“Influenza,” the doctor said as he snapped his satchel shut. “Has she been caring for someone who was sick?” he asked Sarah.
“Has anyone else gotten sick in this house?”
“Good. You need to keep the little ones out of the bedroom. This flu is the one that came back with the soldiers from the war. It is very contagious. Can you have someone come help you with the care of your mother?”
Sarah nodded, the lump in her throat making it too hard to talk. Half aware of the instructions the doctor gave Emma, Sarah worked without stopping, feeling nothing. She gave instructions to the younger ones to clean out their lunch boxes and change their clothes. She cooked supper, did the dishes, and swept the floor.
Sarah had trouble sleeping that night. She remembered how yesterday she had wished her father was dead and upset her mother. Is this my punishment? Sarah wondered. The preachers say God punishes people for their bad thoughts. The guilt lay heavy as the blankets on top of her, in the darkness of her room.
When Sarah’s mother showed no signs of recovery two days later, Sarah wrote a quick note to Jacob, letting him know she wouldn’t be able to see him that weekend. She worked nonstop and slept little.
The women from the church took turns caring for her mother. Other people brought food and said a few quiet words before they left.
Sarah heard the horrible dry cough and wished her mother would get better. Then the cough subsided as her mother began sleeping day and night.
The doctor brought new doctors from Pittsburgh. None of them could explain why she slept constantly. Sarah heard one of them use the word “coma.” She didn’t know what it meant.
Sarah’s mother slept for two weeks. She lay silent and still as Sarah stood by her bed one day and called her mother over and over. “Please, Mem, I need you. I don’t know what I’ll do if you don’t get well. There are the little ones. I’m so sorry for what I said that day, Mem, I’ll never say it again, but please get well. Please?” Silence was her answer. Emma came into the bedroom. Sarah went upstairs and lay on her bed and cried so hard it felt like her insides would come apart.
A loud commotion made her run downstairs to her mother’s room. Her mother thrashed about in the bed, while Emma tried holding her. Then the bed broke down and her mother became still. The silence that followed was louder than the crash.
When the doctor came, he said her mother had had convulsions. Sarah wondered what convulsions were when the doctor stood there all in black, telling her what she already knew, but didn’t want to hear, “Your mother is dead.”
“No!” Sarah swallowed the word with her sob. She ran to her room and lay on her bed. She stared at the ceiling without moving for a long time. She knew the neighbors had come and were taking care of everything. Exhaustion took over and she fell asleep.
Sarah awoke in the dark. The memory that her mother was dead hit her like a blow in the face. She knew her mother’s body lay under a sheet downstairs and people from the community would sit with her, quietly through the night.
Sarah’s pins from her dress were sticking in her side, but she didn’t bother taking it off and putting on her nightgown. The numbness of the shock was wearing off, and Sarah heard her mother’s words again, “I don’t know what will become of us.” Slowly the first tears came, making silent trails down past her ears and onto her pillow. She cried silently so she wouldn’t wake up Susie, who shared her bed.
I have to take care of this family or it will fall apart, Sarah thought. But what about me? Will Dad keep drinking? The preachers say God doesn’t give us more than we can bear, but this time He has made a mistake.
On the day of the funeral, Sarah sat with her family in their living room. The neighbors had moved the furniture from the room. Her mother’s coffin rested on four kitchen chairs, next to the family, gathered there. The preachers spoke about dying and how we never know when it’s our time. Then people filed past the coffin and cried softly. Sarah’s heart stopped for a second when she saw Jacob with the young men going by. He was so close she could have reached out and touched him. When he looked at her, she saw sympathy in his eyes. She looked at her lap and blinked hard. Jacob filed out with the other men.
Sarah held Mary and stood next to her mother’s coffin with her sisters and brothers for the last time. Their broken hearts cried out together with their aunts in a circle around the coffin. The undertaker came forward to close the coffin. Sarah and her sisters and brothers held onto the sides and cried harder. The aunts gently guided them back to their seats. The pallbearers carried Sarah’s mother in her coffin, out into the gray April day.
Sarah watched the soft spring rain fall on the black circle of people in the graveyard around the coffin next to her mother’s open grave. The men’s voices sang a slow, sad chant for funerals in German, something about meeting in another land someday. Sarah cried out loud and was joined by other women, as the men lowered the coffin into the ground. The pallbearers threw the first shovelfuls of earth into the grave. The men’s singing and the women’s keening sounded the same, rising into the gray clouds.
To be continued…