Our Gentle Whisper: The Religious Life and Times of Elijah James 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, firstname.lastname@example.org) or Nancy Lemkie (Senior Director of Development in CAL at SDSU, email@example.com or 619-594-8569), if you have any questions.