Our Gentle Whisper: The Religious Life and Times of Elijah James Blum

by Edward J. Blum

This post is to announce a new memorial fund to honor the life of Elijah James Blum.

The History Department at San Diego State University would like to announce its fundraising efforts to create the “Elijah James Blum Memorial Fund." Elijah, son of Associate Professor Edward J. Blum and Jennifer Blum, passed away on August 31, 2011, from complications related to a mitochondrial disorder. After developing cataracts in his eyes and degenerating muscularly such that his eating and breathing were impaired, Elijah died peacefully at home with his family. His favorite game was peek-a-boo and he laughed far more in life than he cried. He was just over eight months old.

Elijah did not live long, but the religious whirlwind that was his life had stories to tell. He was a member of Al-Anon, a brother to more than twenty men who met each Saturday morning at a park to share their experience, strength, and hope through the spiritual journey of the twelve steps. He listened to men discuss their “higher power” and joined the generations who have found freedom through a program forged from the pains of alcoholism and the Great Depression in the 1930s. Elijah was known as the “littlest man at the park,” and in a group that cherished “principles over personalities,” it was clear that he was everyone’s favorite person. As Elijah’s ability to eat withered, we prayed that the words of the Alcoholics Anonymous “Big Book” would hold true today, that the “age of miracles is still with us.” Sadly, we all had to learn new depths of what it meant to admit our powerlessness. We now choke our way through the “serenity prayer” and hope that by repeatedly claiming that we “accept the things we cannot change” that we would actually find some peace.

As doctors scratched their heads trying to determine what was making it so hard for Elijah to eat and then to breathe, the line between “religion” and “science” blurred and then dissolved. When preparing to take Elijah to the hospital for the fourth or fifth time, his pediatrician mumbled “he’s in God’s hands now.” Increasingly, doctors and nurses started invoking prayer and hope for a world beyond what we could see. These moments brought hope to Jen, but left me hoping simply in hope. At those moments, I didn’t want an allegiance of religion and science. When I couldn’t tell the difference between the doctors of medicine and the doctors of divinity, it felt like both were admitting that their arts were not up to the task.

Then as it all fell apart and it became a question of not if Elijah would stop breathing, but when, there was the makeshift baptism at the hospital. It was a congregation of three where “we” took precedence over “me.” The childhood development people tell us that we’re “we, before we’re me,” but we had heard so many evangelical preachers say all the time that “God has no grandchildren.” But Elijah couldn’t have a conversion moment; he wouldn’t have the opportunity to tell a story of his wickedness, the power of God’s intervention, and the progress of a new pilgrim (if he would have even traveled that route). We had to make a choice, and there would be no Puritan half-way about it. Elijah’s baptism began with an apology. “We’re sorry, Elijah, that we are deciding this for you. We wish you could decide this on your own, but since you cannot and since our family follows Christ of whom the stories say he healed women, men, and children, we baptize you in the name ….” It was a baptism of anguish, but one nonetheless.

And there were a few of our last ditch efforts. When Elijah’s breathing failed and he had to have a tube and a machine work air into his small frame, we tried our own religious invention: the “power of positive breathing.” We snuggled beside him and breathed deeply. We let his body feel our muscles move as we whispered to him, “this is how we breathe Elijah; easy in, and easy out. This is how we breathe.” And when we removed the tube, I believed that maybe, just maybe, his body would have heard. It didn’t, or at least not as we wished.

Through all of these struggles, our enduring image of Elijah is by far the most striking. He developed cataracts and his vision was impaired to the point that he could only see bright lights. But his favorite game was peek-a-boo. Every time Jen popped up with “peek-a-boo,” Elijah laughed and rocked and shouted with delight. Watching him transformed how I and his Uncle Paul revised our manuscript on Jesus. All of a sudden, there was a new spirit in our writing about people who longed to see what had no visible form, who searched for salvation in the dark of night, who laughed amid terrible loss, and who generated meaning from the deaths of their children through the supposed death of God’s son. Every sentence of the book became a testament to Elijah’s saga and the joys we experienced with him. Thank you for letting me share these little bits of his and our spiritual journey.

The “Elijah James Blum Memorial Fund” will be used to support teaching and learning in the History Department at San Diego State University. Tax-deductible contributions to the fund may be made by writing a check to “The Campanile Foundation,” referencing the Elijah James Blum Memorial Fund on the memo line and sending it to Bonnie Akashian, SDSU Dept. of History, 5500 Campanile Dr., San Diego, CA 92182-6050. Please contact Beth Pollard (Associate Prof. of History, epollard@mail.sdsu.edu) or Nancy Lemkie (Senior Director of Development in CAL at SDSU, nlemkie@mail.sdsu.edu or 619-594-8569), if you have any questions.


