I Don't Know Why Sarah Died
The Draft Horse
With a lantern that wouldn’t burn
In too frail a buggy we drove
Behind too heavy a horse
Through a pitch-dark limitless grove.
And a man came out of the trees
And took our horse by the head
And reaching back to his ribs
Deliberately stabbed him dead.
The ponderous beast went down
With a crack of a broken shaft.
And the night drew through the trees
In one long invidious draft.
The most unquestioning pair
That ever accepted fate
And the least disposed to ascribe
Any more than we had to hate,
We assumed that the man himself
Or someone he had to obey
Wanted us to get down
And walk the rest of the way.
-- Robert Frost
I don’t know why Sarah died and I am still alive. She died painfully and bloodily after suffering from the ravages of leukemia for about four years. She made it past Christmas, then Easter and into summer, but in July her body just gave out. Her mother told me that Sarah called her aunt and her grandmother to say goodbye. Then she called her best friend, but all she could do was cry out in little, sharp, frustrated twelve year old girl yelps. Her life was ending and she couldn’t even say to her best friend that she loved her and that she would miss her.
Her mother, Elizabeth, took the phone and told the friend that Sarah loved her. She told her how much Sarah wanted to say it herself, with her own voice and in her own words, but she couldn’t. Sarah was dying and there was nothing left in her to speak, though she was filled with so much more to say and her little heart struggled to rise up and find the strength to tell the people in her world how much they meant to her and how much she loved and would miss them, and so much more.
Sarah was so special because she had a gift for expressing herself and sharing how she felt, which is such an extraordinary thing for anyone to be able to do. Think about the last time that you felt intense frustration or love for another human being and how trite the words that you found to describe it seemed. As a writer I have always felt that I wanted my words to have the texture of fine grain wood and the emotional impact of a shot to the heart, but I have never really thought that I succeeded. After seeing some of the things that Sarah wrote to describe her emotions as she watched her young life fade away I know that I have not yet succeeded to the degree that I desire.
But Sarah was able to share so much of what was inside her little body and the mind that was so occupied with living such a beautiful life. It is hard not to appreciate the soul of a little girl who could write a letter to her doctor telling him goodbye with the advice that he should focus on helping his sick little patients remember not who they would become, but who they are. It was her belief that cancer took her future away and left only a memory of what she had been before she was diagnosed; before the swift scythe of this terrible disease had taken hold of her conscious mind. She wanted her doctor to always remember that what matters most to a futureless person is not the false hope of some ill defined potential, which is a promise that we as adults so often make knowing it is something we cannot keep. But that what was important to remember is the person she was while alive and that she was at one time the happy little girl that I saw in so many photos around her mother’s house—walking with mom from a barn in their mud boots on a cold rainy fall day; smiling as she played with her friends and all of the other reminders and tokens of what she had been.
And Elizabeth, who is one of the most beautiful people I have ever met, told me that when Sarah was diagnosed the doctor looked at the stricken mother and said there is no need to ask why this has happened. Of course, what the doctor was saying is that Elizabeth shouldn’t blame herself for her daughter’s illness. She shouldn’t go through the closets and drawers of her memory and look at each item to see if perhaps it is the one that fits; the cause for why her daughter is so desperately ill. No, it wasn’t that she had fed her too much sugar or that Elizabeth had taken some acid when she was young or that Sarah had skinned her knee or that some other little thing had happened that Elizabeth could have prevented and thereby saved her daughter’s life. There is no easy way to ask why cancer will visit one family and not another.
The thought of cancer in a child is the emotional and psychological equivalent of looking out a pale and frosted window in the days of young Goodman Brown and seeing a hooded figure emerge from the woods and randomly enter a household just a few feet away; and the hear the scream of a woman and the cry of a man as the soul of a young child is carried into the night and forever deep into the wood.
Robert Frost wrote a poem titled the Draft Horse, which is principally about fate. It does not give any kind of answer as to why fate will choose to shine a joyful light on one person, providing them with wealth, love and happiness, while darkening the life of another by taking more than its due. Rather, his poem is so much like how cancer found me and how it found Sarah and Elizabeth: as if from nowhere fate emerged from a darkened wood and leveled a cruel blow leaving us desolate and alone.
