The Common Good
July-August 1995

Grace Like a Balm

by Joyce Hollyday | July-August 1995

Anne Morrison Welsh remembers every detail of that day 30 years ago.

Anne Morrison Welsh remembers every detail of that day 30 years ago. Her husband, Norman Morrison, who served as executive secretary of a Quaker community in Baltimore, was home sick with a cold. He had just finished reading an article by a priest in SouthVietnam about the bombing of a village there.

"I remember we were in the kitchen," says Anne. "I was preparing lunch. We had French onion soup. I've never liked French onion soup since." Although Norman had resisted taxes, demonstrated, and lobbied in Washington, he said to her, "It's not enough. What can be done to stop this war?"

Anne recounts, "I'll never forget what I said: 'I don't know what more can be done. All I know is that we shouldn't despair.'"

Anne put their 1-year-old daughter, Emily, down for a nap and left to pick up their older children, Ben, 6, and Christina, 5, at school. When they returned, Norman and Emily were gone. Anne was making supper when the phone rang. A reporter asked her, "Are you aware that your husband has made a protest in Washington?"

Soon after, an official from the Fort Myer Infirmary at the Pentagon called. He explained that Norman had set himself on fire. He assured Anne that Emily was fine. Eyewitnesses gave conflicting reports about what had happened: Some say Norman laid Emily down on the pavement before soaking himself with kerosene, others say that he handed her to a passerby.

"Whether he thought of it that way or not, I think having Emily with him was a final and great comfort to Norman," says Anne. "And she was a powerful symbol of the children we were killing with our bombs and napalm-who didn't have parents to hold them in their arms. The important thing is that he released her. If he had taken Emily-and he could have-it would have been almost unbearable."

Norman had written Anne a letter and mailed it from Washington. He wrote of his commitment to live by divine guidance, by what Quakers call the "inner light." He said that after months of praying about what to do, he felt that he received clear instruction. He ended the letter, "Know that I love thee, but I must go to help the children of the priest's village."

AS ANNE SPEAKS, the voices of children laughing and shouting on a nearby school playground waft into her backyard in the mountains of western North Carolina. Emily, now 30, tends their garden. The event that changed their lives seems far away, though the emotion is still close to the surface.

Anne recalls that she was "in complete shock" after Norman's death, but her sudden lone responsibility for three young children and the publicity around the event kept her from finding space and time to grieve well. She says that she didn't really get angry about it until 10 years later, when Ben died of cancer at the age of 16, and she had to carry a parent's grief alone.

She reflects now, "Anger is a very important part of healing. For so long after Norman died, I didn't experience or express it. It's very hard to be angry at someone who has just given his life for a cause, especially to try to stop a war. It seemed inappropriate to be angry.

"I feel like a big part of my life stopped in 1965," she continues. "I have worked through enough-with Christina and Emily, and within my own soul-that I can look now on all that happened with compassion and acceptance and understanding and forgiveness. Now I feel like I'm ready to share it with the world-whoever wants to hear it."

Robert McNamara, who was secretary of defense at the time, devotes two pages in his new book, In Retrospect, to Norman Morrison's self-immolation, which took place in view of his window at the Pentagon. Anne wrote to McNamara, thanking him for the courage and honesty of his public apology about his role in the Vietnam War. He called Anne, thanking her in return, and the two talked about the event that changed them both.

"Norman's death is a wound that we've both carried," says Anne. "In an odd twist of fate, we have come into a kind of communion with each other. We are both victims of the war.

"In a sense, the McNamara book has given me an opportunity to relive [Norman's taking of his life]. It was a horrible thing, and a dreadful thing, to do. It was a traumatic loss and took a tremendous toll on our family-and it still does. But I respected the great concern and commitment Norman had-and the anguish he had-about the war. And I respected his courage to try to find a way to stop it."

Norman's action didn't stop the war, but Anne believes it brought the war home and conveyed to the Vietnamese people that there were individuals here who cared deeply about their suffering. She is grateful for the hundreds of letters she received from people who were touched by Norman's witness, including some from people in Vietnam.

In Retrospect has received a great deal of criticism, particularly from veterans of the war, a reaction that Anne understands. "A lot of people don't want to have that wound reopened. But if a wound is festering, it needs to be reopened to be healed. The pain, or the fear, or the hate, or the suffering has to be acknowledged and accepted by God. Then grace comes like a balm, like holy ointment in a way, that can start the healing process."

JOYCE HOLLYDAY, a former Sojourners associate editor and now a contributing editor, writes, leads retreats, and works with survivors of domestic abuse in western North Carolina.

 

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