In our era of antibiotics, vaccinations and life-saving surgeries, illnesses such as AIDS and COVID-19 re-shape our world view, shattering illusions that we are somehow immune to diseases without treatments. A pandemic broadsides us, shaking us from complacency. We are forced to acknowledge that the world is not a safe and predictable place. Life spirals out of control.
We forget, in our modernity, our sophistication, our privilege, that this is the reality many third world countries have always known. We also forget that incurable diseases and pandemics were once a reality for everyone.
In 1999, I published a journal, discovered by accident and turned over to me. Written by one of my distant ancestors, it covered the years from 1856 to 1890. The book quickly sold out and is now out of print. It was a Civil War diary highlighting the horrors of war, slavery, and the aftermath of war. But a common thread throughout the journal was the widespread prevalence of illness and death before the advent of modern medicine.
The author, Anna Long, lost her mother, husband, son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter to illnesses that today would be curable or preventable. Both she and her son, Edwin, wrote poetry that I included in the book; poems that reveal the depths of despair and hope and love they felt during a time when typhoid, diphtheria, smallpox and pneumonia were frequently death sentences.
In the throes of our current pandemic, when the world has ground to a surreal and unnatural halt, I decided to share some of these poems. They give us a glimpse of a different era, a time before modern medicine, but maybe not a time so distant from our own when it comes to the human heart. Because in matters of the heart, some things never change.
The journal begins in 1856 when the country was on the verge of war and Anna was mourning the death of her mother. She wrote this poem in April, a few months after her mother died.
I Weep for Her
I weep when I remember thee,
My mother fond and true,
When fancy brings thy gentle face
So oft before my view.
Oh! Mother when I think on thee
And thy sweet, quiet brow,
I know I must have loved thee then,
But feel I worship now.
I weep when I remember thee,
Upon thy dying bed,
When death with slow and steady aim
Advanced with noiseless tread.
We saw thy fixed, unconscious gaze,
We felt ourselves unknown,
Near thee, and yet how far removed.
This next poem was written by Edwin, a published poet, to his wife Mary following the death of their young daughter
The Last Look
Do not fasten the lid of the coffin down yet,
Let me have a long look at the face of my pet;
Please all quit the chamber and pull to the door,
And leave me alone with my darling once more.
Is this little Ethel, so cold and so still?
Beat beat, breaking heart against God’s mystic will.
Remember, Oh! Christ, thou didst dread thin own cup,
And while I drink mine, let thine arm bear me up.
But the moments are fleeting, I must stamp on my brain
Each dear little feature, for never again
Can I touch her; and only God measures how much
Affection a mother conveys by her touch,
Oh! Dear little head, Oh! Dear little hair,
So silken, so golden, so soft and so fair,
Will I never more smooth it. Oh! Help me, my God,
To bear this worst stroke of the chastening rod.
Those bright little eyes that used to feign sleep,
Or sparkled so merrily, playing at peep,
Closed forever! and yet they seemed closed with a sigh,
As if, for our sake, she regretted to die.
And that dear little mouth, once so warm and so soft,
Always willing to kiss you, no matter how oft.
Cold and rigid! Without the last tremor of breath.
How could you claim Ethel, Oh pitiless Death!
Her hands! No, ‘twill kill me to think how they wove
Through my daily existence, a tissue of love;
Each finger’s a print upon Memory’s page,
That will brighten, thank God, and not fade with my age.
Sick or well, they were ready at every request
To amuse us, Sweet hands! They deserve a sweet rest!
Their last little trick was to wipe Bo Peep’s eye,
Their last little gesture, to wave us goodbye.
Little feet! Little feet, now dark the heart’s gloom,
When your patter is hushed in that desolate room.
For Oh! ’Twas a sight sweet beyond all compare,
To see little “Frisky” rock back in her chair.
Oh! Father have mercy and give me thy grace
To see through this frown the smile on thy face,
to feel that this sorrow is sent for the best,
And to learn from my darling a lesson of rest.
A Poem by Edwin
The night is dark and cold, a beating rain
Falls ceaselessly upon the dripping roof,
And now a hollow moan, as if in pain,
Circles the eaves, and bends the tortured trees that wring
Their long, bare hands in the black blast.
Within our chamber, all is bright and warm. The fire
Burns with a ruddy blaze. The shaded lamp
Softens the pictures on the wall, and glows
Upon the flowers in the carpet, till they seem
All fresh and fragrant. Stretched upon the rug,
His collar gleaming in the fire light, little Pip
Is sleeping on, defiant of the storm without.
The very furniture enjoys the warmth,
And from its sides reflects the cheerful light.
Up in his painted cage, the little bird,
His yellow head beneath his soft, warm wing,
Is hiding. Oh! My God, out in the storm
Our little yellow head is beaten by the rain.
So lovely looks that little precious face
Up at the cold, dark coffin lid above,
In the bleak graveyard’s solitude!
Oh! Ethel, darling, do you feel afraid?
Or is Christ with you in your little grave?
When last we gazed upon those precious eyes,
They looked so tranquil in their last repose,
We knew that Christ’s own tender hand had sealed
Their little lids with His eternal peace.
Oh! Darling, are you happy up in Heaven,
And do the Angels part that golden hair
As tenderly as we? Oh! Savior dear,
Thou knowest childhood’s tenderness; amid
The care of countless worlds, Sometimes descend
From thine Almighty throne of power, and find
That little head, and lay it on thy breast,
And smooth her brow with thine own pierced hand!
She’ll kiss the wound and try to make it well,
And tell her how we love her memory here;
And let her sometimes see us, that she may
Remember us. Oh! Jesus, we can trust
Her to thy care, and when we lay us down
To rest beside that lovely little grave,
Oh! Let her meet us, with her harp.
God help us both to make that meeting sure.
Anna’s Song of Hope
There is many a rest in the path of life
If we only would stop to take it,
And many a love from the better land
If our querulous hearts would make it.
To the sunny soul that is full of hope
And whose beautiful trust never perish,
The grass is green and the flower bright
Though the winter storm prevaileth.
Better to hope, though the clouds hang low,
And to keep the eyes still lifted.
For the sweet blue sky will soon peep through,
When the ominous clouds are lifted.
There was never a night without a day
Or an evening without a morning,
And the darkest hour, as the proverb goes,
Is the hour before the dawning.
Better to weave in the web of life
A bright and golden filling,
And to do God’s will with a ready heart
And hands that are swift and willing,
Than to snap the minute, delicate threads
Of our curious life asunder,
And then blame Heaven for tangled ends,
And sit and grieve and wonder.
Anna lost her son Edwin when he was still a young man, probably to pneumonia. She lived two more decades, and in her last journal entry, written September 30, 1890, she wrote, “How I do miss the absent ones this cold, dreary autumn evening.”