Phillip lay on his bed, ghostly white. His arms were thin— thinner than I’d ever known arms could be. They were the shape of bones, not arms, and his white skin, almost translucent, seemed to barely cover them, as if the bones could break through at any moment. His face was skull-like. His mouth seemed to be open more than one would think was normal, like he didn’t have enough skin on his head to cover his face, and his mouth was pulled open, his lips taut as a result. His hair was white too, what was left of it, and fluffy, like little feathers. He looked different-- he had changed so much in the last few months, but I knew he was there- the same Phillip I had known for so long, who I knew like I knew myself, who was a part of me in every moment and every movement.
I had wanted to marry Phillip as soon as I met him, but Daddy said no. I was just barely seventeen, and Daddy said I had to wait until I turned twenty, so I did. We got married on my twentieth birthday.
I wore a thin long sleeved, white cotton dress with a high scalloped collar. I wore a pearl necklace— not real pearls, mind you, we couldn’t afford that— around my neck. It wasn’t a simple string, but rather a whole design-- flowers draped across my chest, cascading down the front of the dress, almost the same color, all made out of the little white beads sewn together.
My sister Sinai helped me get dressed in the basement of Mount Lebanon Church. She put my hair in a bun with such love and tenderness, even though she knew I could do it myself. Wisps were sticking out everywhere by the time the wedding had actually started but I was too happy to notice. My hair never did stay in one spot for long.
I think everyone in Buckhannon came out, or at least every one who went to our church, all of ‘em rustlin’ in the pews. Afterwards, we had cake and punch outside. Phillip looked so handsome that day, I could barely pay attention to what the preacher was saying. I remember him so clearly in his daddy’s suit. He was squirming the whole time but he looked so handsome. That same Phillip was still here with me, and I could see him, even through the bony body beside me.
When Phillip got sick, the farm suffered. The maple tree by the crick got muddy. The paths grew unruly, with no one to keep the brush back. Cassandra complained that she and all her cousins couldn’t make their way up the hill to their favorite play spot. “Just pretend you’re explorers and make your way through the brush,” Jane said and Cass seemed happy with that.
Soon after that they couldn’t go up the hill anyway because of the machines.
But that day, as Cassandra ran off, I saw Jane turn her head to hide her watering eyes. I put my hand on her leg and gave her a few pats, and she turned her head further away from me.
What will I do when Phillip is gone? I wondered.
We built this life together and I didn’t see how it could exist without him in it. You can’t pull out the mortar from the house and expect it to stay standing.
The big machines raked their way across the hill and they made me think of death, slow and massive and lumbering. There were people inside the machines, but the machines seemed to be in control, seemed more alive. The people never talked to us- they tipped their hat or gave a nod but no one said a word since the first group came.
Several years prior, we had heard someone coming up the driveway and Kenny ran to the door to see who it was. We weren’t expecting a visitor.
“It’s a small man…wearing a work shirt and pants,” he had called out, his little hand over his eyes like he was surveying his crops. I remember the ratty bottoms of his overalls hanging down over his dirty feet. “I don’t think I know him!”
Phillip wasn’t sick yet. He could still walk then, so he pulled himself to his feet from his rocking chair and slowly made his way to the door, just as the visitor knocked, loudly.
“Hello there, sir,” the man said, looking slightly sheepish. “Are you Phillip Walls?”
“I sure am. What can I do for you?” Phillip sounded stern and I didn’t know why, though I knew why I was nervous. The last time a stranger had knocked on the door without a Bible in hand, it was the Army telling us Frank had lost his toes and would be coming home with a Purple Heart. Now, even after our boys were home, I could pull up the feeling of that day-- could feel it in my bones, in an instant.
When Phillip signed the broad form deed, selling the mineral rights to our property, he felt he was doing a good thing for our family.
