It was a Tuesday afternoon in mid-October, 1943. The world was at war but it was peaceful in our hometown of Albany, the crossroads of commerce in rural Southwest Georgia where my two older sisters and I grew up in a quiet tree-lined neighborhood with our mother and father, Mildred and Carl Huie. Idyllic, seemingly, but on this chilly, overcast day, my sister Carlton’s life and the life of our family changed forever.
Curly dark hair touching her shoulders, cherubic, ten years old, Carlton was talking and giggling with Beverly, Lynn, and other fifth-grade girlfriends clustered under a giant oak tree, waiting for the bell to signal the end of lunch recess at McIntosh School. A breeze fanned the branches of the oak, elm, and pecan trees lining Monroe Street by the playground.
Boys and girls were shooting basketball, playing dodge ball, and choosing up sides for Red Rover. Others were jumping rope, tossing a football, and playing jacks or hopscotch. Half a dozen sixth-grade boys were zigzagging the sprawling, dusty landscape between McIntosh School and Albany Junior High School, a grass-patched open area the size of a football field. Hard green apples heaped in a large wicker basket were available for the taking in the lunchroom for anyone who wanted to enjoy eating them out on the playground. Running like a pack of dogs, some of the boys started throwing apples at each other’s backs, missing most of the time. Snatching up the apples again and again and targeting each other, throwing as hard as they could, the pack inadvertently swerved toward the giant oak tree. On playground duty, Mrs. Calhoun jumped from her bench, dropped her clipboard on the ground, and jogged toward the boys, cupping one hand and shouting, “Y’all quit that before you hurt somebody. Those apples are for eating not…”
Whop…the sound of an apple thrown with full force at close range striking Carlton on her right hip. Unaware of hitting Carlton, the boys continued to chase each other around the playground while she dropped to her knees, stunned. In seconds she began to sob and moan, “My leg, my leg, my leg.” Who could have known the damage one errant apple could do?
Crouching over Carlton and holding her hand, Mrs. Calhoun blurted to several girls, “Y’all run fast to the office and call an ambulance,” and then to Carlton, still sobbing, “You’ll be all right, honey, you’re gonna be all right.” Within fifteen minutes, Carlton was lifted onto a stretcher, placed in an ambulance, and delivered to the emergency room of Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, where she had been born.
The following day Carlton was taken by ambulance on the five-hour drive north to Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta, Mother sitting beside and holding her hand, Daddy following behind in his light-green Chevrolet sedan. Six years old and vaguely understanding that Carlton was in an accident and needed to see a doctor in Atlanta, I was dropped off to stay with my grandmother, “Bama,” in her third-story apartment near downtown Albany. My older sister, Mildred, fourteen, stayed in the home of friends. This separation and disruption were omens of things to come. Carlton would become the central focus of our family. Mildred and I would learn to take care of ourselves.
Dr. James Thornton, a renowned bone surgeon with graying hair and a stethoscope draped around his neck, looked across the scattered medical magazines on his desk into the eyes of our worried parents. Mother sat on the edge of the hard mahogany chair, face sagging with fatigue, her wrinkled light-blue dress dotted with food stains from breakfast, fingers on her left hand twitching involuntarily. Her cigarette, pinched between trembling tobacco-stained fingers, sent smoke curls up to the ceiling. Daddy, in his crisp white shirt and plaid tie, leaned back in his chair, took off his spectacles and pulled out a handkerchief to wipe the lenses. He felt Mother’s hand groping for his, seeking strength. Despite his hangover from the fifth of Johnny Walker, Daddy could feel his wife’s quickening pulse.
His tone soft, barely audible, Dr. Thornton broke the silence. “Your daughter’s fever spiked last night at 105 degrees, but we’ve been able to bring it down this morning and we expect things to go better from here. The blow to Carlton’s right hip caused a very deep bruise. We suspect she had some kind of infection elsewhere in her body and the infection traveled through the circulatory system to the bruise. What we see now on the X-rays is that the infection is deep in the hip socket itself. We call it osteomyelitis.”
