Tag Archives: mourning

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.

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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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