Sherry’s Story

I’ve just returned from the memorial service with my son Otto; he had begun to scream during “Amazing Grace”, when thankfully the widow offered to quiet him. He buried himself happily on the widow’s oceanic chest, rocking slowly like a drunken sailor adrift on a sea of Jell-O.
This was the first post mortem ceremony I’ve gone to for any of my patients. I felt compelled to stand up and remember the deceased, but kept thinking about his wife, who would soon become my patient. I mumbled something about physicians learning from their patients, and how this family showed me the utility of humor at the most difficult times. (On arriving at the home to pronounce the husband dead, his wife kissed her husband goodbye with “You’re in heaven with the angels now, or in hell with the rest of our friends!” She gave up trying to close the stiffening mouth, remarking, “Oh well, he never kept it shut when he was alive”. ) As we gave him a clean diaper before the mortician came by, she lamented to her sons that “little Willie would never rise again.”
The things I learned from Sherry I couldn’t really say at the service. Her confidence in me, I like to think, came from taking this very funny woman seriously. She phoned me at home one day as I lay stuck to my couch, on bed rest in the 6th month of pregnancy. “Doctor Bell, don’t go out in your car for any reason today!” Denied my daily peccadillo, I asked her why she trusted her premonitions.
“My first premonition was when I was 5 years old,” she said. “My daddy was going out to hunt for the sheep herders food, and I begged him not to go! I couldn’t say why, and he couldn’t stay home. I went along with him, and before long, he tripped and shot himself in the head with his gun. I just sat there with his head bleeding in my lap and stroked his hair. It must have been hours later when my mom came up the path, furious! She hollered ‘Sherry! What have you done!’
Sherry went on describing the next year of her life, beginning with only silence in response to her mothers accusation, and continuing in mute acceptance as she missed first grade, unable to utter a word. Her father’s duty to hunt became the mother’s, and the cooking fell to Sherry. “The men would take the burnt biscuits and pocket them to spare my feelings. They were so sweet.” I wondered what it looked like, the 5 year old yanking a roast from the oven, sneaking hunks of meat and shoving them into the mouth out of which nothing came. Her weight began to swell to the gargantuan proportion of her sixth decade when I met her.
I felt sort of speechless myself. I lay there staring at my belly. Who could have imagined the import of someone else’s obesity? When Sherry became my patient, the job of helping her lose weight was out of the question. Her husband married her right out of a waitress job when she was near 250 pounds and 20 years old. (Her husband to be was 60.) He put her in the saddle and she rode the range beside him. Shortly after the honeymoon, a storm hit while they rode. Sherry’s husband saw her hit by lightning and thrown from the horse. He attempted mouth to mouth on her stilled bulk, but gave up and walked away. Turning around, thinking again to try, he hit his fist on her chest and she sat up! Sherry said that she found herself pregnant immediately after that, and deaf in one ear. (I have wondered what the trajectory of a celestial seed is…Must the tympanic membrane be pierced before alighting in the womb?) I became familiar with that problem ear and must have treated it twice a year for one disorder or another.
There was a day when I felt close to this mystery of the husband’s manhood. I went to visit him at home, my habit since the old man had become so stiff from his Parkinson’s that it was impossible to get him into a chair. I got to the house around 4pm; the sun beat into the westfacing window over his bed. Sherry had made her bed beside his on a twin bed. Her foam mattress hung over the box spring in dangerous fashion, and it looked like a melting chocolate bar. The adjacent bed reminded me of frozen white bread with a popsicle man perched on top.
He looked over at Otto, then just a newborn, and he spoke for the first time in many weeks. “What’ll you take for him?” he said. The real surprise of his nature came out when I leaned over the bed to put my stethoscope on his rasping chest. Unseen, he managed to ratchet his arm with cupped hand toward my bottom, and simply pat it. Sherry was hysterical with laughter at the patting, and described his habit of grabbing her breast as she changed his diaper. There were few words or actions ever again in Hayden’s life, which ended weeks later.
Sherry herself wasn’t around much longer, either. Within a year of her husband’s death, she had grown too large to support her own weight. She languished in bed, where even several nursing home assistants at once struggled to perform their orders to turn her every 2 hours.
The mystery of Sherry’s size was a complicated story that I have come back to whenever taking a history that could otherwise be quickly summed up as tale of simple overeating. During her life, Sherry had taken her job seriously: nourishing herself as well as others

A graduate of University of Michigan in Spanish literature, and Vanderbilt Medical School, and Family Medicine residency at the Medical University of South Carolina. She is interested in creative non-fiction, and big band music. She struggles with the clarinet, and a full time general medical practice in Salt Lake City.

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