Tag Archives: grief

Gap Year FAQ

What is unemployment? If no one tells you that you’ve lost your job, are you really unemployed?

Generally speaking, the cessation of payment is a strong indicator that one’s job has been terminated.

Notification is a different story. I, for example, notified myself of my own impending unemployment. In February 2017, my husband, a full-time boarding school teacher, did not receive a renewal contract, so I, a part-time teacher and his partner, by extension did not either. My supervisor (the administrator responsible for contract renewals) did not discuss the matter with me, in person, in writing, or via email. I officially found out well after my peers did, in an email sent from the school’s business manager, who attributed the dissolution of my job to a lack of/low enrollment in the 7th and 8th grade student body. He intended, I think, to soften the blow: It’s economics, Jules. It’s not personal.

My employee evaluations were solid, and I completed every task asked of me (even the uncompensated ones), surpassing the requirements expected of part-time staff. I believed that my supervisor and I were on amicable terms, and, for several weeks, my confidence bolstered by favorable comments from the school’s higher ups, I reserved hope that I could continue working at the school in another capacity – potentially allowing my family to remain situated in the same house and community – until the time came when I realized that would not be the case. It felt intensely personal. People have disappeared from my life before, but for an employer to do so was a novel first.


I heard you moved. Where are you now?

In the fourth quarter, the school administration raced to disassociate from my family, and we reciprocated, vacating the faculty house in which we’d spent that last nine years, cleaning and preparing it for its new tenants within 36 lightning-quick hours. I documented the process on social media, using captions such as The Purge, The Big Move, Good Riddance, and, on a particularly bad day, Our Former Employer is Satan.

We took the carport and the trampoline, which we’d purchased, and dismantled the monkey bars we’d built, giving away the wood to friends for tinder. We left no trace of ourselves. Many coworkers – those with whom we’d worked and laughed, and broken bread, and raised our kids – didn’t blink or say goodbye. They avoided eye contact in shared workspaces. They drove by our house, and they watched us mop sweat from our faces as we carried load after load of pieces of our life to the ever-growing dumpster. They heard us cry on our front porch and try to diplomatically rationalize the school’s motivations to our children, who responded with greater maturity than we could have imagined.

It took several weeks to secure a rental property, during which time I slept little and fought nightmares. Ultimately, a neighbor took pity on us and agreed to rent us his house. Half a dozen school families, whose students my husband and I had taught successively, pledged to help us on moving day. When that day came, two of twelve “definites” showed up.


What is the hardest part about being unemployed?

This question has no single answer. Answers vary widely depending on experience and circumstance. My biggest challenge has been the shunning from former “friends” because it bleeds into so many different aspects of daily life: basic social courtesy, traditions, the definition of a functioning community. Our discontinued status at the school renders us invisible to our peers. Even today, when I encounter a former coworker at the library or the grocery store, most wince and/or avert their gaze, stumbling backwards to increase the physical distance between us. I offer them a smile and a greeting while seething inside. I used to think of myself as part of a great community, but it was only a construct of my imagination.


Why take a gap year, at your age?

Though we aren’t high school students trying to find ourselves before committing to a college path, the spirit of a gap year suits our current situation: we wanted to find out what to do next. My husband and I considered ourselves “lifers” at our former school. We were committed to the school’s mission and hoped both to teach our own children and to see them learn with esteemed coworkers. We dreamed our kids would matriculate from the school. The school did not return our loyalty. My husband and I found ourselves in middle age, rootless and directionless, reevaluating what we wanted from the next chapter of our lives.

Of the five major life stressors that jeopardize the stability of individuals and families, leaving the school confronted us with two: moving and starting a new job. (The other three stressors are the birth of a child, marriage, and death.) We didn’t want to act out of desperation: take last minute jobs in a random city that we might end up despising, only to job search and uproot again the following year. A hasty move compounded by a second hasty move seemed like a fast track to a lot of bad juju, and a costly one at that, so we made the decision that best supported our family’s needs. We have yet to discover whether we made right choice or not.


