August 11, 1789
Wolf Hills, Virginia
My eyes widened as I beheld the burnt body in the pine coffin before me. The news of his death yesterday afternoon remained fresh in my mind. Up until this moment, I had not allowed myself to believe he truly was gone. I kept thinking that I would see him the next day, that it was all a horrible nightmare from which I would wake any minute. However, one of the worst things I could ever imagine had truly come into reality. Before me were his remains, laying in the pine coffin at the front of our little Presbyterian church. My stomach flopped over as it threatened to make me ill in front of all these people. In front of his family. His poor handsome face, marred with ugly burns, lay still as I stopped and looked, unable to tear my eyes away. What was once a handsome, strong Roman nose under large blue eyes now looked as though some creature from straight from the depths of hell had crawled up into our world and made residence where his face once dwelled. Half the skin on the right side of his face was burned away, revealing all the bones, sinews, and whatever else lay underneath the skin of a person. The left side sported angry, red splotches over the pale, sickly grey of his dead features.
I found myself reaching out to squeeze his lifeless hand, cold and limp in my own, despite feeling as though I might vomit all over his remains. “I loved you, Sedgwick,” I whispered as Mother nudged me and I pulled my hand away. She pushed me to the end of the coffin to give my condolences to his family. I tried to speak, but my mouth refused to move. His mother gave me one look, tears pooled in her eyes, and pulled me into a hug. The small, rounded brass blanket pin which held her black damask shortgown closed poked me, but I did not care. I held on for all I was worth, my own tears squeezing out of my eyes. I cannot say how long we stood there until our respective families pulled us apart so everyone else could share their condolences.
As though walking in a thick fog, I stumbled to the waiting wagon. Father gave me a sad smile as he helped me into the front bench. Mother sat there, waiting, and Father climbed up beside us. With one hand he held the reins as he clucked to the horses, the other arm he put around my shoulders and pulled me close to his side. I wrapped my arms around him and sobbed against his side while he simply held me. Mother placed a comforting hand on my knee as we made our way silently back home.
Sedgwick had been practically perfect. Father agreed to let him court me when he was eighteen and doing well in his blacksmithing apprenticeship. I was fifteen at the time. I could hardly believe someone so kind and handsome would want to pay me suit. Often he would bring me a bouquet of flowers he picked from our fields or a hair ribbon he picked up the last time he visited Mr. Deadrick’s mercantile down in Jonesborough. I think he actually loved me. I had one wonderful year of this special treatment. From the time I was a young child, I always wondered what it would be like to have a loving relationship as I have observed in my parents. But now that Sedgwick lay there, dead, I knew I would not have that chance again.
Dreadful thoughts ran through my mind as Father held me. Maybe I would be a spinster the rest of my life. Not that I minded the work, but women are always frowned upon when they remain unwed, even though it likely is not their fault at all. At least I had three older brothers who loved me dearly. I knew should the need arise, I would have a home with one of them, as is customary. Thankfully I had no need to worry about having to take a job as a woman of ill-repute. My family belonged to the Sinking Springs Presbyterian Church and none of them would ever allow me to even think of becoming a whore like that.
Had I missed my only chance at love? There were so few men in the area of whom Father approved. If they had a good reputation, they were too poor for him to even consider. And many of the ones with a bit of wealth had little substance to their personages. I knew Father would not consider a widower unless he found him a most suitable match. It was not uncommon to hear of young women marrying older men because the first wife died in childbirth. Those marriages seem to work out fine, as in the case of John Sevier and Catherine (fondly called Bonnie Kate by those who know her), but I know Father was concerned about the mortality rate. The average lifespan of man is about 45 or so, women around 35. It is very hard to calculate the average age though. Many children die of various diseases before they turn five. Women die in childbirth, from illness afterwards, or by catching her skirts on fire. Men die of old age, disease, or tragedy like Sedgwick.
