The Loss of a Son

Alan Solano

© Copyright 2010 by Alan Solano


Elias (Eli), Emma, and children in 1936, shortly before Harry’s death.
Elias (Eli), Emma, and children in 1936, shortly before Harry’s death.

Eli could not take it another second in the hospital room. He looked on helplessly as his nine year old son Harry lay in the bed in continual pain. The unrelenting whine had not stopped for hours. Eli had to go out for some air. He walked through the hospital veranda and into the cool March air. Eli looked around. On a better day Eli would look up from the Shenandoah Valley to see beautifully wooded hills in all directions. Today all he could see today was the sidewalk and a solitary fire hydrant. Eli looked at the hydrant closely. It seemed so ordinary, so out of place with his thoughts.

He stood in front of the hydrant for a long time. He prayed and prayed for Harry’s recovery. At the same time he wondered why his prayers and petitions were not working. He had been a faithful servant to God. Two years ago, in the midst of tough economic times throughout Appalachia, he left his strip-mining job in Pennsylvania to actively pursue the ministry. He packed up his wife and three children, headed to a junior college in Dayton, Virginia, and got a part-time job working for a Mennonite farmer just outside of town. In Dayton, wife Emma had their fourth child and worked the garden to supplement their meals. Life was not easy, but they were getting by. God was faithful.

But then came last Saturday. That day, as he did every Saturday, Eli had left the fields and gone to the house for lunch in the early afternoon. Harry, who normally would have been outside playing, was inside complaining of severe stomach pains. Emma called the local doctor. The doctor examined the boy, and provided some pills for Harry and told them to call him Monday if he hadn’t improved. Harry did not improve, and Eli contacted the doctor first thing on Monday. The doctor said he couldn’t come out that morning since he had two maternity cases “that were ready to pop”. He suggested they get another doctor. Fortunately, a neighbor who was trying to help Emma and Harry in the house volunteered her doctor. This doctor did see Harry and immediately diagnosed a ruptured appendix. Harry was operated on later that same day.

Through the following week, Harry drifted in and out of consciousness as his fever raged above 105 degrees. When Eli and Emma questioned the doctor, he said that the enlarged appendix was removed properly. He did add, however, if the “country” doctor who had seen him first on Saturday wasn’t so “cocksure of himself” and had diagnosed him properly, this may not be happening. This provided no comfort to Eli and Emma.

On Thursday, Harry seemed to rally a little, and was even able to eat some breakfast. He told his parents that he would be better soon. Harry also told them that his Sunday School teacher had told him that you should pray for people who were sick, that they may be healed. He asked his parents if they would pray for him to speed his recovery. Eli could not answer as tears welled up in his eyes. He knew the constant prayer he and others had been giving. The only thing he could do was reach out and hold Harry’s feverish little hand.

The next day as they approached Harry’s room, they “heard a kind of whine. It wasn’t a child’s cry because he was too old for that yet not old enough to moan as an adult would, but it was continuous”. As the day wore on, Eli knew Harry’s end was approaching. Emma was holding out for a miracle, but as they both walked out to the parking lot for a break, they both knew that he would not recover. After a long silence Emma asked in a quiet, shaky voice, “ If Harry doesn’t recover, what will we do for burying him?” When Eli told her that they would take his body home to the family cemetery, Emma “seemed relieved and we went back to his room and stood helplessly by as he slipped away from us”.

After Harry’s death, the body was transported back to their Pennsylvania homeland for burial. It was a sunny but windy day as the small line of cars made their way from the church to the hilltop family cemetery. Eli noticed a large flock of red-winged blackbirds were cawing frantically to each other from the trees that lined the lane. He also noticed the first green growth was appearing on the banks facing the spring sun. The cars came to a stop a short distance from the cemetery. Eli opened the door for Emma, and looked around at all of the familiar faces as his gathered loved ones started making their way to the gravesite.

