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Chris Bohjalian

Secrets of Eden

Copyright © 2010 by Chris Bohjalian

For David Reed Wood

and, once more ,

for Victoria

But for sorrow there is no remedy provided by nature; it is often occasioned by accidents irreparable, and dwells upon objects that have lost or changed their existence; it requires what it cannot hope, that the laws of the universe should be repealed; that the dead should return, or the past should be recalled.

– SAMUEL JOHNSON

Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.

– GENESIS 2:24-25

Part I. Stephen Drew

***

CHAPTER ONE

As a minister I rarely found the entirety of a Sunday service depressing. But some mornings disease and despair seemed to permeate the congregation like floodwaters in sandbags, and the only people who stood during the moment when we shared our joys and concerns were those souls who were intimately acquainted with nursing homes, ICUs, and the nearby hospice. Concerns invariably outnumbered joys, but there were some Sundays that were absolute routs, and it would seem that the only people rising up in their pews to speak needed Prozac considerably more than they needed prayer. Or yes, than they needed me.

On those sorts of Sundays, whenever someone would stand and ask for prayers for something relatively minor-a promotion, traveling mercies, a broken leg that surely would mend-I would find myself thinking as I stood in the pulpit, Get a spine, you bloody ingrate! Buck up! That lady behind you is about to lose her husband to pancreatic cancer, and you’re whining about your difficult boss? Oh, please! I never said that sort of thing aloud, but I think that’s only because I’m from a particularly mannered suburb of New York City, and so my family has to be drunk to be cutting. I did love my congregation, but I also knew that I had an inordinate number of whiners.

The Sunday service that preceded Alice Hayward’s baptism and death was especially rich in genuine human tragedy, it was just jam-packed with the real McCoy-one long ballad of ceaseless lamentation and pain. Moreover, as a result of that morning’s children’s message and a choir member’s solo, it was also unusually moving. The whiners knew that they couldn’t compete with the legitimate, no-holds-barred sort of torment that was besieging much of the congregation, and so they kept their fannies in their seats and their prayer requests to themselves.

That day we heard from a thirty-four-year-old lawyer who had already endured twelve weeks of radiation for a brain tumor and was now in his second week of chemotherapy. He was on steroids, and so on top of everything else he had to endure the indignity of a sudden physical resemblance to a human blowfish. He gave the children’s message that Sunday, and he told the children-toddlers and girls and boys as old as ten and eleven-who surrounded him at the front of the church how he’d learned in the last three months that while some angels might really have halos and wings, he’d met a great many more who looked an awful lot like regular people. When he started to describe the angels he’d seen-describing, in essence, the members of the church Women’s Circle who drove him back and forth to the hospital, or the folks who filled his family’s refrigerator with fresh vegetables and homemade carrot juice, or the people who barely knew him yet sent cards and letters-I saw eyes in the congregation grow dewy. And, of course, I knew how badly some of those half-blind old ladies in the Women’s Circle drove, which seemed to me a further indication that there may indeed be angels among us.

Then, after the older children had returned to the pews where their parents were sitting while the younger ones had been escorted to the playroom in the church’s addition so they would be spared the second half of the service (including my sermon), a fellow in the choir with a lush, robust tenor sang “It is well with my soul,” and he sang it without the accompaniment of our organist. Spafford wrote that hymn after his four daughters had drowned when their ship, the Ville de Havre, collided with another vessel and sank. When the tenor’s voice rose for the refrain for the last time, his hands before him and his long fingers steepling together before his chest, the congregation spontaneously joined him. There was a pause when they finished, followed by a great forward whoosh from the pews as the members of the church as one exhaled in wonder, “Amen… ”

And so when it came time for our moment together of caring and sharing (an expression I use without irony, though I admit it sounds vaguely like doggerel and more than a little New Age), the people were primed to pour out their hearts. And they did. I’ve looked back at the notes I scribbled from the pulpit that morning-the names of the people for whom we were supposed to pray and exactly what ailed them-and by any objective measure there really was a lot of horror that day. Cancer and cystic fibrosis and a disease that would cost a newborn her right eye. A car accident. A house fire. A truck bomb in a land far away. We prayed for people dying at home, in area hospitals, at the hospice in the next town. We prayed for healing, we prayed for death (though we used that great euphemism relief), we prayed for peace. We prayed for peace in souls that were turbulent and for peace in a corner of the world that was in the midst of a civil war.

By the time I began my sermon, I could have been as inspiring as a tax attorney and people would neither have noticed nor cared. I could have been awful-though the truth is, I wasn’t; my words at the very least transcended hollow that morning-and still they would have been moved. They were craving inspiration the way I crave sunlight in January.

Nevertheless, that Sunday service offered a litany of the ways we can die and the catastrophes that can assail us. Who knew that the worst was yet to come? (In theory, I know the answer to that, but we won’t go there. At least not yet.) The particular tragedy that would give our little village its grisly notoriety was still almost a dozen hours away and wouldn’t begin to unfold until the warm front had arrived in the late afternoon and early evening

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