We arrived home as my thoughts swirled in a torrentuous hurricane and Father lifted me from the wagon and helped me into the house. Mother made me sit down and drink some chamomile tea. “Eliza, I know how much you cared about him. Your father and I are here whenever you need to talk.”
I gave her a small smile. “I know. Thank you, Mother. I am glad you came with me,” I sniffed into my handkerchief again.
“He was our neighbor and the son of our good friends. We could do no less. Jesus tells us to rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Today and the coming weeks are the weeping.”
“Eliza, that is what our faith is about. Helping others. Your Sedgwick was good at that. I admired how he always took time to smile at people, how kind and helpful he was when they walked into the shop, anxious to have their repairs done quickly.”
Not ready to talk about him yet, I gave her a small smile and nodded. His faith was one of the things I appreciated most. He always had something to thank God for, even on days where everything seemed to go wrong. He challenged me in my own faith. I enjoyed how he treated me as an equal, never acting as though I was stupid and could not possible understand the higher truths of the Bible, as far too many men tend to do.
Now God had seen fit to give me the biggest challenge of my life yet. I knew He was telling me I needed to focus on him more, romantic love less. I had to admit to myself for a while I had cared more about spending time with Sedgwick than I had the One who sent His Son to die to save my soul, who ransomed me from spiritual death and brought me to life. Often it has been hard for me to love Him as I should, since I can neither see nor hear Him. He has allowed me to feel His presence on the rare occasion, but so often He is intangible to me and I forget about Him. Perhaps this was His way of getting my attention and drawing me back to Himself.
The day seemed to drag on as though it were a ship’s anchor in soft sand, the vessel still being pushed by some strong winds. My thoughts kept taking me back to the church, to the still body lying in the coffin. Every time I tried to think about something else, the same image flashed before my mind. Even though my hands kept busy nitpicking and carding my wool, that task was something I had done so long I no longer had to think about it. My soul cried out to God silently as I sat there, staring at my task yet without truly seeing it. O Lord, Why? Why did you let this happen? You know how much Sedgwick loved you, how much he did for Your kingdom. How much he loved me, and I him…Why did You take him from me?
The burns on his visible skin magnified themselves and seemed to practically fly into my face. Did he suffer much, or was his death instantaneous? I realized they never did give me details on what exactly happened. Even though part of me longed to know, another part told me I did not need to know. Mother knew how squeamish I had always been around blood and other injuries. Had I not been so overcome with my grief over his death, I likely would have been more affected by the nasty burns. But now they came back to haunt me. Bile rose in my throat as I prayed and tried to make the picture go away. Blinking, I took a deep breath and furiously carded the wool, attempting to calm myself. I knew tonight would likely hold gruesome nightmares, keeping me up as my mind refused to let his mangled body go somewhere to the darkest portions I seldom let free. If only I didn’t have such an overactive imagination that enjoyed emphasizing the negative in both my waking and sleeping hours. Every time I spend a night tossing and turning, my thoughts refusing to take me to the world of dreams, I remind myself that God tells us in Romans 8:28 that everything works together for good when we are among those whom God has called. Perhaps the situation was too fresh for me to see the good yet.
I barely touched the meal Mother fixed and could not tell you what it even was. Our cat, a beautiful orange tabby christened Sunset, sat in my lap most of the time. He purred and kneaded my legs, sensing I needed his warm comfort. Sighing, Mother and my sister Fannie cleaned up the leftovers and washed the dishes while I sat, staring into space and stroking my cat. Then Father brought out our immense family Bible for our nightly reading. Father never skipped any portion of the Bible, nor did he fail to have our time of reading and discussion. Sometimes certain passages were embarrassing, but he gently reminded all five of us children as we grew up that God gave us His Word for a reason. Every single letter and punctuation matters. We cannot leave anything out or add anything to it. He gave the Bible to us, so it is our duty to read it. Every single part. Tonight’s passage was First Corinthians 7:1-16 ”Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. 2 Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. 3 Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband. 4 The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. 5 Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency. 6 But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment. 7 For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. 8 I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I. 9 But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn. 10 And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: 11 But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife. 12 But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. 13 And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. 15 But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace. 16 For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife?"
