Why Have You Stayed Behind?
Every Sunday morning just past 9 am, I'd arrive at the Longbranch Cemetery to mow the grounds. This morning though I would discover would be very different. For near a headstone which showed a child's face, I stopped to take a break. After a few moments, I crawled over to the headstone to rub off some of the moss and mold, to read the words. Her name was Martha, and she died on May 17, 1900 of small pox, a deadly disease back then.
I didn't stay there much longer beyond saying softly, "I'm sure your mommy and daddy love and miss you very much." I went about my job and by afternoon the grounds looked good as new. It was then that for no particular reason, I looked up towards Martha's grave near a tall oak tree. I was startled as I saw a small child standing next to the headstone. She had beautiful long wavy blonde hair and looked about seven years old.
She wore a dress like the ones I saw on Little House On The Prairie TV series. She was looking down at her headstone and then she turned and looked directly into my eyes. Her eyes looked so sad that I felt tears rolling down my cheeks. I was overcome with a feeling of helplessness for her. As she watched me close the wrought iron gate of the cemetery, she raised her tiny hand and shook her head no.
In the time it took to blink tears away, she touched her headstone and vanished. I opened one side of the gate and made my way back up the hill to her grave. When I reached her resting place, I kneeled down and whispered, "Why have you stayed behind, my little one?" I sat there on the cool green grass as the wind blew fall leaves to the ground. Each leaf glistened as it was caught in the sun light, resembling angel's descending from heaven.
My heart was heavy, realizing such a small child had passed away. She must be lost. She doesn't know what to do or where to go since she died. I wish I could have held her and tried to comfort her. I wanted to show her she wasn't alone. She lingers in this cemetery, a place that doesn't offer her peace or comfort. Maybe she is waiting for her parents to come and take her home with them.
I felt as helpless as she felt, but what could I do? As I began to stand up, I touched her headstone softly and whispered, "I'll come back tomorrow Martha, with a surprise for you." When I returned the next day, I wasn't alone. I had searched that afternoon from one second hand store, to another until I found what I had been looking for. I found a Raggedy Ann doll. It had been well cared for, probably kept in someone's hope chest.
It was my hope that Martha had such a doll as this one before she died. I had seen a lot of western movies where a small child had a Raggedy Ann doll, just like this one. I couldn't think of any other gift that might bring some comfort to her. When I parked my truck in front of the cemetery the next day, I smiled. But by the time I had sat down next to Martha's headstone there were tears once more in my eyes. But they were good tears.
Often times when a child has been hurt or is frightened, a stuffed animal is just what they need to hold. I propped up the doll against her headstone as I felt a smile come across my face. I spoke to Martha as if she were right there beside me. I talked about some of my childhood memories, times when I felt alone and times when I cried. I told her that I had brought a friend. A friend who would love her and never leave her.
Someone she could talk to and play with and that it was a gift from me. I stood up and leaned down and kissed her headstone softly, wiped my eyes and whispered, "Goodbye Martha." I had almost reached my truck when suddenly I heard the sound of a child giggling. I turned quickly around and watched as Martha hugged her doll. I could have sworn there were tears in her eyes, as she smiled down at me and waved at me before she disappeared.
Several days later, I stopped at the small white country church with a pastor’s house attached to the back side. I had never attended Pastor John's services because I lived in a nearby town. I felt very nervous about trying to find a way to explain to the Pastor what I had seen in his cemetery. But I was equally nervous about what his response would be. Would he even believe me? I got out of my truck and hesitated.
I was about to get back into my truck and leave when the front door of the church opened. He wasn't quite the Pastor I expected to see, dressed in bib overalls with a paint can and brush in his hand. He sat them both down, smiled and made his way down the church steps to greet me. "My name is Pastor John, my friend, welcome.” he said and he shook my hand firmly. I could tell by his hand shake that he was no stranger to hard work.
I told him my name was Raymond and that his wife had hired me to mow the cemetery once a week. With a sparkle in his eyes, he nodded and motioned for me to follow him. "I've got a pitcher of ice tea, Raymond. By the warmth of the sun, I'd say we could both use a glass." and he laughed. He spoke to me with gentleness, a man of wisdom. I followed behind him as we made our way through the small church and into his office.
Pastor John poured two glasses and handed me one and I thanked him as he motioned for me to take a chair. "I'm so glad to have your help Raymond. Mowing the cemetery lawns just takes my breath away." he said with a smile. His office was a plain and simple one with a large painting of Jesus hanging next to the window looking out at the cemetery. "That's what I wanted to talk to you about Pastor, there's a problem." I said hesitantly.
He looked at me with concern and then curiosity, but remained silent. While I was working next door yesterday, well." I said before I became silent. then he watched my eyes begin to water. His eyes grew wide with concern and he began to speak. "You must have seen her too, the little girl, you saw my Martha?" he asked anxiously. Tears of relief flowed down my cheeks and his as I nodded unable to speak. Pastor John pulled a red checkered handkerchief from his back pocket and wipes his eyes.
