Losing Mrs. Jefferson
Would he always remember the last time he had kissed Martha’s sweating forehead? Would he always recall with stunning clarity the last time he put his ink-stained fingers in her auburn hair, then tried to rub the small stain of ink out of it? What an image, him waiting for her to call him, him pulling his gangling frame out of the chair and setting the pen inside the inkwell, coming to her side. Once, he brought her an offering, not from his own hand, but from that of another, painstakingly painted onto another paper for her to see, because she had written something there first, and he had only finished it.
Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity
Life follows my pen. The days and hours Of it are flying over our heads like
Clouds of windy day never to return-More every thing presses on.
The man who had crafted the American Declaration of Independence with slight modification by other Continental delegates six years earlier had completed his transcription of the poem, rousing his wife from her restless, pained existence. She had turned, opened her eyes, and caught his gentle gaze, their fingers softly touching as he surrendered the paper to her slender hand, and watched her eyes find the lines.
“Here,” he pointed with a finger, saying no more, not trusting himself to speak, “here.”
And every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu,
Every absence which follows it, Are preludes to that eternal separation
which we are shortly to make.
How many hours had passed in silence with loosely entwined hands and gazes intimately connected in a physical passion that was no longer possible but spent
itself in their faces. Death lingered in the hall, perhaps respecting their last moments, and perhaps not, characteristically at it’s cruelest, waiting
till her strength was faltering and his heart was at it’s most vulnerable. Days had passed, restless nights, and now he knelt beside her with his head
on the pillow, perhaps feeling her strength slowly ebbing, quietly leaving her. She no longer saw him, even if her gaze sought his, perhaps it was his
imagination that told him she squeezed his fingers, and perhaps it was a later memory, perhaps returning when his youngest child had died in childbirth 22 years later. But now in September of 1782 in this moment he was as helpless as she was to resist his black anguish.
Life had not been easy. Still immersed in his heartsickness, even two months after her death, he sat against a tree overcome with weeping. How could a heart
so desolate ever recover? He felt sick and weary and lonely, as if something had been ripped violently out of him, the pain reaching into the depths of
his soul forcing out sounds and tears he had never even known existed. He had walked along the comforting grassy meadows, through the winding hills, sobbing.
Here, on the land that nourished him, he could give vent to his rising desperate pain, his heart crushed seemingly beyond repair. He leaned an aching weary head against
the trunk of the tree, stretching himself onto it, reaching out and holding to it for physical support to sustain the great shuddering gasps that came from him. He slowly sobbed out his anguish; his crying slowly easing into intermittent spasms, his tears flooding his already aching eyes. He called his wife’s name in desperation, drawing out the syllables, letting them fly to the wind. The cool breeze gently curled about him. He slid down the trunk of the tree till his head lay pressed into the grassy sod, his tears slowly, silently wetting it. He felt small hands touch him, gentle fingers caressed his
tear-stained face, kissed him. His face was drawn into warm hands, his head laid on the soft breast of an angel. The muffled sobbing somehow
eased, the tears slowly flowed more easily. The arms seemed to tighten about him, the wind caressed his face, cooled his burning eyes. He felt something
warm on his cheek, perhaps the breath of God. He lay on the grass, the night closing in around him. Someone would be calling him.
“Mr. Jefferson! Mr. Jefferson?”
Silence. His face drenched in grief, his name called again. He barely heard it. He breathed in, suddenly felt calm, gentle fingers caressing his face.
“You have much to do,” the messenger said, “much to do.”
“I’ll have none of it,” something from inside him said. “I want nothing. I only want peace.”
“You will have it.”
He wanted to get to his feet but the soft breast and the comforting arms called him.
“Lie here Mr. Jefferson,” said the cool, calm wind, “lie here and rest. You are weary. Your heart is broken. Easy, just lie here for a while and draw strength from my hands. You need my strength. You need me though you hardly know it. There, now. Easy.”
A gentle breeze caressed his face, his breathing quieted, his sick sobbing slowly eased. He coughed and retched and let the cool, calm wind ease him.
“Yes, you are weary,” it repeated, “very weary.”
“I want to die, too,” he sobbed into the breast in fresh agony. Wings caressed him.
“No,” came the cool response. “No.”
“I am sick and weary. How can I go on passed the night? I miss her so much. She was my mainstay. My darling.”
“I know,” the messenger said, caressing the head, holding him tightly, breathing strength into him.
“Easy Mr. Jefferson. Just lie here all night. I am here holding you. God is holding you. A perfect and reliable God even if you don’t fully understand Him. Just keep your head on my breast. There. That’s right. Rest now.”
Palpable sadness surrounded him. He snuffled and choked on his own tears, unable to weep anymore. He lay breathing quietly on the angel’s breast, utterly
spent, soft wings caressing his face, rubbing his back, easing him of his unbearable pain. The injured heart rested, the sad eyes closed for a while. Shudders,
less intense now, escaped him, the tears once again welling, in need of release. His eyes burned and ached, his head filled once again with a softer agony, the hand of the angel comforted him on her breast, pushed the hair softly back from his forehead, watched his face crinkle like a child’s about to cry. The arms hugged him tighter for the last expression of his grief, if easier, no less intense. Strengthened, the tears released and instead of ripping and shredding his already lacerated heart, the new strength buoyed him, comforted him. The hot, flowing tears began to bind up the fearful wounds of his loss and finally, sobbing quietly on the messenger’s breast, he slept in the arms of God, even if he failed to understand or know it.