How can you afford a gap year?

My husband and I have been continuously employed since we were teenagers. In the last decade, I’ve held multiple jobs at once, concurrently freelancing, tutoring, and teaching to maximize my revenue. We agreed early on about the necessity of long-term financial planning and we’ve been aggressively saving and investing ever since. Rather than acquire additional debt, we subsidize unemployment payments by cannibalizing our retirement fund, playing a game of risk with our security net.


What are the benefits of taking a gap year?

If money was of no concern, my husband might never return to teaching, because he relishes his newfound liberty. He sleeps in late and stays up until the earliest morning hours playing video games and reading. He speaks his mind and eschews shaving. Sometimes he doesn’t leave the house. And he’s okay with it.

I have also benefited from a certain freedom. My former self, who I’ll call Teacher Julia, used to do battle on weekdays – nag the kids to move quickly so I could drop them off at school, rush to the dining hall to inhale reconstituted eggs for breakfast, and hustle to the classroom for a precious hour of prep before the teaching day began. I graded student work feverishly, my eyes attuned to when the clock struck 3:00. My children came home and the battle continued: urging them to do their homework while I finished gathering materials for the following day’s lessons, losing patience when they had questions and needed help. Did I ever stop to say thanks that my children had returned home safely one more time, or take a break from working long enough to hug them and breathe in their warm, syrupy hair?

While my husband’s drive for intellectual inquiry will eventually propel him back into the classroom, this Gap Year has shown me that I don’t want to go back to being Teacher Julia. She was not a happy person or an attentive mother.


So, um… What do you do every day?

Until one (preferably both) of us finds a suitable job, we carry on as usual, accomplishing much the same daily chores and obligations we used to, albeit with much less stress. I send the kids off with kisses every morning and wait eagerly to see their bright eyes as they come home in the afternoons.


What are your goals/objectives for life after the Gap Year?

  1. Obtain meaningful employment
  2. Relocate to an affordable home in a new town
  3. Start over

Simple, right?


Have you reached a place of acceptance?

Friends have likened leaving the school to escaping from a destructive relationship: you don’t know how bad it was until you get away from it. In our last year of teaching, the school’s motto seemed to be The beatings will continue until morale improves, or, as Harry Potter’s Aunt Marge says: “A good thrashing is what’s needed in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred.” We saw (and experienced) countless random outbursts and rash, demoralizing criticisms. A change to the administrative roster caused ripple effects – thrashing upon thrashing – that led to roughly one-third of the school’s faculty being let go or voluntarily opting to seek employment elsewhere for the 2017-2018 academic year. In hindsight, it was time to walk away from a rapidly souring romance. We weren’t the only ones who did.

© 2017 Julia Moris-Hartley

* * *

Thanks especially to MO, FM, and RD for the kindnesses you showed us when kindness seemed in short supply; and to all the friends, near and far, who stood by us during the painful transition. We are very grateful for your support!


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Dear Julia Next Year

IMG_2111On the morning of May 29th, 2015, my cousin, a longtime supporter of my writing, sent me a message telling me that he missed me – Eater Provocateur, aspiring MFK Fisher 2.0, the woman and writer I dream to be. I did not have the chance to write him back or lament how much I missed me too. I’d planned to put together a book on Blurb this summer; I hoped to send off essays to journals. I was going to travel my small Utah world and write about the people and pioneers in local food production. I would take thousands of photos, and throw myself into research. After giving so much of my energy to my students, this was EP’s summer to shine.