Curtis J. Evans said…
Dear Ed,
my sympathy, condolences and prayers are with you and Jen. I can only imagine how difficult this must have been to write and how painful to endure all of this. Thanks though for sharing so movingly little Elijah's story. What a beautiful tribute to his short life. And yet how tragic and sad that this happened. There are few words to express one's feelings about this. But be assured that you have the support and encouragement of friends.
Mr. Mazur said…
Dear Professor,
You are my favorite professor and so undeserving of such a tragedy. I think of you and your son frequently, not realizing he was so ill; I always thought of him as your little rebel. My mother recently passed away at eighty-two - this was tragic enough for our family. I can only imagine losing a family member so prematurely. Elijah will be included and prayers offerred to him at her service on Monday, November 14, in the memory of those who have recently passed.
Charles Mazur
rob445766 said…
Dear Professor,
I am so sorry for you and your wife's loss. To lose such a beautiful young child is such a tragedy. Elijah will forever live on in our memories.
Anonymous said…
.Dearest Friends,
I was so blessed and honored to be a small part of your journey with sweet baby, Elijah. Your courage and optimisim during this time was truly inspirational.
Elijah taught us all some great life lessons--like how to smile in the face of difficult challenges and how to put up the good fight--He was such a fighter.
Love and prayers,
He's our shining star and for me when I look into the night sky and see a twinkling star, I stopped and talk and pray with him
Chris Beneke said…
I'm so sorry Ed. I can't imagine the pain you have felt.
Mary Leathead said…
Dear Professor,
I can't relate to you how horribly sad I was after hearing this news, the pain you and your wife have felt must be overwhelming. I would like you to know that you and your family are in my entire family's thoughts and prayers this week. Donations will also be sent in memory of your sweet little son, Elijah, may his spirit live on in the hearts of everyone he has touched....
Best Wishes,
Mary Leathead
Anonymous said…

I was so depressed to learn about your loss. I cannot imagine how hard it has been for you and your wife to endure such pain. And to be able to still come to school every day and teach with a smile on your face takes courage that I am sure very few have. I have a 15 month old son who was diagnosed at birth with a congenital heart defect. We knew shortly after having him that he would need surgery at 3 months. He had his surgery and now has a fighting chance at living. Even that experience was devastating enough on me, my husband, and our family. No child should ever have to suffer, they are the most innocent things on the planet. I cried for your son and I never even met him, but I can tell from his picture and the things you said about him that he was a very special little boy. Your strength is truly amazing. Elijah was lucky to have you and your wife as parents.

Kelly Baker said…
Ed, I echo the sentiments of our other commenters in mourning your family's loss. My thoughts and condolences will be with you.

Moreover, this tribute to Elijah is lovely and haunting, and it captures the moments were our boundaries often blur both personally and professionally in a smart and poetic way. As Curtis already said, this is a beautiful tribute to a short life.
Amy said…

May his name be a blessing.

With deepest sorrow,

Tim Lacy said…
Professor Blum,

With #2 on the way in our family, I feel your pain. Everything I want to say sounds trite. So I'll leave you with my prayers only.

Most sincerely,

Charity Carney said…

When I saw you just the other day I had no idea. If I would have known, I don't think I would have had words to say. Just know that you and your family are in our thoughts.

Dware said…
We've never met, Ed, but I feel like I know you a bit from the beautiful moving essay about your son. Gambatte, as they say in Japan.
Patrick Mason said…
Dear Ed,

I'm so sorry at your and Jen's loss. It's hard to know what to say, and I certainly can't improve on what you've already shared in terms of how Elijah's spark brought that much more light and love and laughter to the world. Tears came to my eyes as I read about you breathing with him, trying to coax him to do that most simple but essential thing. This will make me value each precious little breath from my children all the more. God bless you and your grieving heart.
Tracy said…
Dear Ed,

What a beautiful boy you and Jen are father and mother to. How generous of you to share the mystery of his life and death with us. My prayers are with you and your loved ones.

Anonymous said…
Although brief. I was nice seeing you at my work. Unfortunate to reunite that way. I was so fortunate to listen to you and your experiences that you and Cherry were enduring. You both bring hope to world, that might not seem like much at this point. But you two were meant to be together and undergo such a difficult process together. I can't imagine what things are like now but I can't wait to see the future with your little angel guiding the way.
DEG said…
I was moved deeply by your story, and I just wanted you to know that y'all are in our thoughts and prayers.
Edward J. Blum said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
John G. Turner said…

Thank you for sharing this with us. It is a most beautiful testimony to your son.

Edward J. Blum said…
Thanks to all for the kind words. One of the many benefits to our profession is that I rarely feel alone. Whether from those who have gone before (and lost loved ones in all kinds of manners and have tried to find meaning through it all ... I think often of Dr. Du Bois losing his son and the horrible events of beautiful Burghardt's funeral) to friends and colleagues now who share sighs and stories.
Scott Johnston said…
Dearest Dr. Blum,
I once told my girlfriend that if I could be a history professor as anyone, I would like to be like you. I feel very deeply for you and Jen in this most difficult time.

Isaiah 40:31 But those who trust in the LORD will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.

I believe that your Elijah is with the Lord. Keep your focus with Him.

With the deepest sorrow, Your former student, Scott Johnston
Rado said…
Professor Blum,
I was in your history class a few semesters back, and I was never a fan of history, but you made it so entertaining and fun, it would actually bring happiness to my day. I can only imagine the tremendous amount of happiness you brought to Elijah's life. I know the reason he laughed far more then he cried in life was because of you. My deepest sympathies go to you and your family. I will keep you and your family in my thoughts and prayers.

Ryan Muise
Alex Burgess said…
Touching and beautiful. Thank you your sharing.
Michelle Kuhl said…
Dear Ed,
I'm so sorry to hear about your loss. I'm glad you were able to share joy with your son during the few months he had. My thoughts are with you.
Michelle Kuhl
Lexi said…

Prayers to your amazing family. This little boy is an inspiration to all. Keep telling your story and being a great teacher. He will always be alive in our memories. I feel blessed to have been in your class and learned so much. Thank you.