Posted by: rosa alba | November 7, 2009

The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.

poppy dead copy

RIP Thomas Doerflinger, 11th November 2004 (Mosul, Iraq, aged 20)

RIP Shelly McKinney, 6th November 2009

Today my son and I heard the pipes as we were rummelling around the house after breakfast. We rushed through the courtyard to see the men and women of the University “Corps” marching up the street in Uniform, to practice for Remembrance Sunday.  For me the granite War Memorials are iconic representations of small town Scotland, the sun glinting on the mica in long, bored summer afternoons where the shadow  of the celtic cross stretches  over the cobbles.  I remember childhood Sundays walking past the War Memorial on the way home from Mass or on the way to the Ice Cream parlour.  Most of all I remember the names – Marshalls, Kirkwoods, MacDonalds,  Andersons  – Williams, Thomases, Roberts, Alexanders: the repetition of weel-kennt surnames and Christian names brought an aspect of “everyman” that a child could recognise.

As a child, however, the Wars (and war)  seemed distant, and the mention in the Kilsyth Chronicle of a rare name killed in action in Northern Ireland, registered only briefly.  I was sixteen and in France working, when that changed. Tante Michele (a distant relative in Normandy) drove us to one of the Normandy Cemeteries – I remember the explanation in French of the enclosure system of the farmers, I remember the khaki green BhS skirt and tee-shirt, and the white sandals, and I remember the brightness of the July sun reflecting, not off the grim granite, but off brilliant white which seared the eyes, and seemed stark against the blood red of the poppies.  Standard Grade history had not prepared me for the immeasurable quantity of headstones, Crosses and Stars of David, inscribed and nameless that filled this one cemetery, of the countless others in this small area of Normandy.

Political activism – a synonym for misunderstanding – meant that for many years I would find and wear only a white poppy.  The understanding of the horror – the extent of the death of youth – in the Wars (I had read Vera Britten) made me determined not to “glorify war” but to work and campaign against war.  What changed that was my friendship with “Thomas’ mom”.  Thomas Karl Doerflinger died in Mosul, Iraq on the 11th of November, 2004, aged twenty.  For me, the date of his death stopped me in a way no other death in war has done, and both forged a friendship with Thomas’ mom, and brought together the individual tragedy of one mother’s loss with the collective horror I had seen shining in the gravestones in Northern France 22 years before. And, for the first time  in my lifetime war dead are more numerous now, with the sad, steady increase of deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq.

While there is a time to do so,  “now” (Remembrance Sunday)  is not the place to discuss the notion of “just war” or capitalist motivations of current campaigns in oil rich countries: November  is a month to remember and to pray for all our dead, and Remembrance Sunday (and Armistice Day) a time to remember the sons, husbands and fathers who died in war, as men (though some barely) and especially in their role to others.

The death of a child – at whatever stage in their life – has become something more alien to us with improvements in neo-natal and childhood healthcare.  Although the words of Carolina Oliphant, Lady Nairne’s Land o’ the Leal, written for a close friend of hers, make it clear that the death of a child, is untimely and a pain that never fully heals.

Land o’ the Leal

I’m wearin’ awa’, John
Like snaw-wreaths in thaw, John,
I’m wearin’ awa’
To the land o’ the leal.
There ‘s nae sorrow there, John,
There ‘s neither cauld nor care, John,
The day is aye fair
In the land o’ the leal.

Our bonnie bairn ‘s there, John,
She was baith gude and fair, John;
And O! we grudged her sair
To the land o’ the leal.
But sorrow’s sel’ wears past, John,
And joy ‘s a-coming fast, John,
The joy that ‘s aye to last
In the land o’ the leal.

In another track, To be a soldier,  on the same album as the song above,  (Now Then),  Wendy Arrowsmith sings incredibly poignantly of a mother’s loss of her son in Iraq, in which we see the loss of “a child”, underscored by the lullaby tempo of the melody. Time does not heal so much as bring accustomedness to loss, the vacuum never filled but less empty, with overflow from other areas;  and yet,  in the words of Rossetti:

Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For, if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

Nevertheless, it is meet we should remember all our dead:

To everything there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under heaven….

A time to weep, and a time to laugh:
A time to mourn and a time to dance;
[Ecclesiastes 3; 1-8]

The lines from Christina Rossetti’s poem Remembrance are preceded by “it will be late to counsel then or pray” which  – of course does not reflect the Catholic (and Jewish) teaching of praying for the dead;  it is not perhaps the dead, alone, for whom we pray but the living, in their loss, often a loss of “identity” as mother, wife, sister, as that relationship ceases to exist completely or in regard to the person who has died. Thomas’ mom often mentions that she no longer knows if she should reply with the answer “three” or “four” when she is asked if she has children;  and in terms of society, even today, no longer being a wife or mother can affect one’s standing and interactions in a community, beyond that which modern society struggles with the grief of others.

Death is a natural experience in life: “the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the Lord” [Job 1:21]; untimely death is, however, harder to process than a death that occurs at the end of a long illness or a long life. In Latin countries – as was heretofore the case – there is an outward embodiment of mourning (in dress and cultural customs), as of course is the case with sitting shiva in Judaism; theologically – in terms of Judaism – there is the issue of a different understanding of the afterlife,  inasmuch as we as Christians and Catholics understand it, which makes the sorrow of the death of someone close more extreme.  There is, however, a demonstrable psychological value in a degree of ritualisation of mourning, because while “there is a time to mourn”, the counterpoint of “a time to dance” bounds that mourning and limits it.  And so it should be:  as Catholics we hope to meet again with those who have gone before, and prayer can be a way – on many levels – of reminding us of that fact.

It may no longer be the case of taking up the “quarrel with the foe” as in John McCrae poem Flanders Field, but remembering both the horror that is war, in terms of loss of human life as a total, and each individual loss and the tragedy that may entail, as well as the soldiers’ sacrifice of life for the end of peace and justice.  As those who profess to be pro-life, even if – retrospectively – we may classify a war as “just”, the value we place on the sanctity of life is such that we should count and remember each man and woman who dies in war, and ensure that no loss is gratuitous.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eyes, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

This post is dedicated  to the memory  both of Lee Ann’s son, Thomas and of my late friend, Shelly McKinney who died unexpectedly this past week.  Of your charity, please pray for the repose of their souls, and all those fallen in the current war, and for the healing of those they leave behind.

And let perpetual light shine upon them.
May their souls and the souls of all the faithfully departed,
Rest in peace.



  1. I really like it when folks come together and share opinions.

    Great site, keep it up!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: