Heart of the PrairiebyFrancisMacomber©
I'd been reading the day's news on the computer when I heard pounding at the front door. Because I'm still a city boy at heart, I'd locked the door when I'd come home earlier, so it took me a minute to get it open.
The sheriff was standing there panting as though he'd run from his car to my porch. "There's been an accident, Doc," he gasped out.
You'd think that with the population so low and the roads so straight out here in Oklahoma that there'd be very few auto accidents, but you'd be wrong. Once you get away from the big cities and off the interstates, our highways tend to be narrow two-lane blacktop strips, and too many of our bridges are in need of repair. But people still drive like they were on an interstate highway and, as a result, getting called to go to a crash site was not an uncommon event for the only doctor in four counties.
"I'll be right there, George, just let me grab my bag," I said, and started to turn away.
"No, Doc," he said, and it was the strange tone in his voice rather than his words that made me jerk back around.
"It's Bonnie," he said in a choked tone, and suddenly I noticed the tears on his cheeks.
I felt epinephrine pump through my nervous system, and I immediately began to pant. "Oh, God, where is she?" I demanded. "We've got to get there . . ."
George just stood there, and now he couldn't look at me. "She's gone, Doc. She didn't make it."
I've treated a fair number of gunshot patients. They always told me the same thing: there's no pain when you're first hit, your body just goes numb. At that instant I felt as though I had been shot in the thorax, and I staggered, trying to regain my balance as I went numb all over. "No, that can't be right," I yelled. "I can save her if I can get there in time!"
But as I tried to get by him to run to the police car, George grabbed me and held me. "You can't go, Doc. You can't see her. It was bad, Doc, real bad. I'm so sorry," he said through his tears.
The rest of that night was pretty much a blur: phone calls, hushed voices, people coming and going, terse conversations over static-filled radios. One thing I do remember was the nervous deputy who stayed with me after George had to leave. I also remember that, just like with a gunshot wound, once the numbness began to wear off, the pain was unbearable.
Somewhere along the way during that terrible night, when the agony got to be too much, I went to my medical bag and pulled out a vial of morphine. When the deputy wasn't looking I administered the injection and then lay down on my bed. Oblivion came swiftly and mercifully, as I'd hoped. I know it was cowardly of me, but I just couldn't bear to be conscious any more that night.
When I awoke, I immediately smelled food, and when I stumbled out of the bedroom I stared in amazement at the array of chafing dishes and plastic containers on the kitchen counters. Then my brain threw off the last of the morphine and I suddenly realized why my neighbors had brought so much to eat. "Oh, Bonnie!" I cried, collapsing into the nearest chair.
I'd only postponed the pain; now there was no relief.
George returned later that morning and tried to answer the questions he knew I had. "She was on State Route 296, coming back from the office in Arrowpoint after work," he told me. "We think she must have fallen asleep at the wheel because her Honda crossed the center line and hit an oncoming truck head on. The driver of the truck didn't make it either."
I tried desperately not to imagine what the accident scene had looked like.
The next few days were an incoherent blur of emotional pain punctuated only by a few memories that stuck with me. Perhaps the worst of those was my encounter with Bonnie's father at the funeral home. He was a big man, as tall as I am and remarkably fit from working on the ranch, even in his sixties. But when I saw him that day, he appeared to have aged ten years. As he walked into the parlor he was hunched over, taking small, feeble steps. When he caught sight of me he came over and threw his arms around me. "I'm so sorry," he managed to get out before he broke down in tears. I clung to him tightly, my own tears wetting the shoulder of his suit.
Everyone around us stopped, awkward and embarrassed, unsure what to do. Finally, he led me over to her coffin. I've seen hundreds of corpses, of course, but I dreaded seeing my wife now. The casket was partially closed so that only her face was visible. We all knew why, but no one wanted to speak of it. "That's not Bonnie," I thought to myself as I gazed at her embalmed face. The Bonnie I knew was filled with laughter and an excitement about life. The face lying there looked like a poorly painted portrait. "Oh, Bonnie," I thought as I fumbled for my handkerchief, "why did you have to go? Why couldn't it have been me instead?"
