|Midnight! A time when most tired teachers are sleeping soundly. But being something of a night owl, Nell Wilson was still awake, lying comfortably on her bed and re-reading Little Women. It was not a book she would normally have chosen, but her ruffled feathers needed smoothing after a particularly difficult first day of term. Before long, however, much to her surprise, tears were streaming down her cheeks. The book had been a mistake! She had come too soon to the moving scene of Beth's death. With a muffled sob, she threw the book across the room and rolled over to bury her face in her pillows.|
“Cherry... Oh, Cherry,” she whispered between sobs. “Why did you have to go away and leave us? Mum and Dad felt there was nothing to live for after you left us. Almost before I could blink, they were both gone to join you.”
Her mother had declined very rapidly after her younger daughter’s death. Nell and her father had soldiered on together, but his heart wasn’t in it. After six months, he had grown so pale and thin that pneumonia took hold. Nell nursed him with all the vigorous ardour of youth, but he died peacefully, a joyful smile on his face at the thought of joining his beloved wife and daughter.
“What about me?” Nell had wanted to scream. “Didn’t I matter, too?”
Bitterness had compounded her devastating grief and loneliness. After she buried her father, her parents’ defection generated a vast anger at them for not loving her enough to want to go on living. She had carried that anger and hurt around with her for several years now, nurturing it, fuelling it, feeling unloved and unloveable because they had wanted to go to Cherry more than they wanted to stay with her.
She built walls to keep people out, so she could never again be hurt so badly, she who had always been open and impulsive and fun-loving. Yet she never blamed Cherry! She had been the darling of everyone, sweet-tempered and dreamy, with musical gifts that charmed all who heard her play. Her slight figure had been dwarfed by the cello she loved, making her seem a vulnerable child even at sixteen, but there was nothing childish about her music. Her playing had held a mature and haunting quality that still resonated in Nell’s heart. How could she ever be angry with her frail and beautiful younger sister?
Nell’s tempest of tears slowed and she rolled over to stare up at the ceiling. The grief and loneliness and anger were still all bottled up inside. Coming to the Chalet School had not helped at all, although she had hoped. Oh, she was learning to teach competently and even to find satisfaction in the doing. She gave enough of herself that her colleagues found her pleasant and friendly to work alongside. She had even recovered enough of her former love of fun and frolic to amuse both staff and girls. But, while she remained marooned in her bitterness, she knew she would never settle or be at peace in the world. God she kept at bay. He would demand that she forgive her parents, and that was not yet possible. Her love for them was tainted.
She turned her head to look at the wall, narrowing her eyes as though to look through the wall. The new teacher lodged in the room next door had that same bruised look she had seen in her own eyes. There was, however, a difference! Recent grief might be writ large there for those who would see – a silent grief, held in and banked back – but there was an attractive quietness in those blue-grey eyes that told of peace within. How had Hilda achieved it? Whence had come that strength?
Nell reached out and plucked Cherry’s picture from her bedside cabinet. She studied the beautiful eyes, the elfin features she knew by heart. The eyes seemed to soften in the lamp’s warm glow, sending her a secret, sisterly message. She stroked the picture and thought of the last week of Cherry’s life. They knew she was dying and had surrounded her with all the love that was in their grieving hearts, but they hadn’t realised the Grim Reaper was hovering quite so close. One night, Nell had sent her parents to bed to get some much-needed rest.
Around midnight, Cherry woke and smiled up at her big sister, who helped her to a drink and lay down beside her. She took the frail figure in her arms and Cherry cuddled close with a contented sigh. Her eyelashes tickled Nell’s cheek.
“Nell, promise me something,” she whispered. “You mustn’t hold their grief against them when I’m gone.”
Nell’s arms tightened. “What do you mean? You’re not going anywhere.”
“Of course I am, you old silly,” Cherry laughed softly. “Do you think I can’t read the truth in your eyes? In your loving devotion? I know I’m getting weaker, despite everyone’s care..”
Nell’s eyes grew hard, and she spoke out her despair. “I won’t let you go, Cherry. You keep me kind and good. Without you…. without you, I’ll lose my way.”
Cherry kissed her. “You will never lose your way, my Nell. There’s too much love in you for that. You’ve been so good to me all my life. I always felt I had two mothers.”
“You’ve been the best thing in my life, Cherry-Pie. God must have loved me very much to give me you as a sister.”
“And will you blame God when I’m gone?”
Nell lay in silence for several moments, fighting her tears, then turned her head. “I might,” she replied tautly. “I’ll try to picture you playing your cello with the angelic choir, showing them what real music is.”
Cherry gurgled. “Not much angelic about me.”
“Much you know!” Nell whispered. “Aren’t you afraid, sweetheart?”
“Of dying? How could I be? If God is anything like Dad, why be afraid?” Cherry leaned up on one elbow and looked down into Nell’s sad face. “Sometimes, I can sense Him waiting patiently beside me until I’m ready to spring into His open arms and be carried home. Carried to His home and mine…. and yours, too, one day.” Tears rolled down Nell’s cheek. Cherry kissed them away one by one. “I’m happy, dearest, but I know I’ll always be home- sick for you all, even in Heaven. I need my loved ones round me. You’re much stromger and braver…. I’m sure you were never homesick in London.”
Nell’s tears flowed more freely. “I’m not brave, Cherry. I was very homesick for a long time. It’s just that I felt… cooped up here. I needed to get away, breathe a different air.”