Jefferson’s little daughter spotted his steed grazing under a tree and broke away from the cloistering hands of her maid.
“Come back here. You should not see him,” said the maid weakly trying to reassert her own authority. The girl turned slightly, cast a glance over her shoulder,
and perhaps in a rare display of independence, slowly walked away from her. Her soft footsteps made the horse shy, then calm as he recognized his
master’s daughter. Patsy went through another stand of trees, her dress tearing on the protruding branches. Her father lay listless in the grass. She swept the skirts of her dress into her hands and approached with a trembling heart, inexorablly drawn to him. The girl glanced down, saw his face tear-streaked and forlorn in the cool misty morning. She knelt down beside him.
“You are awake.”
The light, swolen eyes, their lashes matted from so many tears, opened and slowly he comprehended the face of his daughter.
“Why are you here?” he asked more out of surprise than disapproval, though perhaps she caught the slight tinge of reproof in his quiet voice. She should
not be here. She should be in the care of her maid.
“I ran a way,” she said, suddenly bold, suddenly, deeply, for a child of ten, asserting some sort of independence. The stricken man was taken slightly aback,
partially disapproving her presence, and partially glad for it. What kind of disorder could this lead to, a child disobeying her instructions? But then what kind of Creator
who endowed men with unalienable rights took away his hope and perhaps a symbol of his social standing and security? No, that wasn't a question for today,
if at all, he thought, now clear-headed, his eyes still marred by weeping. He sat up, looked at his daughter, then looked away. He saw in her face that of her mother and winced, suddenly venting a hot stab of anger by wondering if the Creator would take his child, too, just as he had taken his one son and one daughter? Would he take his oldest daughter away from him? His eyes fell across her face, rested on her young, fare skin, his ordered world suddenly rent, and then just as suddenly reassembled, only this time with a hint of intense affection, not to be stamped out, not this time. He reached out his hands, drew his daughter onto his lap.
“You ran away from the maid?” he wanted to know, just to assure himself he had not missed something.
“Yes, I did. She was decidedly cross. I wanted to see you and she refused. I wanted to be with you like all the other times.”
The past two months had been hard on both of them, he escaping to the woods and into the meadows to engage his mind or lose it,and she to folow him.
“It was necessary to find you andI knew where you might be,” she explained, almost in the same manner in which Martha would have communicated some important news. “It seems you have a letter and we couldn’t find you. I told Aunt Carr I would come and bring it.”
She pulled the letter from her pocket, he took it, the rough parchment paper comforting, somehow. She watched him open it, read it, and blink. He put his hands across his eyes and wiped away the smudges, only succeeding in worsening them. He read the letter again, shook his head solemnly as if making some
The girl reached up and caressed his face suddenly and without pretense, tracing gentle lines through the grass and tear stains, still a child, still able
to show some hint of affection.
“Would you like to go to school in France?” he asked, suddenly, causing her to cease her movements and fasten her gaze on him in surprise.
“the letter,” he explained, “is a summons to serve this country in France.”
“So far away,” mused the little girl stil sitting on his knees, looking into his eyes, perhaps trying to read them, perhaps lost in them. She shook her head.
“If this is what you wish, then I will do it. I will miss our cousins.”
“Yes, I know. But perhaps there is no choice for either of us. I shall have to go to France or I will die here.”
Die here? Perhaps he felt at that moment under that tree, on the land he loved, on the mountain that was a refuge, as if indeed he would die here.
She nodded again, compliant to his wishes.
“Good. We shall make arrangements then. Come. I suppose we should get back to the house.”
Through the stand of trees they could hear the gurgling of a small brook. Jefferson got to his feet and his daughter, suddenly no longer ten, but with the competent hands of the woman who would effectively serve as hostess in the White House, slipped her fingers into his and drew him toward the brook. She
produced a laced handkerchief and stepping to the edge of the brook, wetted it in the cool refreshing water which babbled merrily in the early morning.
Bearheaded, her hair back, she seemed the very essence of self control, perhaps as her mother would have wanted it, her hands smoothly transferring the
wet cloth to her father. She repeated this several times til his face and eyes were sufficiently repaired.
“The servants mustn’t see you like this,” she calmly announced, “we’ll do our best.”
They both turned back toward the horse as the sun peeked through the leafy stand. They emerged to find the horse contentedly waiting. Patsy had no horse. She had abandoned it with the maid who now waited shamefaced somewhere. Jefferson surveyed the land, seeing no one in sight. He caressed the horse, talked to it. He got up on its back, sitting very tall and erect. He looked down at his daughter, whose hair curled at her ears. She was a beautiful child.
“Where is your bonnet?”
“I did not bring it,” she said firmly, not with defiance, only with a hint that it had been her choice to leave it.
He nodded, not quite disapproving her choice, but concerned nonetheless. “Don’t forget to wear it. The sun will burn your skin.”
She nodded and smiled a little. He was returning to the father she knew who could dispense the most unsolicited advice at strange times. “I won’t forget to wear it.” She turned to go back to the house, looking over her shoulder in time to catch his sad gaze as it drifted across the expansive land and edged toward the mountains on the horizon. He looked striking at that moment on horseback, his face turned wistfully toward the view, the effect intensified by his exhausted and overwhelming loss. Standing and watching him, gently caressed by the cool, morning mist, her mind turned to the situation about to encompass them, he to his work, and she to school in France. Yes, she would miss the cousins, but perhaps her younger sister would miss them more keenly. She walked slowly away from her father, directing her course back to the house, and he followed her.
Copyright © 2003 Shelley J Alongi