The Death of Wee Tom

It was on of those dismal Scottish winter days, where day is not so far removed from night: cold driving rain and the cheerless solid grey of the sky, coming down almost to meet the earth, when the worker returning from his labours at night was thankful to get into the warmth and shelter of his home. A night such as we children used to look forward to as there were stories to be told when with our chairs pulled up to the hearth, we would listen to the tales of witches, ghosts and Bogey men and the foul deeds committed in the past, in and around the locality with which we were all familiar.

Mother was a vivid narrator and was never at a loss for sound effects, so that one had the eerie pleasure of feeling his hair stand on end, with an accompanying rash of goose pimples as the tales proceeded.

This night it was different: all day long one might have heard a pen drop in the house and the only break in the silence was the stealthy opening and closing of the door, as the neighbors would come in and after a few whispered words depart.

Wee Tom: our youngest brother was very sick: Wee Tom was only about nine months, while I, at that time would be about 10 or 11 years old.

Tom was such a dear little fellow that when as a necessity I was detailed to look after him, I never regarded it as much of a chore, as he would respond to the slightest effort to amuse him, with chuckles of delight.

All this day I had hung around his cradle, doing little things for his comfort and trying to induce that accustomed smile, but I was to young to know that the little boy had a fight on his hands.

It was sometime after supper, that while gently rocking his cradle, I noticed one of his little hands, as it lay white and motionless on the coverlet, the back of his hand seemed swollen and puffed up. I became alarmed, not knowing why, and drew the attention of mother to his condition: father was beside her at the same moment, and turning to me, told me to get the doctor quickly. I knew from the fear in his voice, that there was no time for boots or stockings, so into that stormy night in my bare feet, splashing through the rain, I ran as I had never run before for the doctor.

By the time I had explained my mission, Dr. Sandilands, a rosy cheeked little man, had his coat on, grip in hand, and we were on our way.

What transpired in the sick room I do no know, but when the doctor came out followed by my parents, with the tears streaming down their cheeks, I was afraid.

When the doctor had gone, we were told that Tom had pneumonia, or inflammation of the lungs and was very ill.

We were ushered to bed, but sleep for me was out of the question, as I lay listening to every movement and trying to gauge their import.

Later in the evening, my Aunt Anne came in and tip-toed into the sick room and all was quiet again. After a while I heard her distinctly say, "That is the death rattle in his throat", and from the wails of my mother, I knew that Wee Tom had passed away.

The other members of the family, both older and younger, like myself had not been asleep, and were out of bed in a moment, giving vent to their emotion, and in comforting their brood, my parents found comfort and strength in themselves.

In those days, in our part of Scotland at least, there were no undertakers such as we know in Canada today. The little infant body of Tom was dressed and the still little figure laid out on the bed.

The carpenter: who was also the undertaker, came and measured him, went away and made the little coffin, returning with it at night, and the next day, my father and oldest brother David, with the little casket resting on their knees, in a horse drawn cab, left for the cemetery: so passed Wee Tom.

After the funeral, "The Sign of Death", the drawn blinds, were raised and we sat down, as was customary, to the table. This was a heartbreaking affair: as we sat in silence with bowed heads, and if a head was raised it was to involuntarily glance at Wee Tom's accustomed place, then hastily turn chockingly away.

Many years have passed since then; but while overseas during the first war, with the Canadian Army, as also did my brothers, pay a visit to Wee Toms' grave: two of whom, paid the supreme sacrifice and now lie In Flanders Fields.

The death of the brothers, was in a way, something to which we could condition ourselves, every day being a day of dread, then came the fatal day: the shock, they will never come back again.

They can be remembered with pride, as young men, or boys, who proved themselves men, whose names are inscribed in the pages of history, and on enduring stone: They knew a little of life and were prepared to face death; but what of the little boy who was just on the threshold of life.

Sometimes I wake up with the feeling of having suffered a distinct loss, so real, that I ask myself whether I am awake of still asleep. On trying to analyze the cause I find my mind going back to Wee Tom.

Could it be that in the loss of the other members of the family, that having seen them grow to maturity, to fend for themselves and have seen myself in them: But in the case of Wee Tom, he is also a part of myself, a part which I have lost that I shall never know: Or is it perhaps that his little infant fingers still pluck at my heartstrings, and make of me a child among children. If so, then that is something which I hope I shall never lose. For as He said,

"Suffer the little children to come unto me,

for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven."

William Peden

Wee Tom - The Poem