I'd been a bachelor when I'd first moved to Millersville, and it seemed like every family in town was determined to introduce me to their eligible daughters at the earliest opportunity. I was invited to so many Sunday dinners, church socials, family picnics and high school football games until I could hardly keep them all straight. And at every one, somewhere along the way I'd be introduced to one or more daughters, ranging from as old as forty (I'd guess) to as young as sixteen (God forbid!).
It would be nice to think that my good looks and winning personality made me such a desirable catch, but anyone who's been to medical school knows that doctors have an inside track when it comes to the opposite sex. The combination of strong earnings potential, a comfortable lifestyle and a respected position in society makes us hot matrimonial prospects. They used to say that a doctor who can't get a spouse is a doctor who doesn't want one.
What all those eager potential spouses may not know is that we doctors have been warned about the pursuit and cautioned to avoid getting trapped, at least until we've found "Mr. or Ms. Right." So I was polite and friendly with Millersville's nubile ladies, and even went out a few times with some of them. But I made it a point to be very proper and to control my animal urges, even when a few of the young ladies rather blatantly offered their charms to me. The last thing I wanted was an angry parent on my hands in a town where the number one accessory for trucks was a gun rack.
I was so cautious, in fact, that one of my patients told me he'd heard one frustrated young lady say she thought I was gay. I just smiled, assured him that wasn't the case and bided my time.
And then I met Bonnie. I'd driven the fifty miles to Arrowpoint to visit the government office there. When I walked into the waiting area, she was working behind the reception desk. Have you ever been walking under a sky heavy with clouds and suddenly been bathed in sunlight? That's how I felt when I saw her.
I don't think I stumbled when I walked over to the desk, but I'm not positive because my brain was definitely not in control of my body or, as quickly became apparent, my mouth. "Er, um, I'm here to see Mr. Rogers. I'm, uh . . ." I babbled.
"I know who you are," she snapped at me. Then she swiveled around in her chair and rudely walked away from me. I had no idea what I could have done to offend her, but I was determined to find out and correct it.
So I made another appointment with Mr. Rogers a week later. When I walked into the lobby, she actually rolled her eyes in disgust when she saw me.
When I reappeared the following week, she looked up at me with surprise. "Why are you here? Mr. Rogers is off today," she said.
"I didn't come here to see him," I told her, "I was hoping you'd have lunch with me."
"You drove fifty miles just to have lunch with me?" she asked in astonishment.
Blushing, I nodded.
She rolled her eyes again. "Well, all right," she said reluctantly.
That was how it started. I was surprised when I learned that she was Richard Miller's daughter. I would have thought that the head of the County Commission would have wanted to show off his only daughter like the other leading lights of the county, and perhaps he had. But Bonnie had an independent streak, as I'd already learned, and changing her mind was no easy task. I know because I courted her over six months just to get her to begin dating me in any serious way.
Similarly, even after we were married she refused to give up her job in Arrowpoint. She'd gotten her position on her own without her father's influence, she informed me, and she was proud of that accomplishment. I'd assented (as though I'd had a choice!) but now I wished with all my heart that she hadn't had to make that daily fifty-mile commute.
For all her independence, once we became engaged Bonnie proved to be surprisingly conservative, sexually speaking. She was not shy about her body and she had no hesitation about necking and petting, but intercourse was off the table until marriage, she informed me in no uncertain terms. I thought her attitude seemed terribly old-fashioned, even for rural Oklahoma, but I could do nothing to change her mind. And I was so deeply in love with her by then that it ceased to matter.
Once she was convinced that I would respect her wishes, Bonnie had no trouble acceding to oral sex. I found it somewhat touching that she obviously had had little if any experience in that area. I'll never forget the first time I ventured between her thighs with my kisses. She was lying on her back with her eyes closed, enjoying the touch of my fingers. When I first kissed her vagina, I don't think she realized what I'd done. But when I licked her labia minora, her head shot up and her eyes popped open. "What are you doing?" she demanded. But with a little explanation and a lot of demonstration on my part, she first accepted my ministrations and then began to enjoy them immensely. When I drove her wailing to an orgasm, she took a long time to recover. Then she raised her head and looked at me. "I'm going to want a lot more of that," she said with a big grin.
