Good Night, Dear Heartbroken

A ghost came to haunt me this past night; I do not know if it was Samuel, Susy, or Etsegenet; but I knew that I would know no peace until I shared this tale with another.

We have not yet invented the time machine or transporter that can move things between different moments or places, but a song can move us emotionally through centuries and halfway around a world in the space of minutes. The trip back for me is not so fast; though I write this story with 21st century technology from North Carolina, my heart is in scattered pieces across time and space between New York and Ethiopia.


I first heard the song while chaperoning my daughter’s high school chorus on a day trip out to Meredith College for a choral performance festival. Their Advanced Mixed Chorus performed two songs; it is the second one in the following link  (about 60% through).

Apex High School – Advanced Mixed Chorus @ Meredith College March 2012

I was so caught up in managing my recording process, and the acoustics of the hall were a bit dodgy; so I didn’t quite get all of the text of the song the first time through, nor was it captured all that well in the recording. The beauty and sonority of the music was enough, however – I was unprepared for the effect that it had on me, and was choking back sobs within the first minute.

My daughter was also utterly destroyed by the piece – she came home and listened to my recording over and over in a fruitless attempt to inoculate herself against its effects, sobbing uncontrollably all the while.

I then chaperoned the chorus trip to Atlanta, GA in late March, and had the opportunity to record the song again – this time with a better miking setup in a more modern venue with better acoustics. The resulting recording I captured is much clearer, and the text can be understood. Both my daughter and I were again crushed; there is an audible sniffle from me at about 1 minute in to the recording – and it is fortunate her section had performed earlier, as she was inconsolable for at least twenty minutes following.

The story behind the song would penetrate even the stoniest heart.

Mark Twain’s daughter Susy Clemens passed away from a spinal meningitis infection in 1896 while the author was traveling on a lecture tour.

She was buried in Elmira, NY, where her headstone has inscribed an adaptation of a poem called Annette by poet Robert Richardson:

Warm summer sun, shine kindly here,
Warm southern wind, blow softly here,
Green sod above, lie light, lie light –
Good night, dear heart,
Good night, good night.

Skip ahead more than a century later; a composer (Dan Forrest, also from Elmira, NY) has a brother planing to adopt several orphaned children from Ethiopia. One of the children, a four-month old baby girl named Etsegenet, passes away from an infection before they can get there. A video by his brother explains what happened (jump to about 80% of the way in), and shows the tiny, roughly-marked grave dwarfed among the other fenced-in crypts in the graveyard; set to another recording of the piece. Mr. Forrest tells the story behind what inspired the work, and how he researched the text and wrote in less a day the piece you’ve heard.

While researching this, I found other works that set these words to music – but none that moved me in nearly the same way. Dan Forrest has captured the bittersweet agony of loss in his harmonic setting alone. The text adds a marble marker over the music’s deep hole in a green field on a hill; a hole never filled despite being covered; and a place never forgotten even were it left unmarked.

I know more than I care to about the pain of losing a daughter (having had two foster daughters in our care, one for more than a year before the social workers decided it wasn’t working out). I know at least that they live on, and have the hope that we planted seeds that were able to affect their lives in some positive way.

I cannot bear to think what it would do to me to lose my daughter of 14 years. I know that the Forrests loved that baby they knew only in pictures and letters for a few short months no less than Samuel Clemens loved his Susy for her 24 years.

To Susy and Etsegenet – I hope you are both at peace and in the loving arms of your parents in heaven.

To the Forrests – I hope that time and the joys of the children you have adopted have helped mend your hearts.

To my daughter – I hope to see you in heaven; mind you, I am planning on arriving first, and I am in no rush.