Sarah’s diagnosis was fate reaching from the darkened wood that surrounds us, no matter how well we may think we have cleared the land around our home. And over four years fate slowly killed Sarah and left Elizabeth without her draft horse, without her beloved and oh so special child, and now she must learn how to overcome the unendurable grief of losing a child so painfully, so randomly and find a way to continue on with her life—to climb down from her cart and somehow understand why fate demanded she learn to walk the rest of the way.
So when this doctor said to Elizabeth that she shouldn’t try and even ask why, it was the same as saying that fate is un-reckoning and there is no real or moral or ethical answer to the question of why it had to be my child. Cancer is simply just one cell that decided to fuck up. It decided to do what all the others weren’t doing and it divided and then those two divided and then those four divided and then those eight divided and on until all Sarah’s body could do was slowly bleed to death.
There were, of course, attempts by medicine to stop those cells, but medicine is such a primitive tool when the hand of fate decides to act with such random cruelty. If you are in its grasp you will die. Perhaps you can forestall it for a time, but in the end fate has the upper hand with a sharpened knife in its grip and you cannot shake that.
So don’t ask why, just be strong and hopeful and do what it takes to give yourself the best shot at living or fending off for what may seem but a moment the thing that we all must face; our own death.
It is such a painful thing; death is, because it has such power to irrevocably deny us our draft horse. It can take the horse and the plow and the cart and every other fucking thing and for some reason one of its most efficient knives is cancer.
I think one of the reasons why we fear this one disease so much is because usually it announces its appearance within our bodies when it is too late for us to kindly ask it to leave. Its arrival is unheralded. It is silent and small and does not easily give itself away. So when finally it is discovered, when the symptoms are presented to us and the connections can be made, it is often too late to do much about it. Its invasion is enough that we cannot kick it from our bodies and all that can be hoped for is some extension on our right to live; that we may be able to buy a few more months or maybe a couple of years. So we spend that time aware of our imminent death. We take the people and things that we find dear to our lives close to us and we touch them and tell them we love them and we appreciate them like the last spoonful of vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce in a very delicious Sunday.
But it isn’t enough, and when we are healthy, without any idea if or when we may be hit by cancer, we do know how painful it would be to spend months or years in pain and sickness through treatment aware that we will eventually have to say goodbye to those people whom we most dearly love.
We can imagine looking into the eyes of those whom we love ever so dearly—a weeping mother, wife, child, brother—all of whom are so filled and consumed with pain that they can barely express their love to you. And you can barely speak through the pain and sickness and drugs, causing their faces to wrench with each of your efforts. Your father has left the room because he cannot bear to watch anymore. At one point your mother walks to the hallway and returns with him. His eyes and body are melting with weakness and the sadness drips off his voice. Imagine your fear at the end of your life when you should have so many years ahead of you and the longing to see your children one more time, to hold them again and to feel their love and joy reach into your body as you gently caress a cheek and tell this very lovely little person how much you love them. But it is an end that you have known would someday come, how and when and what it would be like are questions that could only honestly be answered at the time of convergence between cancer and death.
Imagine the look in your wife’s eyes or your mothers or whoever that last person is as the light leaves you and you slip, painfully away into the night, alone…
Alone and Far from Home
Deep in the winter plain, two armies
Dig their machinery, to destroy each other
Men freeze and hunger. No one is given leave
On either side, except the dead, and wounded.
These have their leave; while new battalions wait
On time at last to bring them violent peace.
– From Two Armies by Stephen Spender
Lou Gordon awoke in the torrid heat of mid-afternoon in the Spanish hamlet of Hinojosa. He was 21 years-old and the war for him had so far lasted only a few days, but already his body was tired from the persistent heat that often climbed above 100 degrees. He was in a small room with thick heavy walls, a tile floor and no light shown in. In the darkness he could hear the sounds of a few other men sleeping near him. His clothes were damp from sweat and his throat ached from a thirst that a kid from Brooklyn had never quite experienced, even in the summer among the humid streets, row houses, and shops of the neighborhood he called home.
