Hollow Beats the Night
Delbert R. Gardner
Delbert R. Gardner
December blew white tracers past the window,
And somewhere, children would be building snowmen,
Dreaming of the time when Santa Claus
Would prop up Christmas trees with stacks of gifts.
Though Nelson Strong was scarcely forty-five,
With dark brown hair as yet untouched by gray,
And lithe-appearing body used to movement,
He sat each evening in a trance-like manner,
Refusing to take part in conversation,
And stared with hollow eyes at nothing earthly.
Some friends came, after hearing of his illness,
And tried to cheer him up with apt remarks,
Like "Don't kid me, you're only tired of working,"
Or "May, how long you going to pamper him?
I wish my wife would wait on me like that."
But, getting only curt one-word replies,
Unsettled by his pale, unwinking stare,
They fidgeted, already sensing Death,
Afraid to stand inhaling His black air.
May walked them to the door and softly wept.
"Poor Nelson, I don't know just how to help him.
For three weeks, ever since the doctor told him
That any kind of labor'd stop his heart,
He's sat and looked like that, and never eats
More than a bite or two of food, that's all
He ever eats. I don't know what to do."
They tried to comfort her, in awkward kindness;
"This thing has kind of thrown him for a loss,
But he'll perk up within a week or two,
You'll see," they said with hope they did not feel.
The children had been always close to Nelson,
And now they could not understand his quiet.
"Your father needs his rest," May gently told them.
"He isn't well, and we must all be patient.
Let's give him all the help and love we can
And pray to God to give him back his health."
Lucille, at twelve, was eldest of the three.
She sat upon the floor by Nelson's chair
And, smiling, put her hand upon his knee.
"What would you like to get for Christmas, Daddy?"
Tenderness was throbbing in her words.
He looked at first as though he hadn't heard;
And when he turned his head to look at her,
His eyes were prisms of his bitter soul.
"Death," he hissed; then, seeing how the word
Had struck her in the face with freezing shock,
He briefly touched her hand and said more gently,
"I just don't want to be here Christmas Day."
She put her face upon his knees and sobbed,
"Please don't say that, Daddy, please don't die!"
Her younger brothers stood by looking helpless,
Not understanding why Lucille was crying,
But close to tears themselves in sympathy.
Caressing her to soothe the wracking sobs.
The man stood up and threw his wife a look.
"If you don't keep those kids away, I'll kill 'em,"
He muttered, and walked slowly to his bedroom,
Shutting the door upon his daughter's wailing.
Lying in the darkness, Nelson listened
To the uneven hoof-beats of his heart;
"Useless-failure-useless," it insisted,
"You almost got your wish, your wish to die;
Just one more crisis, one more strain like that--
I'll end the farce, and stop cold, stop you cold."
"Oh, no you won't," said Nelson, "not that way;
I want it slower and more natural-looking.
Besides, if you won't work, I'll starve you!
No work, no food," he said and chuckled lightly.
How long he slept he had no way of knowing;
The house was lying under heavy silence,
As he became aware that some intruder
Now shared the darkness that before was his.
A soft, soft voice came floating through the gloom.
"You're frightened, son. It's only me, your Mother."
"It can't be--but it sounds like Mother's voice--"
Then, suddenly he knew it was his mother;
His being was pervaded by a calm,
A quietness he hadn't known for years,
And nothing seemed unnatural or strange.
Silent and unquestioning, he waited.
"I want you to go back to sleep and dream,"
His mother said. "I want you to remember,
And be again, a boy of twelve years old.
Goodnight, my son, sleep well and don't forget
That every man must be a child first."
The mind of Nelson swiftly bridged the years
To that hot summer when his mother lay
So near the reaching hand of hungry Death,
That every breath he feared would be her last.
In the close and tiny bedroom,
Nelson sat beside his mother.
With a cardboard fan, he fanned her,
Through the hot and sticky night,
Dozing seconds at a time,
Till her gasping "Fan me, fan me!"
Brought him guiltily awake,
Made him fan with freshened vigor,
Saying underneath his breath
Praying hard as he knew how,
"Save her, God, please make her well;
I won't ask for nothing else."
Once she felt a little better,
Looked at him with loving eyes;
"You're so tired, dear," she said,
"Go to bed and get some rest."
"No," he said, "I'm gonna stay."
Smiling then, she fell asleep.
Nelson went and ate a sandwich,
Fixed some beef broth for his mother,
And fed it to her when she woke.
Morning brought the scorching sun,
Making the bedroom like an oven.
Not a breath of air was stirring
To relieve the stifling heat.
Nelson's mother gasped for breath,
Begged her son to keep on fanning.
All that day he waved the cardboard,
Changing hands when one went numb,
Wishing that some rain would come,
Wishing that the day would end.
Evening finally chased the sun,
But the air was thick as ever,
Sticky air too hot for breathing.
"Let me get a doctor, Mother."
"I've no money for a doctor."
Nelson's mother wrote a note.
"Take it to the little church,
Where we used to go last spring.
Give the minister the note;
Ask them all to pray for me."
Saying this, she lay back panting.
Nelson was afraid to leave her.
"Hurry, son," his mother begged him,
"I'll be all right while you're gone."
