More than anything, i wish i could go back to a particular moment in time.
Now that i know the facts about her death.
But i can’t, right now… go back, that is.
Because the place is Syria.
And the moment in time is the summer of 2010, when we were able to cross the border (albeit somewhat frighteningly, even in a time of peace) from Lebanon, and on our way to Aleppo, visited the Krak des Chevaliers, an 11th century medieval castle, one of the most well preserved castles in the world, so rich is its history.
Rich in our family history, as well.
More on that in a minute.
My mother, brother, and I crossed the Syrian border, and proceeded to drive about an hour onwards and upwards to this glorious site. We knew the story, but up until today, we didn’t know the full version.
We arrived, greeted by camels, to the main entrance. It was more than a castle – it was a veritable fortress. Piles of massive heavy round stones piled up, ready to be catapulted upon the enemy at a moment’s notice. Long slits carved out in stone, able only to fit a rifle’s long barrel, the walls, thus, protecting the soldier.
And perhaps most magnificent of all were the holes.
Holes that were deep, who’s sole purpose was to allow sunlight to filter through to the tunnels. Or holes that were wells, so as to allow access to underground water. Holes that, in 2010, were protected, for tourists’ sake, with iron rods.
But on November 22nd, 1949, they were not.
Which is why, on that date, my great grandmother fell through one of them and died.
This is why my mother took us there.
We thought we knew roughly the whole story. The story of how our great grandmother died. That she fell through a hole at the Krak de Chevaliers.
But today I learned more.
Today my brother and I got an email from our mother who found, in a storage unit, the letter my grandfather – a minister, theologian, and President of Aleppo College in Syria from 1954-1958 and President of the Near East School of Theology in the year of this incident, 1949 – wrote to friends of his mother, Bessie McMullen, on the details of her death.
Below i have re-typed the letter (i so wish i could have attached the original in it’s beautifully written form, but alas, it is too faded and thus difficult to read) that my grandfather wrote the day after the death of my great grandmother. Please note that anything in parenthesis are my own additions.
American Mission, Beirut Lebanon, November 23, 1949:
To the dear friends of Bessie McMullen,
Through the cables sent early this morning you know of Mother’s sudden and tragic death yesterday.
She left early (5:30) Sunday morning on a trip to the Krak des Chavliers. The trip was one of many which are sponsored annually by the American University of Beirut to points of interest in the Near East. Neither Marie Louise (his wife, my grandmother) nor I went on the trip as I was scheduled to speak at the Univeristy Chapel in the early evening. But in the two busloads of people which comprised the party were several older people, including particularly two American women, two doctors, and two nurses. Mother perhaps felt a bit lonesome at first but soon found a happy companionship with the two women. We heard that she had a gay and happy morning as the buses went north to Tripoli and then turned easterly for the two hours further to the finest of the ancient Crusader castles.
The group spent some time going over the castle, then had lunch. After lunch Mother and one of the other women were apart from the rest of the group. In one of the dark places in the castle Mother stepped off into a deep, abandoned well. The others immediately rushed to her aid as she lay helplessly and severely hurt at the bottom. She had landed on her feet which were both badly fractured. Her left arm was broken, the lower part of her spine, and she had internal injuries. She remained fully conscious, however.
As the castle is in a rather desolate section of Syria, no private cars were available and there was no alternative but to lay her on the back seat of one of the buses and start an agonizing trip back to the mission hospital at Tripoli. Fortunately the two nurses were at hand to make mother as comfortable as possible. The two doctors who had walked back along the road some distance were picked up later. One of them, on an impulse, had brought along a few drugs and was able to give Mother some medication. But the trip back to Tripoli required four hours due to the terrible condition of the road, and the care needed to make the journey as easy as possible.
Mother was able to sleep a little with the medication. She manifested great courage and good spirit, despite her pain. She didn’t want me to be told of the accident until after I had finished the service. Her last words were, “I’m going to die now. Say good-bye.” Then she went to sleep quietly just five minues before reaching the hospital. Her heart could not withsand the shock. That was at seven o’clock.
Word arrived at the University Chapel about 7:20 and I received it just after I had finished speaking, some five minues later. The suddenness and violence of Mother’s death stunned us. Yet God has upheld us. He has been very tender and full of loving kindness.
We are grateful for the happy months which Mother had here (in Lebanon) with us all. She was thrilled with the voyage over and she found rest after several years of arduous labor in their trip to Jersualem. And to see Gary (my uncle, deceased in 2010) and Deedee (my mother) again, to be with our precious little Laura (my aunt) climaxed her joy.
We are grateful for her devotion to Jesus Christ and the consequent depth and earnestness of her spiritual life. She was sustained through some difficult years by her faith. As a mother she gave of herself without stint to her children, cherishing only the hope that growing up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord they might serve Him all their days. She labored in the church, of her meagre substance in those latter days she gave generously to others in greater need. She found it difficult to spend for herself what she knew others needed more.
When mother left New york last June she embarked on a longer voyage than she knew. But she also ventured on to a more glorious place. She is reunited with Dad. And they are with God.
Our thoughts are with you all.
I don’t know what more to write, as my grandfather, my Jiddu, Horace “Mac” McMullen, wrote so much more fluently and compassionately than i could ever imagine. He worshiped God, and i struggle with my faith in Him. He wrote this a day after his mother’s death, whereas i don’t know where i would muster the strength to write such a letter would that have been my mother.
I sit here, tears streaming down my cheeks in sheer awe of the reality that we can always learn more about the blood that binds us. I am an agnostic, yet the words my Jiddu wrote above send me to my knees to pray.
Is it a sign?
Or is it a lesson.
I am richer, fuller, deeper in my faith surrounding my place in this world after having read this letter.
I am so proud to be the great grand daughter of Bessie McMullen, the Granddaughter of Horace McMullen, and the daughter of Deedee McMullen Corradini.
May we all, in our time of death, be celebrated with a letter such as this.