The Courage To Press On

Eva Bell    

Copyright 2021 by Eva Bell 


Photo of a woman at a coffin.
 It was December 30, 1968 and the smell of fruit cake baking in the oven wafted through the apartment. For the umpteenth time, my children and I peeped over the balcony at the sound of every car cruising by. We were expecting my husband, Jacob, who had been on duty over Christmas somewhere in South India. We had planned to make up for his Christmas absence by celebrating with a gala New Year’s party.
 And so, when a couple clad in black tapped on my door that evening, tragedy was furthest from my mind. Their long, morose faces made me wonder whether one of them was ill and had come for treatment. At that time, my consulting rooms were adjacent to my apartment. I showed them to their seats and was about to ask how I could be of help, when the woman, totally inexperienced in breaking bad news, began to spout poetry:

 Pale Death with impatient step knocks on the poor man’s cottage and palaces of kings.”

 The man looked uncomfortably down at his hands.

 She must be suffering from depression,” I thought.
 Suddenly the woman jumped up and held me in a vice-like grip.

Don’t hold back,” she said. “Cry out as loud as you wish. Tears are cathartic. Let them flow.”

What are you talking about?” I asked, convinced that she was as nutty as my fruit cake. It still hadn’t dawned on me that she was the bearer of bad tidings.

Your husband is dead. His aircraft crashed this afternoon at a place called Ambasamudram. He died on the spot.”

Now it was my turn to stare.

 “You must be joking. Jacob is on his way home. He’ll drive up any moment now.”

 “You’re in shock,” she insisted. “It’s good if you can cry.”

 With that, these apparitions in black got up and marched out of the door. They had done their duty. Though I’ve never set eyes on them again, I have often thought about the unfeeling, impersonal way the news of my husband’s death was relayed to me.
 Then I recalled something Jacob had mentioned a few months earlier, in connection with another pilot’s death. He spoke of the “ravens in black” who had descended on the bereaved family to heartlessly inform them of their loss. The man was obviously the Personnel Manager of the company Jacob worked for, and had come in the line of duty.
 I sat there too stunned to move, my eight-year-old daughter and three-year-old son wondering why I had suddenly turned to stone. Before long, my eldest sister and her husband, who was also a pilot, came rushing in with more details of the accident. My sister had her own prescription for bereavement:

 “No crying,” she warned. “There’s no need to make a public display of your grief.”

I recalled what she had told me before my marriage. By then she had already been a pilot’s wife for many years.

You’ve got to have nerves of steel. Every time he leaves home, you’ll wonder if he’ll ever come back.”

And so, I allowed not a sniffle to escape me until the lights were turned out at night and I could bury my face in my pillow and weep my heart out for the part of me that had died; for one so young and full of life; for a loving, caring individual with whom I had shared so many good times, in our short married life of nine and a half years.
 As a doctor, death is a familiar figure to me. It doesn’t frighten me, but merely leaves a deep sadness that no matter what the status of a person, a life on earth has ended. When it comes unexpectedly to one of your own, however, it takes a while to sink in.

 It didn’t help that I had to wait for two long days for the body to be brought home to Bombay. The postmortem and various other formalities had to be completed. The coffin had to be brought by road to Madras, and then flown to Bombay. Those were incredibly long hours, filled with shock and denial.

 “No, it can’t be happening to me. There must be some mistake.”

 These thoughts kept going through my mind, even as relatives and friends thronged the house to console me. The finality of his death was only brought home when I saw him laid out in his coffin.  His face was peaceful, and I knew for certain that he had gone home to be with his Lord.
 The funeral took place at 9 p.m. on January 1, 1969. He was just 33 years old. It was a beautiful service that brought comfort to my heart. Jacob had crossed over from death to life because Jesus Christ had destroyed death and brought life and immortality to all who believe in Him. I can truly say that at no time did I feel any bitterness or anger. If God had taken my husband at such an early age, I knew that He had a definite plan for my life. I had to find out what it was. I was just thirty-two and the road ahead would be long and torturous.
When we had married in September, 1958, my husband was in the Indian Air Force. Transfers were fairly routine. Being a gynecologist, I always managed to get a job with accommodation, even when he was posted to non-family stations. But my career was not really my priority.

In 1965, my husband’s contract with the Air Force was over and he opted for a lucrative job with a private company. He was a helicopter pilot and the company did crop- spraying. He was out of station for at least two weeks each month, mostly in remote parts of the country.
As our son was very young, I didn’t want to leave him with a nanny for long stretches of time, so I decided to open a clinic adjacent to my flat. Private practice was really not my cup of tea. My squeamishness about charging fees proved a disadvantage, and though I had many patients, the clinic was heavily subsidized by my husband.
 So what was uppermost in my mind now that Jacob was gone was finding a job. I needed a steady income to support my little family. Having a profession was an advantage. I could have found a remunerative opening right there in Bombay. But my mother, who was visiting, realized I was being pulled in different directions by my elder siblings, my in-laws and friends. They were all so sure they knew what was best for me. I was very vulnerable. My husband had pampered me to such an extent that I didn’t even know how to write a cheque, where to pay the bills, or where to buy groceries. Now each of these loved ones was ready to overwhelm me with their concern.

