Humble Servant

Submitted into Contest #126 in response to: Write about a character reflecting on the previous year.... view prompt


Fiction American Contemporary

This story contains themes or mentions of mental health issues.

Reading over the first draft of grandma’s obit, I noticed some curious ambiguity; “She died in a Morganton Hospital.” The actual name of the institution wasn’t mentioned, as often was the case when I read other obits for ideas: “Martha Evaline Campbell, age 84, of Jonas Ridge, NC, came home to her Lord and savior after a long fight with cancer at Grace Memorial Hospital.” Curious, but not confusing. Grandma spent the last several months at Broughton, the regional psychiatric hospital. This is where you can be involuntarily committed if the state deems you, according to official criteria, “harmful to yourself or others.” Or, in grandma’s case, because God told her to burn down her own church. 

“In a Morganton Hospital.” It was as though the funeral home and the small-town newspaper did not want to shed themselves of the stigma surrounding mental illness. Even though said hospital is the largest employer in the county. Instead, the lady in charge of editing obits at the funeral home insisted that I focus on my grandma’s life before her deterioration. Things such as her devotion to her family and community. That much I could agree with. I brought over a scrapbook that I found buried in a closet in her house that contained the usual drug store developed photos and yellowed newspaper clippings from 40 years ago. We got to work, the lady being kind enough to stay a little late in the office on New Year’s Eve for me. There was one standout in the scrapbook that caught my eye. 

One clipping was an article from a regional tourist magazine. The kind of magazine you would pick up free at the state line Welcome Center or find lying on a motel room coffee table. It was titled “Story Tellers Are A Gem In Western North Carolina.” Embedded in the text was a rather flattering, albeit dated, photo of grandma looking animated as she spun off a mountain tale to an eager and engaged audience. The article described how grandma could reel in an audience with her sensational accounts of the Brown Mountain Lights, which to many a convinced audience member were due to a mysterious apparition. To me, they were simply due to gasses from a mountain bog near the summit. Either way, grandma became tourist magazine famous because of her homegrown talent.

“Should we mention the storytelling article?”

“Of course. In detail.”

She asked what else I could include and suggested church involvement. I was quick to remind her that that was a touchy topic. Nevertheless, the scrapbook had many references to church activities, including fundraisers and covered dishes for which my grandma dutifully volunteered as she considered herself God’s humble servant. When the editor used that phrase as we were jotting down some notes, I was reminded of the phone call from the sheriff’s office earlier this year. It was early March and light snow began to blanket the county’s western half, and I was terrified that my wife was in an accident. Once the deputy mentioned my grandma and what she did to the church, I was relieved. Well, then ashamed because I was relieved. He stated that she was found wandering around the churchyard in her nightgown, muttering something about the devil and false prophets. She surrendered the gas can to the deputies, who handcuffed her and sent her away in their cruiser. I wondered for a moment if that detail of my grandma’s life was too sensitive for an obit. I glanced over, and the sheepish look on the editor’s face expressed that she knew what was on my mind. Should we leave that part out even though half the county knew every detail of what happened?

Of course. Focus on the positive. Stick to worship and potlucks and fundraisers.

We kept thumbing through the album. We came across an award she won thirty years ago for the best pecan pie at the county fair. “Wouldn’t that be a fun tidbit to add?” the editor coyishly reverted to as if changing a subject that hadn’t even been brought up. At least not out loud. We added the part about the pie award below where we mentioned her being God’s humble servant. After we added all of the survivors and the predeceased and made sure to double-check that the funeral service information was correct, we called it done. The editor read the draft aloud for clarity, slowing her voice when she got to “a Morganton Hospital.” I decided against bringing attention to the polite aversion. I figured there was no point in emphasizing where she died since half the county knew anyway. 

After leaving the editor’s office, I stopped by Broughton’s administrative wing, where I had an appointment with the social worker assigned to my grandma’s case. This was just to close out her case and release her records over to me, the custodial party. The social worker had a cold and emotionless demeanor that suggested zero interest in the flowery details of her life. She did not want to waste any time so that she could get out the door and enjoy every minute of her holiday. After furnishing ID and signing release forms, the last documentations of grandma’s life were now mine to do whatever with. Heading out of the administration wing, I strolled past the ornate treelined pond, built and landscaped by patients at the hospital. I was told once that the patients even grew and prepared food for the hospital. This was way back in the old days, post-Civil War. How sustainable. 