“We all understood. It would have been wrong to stay and hide all your bright intelligence and energy. And you were brave to face London and all those new people. So different from here, so big…”
“So scary, too, at first. But they were good years, Cherry, exciting years, and I was loath to come back home.”
“You’re lonely….” Cherry murmured. Nell nodded, her throat tight. A soft kiss was dropped on her damp cheek. “It’s not wrong to feel like that, Nell. We’re not great talkers here, and we don’t do much of anything, really.”
“But I love you and Dad and Mother.” Nell’s voice was a tortured whisper. “Why can’t that be enough for me? I feel… out of place… where I used to be so much at home.”
“And that makes you impatient with them. I know, darling Nell. They don’t mean to irritate you, but they can’t see what a small world it is here for you now.”
“It’s enough for you.”
“Because I’m just a little chick, content to hop round at home under their sheltering wing, while you – you’re a bright golden eagle, and you need to be free to test the air and reach the heights.”
A surprised laugh was forced out of Nell, disturbing the midnight hush that lay all round. “I’m no eagle, sweetheart, but you’re right that I get impatient with them. They don’t seem to hear what I say. Do they even see me any more?”
Cherry slipped her arm under Nell’s head and caressed the long chestnut hair. “They see you, they hear you and they love you, dearest. It's just that they’ve lost the knack of understanding you since you went away. Perhaps they even feel you look down on them a little, because of that impatience and sarcasm of yours.”
Nell started. “But that’s not true,” she cried, her heart wrung.
“Sh, darling Nell. I know it isn’t true. I know that loving heart of yours.” Cherry smiled down. “You have to be kind to them and patient, very patient - because when I’m gone they may make you feel they hate you for being the one left alive. I’m scared you’ll think they don’t love you at all.”
Nell gazed up into the wise and tender eyes leaning over with such love. Where had Cherry learned her maturity of spirit? From her music? She was surely an angel already, steadfast and sure.
Cherry kissed her. “It won’t be true, my Nell, for they do love you deep down. But I’m their little chick. Once you left us, all their care was bound up in me, so they’ll be lost without me and may give up.”
“You mean they’ll want to die?” Nell could hardly bring herself to say the words.
“Not consciously, perhaps, but they’ll think you don’t need them. Why would a great golden eagle need its parents? So please,” Cherry added on a sob, “try to understand if they seem to grieve too much for their little chick, and can’t help you bear your own sorrow. Be kind, dear, sweet Nell, be so very kind and loving.”
Cherry saw the grief in the tender grey eyes watching her. In a moving gesture of simple trust, she laid her head on her big sister’s generous and loving heart. Nell’s gentle arms held her sister close, the tears running in a great flood down her cheeks….
A week later, Cherry was gone, her death sweet and peaceful. There had been many more such intimate moments in that last week and Nell came to know the true worth of her little sister’s wise and loving heart and her strong, tender faith. Six months later, almost to the day, Nell was alone in the world. It was as Cherry had feared. Grief had done its worst in their parents and all that remained for Nell were anger and bitterness. Had Cherry’s urgent pleading been in vain?
Nell lay pondering the great, grey eyes in the picture. Then, with no warning at all, she saw it all. She laid down the frame, leapt off the bed and retrieved the book from the floor. She skipped through the pages to find the picture she needed. Jo and Beth! Of course! That was what Cherry was telling her. That was why she had been moved to read the book.
Beth, that shy, stay-at-home chick sheltering under its mother’s wing, had still been brave enough to step out from under that wing to help others who were badly in need. She had died in the doing. She had never said very much about it. Her actions had spoken for her, and had left behind in many people's hearts a gentle and precious memory. Just like Cherry! Beneath her parents’ sheltering wings, Cherry had never said very much or performed great deeds. She had let her music speak for her.
Then there was Jo, Beth’s sister, who could never sit still but needed to test herself constantly against her limits, needed to stretch her wings and be free of constraints. Here was the golden eagle Chery had seen in her sister. Some eagle I am, Cherry, Nell thought with a smile. The March parents had struggled hard to understand their vivid daughter, as Nell’s had, but they had also taken great pride in her. They had loved Jo as deeply as they had loved Beth, had loved them for their very differences!
As her own parents had loved both herself and Cherry, Nell now realised with a great throb of her heart. The similarities were striking. She and her sister had been loved very deeply, and very wisely. Their parents had appreciated their daughters’ differences and not tried to change what they were. They had encouraged Nell in her bid for freedom, never holding her back or tethering her to the ground. They had never begrudged her a single thing. They had loved and admired their great golden eagle as much as they had nourished and cherished their shy little chick. Nell just hadn’t been able to see it in her devastating grief and loneliness.
As though in a trance, Nell put down the book, picked up her little bible and knelt by her bed. She leafed through the pages until she came to Saint Matthew’s Gospel:
“Come to me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
With a great wrenching sob, Nell Wilson finally laid down her heavy burden. Peace and hope were instantly hers, replacing the great weight of anger and lonely bitterness she had carried for so long. Love for her parents flooded her soul, the last and greatest gift from little sister to big sister.
I wrote this as a themed drabble for Lime Green Musings, but I know some of you don't appear there so felt I ought to post it here as well. Enjoy!
There'll be some more of the Hilda saga tomorrow....
There'll be some more of the Hilda saga tomorrow....