It was June of 1937 and Lou had been traveling for quite a few days after crossing from France over the Pyrenees into Spain in the dead of night so as not to be detected by the French gendarmerie. He had left from New York with Abe Smorodin, his friend and fellow classmate from Boys High School in Brooklyn. Together they crossed the Atlantic to Paris and then onto Perpinagn in the foothills of the Pyrenees. But Abe was nowhere to be found. Lou had been separated a few days before in the small town of Albacete from his lifelong friend and the handful of his Brooklyn buddies who had also traveled to Spain to fight on the side of the Spanish government against the Nazis and fascists.
“I’ll tell you,” said Lou, “sitting there, in Hinojosa in the dark and feeling alone I thought about everything that had happened to me. You gotta realize that up until that point in my life I really hadn’t done much traveling. I especially hadn’t left the US much less the city, except of course when I went out looking for work, but to then… well, this was a very different experience for me.
“One other thing, I was struck not only by how different everything looked as it compared to home, but also how different everything was compared to when we first got into Spain. You see, we hiked all night through the mountains, the Pyrenees, me and Abe and a few of the other fellas, and after a very cold and exhausting hike we landed in the small town of Ripol. It was drizzling and we stood under the trees all wet. We were very tired from the hike, but also somewhat excited about where we were.
“So as I sat in that small house, in the heat, it seemed a bit unreal to me that only a few days before I had been so cold. I suppose I should have realized then that Spain would be full of these kinds of contradictions.”
Abe remembers the hike into Spain as a punishing ordeal that he would never choose to repeat. “They [French Communist Party members] took us down to Toulouse, which is next to Marseille on the Mediterranean. Now this is interesting. Just before our group, me and Lou and a few of the other guys had arrived there, a previous group had taken a ferry called the City of Barcelona that made regular trips during peacetime and they were still doing it during this war. From Toulouse it was a short trip either to Valencia or Malaga, one of the towns along the Mediterranean in Spain. The trip before us, the City of Barcelona was hit by an Italian torpedo from a submarine and most of the volunteers were killed. But there is this guy Abe Osheroff who swam to Spain. He was on the City of Barcelona, it was close to shore when it was hit, but if I tell anybody that somebody swam to Spain they think I’m out of my mind, but he swam to Spain. That’s how he got in. Peasants saw him and took him in. He joined us later on.
“Because of that incident the leadership decided that it was not safe anymore to get into Spain in that way. So the only alternative was to walk across the Pyrenees into Spain. And that’s what I did; that’s what we all did from there on. It was the most exhausting experience of my life. Combat couldn’t be any harder than what that was because the gendarmes… France at that time had a part liberal front government with Leon Bloom being the prime minister, but the government would fall and come back and it was one of those things you never knew. And their policy towards Spain, which should have been one of friendship—it was the same kind of government that the Spaniards wanted for themselves that the French had, so that you would have thought there would have been some kind of collaboration, some cooperation—didn’t get it. They were hostile, and that always pissed us off.
“So in order to climb the Pyrenees we waited for night fall, at the foothills, and then with a guide—a Catalane—he took us across. It took quite a while and we had to sleep over one day. We went at nighttime and hunkered down during the daytime and then we went again at night into Spain. It was a terrible, very, very difficult thing. Some guys, they never made it. They went back and they just didn’t ever get to Spain, but I made it and a bunch of us made it. This was June and it was cold in the mountains, but it was not so cold once we got down out of them. You could always find a boulder around which you could stay away from the winds.
“I was with a bunch of seamen from Vancouver. They were in our crowd, in our group of volunteers. They were big guys and they were razzing me because at that time I was a short, skinny kid. I’m still short [laughs]. They would joke with me and I told them, ‘I would piss on your grave before you think I’m not gonna make it. I’ll get across before you do--if you do.’ I said that and as we hiked along their tongues were hanging out. I was slight and everything, but I was in good shape.
“So that’s the way I got into Spain.”
Lou adds of the crossing, “We got to the foothills of the Pyrenees at about dusk. We all got off the truck and they told every group around us to go hide in the forest and so we went and stood under the trees. We didn’t know what we were waiting for, but the trucks all left. At that point along came a character… it’s so interesting that all of the guys, or at least many of the guys tell of the same thing, but along came this guy. He was short and squat and he was a smuggler in real-life and he knew every inch of that part of the Pyrenees. Also, somebody else explained to us, I don’t know who it was, another leader or something, about the rules. We gave our shoes away and put hoparrelas on. Do you know what those are? They’re rope shoes with white canvass on top. It’s a very good thing to wear while you are climbing to not slip when you step on rocks. We then began this impossible walk that just went on all night long and into dawn.