If she was hesitant about cunnilingus, she was even more so about fellatio. But I coached her through it, going slowly and carefully, explaining what was happening at every stage and warning her about what to expect. The taste of my pre-ejaculate did not repulse her as I had feared, and, to my happy surprise, she proceeded to bring me off in her mouth and even swallow. She was so pleased to learn how to give a man so much pleasure that she wanted to practice it almost every time we were together.
For our honeymoon, I took her to the Virgin Islands, and in a secluded hotel on Saint Croix we had intercourse for the first time. Bonnie was not a virgin, which surprised me, but I decided not to ask and she never volunteered an explanation. What was clear, however, was that she was not very experienced in the art of love, as Ovid called it. She knew nothing beyond the missionary position, and I took great delight in educating her in some of the many other options. All I can say is that she was an apt and eager student.
I remember the last night before we were to leave the island. We'd made love, and afterwards she went out on the balcony to stare at the ocean. When I came up beside her, the moonlight revealed tears in her eyes. "Is everything all right?" I asked anxiously. She turned and buried her face against my chest. "All this has been so overwhelming to me," she whispered. "I'll never forget it as long as I live." I think I may have gotten a few happy tears in my own eyes.
Now at the funeral home, memories like that kept coming to me and I was helpless to shut them off, even though they caused so much pain.
In medical school they teach you to be sympathetic with your patients, but never empathetic. It's important to feel sympathy, they said, but if you begin to share your patients' emotions, your effectiveness as a physician will suffer. You're also likely to go insane carrying around all that grief.
As one person after another came through the receiving line to express his or her sympathy, I was acutely aware of how little comfort their words afforded me. "We're so sorry for your loss," I'd hear, and know that their sorrow was nothing compared to my own. "She was such a devoted wife," they'd say, and I knew they had no idea just how devoted she was. "She's in a better place," someone opined, but all I could think was that it certainly wasn't better for me.
Finally, we all stood at the gravesite as the Baptist preacher intoned the final words before her coffin was lowered into the rich brown earth forever. Trying to stifle my tears, I glanced around at the other mourners. Of them all, I thought, the only one who feels her loss as much as I is her father. The old man was being supported by Richard Junior; his reddened eyes never left the resting site of his only daughter's last remains.
Once the interment was finished, the crowd began to dissipate slowly. I heard one of the county commissioners say, "I hope Richard is going to be okay. Bonnie was a real 'daddy's girl.' She'd do anything for him, and he wanted everything for her. Losing her like this could kill him."
I looked back at her father as he shuffled from the gravesite and I thought that the commissioner's fear might well prove accurate. Given my own agony, I just wondered if her loss was going to kill me as well.
An older lady came up to me to pat my hand. "I just hope you're not going to leave us now," she added. Before I could speak, her husband hushed her. "Martha, what a thing to say! Of course Dr. Robertson isn't going to leave Millersville."
I hadn't even considered leaving; then again, I hadn't considered anything except trying to survive Bonnie's burial. In any case, it seemed like a strange comment to make, especially at a time like this. But it reminded me of how I came to be in Millersville in the first place.
I'd always wanted to be a doctor. It's funny: I can't remember what originally prompted me to take an interest in medicine, but whenever anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I'd always say "doctor."
When you're young, all jobs seem equal, and all careers seem equally achievable. Over time you begin to comprehend the complex weave of intelligence, skills, interest, aptitude and a dozen other factors that are required for a successful career in any given type of work. And after all those factors get sorted out, one final barrier rears its ugly head: the cost of preparation.
There are few if any careers more expensive to pursue than medicine. After I put pencil to paper, I figured I would be roughly a quarter of a million dollars in debt by the time I would be ready to go into practice. As if that wasn't daunting enough, my Dad's heart attack while I was an undergraduate dealt my hopes for a medical career what appeared to be a fatal blow.