Once in the car, I cranked the engine and turned up the radio. The local community college public radio station was broadcasting its usual hodgepodge of Nora Jones, then Louis Armstrong, then nondescript bluegrass and alternative country music. The DJ wished everyone out in Radio Land a happy new year early because he would get to spend the evening with his family and was very thankful for that. I turned my Outback onto the highway headed out of town and up the mountain. As I headed up the mountain, I pulled into the parking lot of grandma’s church, the gravel crackling underneath my tires. Most of the paneling on the petite wooden structure had been replaced, and a new coat of paint was applied. All no doubt by diligent and loyal congregants who saw it as their humble duty to serve God. Had grandma not lit the fire herself and not been taken away, she likely would have hobbled up a ladder with a paint roller with them. The tall wooden steeple and the antique leaded glass windows had been spared. 

I thought about stopping by the pastor’s house to apologize for everything on behalf of my family and grandma; for the way she called him up at 3 am accusing him of worshiping false prophets and for then having to testify in court the day my grandma was declared not guilty by reason of insanity. I figured that I didn’t have it in me at the moment, so I turned my Outback back onto the pavement and kept driving higher in elevation. As the highway curved, I passed a sign welcoming visitors to the national forest. At this point, it was getting dark, but I kept going. As the road crested, I could see the sun setting behind the peaks of Hawk’s Bill and Table Rock. The effect made the sharp and jagged outcrops glow a deep purple against the silent winter sky. There was a scenic overlook on the other side of the highway. I pulled in and stepped out of my Outback, having rolled my windows down to listen to the radio. The mountain air was crisp but the weather was unseasonably warm for late December. The beginning notes of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” were playing as I glanced over at the sign that said “View: Brown Mountain.” Being the opposite side from the sunset, it was harder to distinguish the darker ridge’s features.

I sat on the Outback’s hood, letting the running engine keep my butt warm, and flipped through grandma’s scrapbook. A photo of her and grandpa wearing costumes and giggling slipped out. I knew it had to be over 25 years old since that’s how long it had been since he passed due to a heart attack. I kept flipping to see if I could find an obit for grandpa. And to see if it stated anything about  coming home to the Lord after passing at Grace Memorial Hospital or simply “a Morganton Hospital.” I didn’t find one. After I got tired of thumbing through the scrapbook, I went through grandma’s records from Broughton from the past year. Page after page outlined her diagnoses, treatment plans, medications, and complications. The wording made me sleepy.

After a while, I started wadding up her records into a ball. Below my feet was a discarded purple cigarette lighter, the cheap see-through kind with the little plastic flame adjuster you pick up at Dollar General. It had a smidge of lighter fluid in it, and the adjuster was cranked up to the highest it would go. I gave it a flick to no avail but then gave it several more flicks until a pitiful blue flame appeared. I hovered the wad over the lighter, and I watched as each leaf of paper turned a crispy black and produced smoke with the off-putting smell of ink and dye. After the whole wad turned to ash, where grandma died truly was just a place. It needed no name or description, or validation. It was what it was, “a Morganton Hospital.” I fell asleep on the hood. 

Waking up hours later, I heard the radio playing “Auld Lang Syne,” and I knew it had to be midnight. At that point, I saw the haunting glow of lights emitted from the direction of Brown Mountain. Perhaps Roman candles from New Year’s revelers? Maybe an apparition worthy of an old mountain tale? No. Just swamp gas. Going into the new year, there are no mysteries left in the world.

December 30, 2021 03:26

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Melissa Woods
15:11 Jan 07, 2022

This was a very touching story! I hope your own grandmother is well, ...but this felt real--not that all the events were, but the way the narrator acts and reacts seemed to me like an echo of truth. I like the way you explored the early stages of grief and the narrator's actions within them. Thanks for sharing your story!


Davie McGuinn
02:34 Jan 08, 2022

Thanks! The story is indeed fictional. But the places and themes are real. I wanted to give the reader a sense of the untold lives of ordinary people around where I live. I'm really glad you enjoyed my story and that you took the time to read it and comment on it!


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James Grasham
19:10 Jan 06, 2022

Hi Davie, I found this an interesting read. My own grandma deteriorated mentally before the end, it's a very difficult thing to see. Something I noticed that you hadn't included is the emotion of the main character. I'd imagine in the circumstances there would be some kind of pain evident, especially given the events shortly before her death.


Davie McGuinn
22:38 Jan 06, 2022

Thanks for the feedback! The part about him burning the medical documents and rejecting old superstitions was a letting-go of his emotions.


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