Tears tracing down both cheeks, Mother asked, “Can’t you do something that will knock out the infection quickly?”
Dr. Thornton leaned forward. “We will do everything we can, Mildred. Sadly, some of the antibiotics we need are not available because of war demands. We have no alternative at this stage other than to go in surgically to drain any pus or fluid that has accumulated. Next we have to determine if any of the bone itself is diseased. We expect it will be necessary to cut out all the diseased bone and even some healthy bone and tissue to ensure all infected areas have been removed. Then we wait for several months. This will be major surgery, so I will be the lead surgeon backed up by my experienced team.”
“And if the infection is gone then,” Daddy asked, “will she be all right, will she be able to walk and run like always?”
Dr. Thornton looked at them and paused. Muted hospital bells and calls for doctors on the intercom became just background noise. “We have to take it one step at a time. We have to hope that we can remove all the infection without any permanent damage. We have to be ready for more operations if that’s what it takes.”
During that first long stay at Piedmont Hospital after two major surgeries, my sister made many friends, including one famous friend, Air Force Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, who was recovering from his ordeal in the Atlantic Ocean where he and his men survived on a life raft for more than two weeks after being shot down by the Nazis. The affable pilot and war hero spent much of his time visiting the children’s ward. Carlton became the Captain’s favorite.
Over the years Carlton bravely endured many surgeries. Months of hospitalization in Atlanta, flat on her back in a waist-high body cast, immobilizing her hips and legs, were followed by more months at home in a wheelchair or on crutches. Yet through her long weeks and months in the hospital, Carlton kept her hands busy. On the walls of her hospital room were portraits of each family member, cartoon sketches of Dr. Thornton and her favorite nurses, drawings of birds and rabbits, and pictures of the seasonal landscapes visible through her window. Whimsical animal and human figures made from red, white, blue, and pink pipe cleaners were displayed on every surface in her room. She read, wrote, sang, drew, and painted. With the help of tutors and sympathetic teachers, Carlton stayed on top of her schoolwork and remained cheerful.
Mother sometimes let me go with her to visit Carlton in the hospital. I loved to be alone with my sister in her room while Mother talked with the doctors or went back to the hotel to rest. I became very skillful at giving Carlton foot massages. If she asked, I would climb onto her bed and slide her long backscratcher inside her cast to relieve itching places on her back. We invented and played word games, guessing games, card games and tricks, and thought up riddles and jokes. We drew pictures and funny faces on her cast and made up nicknames for each other. In our silly moods I became “Boogie” and she became “Woogie.” We giggled, teased, and laughed. One Easter when she and I were alone, I had her close her eyes and count to a hundred while I hid Easter eggs and candy all over her room and let her go on her own Easter egg hunt by telling me where to look.
All through her teen years, Carlton endured the surgeries and long hospital stays before returning home; first to her wheelchair, and then to crutches. She learned, over time, to walk well, although with a visible limp.
When Carlton was fourteen years old, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, now a civilian and president of Eastern Airlines, made a visit to Turner Air Force Base, several miles outside of Albany. He invited our family to eat with him, and afterward we posed for the photographer from the Albany Herald. The photograph shows the aging, handsome pilot smiling at Carlton, who was by his side, beaming; Mother in her fox fur radiating pride; Daddy, befuddled and ill at ease; Mildred posing like the New York model she would become; and me, the skinny little brother, wearing a cap and jacket from the Army Navy Store, shoulders back, proud and serious.
In the brief article accompanying the photograph, Louise Gunnels, editor of the society page, wrote: “When young John was asked what he thinks of Captain Eddie Rickenbacker whose men survived at sea by capturing and eating the seagulls that landed on the lifeboat, he said, ‘I think Captain Rickenbacker is a very mean man for letting his men eat all those sea-girls.’”