I paused when I heard father say “it is better to marry than to burn.” Given my situation, that verse could certainly take on many meanings. I knew from prior readings that this meant the desire for marriage and all that comes with it burn within and end up consuming a person until he falls into sin. Marriage certainly appeared the most logical and practical solution to that problem. I never told anyone that sometimes my longing for marriage became so intense I wondered how I could keep from compromising my purity. Thankfully God preserved me from being in any situation where that could have posed as a problem. Whenever Sedgwick came to pay me suit, we were never left alone. Often times my younger sister Fannie would be in the room with us, doing whatever work that needed to be done. But even that never stopped my thoughts from going in places it should not go.
Another meaning that verse could have is that it is better to get married than to let those desires lead us into sin and eternal damnation. Now, I have never believed a person can lose his salvation. However, when one lives in a lifestyle conducive to sin, I do think that perhaps that person never truly accepted Christ as Savior or believed on Him. The same thing applies to the desire for marriage: if we let that kind of desire consume us and lead us into sin, perhaps we do not realize the gravity of sin and maybe have never truly repented of our sins.
And yet another thought crossed my mind. Burning. That is what happened to Sedgwick. I knew he had never even thought something unsavory, but at the same time, that word made me think of him. I did hope to marry him one day but never had the chance. My heart ached with my lost chance and desire and I could not focus on my father’s voice.
I jumped when he directed his question at me. “Eliza, are there any thoughts you would like to add?”
“Not tonight if you do not mind.”
He gave me a sad smile, then came over and hugged me. “Of course not. I love you, sweet baby girl. I know today has been hard on you.”
“Yes, Father. I love you too.” I rested against him with my eyes closed, soaking in his comforting warmth as I tried to keep from crying again.
He held me a couple of minutes, then kissed my forehead and stepped away. “Now get some sleep.”
I kept on thinking about those verses as I lay in the bed next to Fannie. She, being a much better sleeper than I am, already dwelled in the land of dreams. I, on the other hand, kept wondering how God could give me a desire for a husband like this and then take away such a good man right from before my eyes. Now I would never know what marital life with him would have been like. When I did manage to finally fall asleep, I dreamt of weddings and fires. I bolted upright in bed after a particularly disturbing nightmare. I visualized my wedding day had finally arrived and Sedgwick was my groom, things falling into vivid color and exactly as I had imagined it would be. As he awaited me at the lectern, the church caught on fire somehow. I kept walking towards him and watched him slowly be consumed in the flames. He reached towards me just as his eyes rolled back in his head and he fell over, burned to death. The flames came towards me, trying to eat me up as well, and then I jolted upright, much to my relief, sweaty and slightly entangled in the coverlets.
Fannie remained oblivious to my sleeping troubles. I suppose my tossing, turning, and moaning must have been normal to her and no longer affected her. All the same, I almost wished she would wake up just so I could talk to someone. Yes, I could always whisper to Sunset, who liked to sleep on our bed sometimes as long as we did not toss and turn too terribly much. Even he adjusted to my restless nights. But often I wanted someone who would actually answer back instead of just looking at me and purring. Then God gently reminded me that He is always there, ready to listen, and now He had given me no choice but to take my concerns to Him. And so I did.
And so the days blurred into one as I tried to get used to Sedgwick being gone. Having him around, seeing him multiple times a week, had become part of my beloved routine. I had always been methodical and trying to do something different than normal always left me feeling confused and slightly distressed. Thus it was no surprise that I had a hard time adjusting to Sedgwick no longer having a part in my life. It took weeks before I could visit his family and try to sort out my feelings with them. They were still good friends and always would be, and now perhaps our families were even closer in our shared grief. I did feel better after talking things through with them. It helped me come to terms with the reality of the issue. Grieving takes time and I knew there would always be a little empty spot in our hearts where he belonged. The question was: what did God want me to do with this time?