Instead, that afternoon, I received a phone call from an emergency room in southern Utah, notifying me that my father had been admitted for a heart attack and possible stroke. The doctors could not stabilize Dad’s blood pressure, so they arranged for him to be airlifted to Salt Lake City. Not yet grasping the severity of Dad’s condition, I inquired whether I should drive to Salt Lake that evening or wait until the following day. They said, “Go now.” I went. CICU surgeons operated on his dissected heart throughout the night. Though the surgery successfully repaired the aortic tear, a scan the next morning revealed a massive stroke in Dad’s brain and no hope for recovery. He was, effectively, brain-dead. I hugged the hull of his body and authorized permission for the removal of life support. In the span of twenty-four hours, on a sunny day at the start of summer break, my father died.


In the intervening weeks, I learned more about my father than I ever wanted to. I scanned every credit card bill, finding pages and pages of online book purchases, and several unpaid balances. I sorted mortgage bills from utilities, three heavily indebted properties deep. I filled garbage bags with remnants of his last meals and pieces of his life that only held significance to him. I culled a biographical narrative of his youth from epistolary threads and salvaged forget-me-nots. But death is mainly business and arithmetic. In death, my father amasses a debt of $200,000 and rising.

My father was generous to a fault, and he attracted “friends” who found ways to manipulate and capitalize on his generosity. My siblings and I had often wondered why our tenured professor father lived like a pauper. Now we know – we have the calendar notations and check stubs to prove how he shared his salary with several others: current, past, or potential paramours; graduate students fallen down on their luck; renters he felt too guilty to ask for rent… and went so far as to pay their utilities to spare them from financial duress. Some of these “friends” received money from Dad for decades; one seemed especially distressed to learn that she would no longer be receiving handouts from Dad’s non-existent estate. Generosity was clearly Dad’s high.

It is not my intent to smear my father’s name, but I struggled with fury: at Dad for being such a tender-hearted idiot, and, moreover, at those who took advantage of his kindness. I will say that I did not hesitate to close accounts without notifying the parties waiting for their “paychecks.” I have also collected as much of their personal information as I can with the intent to press charges if the need arises.

As a counterbalance, I also learned that my father was loved and valued beyond measure by people who were not bleeding his bank accounts. Emails and letters poured in as news of Dad’s death reached farther and farther into his social and professional circles. All expressed genuine shock and concern; all were kind. The volume was overwhelming. I dreaded checking my email for fear of the inevitable raw and heartfelt messages within. In a way, after my mother’s laughable funeral attendance, it felt validating that so many people cared for my father, people who did not take advantage of his generosity but instead expressed their gratitude and devotion to him. I cannot remember which of these dispelled the fury, at least temporarily.


I still find it hard to drag myself out of bed. I do, but it takes a very long time and a lot of internal negotiation. My biggest motivations are letting the dog out and making breakfast for my family. I haven’t been running, though I know I should. I’ve been drinking too much, though I know I should not. My appetite is gone. But I believe that hope is slowly returning.

Over the weekend, I officiated Dad’s memorial service for the family. I did not pass out or collapse in grief. I held my chin high, kept my voice and my eyes level, and honored my Dad the way children must sometimes do.

I give Dad one hour each day: to make calls, to contest charges, to forward copies of his death certificate. His final affairs sit in a box by the piano; I can once again see the surface of my dining room table.


Dear Julia Next Year,

Remember that, at one time, you valued compassion and empathy. You will get that back.
Remember that letting go leads to freedom. Let go.
You will smile and laugh again. It will just take some time to recover.
You will not be – cannot remain – this cynical and foul-tempered. It is not healthy and it is not you.
One morning, you will wake up and want to run/cook/sing/dance/write/ be yourself again. The lengthy internal negotiations will shift from “Should I get out of bed?” to “Why shouldn’t I get out of bed?”
The murderous rage against those who manipulated your father will subside into peevish irritation and hopefully humor that cuts deep.
The world exists outside your door, and you are not done with it yet.
You stand with those who love life. So stand up.

© 2015, Julia Moris-Hartley





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Relentless suitor, you courted me four years ago with ruinous largesse: eleven deaths in eighteen months… and, good lord, the aftershocks. You changed me, scraping me raw, wiping friends and loved ones from my spare landscape as if they were loose pebbles. I’d lived many deathless years before our intimate, thorough affair. When you left, I did not miss you. I thought I’d quit you, at least for a while, but here you are again, purring at the door.