Mother had the original photograph framed and permanently displayed on the mantelpiece in our living room. Carlton and I often competed to tell friends the story of my sea-girl comment, with exaggerations. Her laughter was contagious.
Carlton’s last surgery at age seventeen involved once more shortening her left leg to ensure it was the same length as her right. The deep scar on her right hip could easily be covered by her bathing suit, and she loved swimming at Radium Springs, an idyllic summer gathering place south of Albany. Her upper arms were unusually strong from all the time on crutches, and she became a powerful, graceful swimmer. Physically beautiful, Carlton always had dates, loved to dance, and even learned to play golf.
Like all of Mildred Huie’s children, Carlton took four years of Latin and graduated from Albany High School with honors. As art editor for the yearbook her senior year, she did all the drawings and much of the writing. She was engaged, curious, and highly motivated to further her education. I did not fully comprehend as a young boy how exceptionally talented she was.
During her senior year and the summer after, Carlton began to go steady with a debonair college boy named Wade Childress, a newcomer to town. Wade and his younger brother, Johnny, had recently moved to Albany from St. Louis where their father, Big Wade, had made his millions in the railroad industry. In the early 1950s he purchased a few thousand acres ten miles outside of Albany, built a plantation home, and developed the land into a cattle ranch and hunting preserve. There he retired with his fourth wife, Toy, to enjoy the life of a country squire—dove and quail hunting and overseeing his herd of a rare breed of San Gertrudas cattle.
Wade and Johnny had grown up in the high society of St. Louis. Charming and handsome college boys, they made friends easily as they entered the social scene of Albany. Like so many young people, they were warmly welcomed in our home, charming Mother with their good manners and competing for the attention of both of my good-looking sisters.
Wade had a firm handshake, always said “Yes ma’am” and “Yes sir” to my parents, had a ready smile for everyone, and demonstrated impeccable manners and an aristocratic style. He was more refined and better dressed than the local suitors orbiting around my two sisters. His Southern accent, influenced by two years at the University of Virginia before he flunked out, was soothing and seductive. Dark-haired and brown-eyed, the well-meaning Wade pursued Carlton all through her senior year. There was no doubt; Wade was in love with my sweet, kind-hearted sister.
Big Wade had promised both of his sons one million dollars if they refrained from drinking hard liquor until their twenty-first birthdays. A barrel-chested, overweight alcohol abuser himself, perhaps Big Wade harbored hopes that his sons could best learn moderation by abstaining until they reached legal age. On the day he turned twenty-one, Wade’s friends threw a birthday party for him, and Wade for the first time in his life drank hard liquor. For some unknown reason after the party, he was allowed behind the wheel of his four-door green Oldsmobile with a load of passengers, including my two sisters. It was a cold night in early December when they came by our home on Rawson Circle to invite me to get in the car with them and their dates, rescuing me from the chaos in the household, Daddy drunk as usual, Mother on the warpath. I grabbed my jacket, ran out of the house, and jammed myself into the backseat with four others, Wade at the wheel of his Oldsmobile with Carlton at his side and Mildred by the window. Swerving from curb to curb, Wade drove around Rawson Circle to Fifth Street, clearly out of control and confused about where he was going. Suddenly he took a sharp left turn into the front yard of our family dentist, Dr. Walter Strom. We rolled over a long bed of flowers, which Wade may have thought was a driveway, and the car almost crashed into the house. Everyone except me was laughing uncontrollably. I was probably the only one in the car who wasn’t drunk. Wade jammed the gear into reverse and backed out of the front yard, running over bushes and scraping trees as he pulled back into the road. He jerked into drive, hit the gas pedal, made a sharp left turn onto Palmyra Street, and somehow navigated two blocks to the garage apartment of Ralph Hodges, his best friend, who was a passenger in the car. I got out of the car, sneaked away in the dark, and walked home where I would take my chances with a more familiar kind of recklessness.
Carlton was excited about starting her freshman year at Florida State University, but Wade was facing his junior year at the University of Georgia without the girl he’d grown to love. Later that year, Wade and Carlton agreed to marry after her freshman year and to start married life in Athens, Georgia, where he planned to finish his business degree.
