I. “Neither the sun nor death can be looked at
You and Gary lean against each other. The silence is palpable, the floor apparently
empty on a Sunday afternoon. Where are the patients? He tells you later the place
was “dead quiet” and you know Kelley would have snickered with him over
that one. Michelle the charge nurse appears and says things are ready, so you follow
her down the hallway. Outside the impromptu viewing room, she warns that tracheal
and nasal tubes used during CPR are still in place.
“I’m so sorry,” she says. “You’re sure you want to do
“Yes,” you say, wishing for one more chance to talk with Kelley, one
more chance to hug her and say I love you. With a deep breath, you step forward.
Be thou not afraid, for lo, I am always with thee. This phrase has steadied
you many times since your daughter’s birth. Gary steps into the room behind you
and stops, while Michelle stations herself outside. You hesitate, and then walk resolutely
around the privacy curtain—and everything stops. Your lungs, your
heart, even the clock freezes while the scene sears ghost images onto your retinas.
And then everything resumes again, savagely. Oh Jesus and Mary and all the
bodhisattvas of heaven! It really is your child in that bed. Or it used to be. The bed
is like those in any other hospital room, waist high with head elevated for easier
access, but it’s clear this person no longer needs nursing. The light of your
life has flickered out.
Oh Kelley, my sweet brown-eyed girl!
She lies on her back, ashen and pale, arms at her sides beneath a white sheet which
covers her naked body up to her chin. Tubes trail down her face, one of them forcing
her mouth open. You gasp and cry quietly as you softly touch her right shoulder,
her cheek, her hair. With trembling lips, you kiss her forehead but her skin is
cold and gray. Her essence left this body hours ago. The blood has long since drained
from her lips. They look unnatural, a light bronze color as if tattooed with a ghastly
face powder. Strangely, her eyes are half open.
You lift the sheet and notice bruises beneath her body from her neck and shoulders
down past her calves. Who did this?! You want to scream, you want to roar
blood and brimstone, you want to crush testicles and bash a selfish skull. But you
caution yourself that CPR may have caused this trauma. Looking at Kelley’s
ribcage, you see no bruising there, no bones protruding. Still, best to collect
more evidence before burning her ex-boyfriend at the stake of misplaced furies.
With heart pounding, you place your hand on your chest and breathe deeply.
After moving to the other side of the bed, you kiss Kelley’s forehead again.
I’m so sorry, my sweet girl, so sorry. You mindlessly stroke her
hair, lifting the cold strands in each hand. Gary gasps and you look up to see him
standing across from you. You were unaware he had walked around the curtain himself.
He turns his head away and his shoulders jerk.
“Sweetie, you don’t have to do this,” you say, as anguished for
him as you are for Kelley and yourself.
“Yes I do,” he says. “I’m here for your sake.” He
wipes his face with a tissue and you follow suit, grateful that you both thought
to fill your pockets before leaving the car.
Michelle rustles beyond the doorway so you resume your inspection. Resting your
fingertips on Kelley’s shoulder, you lift the sheet with your other hand to
check her left side. The bruising is here, too, though less extensive. And it’s
a strange color on both sides, not black or blue or green, but a pale mottled rose.
The blush of anemia? Such odd contusions, you think. But then you have never seen
a corpse this close before, much less one refrigerated for 16 hours. How can you
know what to expect?
As you move toward the foot of the bed, you lift and drop the sheet gently while
sweeping your eyes along Kelley’s body. You see no other obvious signs of
trauma. A defibrillator patch adheres to her chest. A mesh IV bandage encircles
her left wrist. Her toenails sport a neon shade of fuchsia, one of your favorite
colors in the garden. No wear at the tips so she probably painted them yesterday.
You consider rolling her body toward Gary, to check for injuries along her back,
but all at once you think, Enough! There’s nothing more you can do
to protect her. Ever again. Your throat constricts even as you also realize your
daughter is no longer in pain, no longer afraid, no longer suffering. Clutching
this one comfort, you drop the sheet for the last time and give in to mourning.