"Martha was six years old when she died of small pox, Raymond. Her mom and dad and many neighbors left this area to escape the disease. I've got relatives buried in this cemetery Raymond. Martha isn't kin to me, but she is a lost soul. I’ve tried to speak to her and I’ve prayed for her. Still she lingers in our cemetery and my spirit has suffered. I haven't told my wife about Martha or anyone else. I was beginning to think that I was the only one who could see her." he said.
When Pastor John was finished, he took a deep sigh. He looked like a huge weight had been taken off his shoulders. I told him of my encounter with Martha and of the doll that I had brought to her. In a moment, he spoke. "God bless you Raymond." We both were silent for a moment, perhaps lost in thought. Then I asked him a question. "How can we guide Martha home to Jesus Pastor John?” As Pastor John walked over to the window facing the cemetery, he paused.
He looked deep in thought, searching for an answer. Then he turned to me with his eyes a bit teary and spoke. "Martha, bless her spirit has made you her friend. Something I have tried to do for a long time and failed. Could you visit her now and then Raymond, maybe she will speak to you?" he said. I nodded to him as I stood looking out the same window. "Children have always found a soft spot in my heart Pastor John." I said as I felt myself begin to smile.
Suddenly I looked into Pastor John's face with a look of confusion. Pastor, I don't know what to say to Martha or what passages to quote. He just smiled widely at me placing his hand on my shoulder as he spoke. "God's blessed you with a gift Raymond with work left undone. Go to Martha my friend for God will show you he needs you to do." he told me confidently. As I took in his words, I heard the distinctive sound of a VW bug outside and his wife pulled into the drive way.
Pastor John beamed a smile, "My wife Amy is home. Mum's the word Raymond." he said with a smile. I looked at him, nodded and laughed as we walked outside to meet her. When she saw him step out onto the church porch, I heard her say to her husband, "I thought you'd be finished painting." as she laughed with playful eyes. "Hi Raymond. My you’ve made the Cemetery so nice, it's been needing care for a long time and well, there's just so much to do around here for John.
I hope John hasn't been preaching too much today, he loves the Lord." she said with a warm smile. "No m’am.” I answered, “We've only been talking a short time. But I do need to go and get to my afternoon landscaping job." I told her. "But I'll be back tomorrow to do a little extra work." I said as I smiled at Pastor John. Pastor John's smile grew wide as wide as mine as I headed for my truck. His wife looked first at him and then to me, wondering with that deer in the head lights look what we might be up too.
I didn't sleep well that night though. No, I tossed and turned. I kept thinking about that sad little girl. I was growing attached to her. What hope did I have of becoming close to her or of even talking to her? More important, would she or could she talk to me? What could I say to Martha that would ease her pain? Why hadn't she found the path leading her back to Jesus's arms? So many questions came to mind, I just couldn't fall asleep.
Pastor John left it up to me to guide her on her way. So I got out of bed, turned the light on and wrote down my thoughts. Like a candle's light glowing in the darkness of the night, suddenly I had an idea on how I might be able to help Martha. The morning's sunrise came all too soon for me. But I had an idea. A plan and I hoped to see Martha again. Perhaps, she would allow me to see her, perhaps not.
As I pulled out of my driveway, I stopped at the only jewelry shop in town. I browsed through gold chains of every size and price range which had a cross on them. I finally did settle on one I felt would fit her. One I hoped she'd like. I asked the jeweler if he did engraving and he said yes. I asked him what it would cost to engrave the name Martha on the back of the cross and when it might be ready?
He told me engraving with the purchase was free and that it would be just a few minutes. When he was finished I looked it over and I smiled. It looked beautiful. On my way out of town, I stopped at McDonald's and had two sausage egg McMuffins without cheese and a medium Coke. I glanced down at the gold cross necklace, boxed and wrapped in brightly colored balloon wrapping paper and I felt so good.
Fall was here and the leaves on the road were gold, reddish brown and yellow. When I arrived at the Longbranch Cemetery, the sun shone brightly. As the leaves fell slowly to the ground, they were caught in the glint of sunlight, looking like angels descending from heaven. I sat next to Martha's headstone for hours and I felt that she wasn't going to appear. Then, I heard the distinctive giggle of a small child and I felt my own smile grow.
The sound came from behind me and I turned my head around and saw Martha smiling so bright as she was waving her tiny hand hi. My eyes shined and my smile grew wide when I saw Martha. She was hugging her doll tight and waving excitedly. It was if I were her dad who she hadn't seen in a long time.
She almost ran into my arms, but she stopped and sat down near me. She was so close to me I could have reached out and touched her.