“Another thing that happens to everybody is when the smuggler brought you to the other side, to Spain, there was an olive grove, olive trees everywhere and there it was misty and we stood under the trees for we didn’t know what. At that point he pointed like this [holds his arm and finger out] and said, ‘Espagne.’
“It was cold. It was June, right? I think of the guys who went over in the winter time. Even then, in June, we still met snow all over the place. He also led us in a way that if you saw mountains that had huge peaks shooting up, that’s the one you had to go for because that was the one that wasn’t covered, where they weren’t watching you. He took us this circuitous route because you know the place was lined with troops. Non-intervention troops from the League of Nations. They had places where they watched. It was very hard to get through, but there were two things going for us. The first thing was that our guide, the smuggler, really knew what he was doing. The second thing was that some of these guys had been reached, they were friendly and they would look the other way if they heard us coming around.
“I don’t know how many hours we went, twelve, fourteen, sixteen. It just didn’t stop.
“When we got to the other side again we were picked up by trucks, Spanish Army trucks. They took us to a fort named Figueras. Figueras was a fort that was built during the Spanish Inquisition. Its walls were twelve feet thick. We slept somewhere down deep in a hold or basement or something. Everything was stone and what they had was mettle hammocks that were hung up high, you couldn’t get anything in them, bolted into the spoke and iron. What it was, they hadn’t been used for hundreds of years, and it was a place where they used to keep people and they flooded the place below so if you wanted to escape you would drown. They sent you food on chains; it had pulleys and so on. Everybody wrote their names on the walls. It was absolutely covered with guys who were there before and waiting for the guys who were coming by.”
Abe adds, “This was a fort that even Napoleon couldn’t conquer when he had his adventure into Spain to establish his brother Louis Napoleon, who became king of Spain for awhile, but he never overran that particular place. It was owned by the Spaniards all during his occupation. When we got there and we all assembled, we had a couple hundred guys there.”
Lou picks up his story, “I think we were there a couple, two three days. We then took a train. It was a sealed train; you couldn’t get off the train. And we went down the coast to Valencia, then west to Albacete. And when we went through Barcelona we didn’t know what was going on, but something was going on. The place was being shot up and we were told to lay low and we went straight through. What was happening was a battle between the POUM, a segment of Trotsky people who had their own regiments and had left the front to come back and fight this on the streets of Barcelona. They did a lot of damage by opening up areas where the fascists came through. But, we didn’t understand what was happening. I’m not so sure today, but they were fighting it out. I know some of the issues they were fighting for. One group wanted to address problems of the revolution immediately and not wait for the war to end. And one group said you have got to win the war first, got to concentrate on it and keep everybody together, not like this where somebody peels off and does their own thing.
“We got to Albacete and then we go through the whole business of the bullring. The bullring was heaps of clothes, uniforms, equipment, shoes, helmets. The uniforms were all wool and they were all World War I uniforms and they weren’t from the same country. You look at any of the pictures and nobody has got the same thing on anyplace. They were warm, but they were used also. I found a pair of shoes, though, that I’d wished I’d taken home. These were up past your ankle, they were hobnailed, I’d never seen hobnailed shoes and the hobnails were round and tight, protruding together and you couldn’t walk on pavement without breaking your neck. Impossible, because they would make sparks and you would slide, it was like wearing golf shoes you know.
“We didn’t really have mess kits at that point either. I can’t remember how we ate, but mess kits came later. We had cans, cans of beans or whatever and we would cut the lid off and use that for drinking and whatever. I don’t remember eating. That’s terrible.
“The weapons we had were Russian rifles, but there were also old English rifles, some Springfields from about 1903.
