Faithfulness to Family and Farming Life: “Fidelity” by Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry

In the rural Kentucky community of Port William, people “do for each other”, in life and in death.  But what about in between – the terrible period when someone you love is dying?  You need to do something, anything, but you can’t be sure what is to be done.

Nathan Coulter and his family face this with their eighty-two year old “Uncle Burley” when he takes sick.  Do they take him to the doctor?  His son Danny thinks so.  Nathan wonders.

“He’s never been to a doctor since I’ve known him.  He said he wouldn’t go.  You going to knock him in the head before you take him?”

Ultimately, they decide to take him to the doctor in Louisville, who declares that Burley is too weak for surgery, that it would be necessary to build up his strength.  They admit him to the hospital, where he becomes disoriented.  His health rapidly declines.

… in the midst of the building of strength and the testing, Burley slipped away toward death.  But the people of the hospital did not call it dying; they called it a coma.  They spoke of curing him.  They spoke of his recovery.

Soon Nathan and the others realize their effort to “do something” for Uncle Burley has proven only to makes things worse.

Loving him, wanting to help him, they had given him over to “the best of modern medical care” — which meant, as they now saw, that they had abandoned him.

Thinking of this, unable to sleep at home in Port William, Danny is compelled to act, to do something.  He drives back to Louisville and rescues Uncle Burley, springing him from the hospital, bringing him back past Port William where Danny cares for him in a familiar barn.

This sets a number of things in motion…

…. a call from the hospital to Danny’s wife Lyda, who admits only that Danny was not there, that he said, “something about Indiana”.

… a call to friend and family lawyer Henry Catlett who advises Lyda to say nothing else, to send the investigating police to him.

… a visit from Detective Kyle Bode, a twice-divorced Ringo Starr look-alike who is weary of dealing with the deception of country folk.

Nathan is drawn into the action and his wife Hannah reflects on the nature of the Port William community –

When she thought of their neighborhood, Hannah wondered whether or not to count the children.  Like the old, the young were leaving.  The old were dying without successors, and Hannah was aware of how anxiously those who remained had begun to look into the eyes of the children.  They were watching not just their own children now but anybody’s children.  For as the burden of keeping the land increased for the always fewer who remained, as the difference continued to increase between the price of what they had to sell and the cost of what they had to buy, they knew that they had less and less to offer the children, and fewer arguments to make.

“Fidelity” explores not only the impending death of an old man, but the pending death of an old way of life – the farming community.

Thanks to the courageous (and illegal) acts of his son Danny,  Burley is able to die with dignity, on familiar ground and to be properly buried and grieved.

But how does a community die with dignity?  And who is left to mourn it?  Who remembers what is lost?

(“Fidelity” is found in Fidelity: Five Stories by Wendell Berry)

(photo of Wendell Berry from Jessica Clare {Civetta} in Creative, Eccentric & Talented)

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