Friday 20 December 2019

Valley of Tears

by Phyllis Souza

warm milk 

On a Friday afternoon, Mary walked towards a pulmonary physician’s office.  She paused to allow her sister, Olivia, to catch up.  Together, they entered the waiting room.  Startled by their entrance, a man with a faded grey fedora pulled over his eyes, jumped from his seat.

Olivia sat opposite the man. He assumed his former position. She raised a brow and picking up a June edition of LIFE magazine, read the cover. A letter to the American people: Your sons, husbands, and brothers are fighting for more than victory in war.  They're fighting for a new world of freedom--

Mary stepped toward the receptionist. When she reached the window, she turned and looked back at her sister.  Comforted by her presence, she sighed and tapped the bell on the counter.  The panel slid back.  "How may I help you?" the receptionist asked.

"I'm Mary Souza.  I have a four o'clock appointment."

"Have a seat. Shouldn't be too long."  The lady smiled and closed the window.

Mary sat next to Olivia.  "What are you reading?" she asked.

"Oh, the government's pushing war bonds."

Mary looked up as the door to the examination area opened. A woman, wearing a maroon beret came out, and, marching to the man, shook his shoulder.  "Wake up. Let's go."

He straightened his hat.  "What did the doctor say?"

"He said I'm fine. I've got Bronchitis."

A few minutes after they'd left the office, a heavy-set nurse stood in the doorway and called out,  "Mary Souza, the doctor will see you now."

Mary rose from her chair.  Olivia put down the magazine.  A quiet stillness crept into the room.

The blue, wide-legged trousers Mary had on flapped against her shins and ankles as she followed the nurse down a long hallway to the doctor's private office.  There, behind a large oak desk, sat the doctor. She quivered now that the moment had come and tried not to let nerves get the better of her.  Mary stared at the papers and files on top of the desk. The results of the tests she’d taken would be among them. The doctor facing her tugged at the lapels of his white lab coat, her gaze shifted from him to a framed print of an old Acoustic Stethoscope and a University of California Medical Degree displayed on the wall.

"Come in. Have a seat."  He gestured to the chair across from him.  "I'll be with you in a moment."

Eyes narrowed, lips pursed, he wrote something in a file.  The doctor put down his pen, placed his hands on top of the desk, leaned forward and said,  "Mary, I'm sorry, but you have tuberculosis.  Unfortunately, it's spread to both lungs."

"Tuberculosis?" she whispered. She closed her eyes.  With her face buried in her hands, she turned her head back and forth. "My God—no—not me too."

"I'm going to have you admitted into Olive View Sanitarium in San Fernando Valley.  The best advice I can give you— is to think of it this way— you'll get plenty of rest and a lot of fresh air while you're receiving treatment."

She dropped her hands, lifted her head and, with tears welling, she sputtered, "I...ha...have a three-year-old child.  I can't leave her."

"You don't have any other options. No one does at this stage of the disease.  It's the law."

Mary took a deep breath. Slow... slow... ever so slowly… she rose from her chair and wandered to the window.  She looked out. After she'd collected her thoughts, she asked,  "Is there a cure?"

"There's a new drug called Streptomycin that's benefited many patients."

She turned, looked into the sad eyes of the doctor.  "How long will I be there?"

"Six months to a year.  It'll be strange to be away from home at first, but you’ll make friends. Time and fresh air are the best cures."

"Will I... will I be able to see my little girl?"

"There's a visiting room with a large window. You'll be able to see and hear each other through the glass."

I'll be a mama in the window...

Gene, Mary's husband, pressed his foot on the brake of his 1938 Chevrolet coup and reduced his speed to the 20-mile an hour speed zone.  They had entered a narrow tree-lined road.

"You're quiet," he said.

Mary stared over her right shoulder out the car window.  It had taken weeks to find the courage to make her decision.  Her heart, breaking, she said, "Gene, I've asked Laura to adopt Sharon if I die."

"Jesus, Mary, you're not going to die. You should have spoken to me about this and, what made you think I'd agree?  It's okay for your cousin to take care of her while you're away, but that's all."

She turned to him. "Laura has money.  She can afford to give Sharon a good home. You can't."

"Why are you bringing this up now?"

"Because it's been bothering me. Promise, you'll let Laura take care of our daughter."

Not wanting to get into an argument, he gave his word and continued to drive for about a mile.

They passed through the entrance gate and were greeted by sprawling green lawns, colorful flowers, and the white buildings, roofed with red tiles, of the Olive View Sanitarium.

Gene drove through one parking area after another searching for a place to park.  After several minutes, he found one designated for incoming patients.

Mary, like a rose in full bloom, one that had been picked, lost its fragrance, and would be pressed in a book.