Julia, have you seen the news? It’s Randy. He’s been in an awful accident… I saw the news. A drunk driver claimed the life of my college employer. I read and reread each piece of the accident’s coverage. Words and letters jumbled into a language I didn’t want to understand. I rested my head on the table for a long while, ears roaring, temples throbbing. Hot tears pooled on the smooth, cool wood.


I hate condolence cards. I have a collection of cards, emails, news articles, and journal entries from my mother’s death. I wrapped my little mausoleum in silken gold ribbon, storing it high on my bookshelf. At the time she died, those correspondences were precious doses of emotional morphine, and I am as grateful for them today as I was four years ago. Every now and then, though, I gather the cherished golden bundle in my arms and bite back rage, because it lacks the one thing my sister and I wanted most after our mother’s sudden demise: an apology from the man whose vehicle struck her.


Dear Sally, I was shocked to learn of Randy’s death. I am so very sorry. You and James have been in my thoughts and prayers all week. I am heartbroken. Please call on me if there is anything at all I can do to help you during this terrible time. With much love, Julia. See what I mean about condolences? No matter how sincere the intent or how profound the disbelief, ultimately they are just words on a page.


Losing mom made me realize that there are two types of people: those who have experienced loss and those who have yet to. Neither camp is appealing, though a visit to both is inevitable. For a brief period, death notices became so commonplace that I started to believe that the universe had recruited me to be its death coach, so that I could offer my unique spin on surviving harrowing loss. Page 1 of Julia’s Macabre Death Aphorisms: Do whatever you have to do to pull through. Page 38: Resist the overwhelming urge to make out with the doctor who shows you kindness. Page 127: When in doubt, say you’re sorry.


Death is an illusionist who makes surprise appearances at unlikely events. Once you’ve met him, it’s hard to avoid tracking him, following him as he surveys the room, measuring up his next victim. He demands acknowledgment, and is perhaps the most notorious of all public figures. Death makes the front page everyday.


I’ve spent many nights in Death’s company, wallowing in his merciful analgesic thrall. How many times have I thanked him that my mother wasn’t around to experience the world events that would have unhinged her? Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, Japan’s nuclear catastrophe, rogue gunmen shooting children in schools, the political unraveling of her home country… She would have sickened herself: physically, mentally, or both. I rally against Death, but he is simultaneously an enemy and a friend. Our discomfiting relationship continues.


You forced a new vocabulary on me: irreparable brain damage, hemorrhage, respirator, intensive care unit, hospice, funeral, burial, grief counseling… I could have lived my entire life without learning these words. You dimmed my days with the promise that our dark dalliances will only increase in frequency as time progresses. Four years ago, you left a broken hull to rot in the dirt. I recovered, just enough. I hear you whispering out there, but I won’t let you in.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014


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A violent flurry of words blows through my mind before finally, after several perplexing minutes, stilling on the word I want: kachun, the heart. Google Translate tells me that this is not the literal translation for ‘heart’ in Russian or Ukrainian, but it was the word my mother used when she cut vegetables down to their very cores, trimming away leaves, florets, and fibrous layers to reach that special center piece of certain lettuces, cauliflowers, and broccoli.  I’ve eaten plenty of kachun in my day, but lately I’m finding it more difficult to recall the word.

*          *          *

I recently read The NeverEnding Story, a task that’s been on my bucket list since I first saw the movie in 1984.  I was seven.  My mother took me to see it at the cinema on Fairview Avenue in Boise: the burgundy velvet seat soft under my legs; the air redolent with the scent of buttered popcorn; that one splotch in the upper left corner of the screen that marred Noah Hathaway’s smooth, tan face. The movie made quite an impression on me. I’ve since watched it dozens of times, and am planning to host a theme party in which all my NES friends can geek out.  My children are approaching the age where I can share the movie with them, an experience I eagerly anticipate.  I don’t know if they’ll respond to the movie the way I did, but I hope they’ll at least enjoy some of the characters: Artax, maybe, or Morla or Falkor.

