Aunt Haley and Uncle Carl moved often. Except for the tools in his woodworking shop, along with the whatnots he made, and except for her wheelchair and crutches, they didn’t have many material things. They rented little houses near Taylorsville, in north Laurel, and close to Ellisville—all within a small loop in south Mississippi. Uncle Carl was a cabinet maker. My maternal grandmother’s sister, Aunt Haley, suffered. They had no children.
Her rheumatoid arthritis resisted all the treatments the doctors tried. I can remember when she had gold shots. Sterile saline injections would have helped just as much. Her neck wouldn’t allow her to move her head, which was stuck turned to the side. When I was a little girl, she’d come and spend a few weeks with us in the summer. Back then, she could walk a few steps. I remember her corduroy house slippers had holes cut out to accommodate.
Despite her suffering, Aunt Haley had a witty sense of humor.
When I was a teenager, my aunt and uncle moved to the outskirts of the little Jones County town of Ellisville. Uncle Carl was working somewhere. I think he was building kitchen cabinets. That summer for two months, my mother drove the twenty-five-mile trip from Taylorsville to Ellisville almost every weekday. Carl left her at home alone. He had to go to work. Back in the 1950’s she didn’t have home health care. I went with my mother most days and helped with her care. Sometimes I shelled beans or peas in the yard. The closest neighbor was a cute boy a year older than I was.
I still have olfactory memories of her. Gangrene developed in her twisted toes. It smelled so bad that the stench pricked our nostrils before we stepped out of our cars. We didn’t have air conditioning in our car, and in her house she stayed cool with open windows and a large electric fan. In all my life, I’ve never smelled anything worse than Aunt Haley’s gangrenous infection.
At first her toes were black. Days passed, and the stinky greenish-purplish-blackness climbed up her legs. She went to the doctor, who said he would amputate when the time was right. My mother bathed her, helped her with all her hygiene needs, cooked lunch, fed Aunt Haley, changed her bed, cleaned her house. My mother did all this work cheerfully. Aunt Haley was Grandma’s youngest sister, and Mother never recovered from the grief of losing Grandma.
Eventually Haley had a bilateral AKA, above-the knees amputation. The wounds didn’t heal, and the surgeon re-operated. After the second operation, Aunt Haley’s legs were so short she couldn’t sit up.
The experience of helping care for Aunt Haley affected the rest of my life. I knew someday I’d do something in health care. Finally, when I was forty, I attended Louisiana Tech University, Ruston, LA, and became a registered nurse. Later Robert (Bobby) Cheatham, my first husband, now deceased, spent five years paralyzed, but his illness is another story.
(Mary Cooke, whose pen name is Mary Lou Cheatham has co-authored with Sarah Walker Gorrell a poignant novel, Travelers in Painted Wagons on Cohay Creek, about a young boy trying to take care of his mother, who suffers with cancer.)