Gene stood next Mary as they waited in line behind a lady wearing a red floral dress.  The older woman with her appeared to be in her mid-forties, maybe her mother? They were crying.

Mary wanted to cry too.  She wanted to put her head on Gene's chest and flood it with tears. But she didn't.

The line crept forward. At last Mary’s turn arrived, without saying a word, looked at Gene.  After a few seconds, she murmured, “Good-bye.”

 "I love you," he said and kissed her cheek.

"You better go. I can manage on my own," Mary said softly.

After checking in, a nurse escorted Mary to a room where a doctor began to write the details of her history.  He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose with his index finger.  "When were you born?"

"May 21, 1922."

"Mother, living?"


"Father, living?"




With a slight nod, he continued to ask questions.

She answered.

Then came the final questions.  "Has anyone in your family had Tuberculosis?"

"My father and my sister, Emily. They both died of it."

The doctor made a note. He slipped his pen into his breast pocket— looked at Mary— satisfied. He called in a nurse.

Mary followed the nurse to the weighing room.  She took off her shoes and stepped on a scale.

"One hundred and two pounds," the nurse called out. "You'll be weighed once a week in the evening.  Around here, we call it weighing night."

Another much younger nurse showed Mary to her ward.  "Ladies, meet Mary."

Patients responded with a faint, “Hello,” or a smile.

“Hello,” Mary whispered.

They passed in front of a row of white iron beds filled with patients, young and old. Mary wondered, where their homes were—how long have they been here—do they have children?

Halfway down the aisle, the nurse stopped.  "There you are, between Amelia and Lena."  She handed Mary a hospital gown and told her to get into bed and lie flat on her back.

But before she did, Mary stepped to one of the French windows.  Outside, sunlight swept below on a canopy of green branches in an olive orchard.

Around five o'clock, a robust nurse came into the ward. A sterile container in hand, she marched over to Mary's bed and barked an order, "Cough up some phlegm and spit it in the jar for a sputum culture."

Mary sat and with a trembling hand reached for the jar.  She brought it up under her chin and coughed. Nothing. She coughed again. Nothing. Again she tried. She tried until her face turned red and her chest hurt. "I… I can't."

"Get up."

Mary slid out of bed.

"Turn around."  The nurse wrapped her arms around Mary's waist. She squeezed as hard as she could.  Mary coughed. And, again the nurse squeezed, Mary, coughed up bloody phlegm.

As if dancing on waves, Mary called out, "I… I'm going to faint."

When she opened her eyes, she was back in her bed.  Night had obliterated the day.

Early the next morning, the click-clack of a wheelchair being pushed by an orderly came into the ward to take Mary to X-ray.

A few minutes later, as if trapped in an empty elevator with the arrow pointing down, she stood alone in the middle of a dark booth.  The sounds of murmurings and shapes of men moved on the other side of the screen.

Days turned into weeks, weeks into months. Outside, autumn leaves swaying on branches rustled.  Inside, pretty young nurses streamed in and streamed out of the ward.  They offered clean handkerchiefs and newspapers. Signs of a cure were shifting in the right direction.  For an hour a day, Mary could sit in a chair, read a book or write a letter.

Dear Olivia,

After three months in this place, I've learned something. I want to live.

Laura brought Sharon to see me last week.  I could see through the window.  She seemed happy.  She waved. I waved back. I blew kisses; then she pretended to catch them.  It took a couple of days to get over the visit. That was the hard part.

Gene, as the army would say, is AWOL.  But then, that's nothing new.  How about you?  I couldn't stand it if something happened to you.  You're my only sister.  I love our brothers, but it's not the same.

I'd better finish this so I can get it in today's mail.

Love, Mary

Christmas Eve...  the ward was decorated with garlands weaved with holiday lights.  Patients sat in their beds and opened gifts from their families.  Mary got a photograph of Sharon, dressed in red, sitting on a vanity bench.

One minute the door swung open--and the next it closed.

Mary had a 104-degree fever. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead. She tossed, turned, and coughed profusely.

"Ring for a nurse," Amelia yelled, "Mary's sick!"

A nurse came in.  Alarmed by Mary's condition, she ran out of the ward and summoned a doctor.

They laid Mary on a gurney and rolled her into intensive care.  Her lungs filled with pneumonia.  "Call her family, she's going fast," a doctor called out.

On Christmas morning, her mother, six brothers, and her sister arrived at Olive View Sanitarium. They were by her side while she struggled to breathe. However, her husband, as usual, wasn't found.

Later, dressed in a dusty rose-colored dressing gown with a gardenia penned in her hair, Mary lay in a casket.

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