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Raw Literature: Death Calls Doctor Whitaker

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Essay and flash fiction by Sharon R. Hill, guest writer to Carrot Ranch.

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Death Calls Dr. Whitaker was inspired by the title of a nineteenth-century death notice about an ancestor of mine. The title struck me as unique and I knew that it would make a great title for a short story. I initially did nothing with my idea nor did I know where to begin in framing the story.

History is important to me and is a dominant theme in my literary short fiction. It is a blessing to have such a rich variety of characters in family lore to draw from. For instance, my grandfather, a man I never knew, was a con-artist whose actions were countered by my salt-of-the-earth grandmother who kept the family out of poverty and made certain her children received an outstanding education. This backdrop was the basis for my story Life in Silhouette which was a difficult story to write but also cathartic. I found a means to understand and forgive by writing fiction-based-on-fact about emotional pain and physical hardship.

I have recognized that I am great at historical research but poor with organization. In recognizing this, I am transitioning to an informal outline and character sketches because I desire to become a better and more productive writer. My bellwether moment about changing my writing process came when I was trying fix a short story that I’d been working on for some time. My writing mentor explained to me that I hadn’t connected with my protagonist nor revealed his motivation. My third draft of the story also had the same foundational problem so I decided to move on and circle back to it later. Death Calls Dr. Whitaker came to mind and I decided that I would create my first flash fiction. As I began to write, the story evolved as a first-person narrative with the deathbed scene as the catalyst for the experience. Also in the back of my mind was a desire to channel Virginia Woolf because I had recently read her essay The Death of the Moth and I wondered whether I could replicate the essence of this work.

***

Death Calls Doctor Whitaker

Death lingers in the bedroom where old Doctor Whitaker sleeps. It infuses the air with dread in a way that only the presence of death can. I think about opening the only window in the room that faces west with a view of the sunset. Like a child, I imagine that this will expel the threat.

Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock sounds the generations-old grandfather clock, the metered sound is reminiscent of tiny heartbeats. The chimes repeat six times to announce the hour, reminding the living of a bygone day.

Doctor Whitaker is held hostage in a difficult slumber and his eyelids quiver in some erratic timpani, yet they remain shut. I sit by his bed in a stubby, wing-back chair of pale-blue velvet fabric with faded wood armrests. The stiffness of the chair aids me in my duty to stay alert, as I watch for the moment that will complete the outline of a life.

With his wife long dead and the marriage childless, the responsibility of this days’ vigil has fallen to me though I barely know Dr. Whitaker. I accepted this burden because of my fondness for his housekeeper Sally who is expected at her family home today for her parent’s anniversary celebration.

In the silence of all but the ticking clock, verses from a poem lift in my memory to my consciousness “Can you say tonight in parting with the day that’s slipping fast, that you helped a single person of the many that you passed?”

I notice a worn-out leather medical bag tucked in the open square of a simple, dark-oak nightstand. A wall calendar from a Memphis mercantile with a worldwide timetable hangs above to announce the month of May in 1935. In a daydream, I envision Dr. Whitaker as a younger man jogging along an old roadway of dust in his shay offering comfort to the sick. Yet he spends what may be his final hours with a mere acquaintance, even a stranger. I wonder at the absence of visitors, including the children he helped birth and who will now be middle-aged with their own families.

I feel anxious when a pair of whippoorwills’ land on the garden fence as instinct compels their predictive chant.

A trembling left-hand begins an echo in each limb and Dr. Whitaker’s mouth begins to twitch. The thin blanket that covers him from below his neck and is tucked over his feet has shaken loose.

Dr. Whitaker’s face has an anguished expression as though he is in the throes of a struggle with an unseen foe. I understand that the foe he struggles with is time, as his strength of spirit continues the fight for life.

***

Sharon R. Hill moved from Tampa, Florida to Nashville, Tennessee ten years ago. She is a writer of literary fiction and has been published in The Wilderness House Literary Review, Indiana Voice Journal, TWJ Magazine, and The Bangalore Review. Her story Brown Tobe won TWJ Magazine Best of 2016 for fiction. Sharon enjoys using an historical backdrop to explore moral themes and the complexities of the family dynamic.

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Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at wordsforpeople@gmail.com.


13 Comments

  1. Charli Mills says:

    Sharon, as a fellow historical fiction writer, I enjoyed learning what inspires your stories. That death notice has a title that calls one to imagine that final call. It is curious to wonder why a stranger might be the last one there and yet I think it was important that he was not alone.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. julespaige says:

    Sharon,

    I think our private histories can be transformed with just a tad bit of fiction – making it easier to live with. Whether or they are happy ones and especially for those times that have been more challenging, where we would like to pretend there is some distance.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This is very good. Thank you for sharing this.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. jeanne229 says:

    Poignant story, Sharon. It conveys the powerful sense of the irrevocable passage of time, and in presenting the question of why this man is alone at the end of his life forces the reader to confront what it is to really live. You give an answer to that, of course, in the quote that comes to mind. I suppose many of us dream of writing stories based on our ancestors and personal heritage. To bring them to the page is another thing…so difficult to achieve.
    And thanks for sharing your process and challenges. Like you, I love the research but find it a major task to cull and integrate it into a story (which of course goes with the territory.) I look forward to reading more of your fiction.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      Good observations, Jeanne. Death does confront us all and maybe we need the confrontation to adjust how we live our days. I found the story tender, too, in the sense that a stranger was willing to sit in proxy for others who would have been closer. I liked that he wasn’t all alone. Mastering and compiling all the research is a huge chore and I find flash fiction useful to process it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a discovery, that title from a death notice. And even better than deciding to use it, you discovered a means to use it, to use flash as your vehicle. I’d say that story worked out quite nicely.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Sharon R Hill says:

    Thank you all for reading and I thank Charli for allowing me to contribute. I find that old newspapers are quite remarkable and such a variety of writing styles.

    I remember learning about the importance of a good death for those living during the Medieval Period. I’d like to think I provided Dr. Whitaker with just this, as a remembrance.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Norah says:

    Thank you, Sharon. I enjoyed reading about your writing process, and your bellwether moment. It is great to have a mentor who can help you understand your strengths and weaknesses.
    I enjoyed your story. It brought to mind a few deaths I’ve witnessed and the struggle it can be to let go of life. The first one I didn’t actually see, but simply heard. And it was very sad. An elderly woman was in the next bed, behind a curtain, to a friend I was with in emergency. The nurses were sending the woman home (I even wondered if she had a home). In almost the next instant it seemed, she passed. We heard it. I felt so sad for her. Unloved, unwanted, sent away, even in the moment that was to be her last. So different, I hope, from how she may have entered the world.

    Liked by 1 person

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