It would be best to relocate,” Mother counseled. “You must discover your own strengths, make your own decisions and stand firmly on your own two feet. Allowing yourself to be cosseted will make you less inclined to do things for yourself. Don’t let anyone pity or patronize you.”

How thankful I was for that advice! Besides, the air field from which my husband used to fly was so close to the apartment that helicopters flying overhead throughout the day brought back many memories and increased the gnawing ache in my heart. I had to get away. I could not afford to sink into depression or languish in self-pity. Jacob would never have approved of that.
A large Mission hospital in the South needed a gynecologist. Much to the chagrin of my sisters, and despite their grim predictions, I moved out from Bombay overnight with my family. Mission hospital work is always very busy and my specialty is a round-the-clock job. I was accommodated in a large bungalow with a high-tiled roof and cavernous rooms, and too many windows. At night it felt eerie. Bats flapped around in the attic, and wild cats raced along the rafters. My children and I huddled together in one room until we got bolder. My city-bred children took time to settle into this rural milieu. My mother offered to stay with us and tended to the house, the maids and the children, leaving me free to throw myself into my work.
 Work saved me from self-pity. I had no time to brood. But it also made me distance myself from my children. I knew they were being well-cared for by my mother. She made up for my indifference, allowing me to work through my own private grief. When I had time, I began writing a novel about a wartime romance, and a girl who passed off someone’s baby as her own in the hope of saving her marriage.

 Even with my writing, it was a time of loneliness. Not even my children could enter into this private pain of bereavement. The marital bond uniting two people into one flesh was gone. Beside me at night was the vacant space that greeted me each time I slipped into bed. There was no one to cling to, no one to confide in. I felt like an amputee; the pain in the phantom limb often made me cry out in desperation. I had a great deal of fear, too. How would I cope alone with two young children? It’s all very well to say, “The Lord sustains the fatherless and the widow.”

 But my work and my writing proved therapeutic. I needed neither medication nor counseling. I had a deep assurance that I was never going to be alone. There was a purpose for my life and in His own good time, God would reveal it to me. Before that, however, I had to be “tried in the furnace of affliction.”
 Exactly a year after I took this job, Mother lay on her bed one morning and never woke up. I felt desolate. Now my children and I were all alone. We had lost two people in the course of one year. I couldn’t continue with this job as it was too demanding, and I wouldn’t have any time for my children. I moved to Mangalore 60 miles away, where I had spent my childhood, and took a job that didn’t involve night duties. But I was nervous about living alone in a city. People were under the impression that I had inherited a lot of money from my husband. Suddenly, I discovered I had many relatives. There were loan- seekers, confidence-tricksters, mischief-makers and lechers. My stress levels soared as I tried to keep them all at bay. My children were becoming very insecure.

 There was one cousin who helped me with my legal problems. He also helped me in many small ways and tried to instill in me courage to cope. But within a few months, he died of a massive heart attack. One by one, my props were crumbling. There was no one to rely on. I felt emotionally and physically drained.
Now there was only one Person who could give me comfort and safety. He wanted my total commitment in exchange for His protection and love.

 I received this assurance:

           Do not be afraid—you will not suffer shame;
            Do not fear disgrace—you will not be humiliated;
            You will remember no more the reproach of your widowhood,
            For your Maker is your husband.” Isaiah 54: 1-5

 That was when I finally felt ready to face the world. The memory of Jacob would always be an integral part of my life, but now there was work for me to do. At last, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.
 Incredible advances were being made in the world of Medicine and I did not want to be left behind. In September 1972 I went to the U.K. for postgraduate work in gynecology and obstetrics. My children were admitted to a boarding school in Mangalore, where the nuns took good care of them. Once again, this was a challenge.

 I was going back to academics after an interval of 14 years. But those were wonderful years. Hard work and intense study got me my degree. Besides, in England, I never felt alienated because of my single status; whereas in India, social life was severely restricted. As widows were synonymous with bad luck, I was excluded from all auspicious occasions. A widow’s movements were perpetually under scrutiny, and wagging tongues could tear her reputation to shreds for imagined transgressions.
 Since then, I’ve traveled widely and worked in different parts of the world. But my calling was back home. I served the same Mission hospital to which I had fled soon after my bereavement. I worked there for 17 long years. I was Director and Obstetrician/Gynecologist. It became one of the best known institutions in that part of the country, catering to the needs of thousands of poor and underprivileged people. I was also able to obtain a degree in Theology, and indulge in my first love—writing. This was the purpose that God had in mind for me.
 Today, I am retired from hospital work, but spend my time as a freelance writer. Women’s issues are my special interest. I also spend time counseling women and girls on various issues. Widowhood has made me sensitive to the pain of others.
 To the newly bereaved, I would like to say: There’s a time to weep and a time to recover. The sooner one learns to let go, the quicker the period of healing. One must have courage to press on.
Remember: “Out of the presses of pain comes the soul’s best wine and the eyes that have shed no rain, can shed but little shine.” (A.B. Simpson)  

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