In December of 1952, accepting the inevitable, Mother wanted to have her say. She summoned Wade to meet with her in our home during the Christmas holidays. The radiators were knocking and hissing, fire crackling in the fireplace, wind howling outside. Wade sat beside Mother on the worn red sofa, both smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. Mother spread out the black-and-white photographs and the X-rays on the messy glass-top coffee table—graphic pictures of Carlton’s right hip taken before, during, and after her major surgeries. Wade looked at the pictures slowly and carefully while Mother told him with ferocious intensity what he already knew.
“Wade, you’re a good man and a gentleman. I know you two love each other, but you need to understand some things. You need to know that Carlton’s hip and pelvis are immobilized which is why she limps and has to pull her right leg along when she walks. I want you to see the deep hole that can never be filled where all the operations were done to take out bone and tissue. I just want you to know what her hip and pelvis look like.”
“Yes ma’am,” Wade said, cupping his hand over his mouth to take a long draw on his Pall Mall, exhaling through tight lips.
“I know y’all want children, but you will never have a child born the natural way. Having a child might not be possible. Just be sure you understand this, and then make your own decisions. Carlton has lived through a lot. We’ve spent every penny we have to pay for all her surgeries and to give her a chance at a normal life.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said as he pressed his cigarette into the overflowing glass ashtray, his eyes focused on the X-rays. “I know it’s not been easy.”
“Well, some things you know and some things you don’t, Wade. I’ve carried the load in this family. I’m the primary breadwinner. Can’t count on Carl for much of anything since he’s drunk most of the time, as you well know.”
Her voice quivered. “I’ve done everything I can possibly do to give Carlton a chance at happiness, and I want to know you’ll take care of her. She means everything to me, everything.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Wade said, looking straight into Mother’s tear-filled eyes. “I promise you I’ll be a good and loving husband. I love Carlton just like she is.”
Wade and his family were Roman Catholics. Carlton took the confirmation classes for six months, embraced the faith, and was baptized into the Catholic Church. Our family was Presbyterian, Scots-Irish Calvinists from way back. It was not easy for Mother to give her blessing to Carlton’s embracing Catholicism, but she was drawn to Wade himself and was impressed with the wealth and pedigree of his family.
My sister was married in St. Theresa’s Catholic Church in Albany. I was the youngest of seven groomsmen, each of us in blue suits and Ivy League ties. Most of us dyed-in-the-wool Presbyterians on the Huie side had never darkened the doors of a Catholic Church, and I was one of them. Yet all that mattered to me was that Carlton was happy, in love, and certain she wanted to marry Wade.
It was a large wedding followed by an extravagant reception at the Radium Springs Country Club seven miles south of Albany. Early in the evening, I got in the long line to slow-dance with the bride. When it finally was my turn, the band broke into rock ’n roll, and I took my fifteen-year-old gangly self on over to my happy, smiling sister. Pulling her by the hand out to the middle of the dance floor, we cut loose into a jitterbug/shag/swing concoction while everybody circled up and clapped.
Well, get of that bed, wash your face and hands
Get out of that bed, wash your face and hands
Well, I said shake, rattle, and roll
I said shake, rattle, and roll
Well, you won’t do right
To save your doggone soul
Shake, rattle, and roll
We took a bow and she hooked my arm as I walked her over to her next eager partner. “Carlton, you look so happy. You know I love you, dontcha? And you know how happy I am for you.”
She squeezed me. “Yes, I do. And I love you a bushel and a peck, Boogie.”
“Carlton, please, please…don’t you and Wade ever get old. Just stay the way you are. I love you just like you are.” Giggling, she reassured me, “Don’t you worry about that, we’re never gonna get old.” She kissed me on the cheek and, twirling, returned to the dance floor.
I made my way outside and down the stone steps from the casino to the springs to look at what we all called “the boil,” where thousands of gallons per minute of cold, crystal clear water bubbled up from the deep limestone aquifer, flowing widely across several acres and on downstream for a mile into the Flint River. An endless source of purity and energy, these springs were called Skywater by the Creek Indians. It was sacred for them and sacred for me—a natural healing place. Here we all learned to swim; and here, beneath live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, white Albany gathered for picnics, birthday parties, and political rallies. Donning face mask and fins, I had explored the mysterious depths of the boil countless times, had dived down thirty-five feet over and over to the mouth of the cave and allowed the steady flow from the darkness to push me slowly back up to the surface feet first. I called up all the memories of Carlton and Mildred diving into the boil on steamy summer days and swimming gracefully over to the rocky ledge on the other side. I thought about all that Carlton had been through. I looked up at clouds drifting across the full moon and spoke a prayer of gratitude.
While Wade was finishing his business degree at the University of Georgia, I came to Athens for the state track meet and spent the night in Wade and Carlton’s rented two-bedroom house near the campus. They seemed genuinely happy. After Wade graduated later that year, they bought a stately three-bedroom home in the same North Atlanta neighborhood where Dr. Thornton and his family lived. Wade sought to make his way up in the banking world, starting in the training program of the Trust Company of Georgia.
When Carlton’s first child, Wade III, was born, the joy was soon replaced with confusion and anxiety as Carlton melted into what appeared to be a severe depression. Everyone in the family assumed this sudden change would soon fade. It did not. Carlton stopped speaking, withdrew into her own mind, heard voices, and saw objects others did not. After more than a year of psychiatric treatment and heavy medication, she was able to return to her role as homemaker for her family. Two more children were born, one soon after the other; first Jodie, then Lee, each followed by psychotic breaks and long hospitalizations.
Wade strove valiantly with the help of housekeepers and maids to maintain a stable home life for his three young children, all of whom were enrolled or soon to be enrolled in Catholic parochial schools. He shifted from bank to bank and then into stock brokering. His commissions became smaller and smaller. Always optimistic and trusting, his numerous private high-risk investment schemes frequently failed. He became a target for slick entrepreneurs pitching him for capital.
During my visits in his home, I would offer Wade friendship and support and listen to his financial schemes. It was less painful than speculating on when Carlton could come home again.
“I’m going to hit the jackpot one of these days. I’m looking now at a fantastic proposal from three Chicago businessmen who’ve offered to let me in on the ground floor of their steakhouse franchising strategy all over the Southeast, starting right here in Atlanta. You know how much I love a good piece of steak. This is a project that can’t fail. We’ll serve cafeteria-style the best cuts of meat for lunch and dinner. Customers can pick out their own steak, choose how they want it cooked, watch it sizzle as they move down the line picking out vegetables, and have their steak delivered right there at the cash register.”
Wade devoted himself to managing the first such steakhouse of its kind to open in Atlanta. Like bowling alleys, ice cube machines, and other investment schemes that excited Wade, the business bellied up in less than two years.
Vulnerable and increasingly desperate, Wade was forced to sell one home after another—downsizing, downsizing, downsizing. From millionaire beginnings with vast inherited wealth, he and his family descended into abject poverty. There is no doubt that Carlton’s catastrophic medical expenses hastened the descent. Home life for the children became increasingly confusing. With nowhere else to turn to make a living in Atlanta, Wade finally rented an abandoned service station twenty miles north of Atlanta and opened a shop to sell night crawlers and crickets to fishermen on the way to Lake Rabun and Lake Lanier in North Georgia.
He was intrigued and motivated by what he read in his fishing magazines. He came to believe he could make a fortune selling worms because they multiply rapidly and because live bait is always in high demand near fishing lakes.
“John, you know I love to fish myself, and I believe this project is going to be the one that pulls me out of the hole.”
When not hospitalized, Carlton came home to live with her husband in the filthy, greasy, dark basement under the service station. Worm beds were scattered here and there. This was not a healing environment.
I always kept in close touch with Carlton and visited as often as I could, wherever she was. We wrote hundreds of letters to each other over the years. I saved them all. During my college years, Carlton’s letters, mostly clear and coherent, sometimes confused and sad, arrived in my post office box at least once a week.
February 10, 1958
I’ve been reading a lot at night because I don’t sleep much in this damp, dark basement. I liked Thorn Birds but of course it’s always disillusioning to read about a priest that does something you do not expect him to do. I love all the books you send me by Graham Greene, especially The Heart of the Matter. I’ve thought about writing seriously not humorously like I write you some things but don’t know if that would really help me or cause me to get too much into myself. I talked with my friend Betsy Johnson about it and she said that was her recent downfall. She was trying to write a novel about herself. Maybe I’ll just keep writing you letters. I’m always impressed with the human mind. It does not forget anything. I’ve got such vivid pictures in my head from episodes in my life. Sometimes they get shoved to the back but often they come forth. A lot of times at night I get frightened and I guess lonely because everyone is asleep and my thoughts wander kind of freely without anyone controlling them. I saw Dr. Martin last week and he thought I should increase my Stelazine and I did for one night but I’ve decided on my own not to do that because it slows me down too much. Sometimes my thoughts run so deep as I’m sure yours do. Did you finish reading Look Homeward, Angel? I don’t think I could read a book that long. Wade is struggling with the worm business right now. I help him as much as I can. We have worm beds right here in this basement. He said he’s doing pretty good in the stock market. Ralph Hodges’ father died last night and Ralph called us.
When I was a junior at Davidson College, Carlton was in treatment at Sheppard Pratt Psychiatric Hospital in Towson, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore. Her letters continued to arrive weekly but they were increasingly incoherent. With consent from Carlton’s psychiatrist, I decided to take a weekend off from college in order to be with my sister to give her what comfort I could. I drove my 1940 two-door white Ford to the train station over in Salisbury and boarded the train for Baltimore at 1:20 a.m. on a Friday.
Once the train got moving, I felt relief from the pressures of writing papers, memorizing German vocabulary lists and lecture notes for history and philosophy and psychology, cramming for tests, and running myself ragged on the basketball court seven days a week. Peering out into the darkness, I pondered the apple incident on the playground long ago and all of Carlton’s suffering. How to understand it? Bad luck? Fate? Family dynamics? Genetics? Predestination? I knew the Presbyterian answer: “All things work together for good with those who love God.”
“No simple answers,” I told myself. “Just have to accept what cannot be changed.” I thought about how things were turning out not only for Carlton but also for Mildred and me. I felt especially happy for Mildred, who was realizing her dream of being a New York model. I admired her maverick spirit, self-reliance, and creativity—all gifts from our mother. How would I realize my dreams? Where would my wanderlust and restless idealism take me? The rhythmic clackety-clack of the train wheels was hypnotic. I laid my head back and let thoughts and images flow freely as I came in and out of consciousness:
Carlton, Mildred, and I growing up in our chaotic home on Rawson Circle…Daddy lying on the floor in the living room passed out when we came home from school…
Mother’s unpredictable moods…Carlton’s many surgeries and long months of recovery…she and Mildred escaping home early, leaving me alone in that chaos for my high school years…me losing myself working on weekends, dating, playing basketball, pole-vaulting, coon-hunting all night after games…me getting Daddy out of jail for writing bad checks to get his whiskey and hauling him all over the South for rehab, his coming back home every time despite my begging him not to…Mother taking him back time and time again, the Carl and Mildred Huie merry-go-round.
