Is Who You are What you Do? Part 2



Section 2


Charlie awoke to the rich fragrance of frying bacon; it was a smell that comforted him in a deep, fundamental way he could never articulate. Wincing as he stood up, a night on the sofa had done no favors for his sore back. He looked at his watch: 6:15am.


“Hey, mama,” he said, easing himself onto one of the hard, wooden chairs that had sat around the table—its mint green paint peeling off the legs– for as long as he could remember.


“Hey, baby,” she kissed him on the forehead, her hand lingering on the back of his neck. “Thank you for coming.” She handed him a mug of hot water and pushed the jar of Sanka crystals towards him.


“Of course I’d come. I’ll stay for as long as you need me.” Charlie checked his Blackberry, waiting for a signal to register; he’d need to notify the office that he’d be out for a few days.


“D’you mean it?” Jeannie asked as she served him a plate of steaming scrambled eggs and bacon. The toast was burned—Charlie made a mental note he’d need to work on the toaster again before he left.


Nodding, he stirred the crystals into the hot water, watching as the trail of light brown turned into the dark, flavored drink. Too bad they refused to use the coffee maker he’d given them a few years back. “None of my cases are scheduled for court in the next week or so, so it’s workable. Besides, I know it’ll take some time for John to get back on his feet and I’m happy to help out.” He savored a forkful of the freshly scrambled eggs, grateful to enjoy his mother’s hearty cooking. “Pardy’s still here every day isn’t he? I mean, John isn’t trying to manage the farm by himself, right?”


Jeannie smiled appreciatively at her son. He had grown into such a fine man and she was proud of him. His daddy would’ve been, too. She grimaced as she recalled that cold December afternoon thirty-five years ago when she heard the knock on the door of the apartment and saw the Navy Chaplain. Eddy had been swept overboard during a routine exercise the previous night. The rains had been bad and his harness didn’t hold—they never recovered the body. With a toddler in tow, and barely twenty years old, Jeannie had nowhere to go. Once word reached Rossberg that Eddy Witchell had drowned, his brother drove straight to Norfolk to collect them. They’d lived on his farm ever since.


Jeannie knew that Charlie couldn’t remember anything about his daddy, and the intervening years had made it harder for her, too. John had been so generous to open his home to them; he’d never married and never asked for a thing from her in return. Sometimes, she wished he had. It was hard to make a farm work these days, commercial operations were so much bigger and efficient that the little guy had a hard time of it. John was always grumbling about the new regulations government agencies were burdening him with—between the paperwork and the additional safety requirements, whatever small profit he could make was dwindling. He’d actually planned on letting Pardy go altogether—he’d told Jeannie that he was going to do his best without him for awhile; they could use the extra money. She smiled and decided to ignore her son’s question.



“How’re the eggs?” Jeannie asked.


Charlie swallowed and took a sip of the watery Sanka. “Good,” he answered. “But it looks as though the toaster’s acting up again.” He took the knife edge and tried to scrape away the charred bits.


Jeannie sighed. “I know. It was workin’ fine right after you fixed it the last time, but then it started burnin’ again.”


“I’ll take a look,” he replied. “Is there anything else that’s busted?” Charlie had a talent for repairs. He liked taking things apart and figuring out how to make them work again. He’d seen so many instances—especially in DC—of people discarding perfectly good items at the first sign of a problem. It never made sense to him—why throw something away just because it isn’t exactly right? There was usually a way to make it work.


“The parlor clock’s stopped,” she answered.


Charlie finished the last of his toast. “Ok, I’ll take a look. But first I’ve got to step out and call the office. Excuse me.” He stood up and put the dirty dishes in the sink, running water over them so the food bits didn’t stick to the china.


“Oh honey, you go on,” Jeanne bustled up beside him. “I can do this.” She slipped on her yellow plastic gloves and reached over for the liquid soap.


“Thanks, Mama.” He walked out onto the porch and descended the stairs to the entrance road where he could get a clear signal. It was early, but he expected the Chief would already be in. “Martha? Hey, it’s Charlie. I’m down in Rossberg on a family emergency. My uncle had a heart attack yesterday. I don’t know; we should hear more later today. Thanks. Ernestine can check my calendar, but nothing’s due right now. What? Check with Rakowski—we were trying to sort that out earlier. Ok. At any rate, you’ve got my mobile. I’ll call again with an update. Thanks.”


