Tag Archives: loss

Dear Dad

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My father at his most wonderful.

Dear Dad,

You’re in surgery now. The doctors say things like “ruptured aorta” and “stroke” and “EKG indicates heart attack.” All I hear is noise. I sit in this bleak surgical waiting room with artificial plants, canned air, and pre-recorded sports blaring on televisions spread throughout the area. I tried to mute the television but larger forces disabled the manual controls, so, while I should be contemplating these precious minutes in which your life rests, quite literally, in someone else’s hands, all I can hear are sports fans cheering, as if they were waiting for this. This noise-filled place seems specifically designed to torture people like you and me, who dwell most comfortably in silence and natural lighting. The upholstered chairs – a random mix of vinyl and polyester, scratched, torn, and pale – bear the scars of silence lovers who came before us. I have a searing headache and my eyes have swollen half shut. It’s been eight hours since I got the call about your accident.

*

Dear Dad,

For five years, you’ve been my only birth parent, and I have drawn strength from you. You seemed to sense that when I lost mom, I would need something much more, and you rose to the challenge without my asking. I should have risen to initiating the discussion about your care in case of you-know-what. I stubbornly refused to, and now nurses are inquiring about your insurance coverage, the largest determining factor in the quality of your care, and I have no answers for them. I am failing you. I don’t know if I am strong enough to face this world as an orphan.

*

Dear Dad,

After mom died, I swore off happy endings. But I lied. Deep down, I still believe that if you survive this, that would be the happiest ending I could imagine for our family.

*

Dear Dad,

Someone in this waiting room is clipping his nails. Even without seeing the culprit, though I’m pretty sure it’s the man who’s visited the men’s room three times in the last two hours, I know the sound; I heard it often while riding the subways to and from high school. It didn’t bother me much on the subways: urine-scented and scuffed, what was more trash? But here, in this scrupulous place, where prophylaxis and sanitation are imperative for operation, nail trimmings mashed into threadbare carpets are a powerful reminder of life’s transience. We are water, bone, and much-too-fragile skin.

*

Dear Dad,

Though ambulances, fire trucks, and red helicopters shine as symbols of medical triumph in the modern age, they make me feel terribly sad. When I see one, I know that someone’s life has changed, and probably not for the better. Case in point, Mom + ambulance = devastating. You + ambulance = ? From now on, I will say a prayer every time a red helicopter crosses the sky.

*

Dear Dad,

You would understand better than anyone why I’m writing in this depressing waiting room in the long hours that stretch through the night. You would understand why, post-op in the ICU, I typed transcripts of what the doctors told me:

“His surgery was successful.” = Surgeons worked all night to fix his ruptured artery.

“We’re working to stabilize his blood pressure.” = We didn’t have time after his lengthy operation to clean the blood pooled on his mattress or the iodine staining his feet, but all those tubes you see are pushing medication into him to try to make him better.

“We’ll know much more when we can take a CT scan.” = Between you and me, the prognosis is not good.

*

Dear Dad,

You and mom were never meant to endure together in life, but I offered the universe a grim smile when I visited you in the ICU, because the scene before me was a mirror to mom’s. You both suffered suddenly and with enormous momentum: genetics responsible for one, blunt force for the other; you both spent hours in surgery, urged blindly on by your children in an effort to preserve your lives; your bodies both expired in sterile medical quarters, at your children’s behest, when artificial assistance failed to sustain you. I said goodbye to you both in the same way: sobbing, my head pressed against your hearts, muttering promises to bodies that in no way resembled the people you were.

*

Dear Universe,

Please tell me that your plans will not wrench me from this world the way you have claimed both of my parents.

*

Dear Dad,

You understood me better than anyone else has ever understood me. I felt at home in the amicable silences and exchanges between us. We’re peddlers of words, and it was always such a relief to rest in your company, shooing off propriety in favor of candor. Did I ever tell you that I made friends in college because of your reputation as a teacher? Did I ever mention how people of a certain mindset instantly warmed to me when they learned you created me? I never questioned it. My first instinct was always: “You love my dad, so you must be pretty okay.”

*

Dear Dad,

I promise to never again liken anything to having a heart attack or a stroke, other than an actual heart attack or stroke. I promise to start taking low dose aspirin once a day, exercise and meditate more, and resume my yoga practice. I promise to notice more in the world around me, and to be an active participant in helping others succeed, the way you have. I will give thanks as often as I can. I will find light in every situation. I promise to be unapologetically irreverent and an ambassador for mischief. I will question everything and refuse to settle for less than the truth. I will fully explore the path of self-inquiry. I will not let your legacy in this world die with you.

In love, sadness, and regret,

Julia

© 2015, Julia Moris-Hartley

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Ash

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“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

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Morphine

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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Forgetting

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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.

Valentina

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!

Stefan

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

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

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.

 

Marlene

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.

 

Donna

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

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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