Stuttgart High School
Class Of 1989
A brief exposure to courage
Nothing more to eat, the doctor told her.
Ever. The cancer treatments had ravaged her system.
She was sipping a Mountain Dew when she told me that, laid up in a bed at Baptist Health Medical Center, on a cold December day.
Ellen Southall wasn’t complaining, though. Just reporting.
As long as she had her daughter, her grandchildren and sister, she said, she would be fine.
I first spotted Ellen in the waiting area of the radiology department at Baptist. Each of us was alone for the moment, she was covered in blankets, sitting in a wheelchair, waiting for the technicians.
I thought, but I wasn’t sure from across the waiting room, that a tear slipped from an eye.
I eased over to her, and we chatted long enough for me to learn her name and her room number.
Over the next couple of weeks, when I was at the hospital to visit my father-inlaw, I’d stop in to see her.
In dribs and drabs, she told me her story, though she told me the sad parts almost accidentally, with her kid sister, Levita Brannon, occasionally priming the pump. In my brief acquaintance with Ellen, she was not a complainer.
She earned her master’s degree at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. She taught English in Stuttgart, her hometown, for 30 years. She smiled a lot when she talked of Beowulf, one of her favorites.
She endured much, physically and otherwise.
During the Christmas holidays when she was 16, Ellen was practicing with the girls’ basketball team at Stuttgart High when an aneurysm burst in her brain, paralyzing her.
She went to Virginia to recover.
She married, had a daughter, but when she was 32, her husband died. Three months after she became a widow, the doctors found cancer, which she has fought since.
When she no longer could live alone in Stuttgart, she moved to Little Rock to be near her daughter and sister.
As sick as she was when we met, there was a serenity, a beauty, about Ellen, whitehaired and delicate. But in her frailty, there was a resolve that though hardship had confined her, it had not defined her. At least that’s what she showed.
At 75, her resolve was all the more astonishing after I learned this fact the last time I saw her. She said something casually about her leg, and I wasn’t sure I heard her correctly. But when I sneaked a look, I saw I had heard her right. Her right leg was gone.
Her bones had become so brittle from the cancer treatments, that her leg broke one day, shattering beyond repair.
She was such a pleasant person, and so brave, I wanted to write her story.
People like Ellen inspire us to be stronger and more grateful than we would be without people like her showing us how.
She beamed and said yes when I asked permission to put her in the newspaper.
I didn’t take notes that day because I was going to return later with a tablet. On my next visit, she had left the hospital. Christmas came, and the new year, and I never made time to find where she had gone.
Recently, fearing what I would find, I searched the newspaper’s archives for Ellen’s name. And then I sat down and wrote her story from memory.
This article was published on page 11 of the Thursday, February 21, 2008 edition in the Arkansas section.
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