Priscilla's World | The Beginning and the End
The Beginning and the End

“I’m not going to date one of the ‘big boys.”

I’d heard a rumor that Rodney Wilson planned to ask me for a date. Since I was only a junior in high school, his return from the Navy qualified him as one of the “big boys.”

That spring of 1947 most of my girl friends at Arkansas City High School were dating the returned veterans now students in Ark City Junior College. I thought I should just date my classmates in high school.

One afternoon, as I walked home I saw Rod and his friends in a parked car. As he got out of the car and approached me I thought, “Oh dear, what now?”

Much later he told me that his best friend, Cutch pushed him out of the car saying, “Go ask her now.”

Shyly he said, “Hi, can you go out with me for a hamburger after operetta rehearsal Wednesday night?”

What relief! I don’t even have to think. “I’m sorry, I can’t. My parents don’t let me go out on a school night.”

I would remember that conversation sixty-four years later when Rodney died suddenly of a massive brain hemorrhage.

We began dating. I discovered I liked him a lot. He was attentive, polite to my parents and good looking. But best of all, he had a wonderful sense of humor. He often repeated one of his grandmother’s sayings, “A bushel of love is the most love in the world.” About the time he declared, “I love you bushels,” I was hooked.

By my sophomore year at Oklahoma University, we made some decisions. One night when I got home from a date I went into my folk’s bedroom. Sitting on the end of my Daddy’s bed I announced, “I am going to drop out of school so Rod and I can get married.”

My father sat straight up and announced in a loud, authoritarian voice, “Oh no you aren’t.” He proved to be right. I did not drop out. Back in 1950, “Father Knows Best” was the theme in our home.

I did some manipulating and managed to graduate a year early. Whether I learned anything in my three years, two summer school sessions and one semester of correspondence was beside the point. Our wedding took place on October 26, 1952.

After a honeymoon in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains we drove to Chicago. My folks wedding gift of a new Plymouth was a source of pride and joy. Rod’s job with the Santa Fe Railroad as secretary for the Superintendent of Transportation was in the Railway Exchange Building on Michigan Avenue across the street from the Art Institute. He had spent months looking for an apartment for us.

He warned me that Chicago apartments were impossible to find. But I’m a young, naïve bride so I didn’t think about what he is trying to tell me. We arrived at our apartment at 72nd Street and South Shore Drive and he opened the door. I saw shabby, dingy and dismal. I nearly turned around and ran. The living room had the most depressing ambience I had ever witnessed. I had never even seen a couch with springs hanging out the bottom before.

A tiny dining area, a small dirty kitchen and a miniscule bathroom completed the space. And where was the bed? A Murphy bed (which I had never heard of) pulled down out of a closet door into the living room. So every night, our bed filled the living room space, barely leaving enough room to walk to the bathroom. After my first stunned reactions, the space became livable. Being in love helps a lot of things.

Thus began fifty-nine years of marriage. 

Fifty-eight years, eight months and twenty-one days from that first, “I do” Rod dropped to the floor with a “catastrophic brain hemorrhage.”

Our daughter, Mary had purchased a suite at the Kauffman Stadium for the Royals June 4th game with the Minnesota Braves.

At the last minute Rod decided to stay home and watch the game on TV, “I don’t want to walk that far in the parking lot,” he said. He kissed Mary and I goodbye and admonished us with his usual advice, “Watch out driving home. Remember all those guys who have been drinking beer all evening.” These were his last words to us.

Mid-point in the game I tried to call him. He loved to have me check in when I was out anywhere. He didn’t answer, but this doesn’t seem too odd. He may be on the phone, or just doesn’t hear it. Later in the evening I phone again. No answer. Now I worry a bit and ask Mary to come in with me when she takes me home.

We arrive home. The lights and TV are on in the den. The chair is empty. Check the bathroom. It is empty. In his office, Rod is sprawled face down by his desk, arms and hands at strange angles. I try to wake him, calling his name loudly. Mary calls 911. It looks like he was headed toward the phone, but hard to tell.

Within a few minutes six or seven medics are in the room doing all the stuff they do. There is no response from Rod. They do some more checking on vital signs and then place him on a gurney, strap him down and head for the door. I rode in the ambulance and Mary followed us to KU Med Center, the closest trauma center.

The expected Emergency Room activity ensued including a trip down the hall for a CT scan of his brain. We are shown the brain picture when they return. The picture, in black and white, depicts the blood in white, filling about 95% of his brain. There is no question of his recovery. The neuro-surgeon on ER night duty concurs given Rod’s age and the extent of the bleeding there isn’t anything to be done.

About midnight Mary and I follow Rod’s gurney to the sixth floor to the TEVA Neuroscience wing of Intensive Care. How ironic. Her suite at the ballgame had been purchased at the TEVA Neuroscience auction. Mary goes home to her kids and I spend a wild, sleepless night in a lounge chair in his room.

Periodically I get up, touch him, check the monitors and tell him I love him. Never a flicker of response, only a few involuntary twitches.

Morning finally comes. Son, Ben is on his way from Minnesota. My sister arrives. I talk to folks at the church. The nurses tippy-toe around the fact of the seriousness of Rod’s condition. Until they understand that we know how to spell the word “death” they are cautious.

While I am not prepared for the reality of this, several things are helping me. Rod and I spent a week at Ghost Ranch, NM the previous summer in a writing seminar. The theme for the week, Death and Its Mysteries, triggered a lot of conversation. Little did I know what a gift I was receiving. A week of writing and conversation at this spirit conference center gave us the opportunity to think through so many things that became helpful during this journey.

Ben arrives about noon and we hear the crazy story of the hospital’s process of naming trauma patients who come into ER. Rather than call everyone John Doe they assign a country name to the patient.

Rod is “O.J. Taiwan,” in spite of my giving his name many times to many people. That is how he is listed in the hospital records. Anyone coming to see him has trouble finding him because the computer doesn’t list a Rodney Wilson.

We spend the day talking to Rod, never knowing if he can hear. No sign of “life” other than the involuntary twitches and the numbers shifting on his monitors.

The nurse tells us about mid-afternoon that his heart rate and blood pressure will spike and then plummet. When this happens we are shocked at how dramatic the change is. We ask for the removal of the breathing tube and monitors so the family can say a final good-bye.

Rod’s heart stops in a few minutes and I check the clock, 8:33pm. The doctor arrives and signs off on him and declares the death at 8:45pm.

Hospital protocol takes over, the Cremation Center is called, and Rod is taken away. I am numb and in shock.

The story that Rod wrote at Ghost Ranch: “Closure of the Day” became a tribute to him which one of our grandsons read during his Memorial Service.  It is hard to keep a dry eye when Taps is played … I’m not sure there were any the afternoon of June 11 at Village Church.

It is several months later. Family, friends and church community have been amazingly supportive.

Rodney and I always operated as a team. I have realized anew that even when it was his or my project, which there have been a lot of, the other critiqued, commented, suggested or generally made helpful remarks.

Now I have to learn how to play the game with half a team.