“What do we need with them?” he asked later that evening, when I walked in to talk to him in his work shed. He quickly hid the cards he was playing with in his drawer. I didn’t care a bit, but he still felt playing cards was a sin from the way he was brought up.
“What are we gonna do-- send the boys out to mine? Now I thought that’s why we had a farm, so they wouldn’t have to do that.”
“I know, Phillip,” I said, “ It still makes me uneasy signing away part of our land. Lord knows we can use the money, though.”
“You’re dang right we can. It’s more money than we’d make sitting on the land like we’ve been doing, and more than we’d make doing just about anything else I can think of.” Phillip never spoke harshly to me so I didn’t argue. I could tell he was upset about it all too.
And that was the last we heard about it for a few years, til we started hearing about the strip mining happening all over the county and the state. Still, Phillip wasn’t worried, since he heard about a case in Kentucky in ‘56 where the court found the broad form deed didn’t automatically grant the right to strip the land. That didn’t mean they didn’t do it anyway, though, and most folks didn’t fight ‘em.
When that first group came, and two men got out out and knocked on our door, my heart jumped up in my chest again. And how could we fight ‘em with Phillip in the state he was in? Since then, they hadn’t spoken to us, hadn’t told us how their work was going or even come by to ask for a glass of water. They went to work each day in the lumbering machines, like death, walked through our land like it was a forest-- no signs of human life, and left each evening, another layer gone from the hill.
In the days right before he died, Phillip’s white started to look holy rather than frightening. He was between this world and the next and I sat with him as much as I could in a day, while still keepin’ up the house. He was in pain but tried not to show it, the cancer sharpening knives in his belly. I prayed to God harder than I had prayed before in my life, unless I’m counting the days my boys were at war. I probly prayed then about the same amount as I prayed by Phillip. Most a the time I didn’t know exactly what I was asking of God, just knew that I needed to be talking to him.
I sang some of the hymns from Mount Lebanon in my head. “Rock of Ages” I sang over and over, kind of on Phillip’s part, since I didn’t know if he was in a frame of mind to do much praying, or if he even would pray if he could. I usually caught him smirking at the boys during my grace at dinner.
“Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to Thy cross I cling. Naked, come to Thee for dress. Helpless, look to Thee for grace. Foul, I to the fountain fly. Wash me, Savior, or I die.” The tune of this one kept my spirits up a bit but the words still felt right. Sometimes I would find myself humming it out loud, and catch a hint of a smile on Phillip’s open mouth. When I didn’t feel as much like singing, I’d just pray-- asking God to let us all find peace, to know his will and yield to it, to ease the pain for my husband, and to help him to be strong in it. Mostly I prayed for him to stay a bit longer.
When we all knew it was just about time, my children said their goodbyes quietly and then went to stay in the living room with the young ones. Kenny was back from college in Cleveland, and he, Jane, and I stayed and stood in the bedroom together over Phillip. Kenny looked grave and serious, trying to be a man for Jane. I could tell it killed him to see her upset.
I hummed “Rock of Ages” again and this time, Kenny sang along for the last verse. “While I draw this fleeting breath, When my eyes shall close in death, When I rise to worlds unknown, And behold Thee on Thy throne, Rock of Ages, cleft for me, Let me hide myself in Thee.”
I looked at Kenny, my grandchild, child of my child, tears running down his cheeks. He held both of Jane’s hands, and her eyes were shut tight.
“I didn’t know you were payin’ attention in church all those Sundays, Kenny,” I smiled at him. “Wouldn’ta known it by how much you complained about going.”
“Oh I wasn’t really paying attention, Grandma. I just like the songs,” he said and winked at me.
I knelt beside Phillip’s bed, on my knees, forehead against the sheet, praying so quietly probably only he and God could hear me.
I felt Phillip’s hand on my head, with a strength that surprised me. I looked up, and met his eyes, tired but calm.
“Arzella, darlin,” he said. “Your prayers are all that’s keepin’ me here. You can stop prayin’ now.”
And I stopped.