By Adam Armour/The Itawamba County Times
“Today is tolerable,” said Bill Sheffield, easily one of the most respected people in the Peppertown area. His voice was so low it was difficult to hear, even in the quiet of his living room.
He gave the subtlest of shrugs, easy to miss, and said tomorrow might be a different story.
“Every day is different,” he said, his words broken by long pauses. If it weren’t for a strong belief in the Lord, I don’t believe I would be making it.”
From the living room recliner in which he spends most of his time these days, a gaunt, tired Sheffield tries his best to make light of the situation.
“I’m sick,” he said flatly, the corner of his mouth turning upward.
It was an understatement: Sheffield is dying, his body slowly wasting away. At 76, the lifelong Itawambian suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is causing his muscles to weaken rapidly. It’s as if he’s aging drastically in the matter of a few years. Gradually, he’s losing the ability to breathe.
The disease he was diagnosed with two years ago has stolen most of Sheffield’s body away from him. When he was diagnosed, he weighed more than 200 pounds. Now, he’s barely touching 125. Those who haven’t seen him for a few months might not recognize him.
For more than 43 years, Sheffield owned and operated Bill’s Minit Mart, the Peppertown area’s sole corner store. It was work he enjoyed, and being the town’s grocer afforded him the opportunity to be among the people of his community.
“I grew up in a store and always wanted one of my own,” Sheffield said.
At the time, it was a huge financial risk for Sheffield and his wife, Cissy. In order to purchase the store, Sheffield had to sell their Fulton home. The couple moved into a small trailer behind the grocery store, where they lived for the first five years of the business’ existence.
“It was a tin can,” Sheffield said, grinning.
But the gamble paid off: Business was good, even early on. Customers flooded the store, keeping the couple busy six days out of the week.
The success could largely be attributed to the likability of its owner. Sheffield has an easygoing air about him, the kind of casual friendliness that’s hard to come by. People simply like him.
“Mr. Bill has always been a good person,” Cissy said, smiling from across the room. “Too good for his own good at times … He’s such a loving, caring person.”
As time went by, the store became busier and busier. In order to accommodate their packed schedules, they built a playhouse on the back of the store for their daughters. This space later became the store’s meat market.
In 1986, Sheffield and a group of friends decided the area needed a volunteer fire department. Working together, they formed the Dorsey-Friendship Volunteer Fire Department.
“We didn’t have one here, and we needed one,” Sheffield said. “So, we started one.”
In addition to the usual business expected of being a fire fighter, Sheffield served as the department’s treasurer for more than 15 years. The department, his wife said, is one of his proudest accomplishments.
When asked about the date he quit the department, Sheffield said he hasn’t.
“I guess I’m still a member,” he said. His uniform, his wife said, is still hanging up in their sunroom.
A few months after being diagnosed with ALS, Sheffield’s health began noticeably deteriorating. Soon after, he decided to close his store. It was a sad day for both him and his wife.
“One day, he just decided to come home. And we did,” Cissy said. The transition was difficult.
“He had rarely missed a day of work,” she said. “When we closed, he really missed the people.”
When asked if he would still be running the store had he not gotten sick, Sheffield nodded slowly.
“I wish I was able,” he said. And that’s arguably the saddest thing about Bill Sheffield’s story: Everyone is denied something they love.
But no matter what, the only thing that really matters is that Bill Sheffield is a good human being. Every bit of love he receives — from his wife, his family and the people of his community — has been earned through his personality and deeds. Although Sheffield doesn’t deserve what’s happening to him now, everything else is his to claim.
Leaning back in his chair, Sheffield turned his head and took a long, deep breath.
“It’s been really, really rough. But I know people are out there praying for us,” he said, his tired eyes suddenly narrowing. “That means you too, now.”