Eli held Emma’s hand tightly. The minister’s final words were hard to hear over the weeping and the vigorous flapping of the canopy. Although Eli heard “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, and dust to dust”, what really resonated in his being was the thud of each handful of dirt dropped on the small casket in the ground. Each handful seemed to press the very life out of him. He tried to remember the words of the service an hour earlier. “No one will ever be able to explain to me why this has happened, but I want to urge the parents not to lose their faith because of this experience which is enough to test anyone”. Eli’s eyes began to well up again. He grasped Emma’s hand all the harder.

In the time after the service, family and friends gathered at Eli’s family home. Eli was grateful for their kind words of condolence and support, but inside he kept wondering how his great, loving God whom he was to serve had allowed his beloved son Harry be taken from him. All of his prayers and petitions had not helped. He was struggling with these very thoughts as he felt a strong arm around his sagging shoulders. He looked up to see his favorite Uncle Peter. Peter suggested they take a walk. They headed toward his home, a log cabin in a wooded area between the family home and the cemetery.

When they got to the cabin, Uncle Peter offered him the rocking chair in front of the fire. He slowly put some kindling on the smoldering ambers and then pulled a kitchen chair a short distance from Eli. He listened carefully as Eli described the heartache of Harry’s illness and death as well as the faith questions he had been asking himself. Uncle Peter saw that his Nephew’s shoulders visibly slumped as he spoke. Eli’s words were often unsteady and there were long pauses as Eli would break into tears. As Eli finished the narrative, Uncle Peter rose to put some more wood on the fire before sitting down once again to face Eli.

Uncle Peter was no stranger to tragedy himself. He had lost his beloved wife in the childbirth of his first child many years ago. In the midst of inconsolable grief, he also struggled with the words spoken by the minister who performed the funeral service for his wife and baby. The minister implied that the deaths were because of Peter’s sins or some act of fate. Uncle Peter thought, “What kind of God is this that takes away a fine young woman simply because her husband had sinned or because her time was up?’”. While he never would understand why his wife and baby had been taken away from him, he knew in his heart that there was no truth in what that minister said.

There was silence again as Uncle Peter and Eli watched the flame in the fireplace. Uncle Peter looked directly into the eyes of his grieving nephew. He said that he really did not know why little Harry had been taken from Eli and Emma. Only God knew. But he could tell Eli what the bible said about faith. It was a verse that helped him many years ago. He opened his bible to a well-worn page in Hebrews. “Faith is the full assurance that the Christian hope and the promises of God will be fulfilled and the belief that the Unseen World is the Supreme Reality”.

Uncle Peter then recalled a conversation they had about a year ago when Eli excitedly spoke about entering his ministerial study. “You told me that your faith was really working”, Uncle Peter said, “but today you seem to say that your faith didn’t work out in the sickness and death of little Harry. Uncle Peter reiterated that they would never know why tragedy had struck Eli’s family in Virginia. “I remember reading somewhere that sometimes it is necessary for one’s own faith to be shaken so that faith in God can be more real”. He added that his fervent prayer was that Eli and Emma would not lose faith but would persevere.

The fire was dying down. Uncle Peter said, “Let’s walk up the hill to the cemetery, it will do us good to get outside.” The two men slowly walked up the hill until they reached the cemetery fence. The freshly filled grave holding his son’s body stood out. In the crisp March air, he heard the voices of Emma and her parents walking up the hill. Emma said, “I’m sorry we interrupted you for I guess you were in some serious discussion as you usually are”. Eli replied, “No dear, we just completed our conversation. Now you and I can walk over together”. Hand in hand, they walked over toward the small mound of fresh dirt. They did not say a word, but held hands until dusk arrived.

As time wore on and seasons passed, Eli would continue to grieve and think of their little Harry. He prayed for God’s comfort for Emma and himself, and in time comfort was provided. He also thought about the words of his uncle Peter, and prayed for a deep abiding faith. While he would never fully understand Harry’s loss, Eli did continue down the road of faith. He became an ordained minister in 1938, faithfully serving in the Appalachian hill country of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia for over 30 years.

Alan Solano works in corporate America but likes to write in his spare time.  The material for this non-fiction piece are interviews and an autobiographical book titled “Reiflich or The Arrival of Peter Klein”, which Elias Kessler gifted to his grandchildren in 1985.  Quotes are all directly from the book.   Alan is a grandson of Elias.

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