Thursday, September 30, 2010

Folklife Friday: Settin' Up with the Sick

Last week, I wrote about settin' up with the dead. Today, the subject is settin' up with the sick, which should have come first. Fortunately, as far as I know, this blog is not being graded, so I guess that's okay.

Our world of quiet, sanitary hospitals has come a long way. In my childhood, if anyone went to the hospital, we knew they were in extremely serious condition. Doctor visits were mostly limited to obviously broken bones and injuries that wouldn't stop bleeding. It seems unbelievable now, but I have known people who sewed up their own wounds with a sewing needle and quilting thread. I have known people whose limbs healed improperly because they were set at home, sometimes causing a lifelong limp or disability.

Just like wakes, settin' up with the sick was a community event. The purpose was to help the sick and their family, but it was usually just an excuse for visiting. Families would help with feeding the livestock and getting meals together, and then they sat around the sick person and apparently watched them suffer.

I was probably about ten when Miss Lilly came down with the sickness that would eventually send her on 'that long black train'. Miss Lilly was ancient.
Her husband had passed away so many years ago that no one remembered him. She had lived in a little three room house (kitchen, back bedroom, front bedroom/living room) the whole time I had been alive. Her bedrooms were lighted with bare bulbs on ceiling fixtures that had short chains to pull them on and off. She tore strings from fabric and attached one end of the string to the chain and the other end to the bed frame so she could easily find the 'switch' during the night. At the time, I thought that was the smartest thing I had ever seen.

Miss Lilly received a small 'old age' government pension to buy her food and pay the taxes. She was known to be extremely frugal, and we all knew we might as well not stop there on Halloween. After her death, small medicine bottles filled with rolled up cash was found throughout her house. I wonder what she was saving it for.

When she took to her bed for the last time, she chose the bed in the front room. It was common at the time for beds to be in the living area; houses were small and usually, the only source of heat was from the wood burning stove in the living room. The bed was pushed against the wall to save space, so visiting with Miss Lilly could only be done from one side. Here, she was given water and soup and the pills from the doctor in town. She was prayed over, patted with unwashed hands, and tucked in with her best quilts.

My parents usually went without us children, but for some reason, I was taken along once when they went to minister to Miss Lilly. I recall Miss Lilly, pale and wasted, lying in bed with people surrounding her, standing along the walls of the small room because there wasn't enough chairs to go around. Occasionally, nature's call and the respect for Miss Lilly's privacy would cause the principal caregiver to shoo everyone out of the room while Miss Lilly relieved herself, only to have everyone crowd back in after a respectable amount of time.

I can't remember if we ever knew what actually killed Miss Lilly other than old age, which got blamed for everything if the person was past sixty. Whatever it was, it lingered. Perhaps a slow respiratory illness (I can remember coughing) or maybe congestive heart failure. She stayed in that bed for the longest time. The crowd would thin out until news spread that she was worse, at which time they would return in full force.

These people were doing what they could, what they thought was right, just the way they had been brought up to do. Our Lord teaches us to bear one another's burdens, so maybe they were attempting to do that. By bringing in their germs and viruses, they may have even hastened some of the sick to their sundown.

This little ditty will be read by some who know and love me, and by some that I have only met online. So, to my local peeps:

1. If you must come and see me when I'm ill or dying, just stick your head in and blow me a kiss. That's enough.

2. You can visit with my family in the waiting room as long as you want to. You can even bring them sandwiches and moon pies.

3. I understand the power of prayer, and please remember me if you are in Christ. You do not, however, have to stand by my bed to pray while I'm puking or pooping. If you believe in the same God I do, He is omnipresent and can hear you at home or in the waiting room just as well.

If we are smart enough and care enough, we can carry the burdens of others and respect their privacy at the same time.