In the novel, which continues far beyond the movie’s scope (the movie ends roughly halfway through the book), Bastian enters the world of Fantastica (or Fantasia) and experiences many adventures alongside his good friends, Atreyu and Falkor.  Bastian wears the AURYN, a necklace that grants him his every wish.  Each wish he makes, however, costs him a price that is surreptitiously exacted: he loses a piece of his memory.  He forgets his bearings – his life as a son in the human world, as a wimpy student frequently picked on by others.  He begins to forget himself, even as he becomes stronger, more respected, and more essential to life in Fantastica.

If you forget something but don’t realize you’ve forgotten it, was it something actually worth remembering?  This is what bothers me about kachun.  If I lose the memory of this word that I heard my mother utter all my life, what else have I forgotten that I can’t remember?  I still remember mom’s face: the prominent inverted black ‘v’s of her eyebrows; her almond-shaped brown green eyes, which, like mine, turned deep olive when she’d been crying; her pale lips and small, straight teeth; the white shock of her hair, sprayed into a pouf on top of her head.  I remember her voice.  She loved to sing.  (So, too, do I.)  I remember how much she enjoyed playing with my children.  But I remember her most when I see my friends with – or talking about – their mothers.  Oh right, I think, my mother is gone.  And with her, the thousand little memories and details I no longer remember and can never retrieve.

*          *          *

Some memories beg to be forgotten, while others fester resolutely despite all efforts to be rid of them.  Which of my memories have disappeared unawares? Am I better off without them?  What was the last conversation I had with my mom?  I can’t remember. Yet the image of her propped on a mattress in the Bellevue SICU – purple eyelids swollen shut, bandaged head, the hiss and suck of the ventilator – is seared into my memory like a cheap, ugly brand.

Worse still are the memories that don’t belong to me at all.  I see my mom walking home from a Valentine’s Day Dance at the Ukrainian Senior Center in the Village, heading north by foot on Second Avenue.  In her purse, she carries birdseed and a half-eaten sandwich. She starts down the crosswalk at 23rd Street: gray concrete sidewalks, shop windows caked with old sale signs. Cigarette smoke wafts from the teens standing, haphazardly and with vacant stares, on the corner.  As she crosses the crosswalk, undoubtedly with clearance to “WALK,” the white pick-up truck with the blue plow attachment, fully raised from clearing snow at city bus stops, turns left.  Mom screams before being stricken down, to the horror of onlookers.

I wasn’t there to see any of it, but I can’t un-know that mom saw her death coming.

*          *          *

I’m not sure if the man who killed my mom was released from his job at the organization that employed him.  He was not charged with any crime, because the police determined that the incident lacked criminality.   Two of the organization’s representatives visited mom as she lay in the hospital dying, though whether the driver was one of them is up to speculation.  The organization, which I can not name for purposes of legality, placed a very low estimate on the value of my mother’s life because she was retired – therefore not “contributing” to the local economy – and because she didn’t have children young enough to be deemed “significantly bereft” of the loss of their mother.

Three years have elapsed since her death. My sister and I have yet to receive a single word of apology.

*          *          *

Several of my students questioned my sanity when they caught me, during structured reading time, absorbed in a book titled How Did They Die?  It is a tightly composed collection recounting the deaths of celebrities and notable historical figures. Isn’t that a little macabre, Mrs. Hartley? Why are you reading that book?

Strange though it seems, reading about the deaths of others provides a measure of comfort.  No one eludes death.  Eventually we all experience it, even über humans, in gradual and sometimes tragic, sudden, crazy ways. We all occasionally face challenges that we must try to forget.  The trick is to hold tight to memories that uplift us and bolster our spirits so that the world remains a tolerable place, so that hope remains.  I will not give sorrow much room to grow, though sometimes its fierce will to survive incapacitates me. I hold on to joys, like my daughter’s incandescent smile and my son’s owlish compassion for others.  As the anniversary of mom’s death approaches, I once more remember the strength I derive from within: kachun, kachun, kachun.

