a year of morning thanks
An old note of sympathy (ii)
In John Gardner's story "Redemption," a little boy dies in a farming accident. In the awful wake of that death's horror, the boy's father steps out of the house and runs wild for a long time. A Christian psychologist once told me that, following the death of a child, parents should be excused--which is to say, forgiven--of just about anything they do for five years. It takes that long for grief to find its own level in the heart. I don't know.
This 90-year-old sympathy note was written five years after Grandpa and Grandma Schaap had buried their own daughter. If the note had been written six months after Agnes's death, it might have a different tone; but then, if twenty years had passed, Grandpa might have responded differently too. Not in substance--I'm sure the theology by which he interpreted his sadness wouldn't change; what might change is how he accepted that theology.
But it takes the preacher a few sentences before he begins to do what he must. First, more empathy.
"Our thoughts were with you continually," he writes, after referring to their own loss. And then, this rather strange sentence: "What a gloomy Sunday you must have had!"
His own story could not have left him unfeeling, but, to me at least, that last line seems almost callous. To call the day of the boy's burial gloomy risks understating the family's horrifying sadness.
But there's a footnote here that helps me somehow. The woman who sent the note along to me explained that, because of the boy's fever and the risk of his fever spreading, the family had been under quarantine.
Somewhere in the fog of my earliest childhood memories, I see a sign that says "Quarantine," but that's all, just an image way back somewhere. If families and their homes are quarantined today, I don't know of it. Ninety years ago, both word and practice were routine, immigrant ships and their passengers regularly subject to inspection and quarantine. From 1780 to 1820, not all that far from where I live, the population of Arikara Indians, once 30,000 strong, fell to almost nothing at the hands of smallpox. Containment was a necessity, and quarantine meant containment.
Imagine it this way: there is a sign on the door of house, a legal notice that makes you shivver with cold, maybe like this one. No one enters, no one leaves--save the dead.
"What a gloomy Sunday" in all likelihood refers to the fact that this loving, quarantined family, despite their grief, could not attend their little boy's funeral. Ninety years after the fact that story is still carried along by descendent family members. The family couldn't attend the funeral.
I can not imagine being Mom or Dad, locked up in the very house of death on that day, the house with the sign, while somewhere down the road the body of my child is being lowered into a small grave. Neither could Grandpa and Grandma Schaap imagine that particular pain, I'm sure, its immense isolation. What an incredibly gloomy day that must have been.
But there's more.