UNITED STATES—When a fatality as final and conflated as that which occurs, a void descends upon a family. A home, a blank wall which gets sealed with a photo of the one who was taken. There will be a wall festooned with many photos from the football fields and the plantation hot springs, and especially those polished studio photographs of the soldier, the father, the brother, the son, the heir—in uniform silver monochrome, and there it would remain, a reassuring promise.
“He died in the service,” was all Sam had to say when anybody asked about his son. That shut them up.
Due to distance and forms of communication, such news was frequently delayed by days and weeks. The officers arrived at the front foot of St. Charles and then ended up going to the entry on Audubon place. She was summoned to the door by Lionel, the instant she saw those men standing on the doorstep in uniform, Rebecca knew what had happened. She was prepared by a premonitory dream in which Sam Jr. and his children were in the breakfast nook in the plantation.
Like so many things, it was for Rebecca to relay by long distance telephone, to the Caribbean. Sam was at the house of the orchids. In the office and seeing some plantation and lieutenant from the local army. The local forces were exempt from the dangers of the great war, but soaked up the fervor that came their way due to the prevailing veneration for the military in this battle which pitted the sons of light against the sons of darkness.
And one of the sons had fallen from the sky. Sam received the news and he delayed passing it on; it was Rebecca he thought of first.
Then he thought of the grandchildren, “I wonder how they’ll be…”
“But they aren’t children anymore, are they,” Sam heard Rebecca say.
For a good while, Sam held out the hope that Sam Jr. had escaped the airplane before it wrecked and was still alive and wandering in the Tunisian desert. The funeral—held without a body—ended such comforting illusions…The country, er, the company would survive but it would not be the same.
The dream of Sam Jr. taking over the help of Allied died then. He was going to come home a hero on top of a Harvard Business grad, and they would embark on all these new adventures—these new adventures were stillborn in that moment. Though, clandestinely Sam would continue to converse with Sam Jr. and sometimes listen for advice when gazing at the black and white studio portrait of him in the study. Rabbi Benjamin Frankel chanted Kaddish for the vibrant young serviceman. The rhythms of the prayer for the dead immersed those present, fell in their ears:
Yehe shelama rabba min shemayya יְהֵא שְׁלָמָה רַבָּא מִן שְׁמַיָּא,
[And] [good] life [Ve]hayyim [tovim] [וְ]חַיִּים [טוֹבִים]
Satisfaction, help, comfort, refuge, Vesava vishuʻa veneḥama veshezava וְשָֹבָע וִישׁוּעָה וְנֶחָמָה וְשֵׁיזָבָה
Healing, redemption, forgiveness, atonement, Urfuʼa ugʼulla usliha v’khappara. It was very like the Bhagavad Gita, but the Bhagavad was much more upbeat, thought Sam.
The rabbi remembered arriving, “I was told he had gone for a walk Rabbi; I never believed my son was dead. I toyed with the idea that he was still alive in spite of contrary reports. But when I listened to you recite the Kaddish…then I knew he was dead.” Delaney paused and wiped away his tears. “Well, you’ve opened up the hurt all over again. So now it can heal.”
In the beginning as in the end, Sam was an optimist. There is much to be said for silence, somber golden silence. He was promoted to major, posthumously. He never got to see the son that was born when he was gone to the war.
At Temple Sinai on St. Charles Avenue there was a memorial for Sam Jr., now Sam II after the birth of Sam III.
Afterward, friends and family gathered at 2 Audubon Place. It was the shiva, the start of the seven-day mourning after death. This was largely brought to him by the Rabbi; so foreign were these practices to Sam, and the source of no little antagonism. It was hard for Sam not to go to work. It was torture.
To be continued…
Graydon is the Wizard of Fiction.