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Words for Goodbye

Life isn't fair. Death is even less so.


The NY1 headline on February 12, 2010, read: “Snow Plow Hits, Injures Woman.”  By the next day, the New York Post amended the headline to “Plow Tragedy.”  Both articles reported the seventy-year-old pedestrian who was struck in the head by a snowplow that had been clearing express bus stops along 23rd Street after a major snowstorm.  No one knew the woman’s name.  Her name was Valentina and she was my mother.

Recent coverage of Hurricane Irene reminded me of the power of these weighty strings of words called headlines.  Though I left New York in 1995, I have many friends who live in the city, and friends and family sprinkled all along the eastern coastline.  If mom still lived, she would have been among those I prayed for as I obsessively monitored Irene’s advance up the seaboard.  I wouldn’t relive those long, awful days that preceded mom’s death for anything.  But, just sometimes, I am thankful that mom isn’t alive to see what’s happening in the world.  Mom watched the news incessantly; her television blared news programming even when she wasn’t actively watching it.  She took news matters seriously, sometimes sickened herself with sadness and concern for those suffering, sniffling through tears or screaming at the images on the screen: You idiots!  How could you do this?  Is everyone crazy?

Here are some of the headlines that I am so thankful mom didn’t live to see:  Madman in Norway!  Earthquake, Tsunami Strike Japan!  Famine in East Africa!  Hurricane Irene on Path to Pummel NYC!


Once upon a time, there was a retired Ukrainian repairman named Stefan who loved a retired Ukrainian administrative assistant named Valentina.  Stefan and Valentina shared a ‘friendship’ that Valentina refused to define.  They went for walks together along the streets of New York in the spring and the fall; when it was too hot or too cold outside, they met each other for meals, either in their separate apartments or in restaurants and diners in between.  They shared a fondness for McDonald’s coffee.  They loved to dance together at the senior center and they were both skillful dancers.  Sometimes Stefan grew overly possessive of Valentina and she declared, “He’s a pain in a neck!”  But, after a couple of days, Valentina’s temper waned and she began to miss dapper little Stefan with his tailored suits and full white mustache.  She’d see him again.  He held her hand like she was the princess of his magical Ukrainian kingdom.  In life, Stefan had already lost his wife of many years.  He’d also lost an adult son.  Stefan wailed loudly at Valentina’s funeral, spilled thick tears onto his dark grey suit.  He needed help standing at her gravesite, weeping.  He didn’t want to toss his handful of dirt onto her casket or relinquish the funeral’s last flower.  Stefan died shortly after Valentina.



Amberly and I worked together at the local gourmet coffee shop while we attended college at Utah State University.  Am was tall and lean, with long yellow-blond hair, full lips, perfect straight teeth, and twinkling blue eyes.  I liked her instantly.

Am and I kept in touch throughout the years, living our lives on parallel tracks in neighboring towns.  Am’s last pregnancy coincided with my last pregnancy; she desperately wanted a daughter to balance out her three sons, and I desperately wanted another son because I was terrified of having a daughter.  Neither of us got what we wanted, but got instead the children we didn’t realize we desperately needed.

When doctors diagnosed Am with stage four pancreatic cancer, she refused to accept its grim ramifications.  She adopted a diet of raw foods and took up a stricter exercise routine.  She contacted a homeopathic nurse (her “witch doctor”) and began a course of vitamins and supplements that, coupled with her optimism and positivity, extended her life far longer than the $20,000/month treatments that her doctors originally proposed.  Am and I both silently elected to ignore the inevitable finality of her illness – that one day much too soon her children would face their lives without her, that her death was not an if, but a when.

When came in early spring.