Shading his eyes from the strong, morning sun, he could hear Jeannie singing to herself in the kitchen and decided to inspect the farm. The tractor needed moving in. Walking along the plowed rows took Charlie back to his boyhood. John had insisted his nephew earn his keep by learning how to till and plant a field properly. His uncle had little patience for the boy’s complaints that he wanted to hang out at the Bootheville Mall with his friends.


“Growing things requires a lot of endurance and determination,” he explained. “You don’t just throw the seeds out there and hope some stick.” They’d walk along the orderly rows, John instructing his charge on the requirements of proper soil cultivation, warnings regarding watering, and the perils of too much fertilizer. “You can’t just dump a summer’s worth of rain on a seed and expect it to thrive. These things take time and careful handling.” Charlie recalled his wanting to hurry through the chores so he could hang out with his pals. “How good a cake do you think your mama would bake if she just threw the batter into the oven and turned it up to 600 degrees? You’d think the cake would be ready in five minutes?”


Over the years, Charlie grew to appreciate his uncle’s approach. As he mastered the discipline necessary to see things through, he grew patient. While classmates used to a much faster paced life erred as a result of their expectation of instantaneous results, Charlie proceeded at his own pace. An unexpected divided from this patience was Charlie’s discovery of his talent for fixing things. In high school, Charlie always volunteered for the advanced projects in Shop Class because none of the other students had the patience to take the time necessary to break things down and understand how they worked. This never bothered young Witchell. He was content to sit on his stool, working away.


It was this reputation for a measured, orderly approach that made him so successful in the courtroom. He didn’t get ruffled when opposing counsel started to get dramatic.


“Mornin, Charlie,” a man called. He was shaken from his reverie. It was Pardy, approaching the tractor from the other direction.


“Pardy.” They shook hands.


The farmhand pointed to the place where the rows were disturbed. “I found him over there,” he said.


Charlie stared at the place where John had fallen; it felt strange to think of him as being incapacitated that way. He had always been so reliable, so strong. “Heart attack. He’s ok, I guess. The doctor said it was bad but they got to him in time. They’re doing some more tests today.”


“You seen him?


“Not yet. It was late when I arrived.” He paused. “We’re really thankful you found him.”


“Me too. He was clutching his chest and gasping. I had forgotten to tell him somethin’ ‘bout the tractor’s clutch and had come over and there he was.” He shook his head. “You stayin’ home for awhile?”


“Looks like it.”


“Ok, well, I reckon I should get started; we’ve still got the back forty to do.” The red haired man settled his cap onto his head and climbed aboard. Charlie stepped back, careful to avoid the spot where his uncle fell. Pardy waved as he rode off.



Mercy Hospital looked smaller and more humble than when he pulled up the night before. Charlie eased the Jetta into one of the spots available in front of the entrance. He and Jeannie walked across the flagstone entrance, pausing to pick up a copy of USA Today from the dispenser. The automatic doors hissed open as they entered.


Classified as a rural, regional medical center, Mercy Hospital was the recipient of all cases within a 80 mile radius of Lexington. The occasional clinic could be found scattered in more distant parts, but everyone sent their more serious cases to Mercy. If something additional was needed, they’d need to summon a helicopter from Richmond.


The waiting area was crowded with crying children, a few recovering meth addicts waiting for their methadone treatment, and what appeared to be two outdoor adventure couples who looked as though they had spent a long night in a leaky tent. Charlie approached the nurses’ station. “Morning. My uncle was admitted yesterday and I’d like to see him, if possible.”




“John Witchell.”


The nurse reviewed the admittance sheet and checked her computer. “You’ll need a Visitor’s Pass,” she said. “Please go over to the kiosk to sign in.”


Charlie and his mother presented their identification to the volunteer. The woman smiled at them as she handed back the passes. “Room 207,” she said. “Down the hall and make your first left.”


Room 207 was a double occupancy room, with a view of the front entrance. John was dozing when they approached his bed.


“John?” Jeannie called out softly, patting his hand.


The patient opened his eyes and smiled. “Charlie,” he said quietly, his voice weak. “Oh Lord, Jeannie, am I dead? Boy, what are you doin’ down here?”


“I heard you took a tumble,” his nephew replied smiling.


“That’s what they tell me.” John sighed and looked at the tube coming out of his hand. “They got me rigged up to so many machines; I feel like an outlet.”


“Dr. Denson says you’ll be fine,” Jeannie remarked. She perched on the chair beside the bed. “We spoke to him last night and they’re going to run some tests, but he says you’ll be fine.” She squeezed his hand.


“I don’t know how fine I can be if Charlie got himself down here so quick. I know that boy don’t like leavin’ the city,” he teased.