Kissing her, he hurried out,
Buckled on his roller skates,
Skated as he never had,
Jumping curbs and broken sidewalk,
And the clicking of the wheels
Matched the pounding of his heart.
Tears were blurring in his eyes,
Causing him to pass a street
Where he should have made a turn;
Soon he was completely lost.
Frantically, he dashed around,
One direction, then another.
Desperation mounted in him,
And his breath was coming short.
Then his eye fell on a sign
With "M.D." behind the name.
Knowing that the sign meant "doctor,"
Nelson stood before the house,
Wrestling with his indecision,
Till his worry for his mother
Overcame his fear and shame.
Quickly taking off his skates,
Dashing to the porch and knocking,
He asked God to help his mother,
Make the doctor help his mother.
After what seemed endless hours,
Someone came and let him in.
Pushing past the skirted figure,
"Where's the doctor?" he demanded.
"Doctor Williamson is busy."
"What's the trouble out here, Thelma?"
Asked the doctor, coming forward.
Nelson ran to kneel before him,
Threw his arms around his legs,
Begging him to help his mother,
Saying that they had no money,
But he'd work and pay him back.
"She's so sick, I know she'll die,
If someone don't come and help her."
Maybe he could see himself
In the mother-loving boy.
"Thelma, bring my bag," he called.
"Come along, son, you can show me
Where your mother and you live."
Nelson said he had to find
The little church somewhere around there.
"Come, I'll take you," said the doctor.
Getting out before the church,
Nelson humbly thanked the doctor,
Told him where his mother lived,
Begging him to go ahead.
Going in the little church,
Nelson hurried to the altar,
Gave the minister the note,
And kneeling down, he prayed out loud,
Asking God to save his mother,
Get the doctor there in time,
Help the doctor make her well.
Everybody listened to him,
Feeling shamed before his faith.
When he ran back up the aisle,
"Pass the plate for that boy's mother!"
Shouted someone in the back,
And the preacher stood amazed,
Seeing four plates overflowing,
Emptied out and filled again.
Nelson paused before the bedroom,
Hardly daring to go in.
Then he turned the knob and entered,
Saw the doctor standing there,
Saw his mother, pale and quiet,
Breathing softly in her sleep.
Dr. Williamson was smiling,
Leading Nelson out the door.
"She'll get well, my boy," he said.
Nelson's knees began to shake.
Sinking down upon his cot,
With his face between his hands,
"Thank you, God," he mumbled weakly.
Looking at the boy, the doctor
Mixed a glass of medicine.
"Here, drink this," he kindly ordered.
Nelson gulped the bitter fluid,
Then he settled back and slept . . .
When Nelson woke, he looked around the room.
Daylight slanted through the curtained window,
And May was dozing in a chair beside him,
Her head against the back, fatigue lines showing
Around her eyes and mouth. Humility
Began to spread its balm throughout his soul,
Crowding out the bitter, useless feeling.
As if she felt his loving glance upon her,
She gave a start and looked at him with fear,
But when she saw his open eyes, she smiled.
"Feeling any better, dear?" she asked.
He nodded. "Better, but I'm awful hungry."
Surprise gave way to gladness in her face.
"I'll fix some breakfast for us both," she said.
When he was done, he looked at her and asked,
"What day is it?" "It's Sunday," she replied.
He hesitated, wondering how to say it.
"Mother was here on Friday night," he said.
She nodded slowly as she gazed at him.
"I think I'd like to see the children, May."
Her eyes were searching. "I'll go get them, Nelson."
Lucille came in with reddened nose and eyes,
Followed by young Fred and Nelson Jr.,
And May was smiling at the door behind them.
He solemnly shook hands with both the boys,
Then, hugging his daughter close, he kissed her hair.
"You're what I want for Christmas," he said gruffly.
Commentary by Adele Gardner on Hollow Beats the Night: When my father was twelve, during the Great Depression, the family had no money for a doctor. Sitting up night after night fanning his mother Effie in the heat, Dad was convinced that she was dying. He roller-skated to the Methodist church and asked the minister to pray for his dying mother; the minister immediately visited and brought a doctor. The kind Dr. Ella Ritter of Williamsport saved Effie and provided groceries for the family--free of charge. While Effie battled peritonitis at a time without antibiotics, Dad kept the family together, cooking meals, sewing, mending, cleaning the laundry and house, and taking care of his six-year-old sister--as my mother says, "quite remarkable for a young boy." Dad wrote this poem in 1953 while studying literature at Syracuse University for his bachelor's under the G.I. Bill (he was the first member of his family to go to college). Though he never submitted the poem for publication, he wrote an article praising Dr. Ella Ritter that was published in a Williamsport, PA, paper around 1955. While Dad was always careful to fictionalize any autobiographical elements in his work, I'm convinced that if he'd had the chance to revise this poem in later years, he would have included the actual character of the woman who retained his gratitude all his life.
Editor's Note: The story told in "Hollow Beats the Night" reminds me of something out of a work of Dickens. The rhythm is impeccable, and the occasional rhymes make for nice surprises. The mood created is special and moves seamlessly between the various stages of grief--with particular emphasis on anger and then finally on acceptance. "Hollow Beats the Night" was first published in the August 2014 issue of Songs of Eretz Poetry E-zine.