But this is a great country and it has a great program to address this conundrum: the National Health Service Corps. The NHSC was created to solve two problems. The first is over-specialization. Every medical student knows that the really big bucks are to be had in the specialties. Accordingly, we have a shortage of physicians in the less lucrative general areas such as internal medicine, family practice, pediatrics and the like.
The second and in some ways even more pressing problem is the dearth of physicians in underserved rural areas of the country. Go to Manhattan and it's hard to walk a block without tripping over a doctor. Go to the heartland and you may have to drive a day or more to find one.
The NHSC told me that if I'd agree to become a primary care physician and be willing to relocate to an underserved location, Uncle Sam would forgive the mountain of debt I'd accumulate, assuming I stayed in that location long enough.
Accordingly, I made an early commitment that enabled me to get the support I needed all the way through medical school, internship and residency. In effect, I sold my first few years of practice to the NHSC in return for my tuition and expenses. It was a trade-off I was perfectly willing to make. I wouldn't get rich but I would be able to pursue my dream in a place that truly needed my services. I was happy to sign up.
It was in my second year of residency that Oklahoma arose as a likely destination for my service. I had never been to Oklahoma before, and the idea seemed somehow romantic. How hard could it be to spend the next few years seeing patients amid waving wheat, corn as high as an elephant's eye and the prairie where the pioneers bravely made their homes? And that's how I wound up in Millersville.
When I met Richard Miller, the head of the Miller County Commission, he made it clear that his town was hoping for a lot more than four years from me. His family had lived there in north-central Oklahoma ever since the great Land Run of 1889, which explained the name of both the county and the town. Richard wanted to make sure that the town would still be there for his son and grandchildren.
Apparently, Millersville had had another NHSC doctor a few years ago, but he didn't stick around long. To the leaders of Millersville, that was a catastrophe. "A town without a doctor is a town that's dying," Richard told me. "Couples are afraid to start families, the people start to drift off and the town slowly wastes away. We don't want that to happen here."
They certainly made it easy. They had an office waiting for me, and I was surprised at how well it was appointed. But before I could be too impressed by my new office, Richard topped that by showing me the house I was to live in at no cost to me. It was a beautiful two-story Victorian newly renovated, and when I protested that it was much too large for my needs, Richard just smiled and said I'd grow into it over time.
It wasn't just the big perquisites they provided that were so attractive, it was all the little ways they made me feel wanted. The day I committed to Millersville I became a celebrity. Everyone in town knew me and loved me, so it seemed, and everyone made a point to nod and smile whenever they passed me on the street. The county commissioners began to consult with me on various issues, and they were quick to praise my meager words of advice. I had gone from being a struggling med student to a very important person overnight.
Of course I knew what they were attempting to do: provide every possible inducement to keep me there beyond my commitment to the NHSC. So when I began to be introduced to their daughters, I was under no illusions. The good parents of Millersville knew that the bonds of matrimony would be far stronger than any other inducements they could offer to make me stay.
But despite how obvious it all was, I couldn't help but be swayed by the sincerity of the people and their apparent warmth, trust and affection. Sure they needed me to stay, but I also believed they were genuinely glad it was me and not someone else, and that felt good.
Then, when I encountered Bonnie, all other considerations fell by the wayside. The fact that I'd fallen for the only young woman in town who hadn't thrown herself at me somehow reassured me. Her reservations convinced me that when she finally agreed to go steady with me, I had truly won her over. When she finally consented to be my bride, any doubts I might have had about remaining in Millersville were swept aside. When we were finally married, I knew that life could not get any better for me. Until that night when it all went to hell.
Over the next week after the funeral, food continued to show up at my house. I knew it was a traditional way of expressing concern, but I was touched nevertheless. It was as if my friends and neighbors wanted me to have the sustenance they feared I might be unable to provide for myself in my time of grieving. That simple act meant much more than the ritual words of condolence.