*Copyright CullensOnline  2/2/2012 - No part may be used without written consent of the author*

The winter of my sixth year changed my life forever. It's the year we went from a family of two to a family of five. 
It was a particularly rough winter, fever had run rampant through father's congregation taking lives in an alarming rate. My father spent many a night away sitting bedside with dying congregants. I learned to fend for myself a lot that winter. Neither Father nor myself had ever had sickness. He said that we were blessed by the Holy One with strength against sickness. I never gave it much thought until I was much older and realized that in fact, we were simply nothing more than lucky.

Father's close friends, Bernard and Elinor, came down with the fever. Their four boys and two girls also fell ill. It was tragic. I saw the weight of father's helplessness etched on his face. He'd return home after tending the sick and simply fall into his chair. I tried my best to keep the house tidy and prepare what little I knew how but he simply had no energy to even acknowledge my existence. The bowl of soup I placed before him went uneaten as he fell asleep mere seconds after sitting. 
I fetched a blanket, covered him, put the soup back in the pot and crept into my own bed. At six years old I was already doing the work of a 12 year old. The days were short, there was much work to be done. I was up and outside in the small barn milking our 2 cows by 4 AM. The chickens were fed and eggs gathered by 5:15. Father's breakfast was on the table by 5:30 and he was off to tend the sick by 6am. It's just the way it was. No questions asked, rarely any exchange of communication. We lived our lives as we had to, mostly in silence. 

On February 15th, Bernard & Elinor White's daughter Agnes died of the fever. She was three years old. Father returned home, spoke very little and went to his room to prepare a sermon. He was losing congregation members every day. It seemed that the fever was determined to bring my father to his knees & wipe out his congregation.That night I started coughing. I tried to hide it from my father but he heard me and appeared in my doorway. He questioned me and I assured him I felt fine. He knelt by my bedside and placed his hand against my forehead. He didn't have to say a word. I saw it all over his face. I had the fever. He quickly bundled me up and carried me to the White's residence. His thought was that he could care for us all there rather than back and forth. It happened all of a sudden; I felt the sickness take hold and I couldn't fight it. I heard my father pleading and coaxing me saying,  "stay with me, son"  but I could'nt. I succumbed to disorientation and dizziness and let go. It was the most insistent thing I had ever experienced. It was insisting I sleep, insisting I cough, insisting I give up. At first it felt good to obey, I was exhausted, light headed and so cold. I just wanted relief. It promised me relief if I'd only let go.
I heard someone sobbing, a woman. I didn't know where I was but the sobbing was enough to jolt me from my delirious state. For a moment my mind cleared and I saw my father holding Mrs. White's hand. She begged him to care for her children and not send them to the orphanage should she succumb to the fever. My father stood over Mr. White and pulled the blanket over his head, nodding in silent promise. I knew what had happened. My heart began to race, I felt my body shaking violently. Mr. White had died and I was not about to let that happen to me. I started to cough, the shaking grew more violent and when I tried to speak the only sound was the barking cough that ripped at my throat and chest. I fought with every ounce of my being, I would not sleep, I could not. I knew if I did, I would not wake. I rallied my mind, wrestled with exhaustion and didn't give in. 
Mrs. White's sobs grew louder as I watched my father cover two more still bodies. Her eldest daughter Elizabeth and new born son Eli both died that night within moments of each other. How cruel was this illness to take the lives of so many in such short time? The fear of my own mortality began to rise, I felt surges of energy shoot through me which I later realized were adrenaline rushes. Though I was unable to move, I was conscious. When the urge to sleep washed over me, I fought even harder.

The minutes that passed seemed more like hours. I lost all concept of time. I think I fell asleep because my body shook with a violent jolt and I saw my father pulling the blanket up. I grabbed his wrist and he startled. He apologized for startling me and explained that he had some business to attend (the bodies of the most recently departed). I nodded, still unable to muster enough energy to speak. I watched the room illuminate with the rising of the sun. Father had propped the windows open to keep the flow of air moving. The fireplace had been roaring with so much effort yet the flames had no affect on the room's temperature. It was so cold but anything was better than breathing the stale, tainted air of the sick.

My eyes scanned the silent room, Mrs. White's sobs had stopped and her three boys, George, Nicholas and Joseph were sleeping. My father returned with 3 men and they took Mr. White, Agnes and Eli from the room. The older boys stirred with the commotion but Mrs.White remained still. My father had been so busy tending the others that he hadn't noticed Mrs.White had passed away during the night. The men woke the boys and delivered the news, they were now orphans and when they recovered, they would be sent to the orphanage. My father interjected and assured the boys that no such thing would happen. The boys would live with us from now on.


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