“Anyway, while we were in Albacete Abe saved my life because I definitely wouldn’t be here. We were waiting in this line in the bullring and there was a long convoy waiting to go down to Cordoba, to the south, and there weren’t enough drivers. They were desperate. They had to find somebody who could drive a big truck. I decided that I didn’t come to Spain to drive a big truck, but Abe, the big genius, said in a very loud voice, ‘Hey, Lou, you used to drive a truck.’ You see, we had this friend back in Brooklyn named Saul Wellman. He went to Spain too, Saulie, as a commissar. Saulie Wellman’s father owned a wholesale candy place. When Saulie got kicked out of Boys High, he got expelled in his senior year for activities around the campus and talking out, political activities you know, they bounced him right out. And so he went to drive his uncle and father’s truck. During the summer I had become his helper. I drove the truck every once and awhile even though I wasn’t of age at that point. So because of Saulie I got to drive this truck and Abe announced in a very loud voice, ‘Hey Lou!’ he said. ‘Come on, you can drive that truck.’ I said, ‘Shhhhh!’
“After that I was behind the wheel of a truck and I only saw Abe sporadically from then on.”
“Yeah, I nudged him,” said Abe laughing. “I nudged him. He put up his hand. Why not? He drove. He wasn’t too happy, but they needed him. The auto park was a safer place to be than the front lines. Don’t let him shit you about it.”
From Albacete Lou and Abe went in different directions—Abe to train for the front lines and Lou to the Cordoba front driving a truck.
“Training was sort of, ‘Yeah, let’s try a little of that.’ They sent us to a town called Tarazona, which is a little south of Madrid, between Madrid and Valencia. We had about, unlike other guys, who had come earlier and had been thrown into combat right away; we had three weeks in Tarazona, which was a nice town. We slept in some kind of barn that was on the outskirts of town. We did a little training, what do they call it? Close arms drill, and we did that a lot. They kept telling us remember we’re all comrades, but you salute officers at all times. We learned how to go like this [salutes]. That was ignored, we didn’t bother with that. You know, the truth is that unlike other brigades, the Germans and the Italians, and even the English, they had conscription unlike we Americans. We were all students or from the workplace. They were also older than we were; the other brigades. So then, it was a lot easier for them to integrate into their units than it was for us. We had to learn everything from ground zero.
“We did that, and after that we stayed there. My friend, I had a friend at that time who died recently. His name is Saul Wellman. Saul Wellman was about four years older than I was and we came from the same neighborhood so he was sort of… he sort of treated me like his protégé. He’d invite me to the officer’s mess, I had a couple of years of high school Spanish, and he says, ‘You go in there and you read to these officers, they are all Americans and Canadians, you read them the newspaper everyday so that they’ll know what’s going on in Spain and then you sit down and eat with us.’ Well, that sounds like a good deal. Of course, he was taking care of me because they didn’t care what the hell was happening in Spain. So I did that for a couple of weeks. That was nice I ate with the real glassware and plates and stuff.
“Then after that, in my own case, we stayed in Tarazona until after Brunete. There was a Lincoln Battalion, and after that was formed there was a Washington Battalion. When the battle of Brunete took place, this was… Brunete was the first Republican offensive of the war. It was an attempt to break out of the blockade that was set up around Madrid. It was a bloody battle, like all of them actions were, and it didn’t work. There were a lot of casualties and after that they were so depleted, the two battalions, that they became the Lincoln-Washington Battalion, they merged them.
“We, I mean the battalion I was in, were at that time in Tarazona and we had to pick a name, what to call ourselves. The first name was the Tom Paine Battalion, obviously, you know, it’s a good name, but the Canadians who had been, there had been a lot of Canadians who had been in various parts of Spain doing odd work, but they were all collected together to make this third battalion and they thought it would only be fair to give it a name that would mean something to Canadians and help with international solidarity from Canada itself. So we called it the Mackenzie-Papineau battalion. Papineau is for Quebec Canada and for Quebec independence. Mackenzie was an Englishman for English independence for Canada. So we united that to make it the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, the Mac-Paps. That’s the way it was formed.
“Our first action, you know you bring back bitter memories, I’m not going to sleep tonight. The one feature of my existence, or one emotion was exhaustion, not fear. I don’t remember ever being afraid. The only thing you are afraid of was to become a POW because we were retreating in so many cases. We were always on the move, always retreating and resting when we could. It was during one of these retreats that I lost a good friend, my wife’s brother; that’s how I met my wife you know. When I came back to the states I went to her house to tell them that their son had died in Spain. That was the first time I met Rose, but that’s another story.