Dylan won my heart when, in reference to my husband, he pulled me aside and said, “But you’re so nice.  How’d you end up with him?”  Sixteen years old, with an intense gaze and a handsome face half-concealed by a dark fanning of spiked hair, Dylan attended the school where my husband teaches.  He was one of my husband’s advisees, so he spent a significant amount of time at our house after school and on weekends: hanging out, playing video games, talking, laughing, and quickly becoming more like a son than a contractual obligation.  Once, as my children and I left the school’s dining hall, my then-three year old daughter clutched my hand, looked up at me with her bewitching golden eyes, and exclaimed, “I wish I had a hundwed dowwars so I could go shopping!”  Dylan, in passing, flashed a crooked smile and quipped: “They grow up so quickly.”  I couldn’t wait to see what Dylan would do as he grew into adulthood – his intellect and potential so white hot.

People leave Dylan endearing messages on his Facebook page all the time.  At least, they had been leaving him messages, as I had been before recently unfriending him.  I just couldn’t bear to see his funny face anymore – to feel the continual smack of realization that he was really gone.  I couldn’t bear reading those raw, heartfelt messages written to the dead.  Sometimes I have to remind myself that even the smartest kids make stupid mistakes; that life isn’t fair, and death is even less so.



I am seven years old, sitting on a cold oak pew in a small, cold church in the Idaho mountains.  Marlene, who is my friend Cindy’s mom, stands at the front of the church facing our Sunday school group.  Marlene is old – mom old – and she is dressed in a maroon sweatshirt, dark blue jeans, and plain white tennis shoes, faintly scuffed on the sides.  She holds an emptied bottle of laundry bleach in her right hand.  “This is how you cut off and discard the bottle’s label,” she says, her cheeks dimpling as she smiles and illustrates.  “Then, you draw an outline for a hand-sized hole on the top part but not too close to its mouth,” she says, pointing to a good spot, “and you cut around the outline, like so.”  We raise our blunted scissors and Marlene approaches us individually to help us stab into the emptied, cleaned, and dried bleach bottles scattered on the table in front of us.  Marlene smells of soap and hair spray.  Her hands are warm when she takes my bottle, jabs an entry hole for my scissors, then hands the bottle and scissors back to me, still smiling.  Sunlight rises in the church’s windows, casting small beams of color and light through the decals of stained glass.  I am thinking about how much I like the colors blue and purple when Marlene resumes.  “You cut out a small part of the handle, where it meets the bottle on the bottom side,” she says, pointing to the correct spot for our clarification.  “And there you go!  You can hang these anywhere to hold stuff, like clothespins, empty bags, rubber bands, golf balls…” The air fills with the sound of markers squishing against plastic.  I decorate my bottle with flowers; some of the other children draw aliens, dinosaurs, wild scribbles and swirls.  We stand and sing “Jesus Loves Me” before Marlene dismisses our class and church begins.

Twenty-six years later, Marlene invites my family to a barbeque at her house.  My children, age five and three, play games in the grass with her grandchildren.  They eat otter pops together in the shade.  When I learn of Marlene’s death in January, I think of grass stains and clothespins, bleach bottles, popsicle sticks, markers, scissors, and craft glue.



Marlene’s sister, Donna, spoke with me about angels and visions at Marlene’s barbeque last summer.  Donna saw her dead mother in a vision.  Her mother’s ghost smiled at her and quieted her soul, she said.  “She gave me that last gift of a smile so that I could reach peace with her passing,” said Donna, wiping tears from the deep creases of her grey eyes.  I told her about my grandmother’s bedside visitation when I was five, how I thought she was most certainly an angel in a blue polyester gown and matching turban.

Doctors diagnosed Donna with brain cancer in April.  They removed a good portion of the tumor in her head, but they couldn’t remove it all.  Cindy, who lost her mother only months before, confided that her Aunt Donna’s mind was deteriorating rapidly.  When, in June, my father sent me an email cryptically titled Featherville, an all-too-familiar leaden feeling descended on me.  Donna and Mae had both died, within a day of each other.  I received my father’s email on the same day the USU Alumni magazine informed me of Amberly’s death.


