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Still Life

The doctor told Ann that John had severely damaged his spinal cord and was paralyzed from his neck down. He was able to swivel his head from side to side, but because his circulatory system had been disrupted, causing his blood pressure to fluctuate wildly, he could not lift his head without blacking out. “It couldn’t be any worse,” the doctor said.

At least outwardly, Ann seemed to take the diagnosis rather calmly. Or maybe, she later told her friends, she had simply been unable to comprehend the full meaning of what the doctor was saying.

While Ann lived in an apartment near the rehabilitation center and Mac and Henry visited on weekends, John stayed in a ward with other paralyzed men, going through two hours of physical therapy every day. The following March, when forty of his high school friends showed up to surprise him on his eighteenth birthday—they gave him the new albums by Elton John and Chicago—he was too weak to blow out the candles on his cake. But he assured them that the therapy was working. Speaking into a telephone receiver held by his mother, he told a Dallas Morning News reporter that he would walk again and “probably” would go back to playing football. “I will never give up,” he said in as firm a voice as he could muster.

But late that spring, doctors met with Ann, Mac, and Henry in a conference room. Staring at their notes, they said that not a single muscle below John’s neck had shown any response. He still couldn’t raise his head without losing consciousness, they added, which meant there was almost no chance he would be able to sit in a wheelchair.

From Monday through Saturday, she almost never left the house. On Sunday mornings, she went to Mass at Christ the King Catholic Church, lit a candle for John, and put a $10 check in the collection box. Afterward, she drove to Tom Thumb, the same one where John used to work, to buy groceries. Once a month she’d treat herself to a permanent at the hair salon at JCPenney. But that was it: Every other minute was devoted to John.

Incredibly, just two years later, Cliff called to say he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He died in 1981, at the age of 39. At that funeral, people looked at Ann, convinced she was at the breaking point. Two husbands and one of her sons were dead. Another son was battling cancer. And, of course, there was John.

Read more in Texas Monthly.

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