It was the altitude, officially.

If the flight attendant was concerned about my tears, or if the little girl in the pink hoodie across the aisle was curious: Reading at 13,000 feet makes one susceptible to mood swings. It’s a scientific fact. It couldn’t have had anything to do with the fact that Skip Hollandsworth of Texas Monthly had done a bait-and-switch on me.

On its surface, “Still Life” is “the tragic story of John McClamrock, a high school football player paralyzed during a violent tackle.” Hollandsworth plays to our expectations with the obvious construct of innocence approaching doom, particularly on the day leading up to John’s accident. The physical description − the bell-bottom jeans, patterned shirt, the red El Camino, the “china-blue eyes” and the long black hair − drops us into the 1970s and sets us up for loss. No longer will John be a 17-year-old boy eating a Whopper and cranking the volume on the Allman Brothers and going on mini-golf dates with girls who like him, not after that shattering moment that sounds like “a tree trunk breaking in half.”

Then, 979 words into the narrative, John’s mother, Ann, steps into the story. We meet her standing in the hospital, listening to doctors tell her that her son might not make it through the night. The first time we hear her, she is responding to a doctor’s ominous question about her religious preference:

“I’m Catholic,” Ann said, giving him a bewildered look.

This isn’t simple dialogue, as we will learn. Those two words sum up the source of Ann’s resolve. Her faith then leads her to make the statement that sets up her impending prominence in the story:

She slowly turned to the doctor, her hands trembling. “My Johnny is not going to die,” she said. “You wait and see. He is going to have a good life.”

As quickly as Hollandsworth has brought Ann to the forefront, he must nudge her offstage. John’s story has reached its climax, with the accident, so now must come the falling action. The news media visits, as do a couple of Dallas Cowboys. Local businesses and teachers and schoolmates hold bake sales and benefit dances. Letters arrive from all over the country, even from President Richard Nixon. In a phone interview with the Dallas Morning NewsJohn declares that he will walk again, even play football again. “I will never give up,” he says, providing the Disney optimism we’ve been trained to expect.

As John utters these words, Ann is holding the receiver, a beautiful detail that prefaces the narrative’s true climax, which comes two grafs later as Ann, her husband, Mac, and John’s brother, Henry, are summoned to the rehab center’s conference room:

One of the staffers took a breath. “We’ve found that ninety-five percent of the families that try to take care of someone in this condition cannot handle it,” she said. “The families break up.” She handed them a sheet of paper. “These are the names of institutions and nursing homes that will take good care of him.”

Ann nodded, stood up, and said, “We will be taking Johnny home, thank you.”

At that moment, John’s story ends. Ann’s begins.

John’s accidental paralysis is unfortunate, something he is forced to live with; Ann’s confinement is a choice. “Still Life” turns on that choice. Hollandsworth recognized that an epic protagonist isn’t defined by what happens to her, but by what she makes happen.

Over the next 35 years, the media disappears along with John’s high school friends. Mac dies. Henry grows up and builds his own life. Only John and his mother are left. Suddenly Ann’s name appears in the story as often, if not more, as her son’s. In the archetypal details and routines of her life − the pantsuits, makeup, trips to the grocery store, monthly appointments at the J.C. Penney hair salon − we understand more and more of her character. Hollandsworth cleverly hints back to her first spoken line, that invocation of faith, with the subtle repetition of her favorite prayer of thanksgiving: “Lord Jesus, may I always trust in your generous mercy and love…”

Instead of pitying Ann, we begin to admire her because her actions − kissing John’s forehead, telling him how proud she is − so clearly illustrate her resolve. Together mother and son age, but Ann’s is the decline that we experience as readers. Hers is the true “still life” of the title:

Instead of getting dressed as soon as she got out of bed, she spent her mornings in her nightgown and her favorite green terrycloth bathrobe. She was having trouble hearing, and her eyesight was weakening. She began to wobble when she walked and once fell while cooking breakfast. A doctor told her that she had a type of vertigo and that she needed to stay off her feet. “Absolutely not,” she replied.

John becomes almost a supporting actor, even as he makes the decision his mother cannot:

“You have to admit, my body held up for a long, long time,” he said when Henry dropped by to check on him.

“Come on now, you can get through this,” Henry said, using one of their mother’s phrases. “All you have to do is keep fighting.”

“Why don’t you bring Mom over?” John said. “Have her look pretty. She’d like for me to see her that way.”

“John, are you giving up?”

There was a long silence. A food cart rattled down the hall and a nurse’s sneakers squeaked on the hallway floors. From other rooms came the beeps of heart monitors and the deep whooshing sounds of ventilators.

“We know about her prayer,” John finally said. “We know she doesn’t want to go first.” He looked at Henry and said, “I need to go so she can go.”

Henry takes Ann to get her hair done before taking her to see John, who is now back in a rehab facility:

“Mom, it’s okay,” John said.

She smoothed John’s hair along the temples. She touched his forehead, and she slowly ran her hand down one side of his face, past his cheekbones and the curls of his hair. She said, as if she knew what was about to happen, “Johnny, we’ll be back together soon.”

The action soon turns again, and then again, Hollandsworth’s camera all the while on Ann, knowing that this story is hers, that she will be the one who haunts us.

Tony Rehagen (@trehagen) is a senior editor at Atlanta magazine. His stories also have appeared in Men’s Health and Indianapolis Monthly. He has been a finalist for the City & Regional Magazine Association Writer of the Year in each of the past three years.

For more from our collaboration with Longreads and Alexis Madrigal, see the previous posts in the series. And stay tuned for a new shot of inspiration and insight every week.

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