Mae preached at the Little Church in the Wildwood.  In my memory, she was always trim and put together – button-down shirts in floral patterns, straight leg slacks, handsome leather sandals – though most of the congregants to whom she ministered at the small, one-room church wore threadbare denim and plaid flannel.  She placed importance on decorum: powdering her face before services, spraying her short auburn bouffant tidily into place.  She refused to be seen without a swipe of bright pink lipstick on her thin lips, and she emanated a traveling cloud of Chanel No. 5 wherever she went.  These outward details helped to amplify her sermons, highlighting her natural eloquence and affirming her love for her work and her celestial employer.

I sat on her lap as a child.  When I grew up and fell in love, Mae eagerly offered to officiate my wedding.  She was the first to hug me as I left the church.

Perhaps I am being cynical to think it cruelly ironic that Mae, ever the one to put herself together, spent her last years tormented by acute dementia.  Long-term dementia just doesn’t seem an even-handed fate for a person who dedicated her life to the ministry of a compassionate, forgiving God.  Did Mae’s faith buoy her as her thoughts untethered themselves from reality?  Did she understand that she was dying when the moment came?  What frazzled threads unraveled the final seams of the tapestry of her life?

Valentina and Paulette, Susan and Julia

About halfway through my mom’s weeklong descent into death, my best friend, Susan, took me to a restaurant to make sure I was eating.  She sat across from me as I cried into my plate.  Her small children played in the kid’s corner.  Nothing made sense.  Mothers, daughters, life, death, ventilators, blood, and gauze bandages coalesced into one terrible seething mass that somehow affixed itself deep inside, waiting to grow fat on a diet of grief.

Last week, Susan and I traded places.

The message light beeps on my phone.  I know something is wrong when I hear Susan’s voice.  I don’t want to know what I worry she might say, but I call her back immediately, tasting metal.  Susan cries hoarsely into the phone.  “My mom died,” she says, her voice in a tremor.  “Daddy can’t stop sobbing… He keeps saying, ‘I want to die too!’  Jules, I don’t know what I’m gonna do if Daddy dies of a broken heart!”

My mind backpedals to the Bellevue SICU, where mom died.  She was the first death.  Susan’s mother, Paulette, is the eleventh to die in the last 18 months.  I have learned the vocabulary of incomprehensible grief from the previous ten.

“Don’t worry about Andrew and the kids,” I say to Susan, almost placidly, though my pulse is racing and Paulette is in my head, sitting sideways and cross-legged in her narrow kitchen, intently monitoring an everything bagel that is toasting in the oven.

I say: “Kids are resilient, and Andrew will be fine.”  My ears are ringing.  I sense the inception of Susan’s pain, so new and uninvited, coating the landscape of her life with its thick, sulfurous resin.

This year I have taken an exhausting deep immersion crash course in the language of loss.  Will it ever feel “normal” to be so conversant in it?

“You need to focus on you,” I say to her, while thinking of the numerous trips my sister and I made to the Goodwill on 23rd Street to dispose of mom’s belongings, each time treading over the exact location where her life began its conclusion.  I couldn’t focus on anything but the yellow police tape.

“Do what you need to do to survive this, and don’t be afraid to let your grief show.”  I’m like a death coach now: all bravado and empowerment. But I can’t forget lying down on my mother’s bed, weeping, staring out the window grates to see the clouds eclipsing the February sun.

“Go to your dad, be with your family.  Now is not the time you want to be alone…” I know the language but it doesn’t sever the associated images: My husband coming to my office at work, standing in the doorway, saying, “Honey, you need to come home now.  Your mother’s been in an accident.”  I never felt so alone as I did in the nine days that followed.

My best friend sobs into the telephone two thousand miles away.


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