In every way, she looked just as if she were alive, an ordinary little girl. "I'm so glad you came to visit again." she giggled. She said with laughter as she looked down at her doll, "See, I told you he'd come back." and we both laughed. "I named her Becky, do you like her name?" Martha asked. “So, you gave her a name already, Martha?” I asked and her face beamed with delight as she nodded her head. "Well I think that's a fine name for a pretty doll." I said and she looked like the happiest little girl I'd ever seen before.
It was then that her eyes spotted the small box wrapped in pretty balloon wrapping and then she looked at me with curiosity. "Tell me you brought me another present Raymond?" she said excitedly and she could barely sit still when I said, "I sure did Martha." I couldn't hold back my tears of joy as they rolled down my cheeks one after another. She looked at me with sad eyes, then to the present and asked, "Why are you crying?"
As I wiped my eyes and blinked, I told her "It's hard to explain. But before we talk little one, here. This is for you." I said and I placed the box on her lap. She eagerly pulled at the wrapping with eagerness and I laughed as colored paper was flying everywhere. Then she paused as she held the long narrow box in her hands, hesitating. Then I said, "Well, go ahead, open it up and peek inside." and she giggled as she pulled the lid off.
As the lid came off, tears filled her eyes as she whispered, "Oh my, it's so pretty!" She held the necklace in her tiny hands and rubbed the cross as I said, "Go ahead, turn it over and see what’s written on the back." With the curious innocence that makes kids a delight; she turned over the gold cross and held it close to her eyes as she spoke her name out loud. In broken words between tears, she tried to smile as she told me that she had been lonely for so long.
But that was before I brought her Becky and now this pretty necklace. Then suddenly she climbed up into my lap unexpectedly and hugged my neck tight and said "Thank you so much." and I cried too telling her it was alright. For that brief moment, I forgot that Martha was a spirit of a little girl. It was the perfect time to say the perfect words, but I was an imperfect man and I had no words to say to her.
Instead of talking, I waited until Martha finished sharing a long missed hug. When she let go, I expected her to go back where she had sat down but she didn't. She stayed there in my lap, looking up into my eyes with such a warm innocent smile, that she reminded me of Shirley Temple. Then, impatiently, she said, "Well, aren't you gonna help me put it on?" I felt embarrassed having not asked her first and I said, "Of course Martha turn around for me." and we both laughed.
In a moment the clasp was hooked and I saw her lifted the cross up gently as she looked down at it. She hugged me one more time. Then she left my arms and sat down next to Becky and picked her back up. Martha was showing Becky her necklace, as I began to speak. But before I began, I looked over at the church and saw Pastor John looking at me, but he looked very different. Then Pastor John moved away from the window and I turned my attention back to Martha.
I was tongue tied, searching for the right words, but realized there were no perfect, easy words to say what I wanted to say. “Martha can I talk to you for a minute, it's real important?" I said. She looked up from Becky, nodded and stared at me intently. As she fingered the cross, I began to speak. “You know why your momma and dad went away don't you Becky?" Gone now was the sparkle I had seen in Martha's deep blue eyes.
All she did was nod at first. "Everyone was getting sick and I was very sick, I remember. Everyone was leaving town and I didn't want them to go away. I didn't want my dad and mom to leave me.” Martha said in a tearful voice before she broke down into tears. My heart was breaking as she crawled back into my arms and I rocked her. "I’ve been waiting for them to come back and take me with them.” she said and I felt warm tears soak my shirt as her head rest on my shoulder.
When she quieted down it was my turn to speak. “I'm glad you remember when you were very sick Martha, it was a time when many were sick. Many of them didn't get better. They died and were buried here.” I told her. I waited a moment to let those words sink into Martha's thoughts. "Martha" I said as my tears fell upon her. "The reason mom and dad haven't come back to take you with them is because you didn't get better and you died." I said in a said voice.
Then I heard her softly say sadly, "I know." It was all she said as she hugged me tighter. Neither of us spoke for a few minutes, there were no words she or I could find. Then she looked up into my eyes and her expression was so heart wrenching, a plea to help her and I didn't know anything I could do for her. I whispered, "Martha, why have you stayed behind? Didn't you see an angel, a light, a stairway or someone to show you the way to heaven?" She just shook her head no.
“Can you help me Raymond? Can you help me find my way to heaven?" she asked as she looked up at me. All I could say to her was, "I'm so sorry hun, I don't know the way." It was then that I heard Pastor John's gentle voice near me and we both looked up and saw him. There was a glow all around him and I knew now what happened at the window. He had a heart attack and had died. "It's okay Martha, come take my hand. I know the way to heaven." he said with a wonderful smile on his face.
There were tears in our eyes as Martha looked at Pastor John and then back to me she said. "I will miss you Raymond very very much." she said. As I cried, I told her I would miss her with all my heart too. She climbed down, picked up Becky with one hand and took Pastor John's hand with her other hand.
I waved to both of them as they said goodbye and the stairway to heaven had opened above them.
©2002 Raymond Cook (All rights reserved)