Read an excerpt from Chris Bohjalian’s book “Secrets of Eden.”
Part I: Stephen Drew
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 soon 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 wecan die and the catastrophes that can assail us. Who knew thattheworst 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 wouldgive our little village its grisly notoriety was still almost a dozen hoursaway and wouldn’t begin to unfold until the warm front had arrived inthe late afternoon and early evening and we had all begun to swelterover our dinners. There was so much still in between: the potluck, thebaptism, the word. Not the word, though I do see it as both the beginning and the end: In the beginning was the Word.... There. That was the word in this case. There. “There,” Alice Hayward said to me after I had baptized her in the pond that Sunday, a smile on her face that I can only call grim. There.
The baptism immediately followed the Sunday service, a good old-fashioned, once-a-year Baptist dunking in the Brookners’ pond. Behind me I heard the congregation clapping for Alice, including the members of the Women’s Circle, at least one of whom, like me, was aware of what sometimes went on in the house the Haywards had built together on the ridge.
None of them, I know now, had heard what she’d said. But even if they had, I doubt they would have heard in that one word exactly what I did, because that single syllable hadn’t been meant for them. It had been meant only for me. “There,” I said to Alice in response. Nodding. Agreeing. Afﬁrming her faith. A single syllable uttered from my own lips. It was the word that gave Alice Hayward all the reassurance she needed to go forward into the death that her husband may have been envisioning for her—perhaps even for the two of them—for years.
Excerpted from “Secrets of Eden” by Chris Bohjalian. Copyright © 2010 by Chris Bohjalian. Reprinted with permission from Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.