“Where does the history go between two people when one of them dies? All that landscape is lost. And for a long time after the person you loved is gone you want to tell their story, so the story you’ve had together isn’t lost. If it’s an ordinary story, one by one the people you try to tell it to stop listening.” – Sharon White, Field Notes
In February 2010, a snowplow struck my mother in the head as she crossed a busy Manhattan intersection. She laid unconscious at the Bellevue SICU after undergoing surgery to relieve the pressure in her hemorrhaging brain. On the morning before Valentine’s Day, I left my husband and children in Utah and flew to New York City to help my sister complete the inevitable tasks of impending death.
By Ash Wednesday, four days later, I felt desperate to leave. I navigated the city streets – a mindless cipher, tapping an internal compass to reach my best friend. I got lost on the walk to Grand Central, though I’d walked there countless times before. The churches propped open their doors. I kept passing people with telltale smudges on their foreheads. A man tried to speak with me, took a single look at my face, and turned on his heels, hurrying away, plainly discomfited by what he saw. I eventually made my way to Grand Central, and rode the train to Ossining with the opiate of angry buzzing in my ears. What should have been a happy reunion with a dear friend was marred by intervals of despondency, numbness, disorientation, and tears.
There were long hours in the hospital: before the staff removed her ventilator, a process which required written and verbal consent, as well as consultation with a crisis counselor; when they dosed her with morphine to reduce her tremors; the wrenching anticipation of when it was going to happen – when her body would heed her brain and finally cease to function. It took six days. Then three more until my sister and I secured a funeral. So much waiting for a body vacated by its soul.
My mother wore a St. Christopher pendant nearly every day for as long as I can remember, a simple golden disk with a picture of a man carrying a child on his back. The pendant reads: Saint Christopher – Protect Us. She wasn’t wearing the pendant the day she died.
I harbor this irrational fear that something will take me away as swiftly as my mother was taken from me. My husband and I never told the kids what happened to mom; we just stopped mentioning her. If something happened to me, what would become of my children? How would they remember me? In Refuge, Terry Tempest Williams writes, “But the feeling I could not purge from my soul was that without a mother, one no longer has the luxury of being a child.” Now that I have been both a daughter and a mother, I see the terrible incongruity of loss. A parent ought never to experience the grief of burying one’s own child. But to imagine leaving a void in the lives of your children is pretty awful too.
How I begrudged my mother for her secrets! Who does silence benefit? Certainly not the person who carries her secrets like large pebbles sewn into the hem of her dress. Not the people who, by dint of circumstance, were present when the event occurred and who must knowingly, through fear or complicity, share the burden of another’s silence. Mom never understood that I write to free myself from the weight of too many stones. The irony is that mom wrote to cast away her pebbles too: she made monthly journal entries after she arrived in the States, testing out her English and unburdening her soul. She just never shared her writing with anyone.
From her journal: “I only want to ask: Dear God, where am I? And where are you?”
After she died, I started walking away from things, shedding parts of me: a sliver of soul here, steady streams of tears there, raw whispers into the darkness. I realized how much of myself I’d cloistered away, afraid to reveal who I really am for the sake of protecting mom. What about protecting what I valued in myself? What about remembering what I needed to keep living?
A friend sent me a copy of Field Notes after mom died. The first half – the crushing recollection of a young writer’s grief upon losing her husband to cancer – I liked. The latter half I interpreted as a quasi-happy ending, and, though I once considered myself a hopeless happy ending person, I no longer am.
When I was in high school, I elected to move in with my dad for the fall semester of sophomore year. It was a rash decision based on my unrelenting desire to flee Coney Island. I was tired of being taunted and afraid; I was tired of being leered at by the men who owned the local supermarket, Key Foods, and by random strangers on the subway. The counselor at my new school suggested that a school-sponsored trip to Escalante with a group of my peers might help ease the transition from New York to Utah.
Our group spent several days hiking through Escalante on a ‘survival’ trip. I recall Jolly Rancher candies, nuts and seeds, and Tang, punctuated by the unspeakable beauty of rocks and the desert, and, for an unaccustomed city girl, grueling hikes. I did not yet understand the school counselor’s goal: take a youth at risk (of what, I don’t know, but my life was not on an even keel), put her in one of Utah’s national treasures, and hope something important ignites.
The biggest challenge of the trip was the solo night. Our guides deposited us along stretches of a riverbed, placing us a significant distance – and on opposite sides of the river – from one another. We were to spend the night alone, using common sense and newly learned skills to set up camp, start a fire, and feed ourselves. They placed me in a cave under an immense rock face. I wasn’t prepared, couldn’t start a fire. I felt terrified as night fell. I remember sitting up in my sleeping bag, shaking. And suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder. There had been no footsteps, and I didn’t hear sloshing in the river either before the sensation or a few moments later when the sensation went away. But the calmness that washed over me was unmistakable, as palpable as the river and the sand I sat upon. Something ignited.
In the morning, we ate pancakes cooked on the ashes of a fire. Ashcakes. They were delicious.
I returned to my mother in New York in January the next year, bringing with me a newfound belief in angels – of a sort – or at least energies, both positive and negative. After mom died, I kept waiting for a sign to point me back to that girl who believed in angels. There were no signs, only ashes.
© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2010 – 2015