Death mocked me.
Daniel’s booming voice was forever still. Never again would I hear his explosive laughter, or his whispered, “I love you, Martha.”
I walked away from the grave of my husband. Seven short years was not enough. Yet it was not just his death that scorned me. . . .
I was sick to death of death.
I held little Patsy, but a toddling fourteen months, in my arms. “No, dear one. Let Mamma hold you.”
Let Mamma never let you go.
I looked about the Queens Creek cemetery, at all who had come to offer their condolences. Their eyes revealed their compassion, their wish to help. But how could anyone help?
My mother approached, wearing the black of mourning that had become far too familiar within the Dandridge and Custis families. Patsy extended her arms to her grandmother. I relinquished her.
“Come, little one,” Mother said. Her eyes included me. “Let us go back to the house. It is time for a nap.”
A nap would be of great relief—though unattainable. For whenever I attempted sleep I was greeted with the sight of my husband’s eyes as he suffered. Although I had prayed for the best, he had expected the worst.
His throat thick with a virulent infection, he had struggled to speak. “I am so sorry, Martha. So sorry to leave you.”
I was sorry too.
There would be no nap for a second reason: my son was still ill. Three-year-old Jacky lay abed, still holding on to a fever and the same swollen throat. For a month we had tried to make Jacky better, e’en bringing Dr. Carter the twenty-five miles from Williamsburg when my own medical abilities proved unworthy. Having just suffered the death of my second-born, Frances, two months previous, I would take no chance.
N’ar a week ago Daniel had succumbed to the sickness. No treatment helped. And he died.
My Daniel died.
The doctor said his heart was weak and further weakened by the fever.
It mattered not what took him, only that he was gone.
And I was left behind.
We reached the family home we used when in Williamsburg and I put Patsy to bed and checked upon Jacky, who was better of body, though not of spirit. Then I took solace in the study, needing silence and solitude above social commiseration. It was startling to realize being alone was a permanent state.
Perhaps I should have sought the company of others. . . .
Perhaps I should have.
But I could not do it.
There was a soft knock on the door.
Before I could utter a response—tell the intruder to please leave me alone—the door opened. It was Mother.
She entered the room, closed the door of the study with a subtle click, then took a seat beside me on the settee, her black skirts touching mine. “What can I do to help you, daughter?”
Such a simple question, but one I could only answer in a most ungenerous manner. I sprang to my feet and faced her as though she were the enemy. “You can help me by explaining why our family is made to suffer so cruelly. Eighteen years of my life were passed with nary a sorrow, but in the past eight . . . First, my brother drowns in the river, then my father-in-law—after finally consenting to our marriage—dies before the ceremony. Daniel and I are blessed with his namesake—who dies at age three. And six months later my own father, your husband, dies from the heat at a racetrack and—”
“It is not wise to dwell—”
“I do not dwell! I speak facts. After Father died, three more children blessed us. Then death found us again—twofold in one year! My dearest baby Frances—but four years old—is ripped away from me, and now, but three months later, my husband?” My final words came amid sobs. “I am only twenty-six! How can I be asked to bear such grief?”
“You are not asked.”
Her words, so plainly said, stunned me to silence. No indeed, death had not asked my permission to inflict its wounds. For if it had solicited my opinion, I would have barred it at the door, saying, “Halt! You will not enter here!”
My vehemence fueled a new thought, more than a mere thought, a new resolve. I faced Mother and raised my chin with the tenacity that had become a necessary part of survival in these Colonies. “I will not allow death to hurt me again! I will not!”
Mother opened her mouth to speak, thought better of it, then opened it again. “Then you best not love again.”
I ignored the truth in her words. To love was to risk pain.
Then perhaps I would not love anew.
I continued my vow. “As God is my witness, I will protect what I do love. I will enshroud my two surviving children with constant attention, devotion, and protection. Death will not dare approach us, nor make any attempts to breech my fortification.”
I swiped away my tears. “I am done with death! And I swear, it is now done with me.”
I strode from the room and hurried upstairs, pausing at the door that led to poor Jacky. I steadied my breathing as well as my hand upon the knob.
I entered the dim room, the draperies closed against the afternoon sun that scorned us with its brightness. I let my eyes adjust to the light and was about to seek the children's nanny—whom I had instructed to watch upon my son whilst I was gone. How dare she leave him alone.
And yet . . . Jacky was not alone. For as I edged closer I saw that my dearest Patsy had left her room and had climbed beside her big brother. My two darlings lay snuggled in each other’s arms, Patsy’s head upon Jacky’s shoulder.
I reached to lift her from his sickbed, then thought better of it. Jacky’s breathing seemed easier. Perhaps the comfort of his little sister was a balm beyond the meager medicines Dr. Carter had offered. Brother and sister, bonded by their need as well as their love.
Gazing upon them, I put a hand to my lips, stifling a sob. For beyond my loss of a husband, my children had lost a father. There would be no more games of ride-the-pony or sitting in their father’s lap by the fire as he told stories.
“ ‘London bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down . . .’ ” The familiar song came to my lips unbidden.
I forced it to silence.
There would be too much silence in this house now.
The sobs threatened once again. Would they ever leave me alone?
I nodded once. They must leave me. I could not let them wield their power, for once unleashed, the sobs would lead to despair, which would lead to surrender and—
Death would claim further victory, not against the dead, but against those it left behind.
I moved a chair beside the bed, hoping the soft rustle of my skirts would not awaken my darlings.
This is where I belonged. This is where I vowed to remain, standing guard against all that dared come against my children.
So help me God.