By Fran Dorf
The following is the Prologue for Saving Elijah, Fran Dorf’s novel about child-loss.
When the woman phoned, I couldn’t place her name until she said she was Maggie’s mother. Then I knew.
They’d made quite a pair at the hospital, my son and her daughter. Eight-year-old Maggie was stricken and hairless and exhausted, her ashen face steroid-bloated beyond all reason. Five-year-old Elijah, with his thick glasses and crossed eyes, looked like a weird little Martian, his red-blond curls pasted to his skull with goop, an electrode and wire bonnet attaching him to a rolling EEG machine. He giggled when he saw himself in the mirror.
“Yes, I remember now.”
I stood in my darkened bedroom, the phone hot against my ear. I could hear my children’s laughter like the pealing of chimes through the house. Kate, fifteen, and Alex, fourteen, were amusing Elijah with a game of tag.
“Maggie’s well again,” the woman whispered.
Why was she calling me? She wasn’t my friend; I’d only met her that once.
“Did you hear me, Mrs. Galligan?” she said. “Maggie’s leukemia has gone into remission. The doctors said she only had a few months to live, and now her white count is normal.”
“Miraculously,” Maggie’s mother told me. And then, softly: “Elijah has the gift.”
Faint as a cat’s whisker grazing my cheek, I could sense the corrupt metallic odor that was already beginning to infiltrate everything. I had visions of long, desperate queues on the street in front of our house, of frantic faces at our door, a procession of the hopeless and the crippled and the diseased. Night and day, hobbling, limping, dragging, wheeling up my lawn, sunlight and moonlight glinting off the bright metal surfaces of their wheelchairs and gurneys and battery packs. They would come to this house seeking miracles of their own. Save me, God.
What happened between the two children had certainly been extraordinary, no question about that. Miraculous, even, although I interpreted that particular event of that momentous time in my life quite differently than she had. I told her how glad I was that Maggie was well again. If she believed Elijah had somehow healed her daughter, who was I to dissuade her of the notion?
What I did not say is this: While God’s purpose is ultimately mysterious, God’s gifts come in an infinite variety of packages. Sometimes God bestows gifts in glossy silver paper wrapped up with iridescent bows. A crazed gunman comes into McDonald’s and riddles the place with bullets, but you hide under a table and are somehow spared. A shiny, easy miracle, no? Well. Certainly not for those who did not hide under the table, and those whose cancer hasn’t gone into remission. If their loved ones are looking for miracles, they will have to struggle and grieve and search. The miracles they find then will be of the deepest, truest kind, because those miracles have to do with the giving and the cherishing of our blessings rather than the getting of them, or the asking for them. Miracles of friendship and forgiveness, hope and peace and faith, can always be found by those who are willing to search, even in the darkest of packages.
My name is Dinah Rosenberg Galligan. I’m an ordinary woman, in my mid-forties as I tell this. I have auburn hair and freckles across my nose. I was a chubby kid who became a slender woman – bony, even. Some have called my face pretty; I’ve always thought my neck too long. “I love your neck, Dinah,” Sam said, all those years ago. “It’s beautiful. Like a swan’s.” Personally, I think ostrich is more like it. But I was stirred by his love talk. It was part of the reason I married him.
I am perhaps more educated than most, but I would still call myself ordinary. I am Jewish, my husband Catholic. I realize now that when I was in the thick of all this I was mired in self-loathing and blame. Was I too vain, full of hubris, lacking somehow? Perhaps I had been trying to be superwoman, what with the children, the husband, the house in Westport, the psychology practice, the twice-monthly column in the Connecticut Star, and the volunteer writing class for the elderly every Thursday afternoon. I cannot change the past, nor would I want to, certainly not by unlearning life. I was, I suppose, where I needed to be then. The future is another matter.
Once upon a time, I didn’t believe we could ever know the future, let alone change it. I didn’t believe in demons, or ghosts, or prophecy, or miracles, or anything of the sort. Psychologists as a general rule don’t believe in free-floating evil. The only demons exist within, and only in the metaphorical sense, though we admit evil can be caused by circumstances without. You can’t sit all day and listen to other people’s stories and not admit that. But psychologists believe in ids, psychoses, obsessions. Human beings are damaged, traumatized, deviant, or lacking in impulse control: Their fathers abused them, their mothers neglected them, their egos are fragile, they were poor and deprived. Not to mention they have too many Y’s in their X’s and Y’s, too little serotonin in their synapses, and dopamine out the wazoo. If they hear voices and see visions or demons or ghosts, they have a chemical malfunction of the brain that must be treated and cured.
I no longer believe rational answers explain everything, partly because of what I’ve seen and felt and know, and partly because if there are no demons, there are no angels. Yet an angel lives in my house. At least one. His name is Elijah. Our stories make us who we are. Most of us believe we must hold them inside if they are very painful and raw, because no one will want to listen. Here is where psychology and theology surely agree: Suffering buried inside is a bitter poison indeed. And chief among God’s miracles is human compassion, which is often thought of as mere altruism, but which actually offers very sweet fruit in return. Every new day is a miracle, is it not?
I did not tell this story to Maggie’s mother, but I want to tell you.
Fran Dorf’s acclaimed, internationally published novels include A Reasonable Madness (1990/91), Flight (1992/93), and Saving Elijah (2000), which was inspired by the tragic death of Fran’s son, Michael, in 1994. A starred Publisher’s Weekly review called Saving Elijah “a stunning novel that crackles with suspense, dark humor and provocative questions, and meditates with honesty and insight on the nature of parental love and responsibility.” Reach Fran at www.frandorf.com.Tags: grief, hope, signs and connections