I spent the last six hours of the July Fourth holiday in ambivalent enjoyment of the peace in this house, all 10 houseguests having now left, and in watching the HBO marathon showing of John Adams with Paul Giamatti as the second American President and the wonderful Laura Linney as his wife Abigail.
The day I graduated from high school I won the novelized tale of the Adams’ long marriage as the English Prize but never had the sense to actually read it. I see that I must go back and do so now if I can possibly find it. (I should be able to. We never throw anything out around here. I certainly still have the explosion of brocade and chiffon that I wore to the Holly Hop in December of that year.)
Anyway. I felt hot tears leaping to my eyes more than once as I watched. There is the scene where their grown daughter Nabby has a breast removed while tied to a bed in the family home with only a shot of liquor to dull the pain. (This is Nabby on the left as portrayed by Sarah Polley.) According to the website BreastReconstruction.org the facts were even worse: “Treatment was once so untenable that women neglected their disease if a lump was discovered. Their breasts became disfigured as their tumors took over their bodies. But the alternative was worse than the disease: Nabby Adams, the daughter of John and Abigail Adams, suffered through a mastectomy in which she was tied to a chair while, without anesthesia, her breast was removed. She survived the surgery only to die from the disease. This was common practice in the 18th century.”
It’s hard to say which brought me closer to tears, that scene, or the scene where Abigail herself dies of typhoid just after looking at the wondrous blue hydrangea bouquet that her husband has brought in to their bedroom. “Oh John!” she sighs at the sight of them, or the scene in which after Abigail’s death, the former President reads a letter from his old nemesis Thomas Jefferson, soon to be faithful correspondent. It goes like this:
The public papers, my dear friend, announce the fatal event of which your letter of October the 20th had given me ominous foreboding.. The same trials have taught me that for ills so immeasurable, time and silence are the only medi cine. I will not, therefore, by useless condolences, open afresh the sluices of your grief, nor, although mingling sincerely my tears with yours, will I say a word more where words are vain, but that it is of some comfort to us both, that the term is not very distant, at which we are to deposit in the same cerement,our sorrows and suffering bodies and to ascend in essence to an ecstatic meeting with the friends we have loved and lost, and whom we shall still love and never lose again. God bless you and support you under your heavy affliction.
We wave to our children as they leave so certain that one day soon we will see them again and their children too as more such children come along and maybe someday their children’s children as well but who knows really? Who ever knows? We can only hope that in the end there wil kindness, and an absence of pain and perhaps a view of flowers.