cotton soaked in alcohol and plunged the syringe into his left hip. It took awhile to inject the fluid. She withdrew the needle, wiped the area again. “Now you can pin his diaper and we’ll get you settled.”
When the baby was dressed again, Joe said, “Let me carry him, Honey. Sounds like I won’t get to see you and him for awhile.”
The couple followed the nurse to the end of the hallway and down the stairs to the basement. An orderly was putting a hand-lettered sign on the door: “NO VISITORS.” In the room was a cot made up for Bill, and crib for Patrick and a rocking chair. There was a lavatory in the corner, and a covered enamel pot.
The nurse looked apologetic. “I’m sorry there’s not a bathroom, but this will have to do until we find out whether the baby has something contagious.” She gave Bill a hospital gown to sleep in and some extra linens and blankets for the crib. “This telephone connects to the hospital switchboard. Call if you need anything.” She turned and walked out, her steps echoing down the long hallway.
Joe sat in the rocker with the baby in his arms. “I think the shot is working, Honey. The spasms are slowing down.”
Finally the convulsive movements stopped, the baby’s eyes closed and he slept. Bill continued to worry, wishing he’d wake up and nurse. She went to the lavatory and expressed some milk into the sink to relieve her engorged breasts.
There was a knock on the door at 5:00. When Bill opened the door, an orderly was standing in the middle of the hall. There was a cart with two dinner trays on it closer to the door. “When you’re through eating, just leave the trays on the cart.” The man took a step back as he spoke.
“Thank you. I didn’t realize I was hungry, but this looks good.”
The couple enjoyed the meal, ironically the same menu Bill had prepared at home that morning. It seemed like years ago.
Joe looked regretful when he decided to go home at 7:00 that evening. They’d been in Lubbock for four hours. “I’ll stop by Ennis’s house and let them know the situation, and check on Mike. I hate to leave you here, Honey, but I’ll come back tomorrow evening.”
“Don’t worry about me, Joe. I’m just so glad the convulsions have stopped. Be careful. Bring us some clean clothes when you come. Call Mama and Dad tomorrow and let them know we’re here.”
They stood by the crib, looking at their pale son, sleeping peacefully. Turning to Joe, Bill held him for a long embrace, unable to express her deep fear, even to herself. After Joe left, she lay on the cot, praying. “Please let my baby be all right,” over and over until she fell asleep.
When she awoke, she had no idea how long she’d slept. Her chest was soaked with milk. She took off her clothes, rinsed them out in the lavatory and put on the hospital gown. She hung her wet clothes on the metal ends of the cot, hoping they’d dry before anyone came in.
She picked up the baby. He didn’t awaken, but latched on to the nipple she offered him and nursed hungrily. Never had she felt so grateful. Surely he’d be all right. He looked perfectly healthy. After she changed his diaper and lay him back in the crib, she was able to sleep for the rest of the night.
The next morning, sunlight shone through the high basement window. Bill heard a noise from the crib and got up quickly to check on Patrick. He was cooing and smiled broadly when he caught sight of her. “Oh, there are two suns shining this morning, my darling boy.” She picked him up and danced around the room. “Oh, thank you Heavenly Father, for answering my prayer. This baby is obviously not sick.”
When Dr. Overton made his round, he agreed with her that the baby didn’t have an infectious disease.
“Can we go home when my husband comes?”
“No. I’m sorry, but you’ll be here for awhile because of the shot we gave the baby. We had to use it to save his life. Patrick is going to have a very bad sore on the site of the injection, and we’ll need to watch it for at least ten days. We’ll move you to a room upstairs today where you’ll be more comfortable, but this isn’t going to be an easy experience, Little Mother. Again, I’m sorry.”
* * *
Bill and Patrick were in Lubbock for ten days. The fifth day, Joe brought Joe Mike to see them and to go home with Mama and Dad, who were visiting every other day. Bill wondered what her two-and-a-half year old son must think. She was deliriously happy to see him, but he seemed almost indifferent to her, lowering his eyes and turning away as she rushed to kneel beside him.
“Oh, Mike, now you can come to see us with Grandmother and Granddaddy. We’ll go home soon, and you can play with baby Pat again.” As she picked him up and kissed him, he patted her cheek with a solemn smile. She bent to let him kiss Patrick, who sat on Grandmother’s lap.
“Baby Pat sick?” Joe put his hand on his brother’s face.
“Yes, he was sick, but now he’s better. We’ll all go home together soon.”
* * *
The flesh on the baby’s hip turned red, blistered, then turned black, and sloughed off until the wound was a deep hole. The hospital staff taught Bill how to dress it to prevent infection, a horrific experience. She swabbed the site with merthiolate, which burned the raw tissue like fire. The baby screamed with pain and Bill cried. She gritted her teeth as she finished dressing the deep wound, then picked him up and wept with him as he quieted.
A few days after they came home from the hospital, Joe came from work in the middle of the morning, looking very dejected, a letter in his hand. “Honey, I hate to tell you this.” His hazel eyes filled with tears as Bill rushed to embrace him, feeling frightened.
“What’s the matter, Joe?” Even on the awful day they raced to the hospital with their sick baby, her husband hadn’t looked so somber. His strength had given her courage. Now he looked totally beaten.
“Phillips Petroleum has cut off my credit. I have to close the business.” Joe slumped into the nearest dining chair. Dropping the letter on the table, he put his face in his hands.
Bill stood by helplessly, trying to comprehend what this meant. She’d never handled money and had no experience with financial matters. She sat next to him and rubbed his back. “What will we do, Joe?”
Her husband let out a deep sigh, squared his shoulders and sat up straight. “There’s an oil boom in Odessa. Phillips says I can get a job with their wholesale dealer there, driving a truck. If we can’t sell the house, we’ll have to let it go. The car, too.”
