Reclaiming life after loss of a child
No one wants to read about the death of child. How could they? It’s one of our deepest fears. A child’s death represents not just the loss of a young life, but the death of promise, of a thousand unspoken dreams. It defies any rhyme or reason, any conceivable purpose.
Though the precipitating event in Isla Morley’s debut novel, “Come Sunday,’’ is just that, the accidental hit-and-run death of a precocious 3-year-old named Cleo, the story’s true dramatic arc reveals how those who loved her navigate the aftermath. And with that, Morley offers a compelling tale of survival, reinvention, and hope.
As “Come Sunday’’ opens, Abbe Deighton is chafing against the confines of domestic life. On the surface, she seems to have it pretty good. A part-time journalist, she is married to a compassionate husband, Greg, the minister of a small, tight-knit church. She is the mother of a charming, adorable little girl and has the support of a small group of loyal friends. And she lives in Hawaii, surely the ideal vision of paradise for those of us in the too-often frigid Northeast.
But Abbe’s life is quietly fraying at the seams. Cleo is as headstrong and demanding as she is charming, her stubborn precocity a constant challenge. And Abbe’s husband seems always at the beck and call of his waning, judgmental congregation, which exerts pressure not just on Greg but on the whole family, imposing a constricting set of expectations. To top it off, the Deighton’s financial situation is starting to look grim, exacerbated by the roof of their garage/workshop, which continues to leak despite expensive repairs.
Cleo’s tragic accident while under the care of one of Abbe’s best friends is not just another little tear in the fragile fabric of Abbe’s life. It is the jagged, violent rip that rends her life. Instead of coming together in their shared grief, Abbe and her husband find themselves pulled apart, their sorrow compounded by Abbe’s abiding anger. She finds herself capable of only “miniscule kindnesses’’ amidst “waves of cataclysmic cruelties.’’ Gradually their marriage dissolves beneath their fingertips. “Greg and I watch a foreign film about Japanese samurai and kiss chastely at ten o’clock before going to bed. ‘Happy New Year,’ we each say sadly, and lie waiting for the old year to go quietly to its grave.’’
Then “Come Sunday’’ dramatically shifts tone. When Greg moves to California to take a job at what he hopes will be a more welcoming congregation, Abbe journeys back to the South Africa of her birth to sign papers allowing the sale of her childhood home, which she hopes will bring her some financial stability in her new situation. In Africa, Abbe connects to the dark secrets and shadows of her past in ways that help her begin to illuminate her choices for the present and the future, bringing “Come Sunday’’ full circle. Though the ending is fairly predictable, despite one melodramatic event that almost sends the book veering wildly off course, it is in the African flashbacks and contemporary action that Morley offers some of her most vivid and poignant writing, including the moment that foretells Abbe’s ultimate recovery, during a conversation with a woman whose son is dying of AIDS. “All we can do is nod respectfully into the voids of each other’s pain. Quickly, her stringy arms wrap around me with the ferocity of a desperate mother. ‘God give you strength,’ she says, and then, putting her bag on her head, she sets off down the dark path, having inadvertently cracked the crust around my heart.’’
In the end, “Come Sunday’’ is less about the death of a young child as about personal redemption and resurrection.
Karen Campbell is a freelance writer based in Brookline.