Hearts – Creative Nonfiction by Donna Walker-Nixon


My husband has concluded when this life ends, we slide into a sink hole of nothingness and that’s that. A friend who turns 88 this year wants to go to sleep and wake up dead. That view provides more comfort than the Sink Hole Theory of Life after Death, but not enough.

Every day I plead to a distant Being, “God, please exist!”

Brother Dan Cox, a thin, gaunt, stooped man, sank into the thinning carpet of Eastside Church of Christ as he attempted to lead us in singing. We tried to join him as we followed two syllables behind. “Here I labor and toil as I look for a home, just a humble abode among men.” The ancient old people believed they’d die and wind up in the mansion God prepared for them.

I never completely embraced that view, but then again I was scared I’d fall into
hell’s sink hole for drifting from their accepted views. So I went to the front of the church one Sunday and Brother Boyd baptized me in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. When I was immersed, I struggled to breathe and fought against his hands to rise out of the water—ironically not to be bathed in newness of life, but just to be able to breathe air. I pondered if my baptism was real since all of my body did not touch the water and I had struggled against the preacher when he tried to dunk me in the water. All the probing a child who does not know theology and faith might ask.

A Life Incompletely Lived

We called our grandmother Mrs. Joiner. We loved her beyond measure, but she told and retold death stories, which we could recite word by morbid word.

Hortense Patricia Davenport taught special education at Castleberry Elementary with her. Maybe she gave herself perms that resulted in frazzled blue swirls in the middle of her balding blue scalp.

Maybe her stomach became a rotunda and she could not find girdles that did not settle in circles under her waist, and at church she tugged at her undergarment in desperation to control that which could not be controlled.

She and her husband Grady fought to see their granddaughter Patti-Ann after their daughter died suddenly. The abusive ex-husband and his mother would not budge in denying them visitation rights with the little girl, who each day remembered less and less about her mother and grandparents.

Hortense retired, determined to gain access to her only grandchild. Two months later she died of idiopathic heart failure. She had taken her retirement in monthly stipends. After her death, the installments ceased. Grady had nothing to tide him over, and he took a job delivering phone books—not enough for him to continue the lawsuit.

Mrs. Joiner brooded and repeated the story every weekend, thinking she shed one more view to Hortense’s sad saga. There were no new angles to analyze, but Mrs. Joiner insisted she had discovered one.

A life well lived

Grampa Hanson called her Toughy, and she sneaked into the garden today and devoured a fig from the Tree of Life. God might have said, “Do not eat from this tree,” but Toughy devoured the fruit’s pulp and climbed higher than a kite skimming the outer limits of all we know on earth.

I repeat details of the funeral service and say, “At her funeral” until Tim nods, tired of my rambling and repetition.

She died five days before her mother’s birthday. People reproach with hollow words, “She was a smoker, you know”—from high school until the day she took her last pyrrhic breath, hoarse, unable to speak above a faint whisper.

“I don’t want a whole lot of sermon. Keep your talk as short as you can,” she directed the preacher when he came to the house her parents owned and she lived in as she made pencil drawings of the cabin she planned to build on the south side of the family ranch.

We think there should be a certain gravitas when we cross the home base of life—but that is not the truth. At the visitation, her baby sister kept saying, “She’s got boobs.” Something she may have been deprived of in life.

These words see us through, not the preacher’s vague pronouncements about her life well lived or predictions of her new life in heaven: “She’s playing horseshoes with Grampa Hanson” or “I know we’ll meet again and kick up our heels like when she was alive and we took the trip of a lifetime to New York City.”
Words don’t wipe away the tears of her grandson who barely finished the grand entrance of the huge family and who went on the trip. He’d just received an award in school, and now he cried, the way small children do at the loss of a toy, but Toughy will not be present when he escorts another sophomore in the homecoming court or any court.

Still, Toughy enjoyed a life well lived. Grampa Hanson could not purge awkward visions of children with deep black and yellow sunken circles that sprawled into spider webs.

Without words, they uttered low expressions of human misery, “Save us! Please.” When he and his wife Myrtle moved, they turned their home into a sanctuary for children in distress. In 1960 the first group of children came to live in the home they donated to the fledgling Hanson’s Home for Children.

Grampa Hanson first recognized need and took action because someone must do something—and he felt self-appointed to undertake what needed doing. Toughy recognized hearts in need, and assumed roles of mentor and foster mother, saying, “It needed doing, and I did it. There was no other choice.” She had mottos that formed the framework of her life: “Leave it better than you found it” and “I know good hearts when I see ‘em.”

A Life Partially Lived

Jolie never had a good heart.

Her purple Barney the Dinosaur lips caused people to stare momentarily at the creature she feared she transformed into. Then they gazed into her eyes and pretended she looked normal. Her distended abdomen made her appear pregnant, and too many times for comfort, well meaning people asked, “When’s that baby due?”
When she received her bachelor’s degree in journalism, she may have dreamed of working for a national news outlet and like Chris Wallace asking pertinent questions to the President of the United States: why did you confiscate the notes the translator took during your meeting with Putin?

Or perhaps, she dreamed of sitting around a fire place with her husband cradling newborns. She didn’t know how many, but enough to make a house a home. After the birth of each child Mama would stay a few weeks to comfort her during this time of adjustment.

Mama came. She watched Jolie’s lips turn a deeper purple and her stomach more distended with each year, then month, then week, and finally day while they prayed for a match for a liver, kidney, or heart transplant. Ghoulishly, they waited and prayed for someone to die so Jolie could thrive.

Her obituary stated: “Jolie battled health problems her entire life with grace, strength, and courage. She was an example to all of the power of prayer and faith. We rejoice in her renewed body, but miss her presence here dearly.”
Her heart was not good. It never was.

Like Toughy, with grace and grit Jolie understood truths we seldom fathom and beauties we never admit.


Donna Walker-Nixon was a full professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, where she received the distinction of receiving the Mary Stevens Piper award for excellence in teaching. She currently serves as an adjunct lecturer at Baylor. She lists her five primary professional achievements as 1) founding Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature in 1997, 2) co-editing the Her Texas series with her friend and mentor James Ward Lee, 3) co-founding The Langdon Review of the Arts in Texas 4) publishing her novel Canaan’s Oothoon, and 5) serving as lead editor Her Texas, which has boosted Donna’s faith that the voices of women writers and artists truly mean something to both men and women.

1 Comment

  1. I think it’s a measure of this essay’s depth that I’m meditating on Hortense Patricia Davenport and the ways in which her life was NOT, as the subhead suggests, a life incompletely lived. I’ll be thinking about this one for quite a while. Brilliant.


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