“Sir, you’ll have to move your legs out of the aisle. Sorry to wake you up, sir,” said the porter, tapping me on my shoulder. I moved my legs, turned toward the window, then dozed back into the troubling flow of memory:
Me and Grandma Bama in desperation pouring liquid soap in Daddy’s whiskey bottle hidden in the toilet tank, nearly killing him…Mother calling the State Patrol to haul Daddy up to Riverdale and drop him off with his sisters, telling me I would have to do that when I got my driver’s license…Mother devoted to Carlton’s recovery and happiness, so talented, so intense, so good at making money, selling advertising, doing real estate deals, talking on her radio show, painting portraits and landscapes, being named Woman of the Year by the Albany Chamber of Commerce…Daddy such a sweet passive man, so polite, handsome, gentle, never intentionally hurting anybody but never sticking with AA, losing his management job in his early 50s…good times together when he was sober…loving him very much, nothing I can do…living my own life now, making my own way…wondering what they know about Carlton at Sheppard Pratt…heredity, environment, family dynamics, precipitating factors, predisposing factors…gaining insight in abnormal psych…worrying about shock treatment…all I can do is love her, be there for this loving unselfish person, my sister, my hero.
Stepping off the train into the Baltimore Depot on October 19, 1958, my twenty-first birthday, I walked to the taxi line and poked my head into the window of the first available yellow cab. “Can you take me to Sheppard Pratt Hospital out in Towson?”
“Yessir, I’ll have you there in twenty minutes.”
Travel bag in hand, I stepped out of the taxi, paid the driver, turned and paused to look up at the assortment of white Victorian houses. This doesn’t look much like a mental hospital. I followed the sign to the administration building, walked up a long series of steps, entered and stepped over to the receptionist. I’m here to see my sister Carlton Childress.”
“Just sign in, please. You’re Mr. Huie, aren’t you? I could tell by your accent. You can go right up that staircase, Mr. Huie, then turn right and you will find Mrs. Childress in the fourth room on the left. Dr. Franklin is waiting there with her.”
I walked up the stairs slowly, made the turn, took some deep breaths, came to the open door of Carlton’s room, and walked in. When our eyes met, Carlton dropped her rosary in her lap and popped out of her chair. She ran across the room giggling and screaming and jumped into my arms like a little girl. “John, John, John, you came to see me, you came all the way up here on the train from North Carolina. You came to see me. You came to see me, me, me. I love you, I love you. See, see, see; he came to see me, me, me; let’s have some tea, tea, tea. John came to see me, me, me. I told you he would come, Dr. Franklin. This is my brother John, John, John. He’s big and strong and he can carry me around the room. He’s big and strong and he can sing a song.”
After more babbling, laughter, hugs, and kisses, I maneuvered her back into her chair and sat by her. I calmed her down by singing, “Tell me why the stars do shine.” She held my hand tightly as I told her about my overnight train ride and how glad I was to see her.
“I’ll be here for two days, Carlton. I can come back in the morning at ten o’clock for another visit and maybe we can take a walk in the gardens.”
“That would be just fine,” Dr. Franklin said.
“Hot diggity, dog. We’ll go walking in the gardens tomorrow, and there will be no sorrow. There’ll be sun and we’ll have fun and we can dance and we can run.”
Quietly observing the encounter, Dr. Franklin spoke softly: “John, I would like you to come to my office for a visit. Carlton, your brother and I are leaving now but John will be back tomorrow. I can tell you’re very happy to see him.”
I gave Carlton a big hug and again told her I would be back by ten tomorrow morning. Then I followed Dr. Franklin up another flight of stairs to his spacious office with its high ceiling, aging Oriental carpet, and over-sized casement windows with a view of the grounds. On the edge of his desk was a purple vase holding a single white rose. Glancing at the loaded bookshelves on all sides, I sat down next to him on his sofa and waited for him to speak. There was a long silence.
Finally he said, “Good you could come, John. I can see you really love your sister.”
“Very, very much. I have great love and respect for her. As you probably know, she’s been through a lot—the osteomyelitis, countless surgeries, early marriage, three young children, and now mental illness.”
“I’d like to hear about your family life, John. Would you mind telling me about it? It would help me to understand Carlton better.”
I hesitated, remembering all the years of chaos and confusion.
“How long do you have, Dr. Franklin?”