“The first time we were in battle we didn’t have any planes attack us, we had artillery. We had to go into the lines and relieve a Spanish outfit and we had to cross a plain maybe the size of two football fields. It was flat and straight, no vegetation on it, no trees, nothing but shrubs and holes that had been made by shells. The plan was to at the crack of dawn was to make this run into the lines, but, you know what SNAFU means? SNAFU – Situation Normal All Fucked Up, that was it. Instead of getting a convoy of trucks, instead of arriving at this place of departure at the crack of dawn it was high noon. It was daylight and we still had to get there. There were guys waiting to be relieved. They were Spanish guys and we had to get up to the lines regardless of what the hell time it was. That was the orders. So we went along, we crawled along and artillery was falling until I finally get into a hole and there was a guy in it and he’s got his head down, and we had almost reached the point we had to get to. I look at him, I knew him, and I said, ‘Salzmann, what the hell are you doin’ here? You’re about ten feet away from being safe.’
“’I’m afraid,’ he said.
“So I said, ‘Come on, come on with me.’ So he gets out and I look and I say, ‘Where’s your rifle?’
“He says, ‘I threw it away.’
“I said, ‘Shit, you threw away your rifle? That’s a firing squad for Christ’s sake, that’s a court martial.’ So I says, ‘Carl, you come with me and we’ll see Bob Thompson,’ who was our battalion commander. I’ll know where he is.’ So we crawl out, and nobody got hurt that day. With all this artillery, nobody got hurt. We get to Bob Thompson and he’s leaning at the side of the parapet, he’s got yellow jaundice, he looked like hell. He’s sick, he was sick, and I’m telling him this story and he says, ‘Where’s your rifle?’
“And I said, ‘He threw it away.’
“So he looks at him and says, ‘Go to the kitchen.’ He sent this guy to the kitchen. That was his punishment. We were not going to stick to military justice and shoot the guy.
“He was my friend for a long time. He was a Palestinian, this guy Salzmann, and he kept in touch with me for a long time. He died recently.
“But that was my experience there. I was in the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion from its formation to the very end.”
After Albacete, Lou settled into his new job of driving a truck.
“Well, we left Albacete and I drove all day and all night and got to a town called Hinojosa. There was one person with me in the truck, but he was not a driver. The convoy was very long and the roads were almost non-existent. Very rough roads, and we drove and drove and drove, and then we would stop, but you couldn’t get out of your truck. You would just rest with your head against the wheel and fall asleep. They would get me up in what felt like five minutes, but it was probably ten, and start driving again. The thing I was driving, what I was following wasn’t a scenic route – it was the back of another truck. I had my eyes drew on the back of a truck. Do you know how dopey I got then?
“We got to a place called Hinojosa Del Pueblo. We stopped at the center of town. The center of the town had a plaza of sorts, it was all cobblestones and very uneven. The picture I have in my mind is of the cobblestones, which were enormous and all over the place. We were in Southern Spain in Cordoba as the front in Cordoba at that point was close to there for a long time. The town was really a little hamlet. When I hopped out of the truck we were in the plaza of this little hamlet, there were cobblestones and the temperature was well over a hundred degrees. This was June.
“I’ve got to tell you this little thing. When I hopped out of the truck somebody said, there was always somebody telling us what to do, somebody showed us a line of houses that were all painted white, had been there for a long, long time. It was terribly hot and this fella told us to go in there and find a spot to just rest. I went into one of these places; there were no lights or anything. It was just dark and there were big heavy walls and tile floors, and I found this little sort of room and there’s a blanket on the floor so I flopped right on it.
“I woke up a little while later and I was just lying there and I heard somebody breathing so it was obvious there was somebody else in the room. Again, you’ve got to picture this thing. I had traveled from the United States, across France, across mountains, went through the cities of Spain, worked my way in this truck and followed the convoy for a day and a half and ended up lying down in this little room. And a voice said, ‘Where are ya from?’ in English.
“I told him, ‘Brooklyn.’
“He said, ‘Oh yeah, where’d you go to school?’
“I said, ‘Boys High.’
“He said, ‘Me too.’
“I was 5,000 miles from home, climbed that stupid mountain, drove in that convoy only to find myself in a room with a kid from Boys High. I didn’t know him then, but later we did become good friends, his name was Tommy Paige, he was one of the black volunteers.
“What the astounding thing is in this long story is that he had gone to Boys High School. That’s what astounded me.”