Some knew him as Joe Shifalo, activist, war on poverty warrior, a lawyer who fought housing discrimination, and founder of the Little Five Points Community Center. (The AJC went so far as to dub him the mayor of Little Five Points.) Many others knew him as Pigiron, finger-picking Piedmont-style blues master, and spinner of blues records and Southern tales of his making over WRFG (89.3 FM). I knew him as both – and more– as he was my husband and we were together 33 years. He went the way of “a poor chile born to die” this time last year. But before he did, he wrote one more short piece, which I attach, hopefully for your reading pleasure. — Christena Bledsoe
Recently I came into the hospital on the truck with the blinking red lights. At first I was glad to get somewhere that I knew would try to fix what was wrong and for a day in the emergency room it was easy to feel that things would get better. A squeeze of the hand by a caregiver or a pat on the shoulder by a friend or doctor was all that was necessary. But after a couple of days, as they couldn’t put their collective finger on what was malfunctioning, my concern began to rise.
My hospital experiences have been in single rooms since my youth when they did away with the old ward systems. This hospital had only double rooms. We were down in one of the most remote areas of Florida when we called 911. It serves that part of Florida that gets little attention and few tourists, though it is one of the most beautiful areas of the State. It is still the home of the Florida Crackers, the country folk who were the original settlers of the area after the Spanish and British left it to the Indians and Maroons. That era is little remembered by Floridians today.
But those people are still there and my roommate was one of them, as was his wife, who slept in the single hospital bed with him the whole week. My wife would get a motel room to stay nearby; Flo would just climb into the narrow bed with Richard.
After a day or so, we became acquainted. “Hi, I’m Richard. This is my wife Flo. She can’t speak due to a tongue cancer that took her jaw and I’m here cause I’ve had another heart attack or somethin’. I couldn’t help but hear you are from Cedar Key. I’m from about 24 miles out of Oldtown near the Suwannee River. We got a farm out there.” After more conversation it developed that Richard was a former oysterman turned chainsaw sculptor. He made birds and Indians and turtles out of local wood covered with polyurethane. They were remarkable. He had pictures and many stories of how he came to this work. In fact we talked for days about our lives and experiences. We told our hero stories and our fool stories about how we had done honorable or stupid things. I’m sure we both edited a lot but in the end we came to a respectful understanding of each other.
Each night, long after I had turned down my lights, I could hear Flo and Richard speaking quietly. After the second night I realized they were praying before sleep. He would pick a verse from their bible and discuss it. Once I heard him choose a verse on marriage and how Flo shouldn’t lie to him about smoking since he could smell it anyway. She asked forgiveness and they returned to their close ways of whispers and touches.
Now I don’t much respect religion. It harms many and brings only the semblance of help to others. But in the midst of pain and the isolation of the long hospital night I figure any way you can get comfort is alright. I do a little meditation and try to get my breathing right and maybe they get the same thing as I do from what they do.
Then, after one more heart catheterization, Richard was to be discharged the next day. That night about 3 am, when I was feeling poorly, my curtain rustled and Richard and Flo poked their heads through to my bed and asked. “Do you mind if we pray for you?” Now usually I say no thanks to such comments as they are often followed by printed matter or talks on conversion. But this seemed so genuine and honest I said OK. They didn’t ask me to pray with them which I would have refused but just wanted to “pray on me”. “Lord, let this good man get well and walk free. Let the doctors get it right, Lord.” There was a little more but it was short and specific. Lord couldn’t have missed the point.
I realized as they discharged Richard that I respected this swamp man with a chainsaw. He was true and honest and however he found comfort in the night was honorable as well.
Copyright Joe Shifalo, March 2009. Submitted by Christena Bledsoe, co-author, God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man,” a Geechee memoir of Sapelo Island, GA.