“Oh now, you hush,” Jeannie chuckled.


“Tell him ‘bout the toaster?” John asked.


“I saw it for myself at breakfast,” Charlie answered. “I’ll get to it once we know when you’re coming home.”


Two orderlies stood at the door. “Excuse us, we need to take the patient down the hall.” They wheeled him out, leaving Charlie and his mother alone in the room.


“We’ll be here when you get back,” Jeannie called. John raised his hand in acknowledgement.


Charlie couldn’t get comfortable in the waiting area. “Considering how long people have to wait, you’d think they’d have better chairs out here,” he muttered, annoyed the signal kept dropping from his Blackberry. He wondered what was in the day’s The Wall Street Journal or Washington Post. As he scanned the waiting area, he had to remind himself not to stare at the meth addicts, nervously waiting for their treatment. He watched his mother, sitting quietly across from him working on her knitting. She had recently taken a craft class at The Quilting Bee called “Razzle Dazzle Knitted Washcloths” and was working on her project assignment.


“I’m going to stretch my legs,” he announced, pointing at the sliding glass doors. She nodded, careful not to lose count of her stitches.


The warm, late morning sun felt good as it radiated across Charlie’s neck and shoulders. He winced as he twisted his torso, trying to limber up after the night on that sofa. He could envision his muscles stretching, working against the stiffness of last night’s softball game. It all felt so long ago. John looked ok but not great, he thought. He debated calling a buddy whose wife was a supervising MD at GW; she could give him a read on this. He was about to press dial when he stopped himself; better to wait for the test results.


“Charlie?” Jeannie called out as she exited the sliding glass doors. “The doctor is ready.”


Charlie turned and walked back into the building. The nurse directed them to the doctor’s office.


“Good morning,” Dr. Denson was seated at his desk when they came in. “Have a seat.”

Charlie pulled out a chair for his mother. “Have you seen the patient?” They nodded.


Fred Denson stood up and walked behind them to close the office door. He returned to his chair and looked at the file again. “I have some good news and some not so good news,” he began. “Which do you want first?”


“Good news.”


“Yes, the good news, please,” Jeannie chimed.


“The good news is that despite suffering a significant coronary event, it looks as though no permanent damage was done to the patient’s cardio pulmonary system. It’ll take awhile for him to recover, but he should be ok on that front. He’ll just need to take it easy from here on out; a man in his sixties shouldn’t be scrambling up large pieces of heavy machinery.”


“And the bad?” Jeanne grabbed her knitting bad a little tighter.


Dr. Denson had much experience delivering bad news to local families, but it never made it any easier. Over the years, he had learned to maintain the emotional distance necessary, but it pained him to deliver news that would so abruptly change someone’s. He believed in plain talk and didn’t hide behind the confusing and frustratingly tentative language used by so many of his peers. His wife said that it was this quality which made him compassionate. “Well as you know,” he began, “I mentioned that we saw a cloudy area on his chest. After further tests, it seems there’s a good chance this is cancer.”


The room was silent.


“I don’t know how aggressive this variety is,” he continued. “We’ll need to take a biopsy, but it is serious, you need to know that. We’ve hopefully caught it early enough that we can manage it, but I don’t want to mislead you.”


Charlie looked out the window, his eyes focusing on the middle distance as he tried to get his thoughts in order.


“Does John know?” Jeannie asked. “Have you told him yet?”


“I wanted to wait so we could go in together.”


Charlie’s mind raced through the possibilities; if he pulled a few strings, he could get John admitted into GW Hospital. His mother could stay with him in Bethesda and learn to take the metro. “Do we have to tell him right away?” he asked. “Would it impact his chances of recovery from the heart attack if we tell him right now?”


The physician shook his head. “I’m afraid this can’t wait. I owe it to the patient—he needs to know what he’s facing and plan accordingly.” Charlie stood and put his hand on his mother’s left shoulder. She reached up and squeezed it. “Many cases of lung cancer can be managed, sometimes even cured. I’ve seen plenty of patients survive treatment and continue to live years afterwards. He has good odds, but he’ll need your support. I’d be lying if I told you he could carry on with life in the way he was.”


Jeannie grimaced; first Eddy and now John. “Thank you, Doctor. We’ll get through this, I know we will.” She stood up and settled her bag on her shoulder.


“Do you have any questions?”


“Not right now,” she answered firmly. “He needs to know.”


The MD looked at Charlie who started to say something but stopped himself. They’d know soon enough. “Well then,” Dr. Denson said, “I guess we better go.”


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