Bill gasped. She picked up the letter, but couldn’t read the words through tears. “Odessa? The house? The car? Oh, Honey, you love the Terraplane so much.” Her voice seemed to come from someone else. It occurred to her that the car was a strange thing to focus on, considering the big picture.
Joe put his hand over hers on the table. “Well, I won’t give it up until after I go check on the job. I’ll go to Odessa and see what it’s like. and find us a place to live.” He laughed bitterly, “It’ll be nice to have oil field people to deal with instead of broke farmers.”
* * *
Within two weeks, Joe, Bill and their two boys vacated their beloved little house, left the Terraplane with the Hudson dealer in Clovis, and used the truck that Joe would be driving for the T. E. May Oil Co., to move to Odessa.
Joe’s new employer had been a fireman before starting his business, and was called Chief. He and his wife, Cora were kind, inviting Joe and Bill to stay with them for a few days until they could find a place of their own. The oil boom had caused a housing shortage, and they felt lucky to find a rental house with three rooms. Their furniture almost filled the rooms, leaving narrow aisles for moving about.
Bill and Cora May became friends. Chief and Cora were older than Joe and Bill, but had no children. They doted on Joe Mike and Patrick. Bill didn’t know what she would’ve done without Cora’s friendship. The sudden change in their prospects for the future, on top of the baby’s illness, had left her shaken to the core.
Cora watched the boys one Saturday night while Bill and Joe went to a night club with Jack and Judy Morris. Joe delivered gasoline to the Phillips 66 station that Jack managed. Joe, as usual, drank more and laughed more than anyone else at the table. Bill felt uneasy in the rowdy atmosphere of the nightclub. Pleading a headache, she asked Joe if they could go home at 9:30. He was having a great time, entertaining his new acquaintances with stories Bill had heard before. She put her head in her hands, hardly able to keep from crying.
Judy Morris noticed Bill’s discomfort. “Would you like me to take you home, Honey? These boys are just getting started, and you look like you feel bad.”
“Oh, thank you, Judy.” Bill felt profoundly grateful to her new friend. “If you don’t mind, could we pick up my boys from Cora May’s house.”
“That’s not a problem at all.” Judy exhaled a big cloud of smoke from her Chesterfield cigarette. She turned to her husband. “Jack, I’m taking Bill home. “I don’t want you to be stinkin’ drunk when I get back. We’ve only had one dance.”
Bill found that Judy, like many people in Odessa, was rougher than anyone she’d ever met, but would go out of her way to be helpful.
The next morning, Sunday, June 28, 1936, as Bill was getting Patrick dressed, he went into a seizure, more severe than before. Every muscle was in spasms. She screamed for Joe.
He came running, took one look and said, “I’ll take Joe Mike to Chief and Cora’s. Be ready to go to Lubbock when I get back. We’re not going to waste time with local doctors this time.”
Bill tied a change of clothing for Joe Mike into a bundle and gave it to Joe, then picked up the bewildered toddler, who was crying. “Oh, Mike. We have to leave you with Cora, but we’ll be back soon. You be a good boy.” She found she was crying too.
By the time Joe got back, Bill had packed clothes for her and the baby. She handed the suitcase to Joe, “Let’s go. It was a hot day, but the baby was clammy. She wrapped him in a light blanket and hurried to the three-year-old Ford Joe had bought to replace the Terraplane.
They headed toward Lubbock, 90 miles north of Odessa. When they were just past Seminole, with fifty miles to go, the baby’s spasms stopped. He was lying on Bill’s lap on his side. She put him in that position so she could wipe off the excess saliva that ran from his mouth and he wouldn’t choke on it. When he suddenly became still, she felt profound relief and put him on her shoulder, patting his back.
“Daddy, he’s better. Oh, sweet baby.” She lowered him into her arms then, and looked at his face. It was colorless. He was perfectly still. Bill gently shook him and patted his face, put her ear on his chest. Nothing.”
“O, Joe, Honey. I think he’s gone. He’s gone.”
Joe pulled the car over, turned off the engine. He took Patrick from her, listened for a heartbeat, heard nothing, buried his face in the little belly and howled like an animal.
As they held each other, sobbing, the baby’s still body between them, Bill noticed the smell of hot oil. She wondered if the car would have made it all the way to Lubbock with Joe floor boarding it.
“What shall we do now? There’s nothing we can do for our precious little boy. Where shall we go?” Joe looked totally bewildered.
“I want to go home, to Mama and Dad’s. They’ll know what to do. But first let’s go back and get Joe Mike.”
Bill held Patrick all the way. In Odessa, Cora came to the car and tried to get her to come in and eat something. She continued to hold him as they drove through Lubbock and on northeast to Floydada. Finally, 5 hours after his last breath, when her dad insisted on taking him from her, she gave up her baby’s lifeless body with an anguished wail.
Mama kept Joe Mike while Dad took Bill and Joe to the funeral home to make arrangements. Mama and Dad had cemetery lots for themselves beside their daughter Felicia’s. Felicia’s husband was remarried and no longer wished to be buried there. Dad arranged to use the extra plot for Patrick.
The funeral was at the Cummings’ home. Pop Hale and Joe’s sister, Nit and his niece, Eula Mae, came. Bill’s siblings, Ina Rae, Elma, Aileene and Ennis were there with their families.
Brother Morgan, from Mama and Dad’s church said the eulogy, reading from Ecclesiastes:
“Dust thou Art, and to dust thou shalt return.
The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.
Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
When she and Joe returned to Odessa, Bill knew that she was not the same person she‘d been. She held Joe Mike on her lap, sang songs to him and played pat-a-cake, but she did it with a seriousness she’d never before felt.