Gary rushes to wrap himself around you. He cradles your head against his shoulder
and you cling to him in return, afraid of losing him, too.
“Oh Clare,” he cries, “oh Sweetie!” and sobs along with you.
II. “Hope is the refusal to accept things as they
Laundry is your favorite chore. You like to treat the coffee stains, check pockets
for spare change, turn shirts right-side-out. And folding clothes warm from the
dryer is meditative, a perfect way to practice mindfulness. How Kelley hates to
fold clothes! Hated, you correct yourself. It occurs to you that not only
has she passed from one plane of existence to another, but she’s also switched
tenses. She might appreciate that.
“What’s another word for synonym?” she once asked.
“What?” you said. “Hey, that’s brilliant. How do you think
of these things?”
“I borrowed that one from my homeboy George,” she confessed with a chortle.
How can she be gone? You miss her profoundly. Who will call you “hairless
Chihuahua” now as she complains about shaving her legs? Who will threaten
to pick your tiny blackheads after you get Alzheimer’s and can no longer fend
her off? Who will entertain you with lines from Forrest Gump and My Big
Fat Greek Wedding?
And who will appreciate your pitiful imitations in return: Oh why, Kelley?
“Why you want to leave me?!”
One day fifty years ago, as you ran barefoot through fields near your home, you
accidentally stomped on a sticker-burr. Dry and sharp, it hurt. You knew how to
extract the tiny stickers and be on your way again. But on that particular day,
the pain of that particular burr was more than you could bear. You collapsed on
your back in the sandy soil and began to wail. Raising your foot skyward, you cried,
“Please God, take it out!” And God did. You raise your eyebrows at such
stories now, but at the age of six you believed. God simply was, just as
the rain you loved simply was. Whether the burr fell out on its own, you
will never know. But they typically embed their barbs in tender skin, especially
under the weight of running feet. And you were alone in that field.
A fifty-year-old dream then? Moon’s reflection on water? One illusion amongst
many that comprise your reality? You enjoy speculating like this but would rather
believe in a benevolent and compassionate creator. In fact, you have sent this deity
many prayers since you were a child. Yet you were struck by disconnection on the
way home from the hospital. Kelley’s presence was utterly gone. For several
frightening minutes, you felt severed and alone, an alien sensation given
that solitude is your nature. But this was spiritual blindness—your conduit
to the divine itself had disappeared. Dear God, please help me! Yet none
of your prayers and mantras were working. You felt unprotected and mortal as panic
prowled your body. You tried to relax, tried to anchor your mind to something tangibly
sacred, like the mountains that cradle Puget Sound with such glorious scenery
on sunny evenings. Gary reached over to hold your hand, a habit of his
while driving. You squeezed back gratefully with both hands, and like a squall the
panic soon passed.
Yet Kelley is still gone, and you’re uncertain about matters of the spirit.
You expected clarity by now—with age comes wisdom—yet your vision seems
cloudier than ever. You see decay and death everywhere. Honey bees drop in mid-flight,
their wondrous wings tattered, having worked themselves to death to ensure the hive’s
survival. Yet new bees continuously emerge from pupation to replace them. Spent
blossoms wilt in the garden, melting into the soil even as new buds open in the
sunlight. You try to reframe loss, to understand it not as annihilation but as transition
from one state of being to another. Change is the basic currency of life, you know
this. Why waste precious energy raging against the inevitable? And why wrestle with
your own mortality? Everything dies! Yet you drag your fearful bones through
swampland, struggling to balance acceptance and despair. Damn it all, you kept hoping
she could change.
Kelley was in and out of clinics and emergency rooms and hospitals countless times
during her adult life. Mainly to treat panic attacks and minor injuries that escalated
in severity and frequency. Beginning with her hand, broken after she jumped off
the roof of the laundry room beside her first apartment. She misplaced her keys
during a night of partying and tried to leap from roof to deck, planning to slip
inside the unlocked door. Unfortunately, miscalculation landed her on the concrete
below. Incredulous that she broke nothing else, you bombarded her guardian angels
with prayers of thanksgiving. Not that you actually believed in angels with wings,
but why not cover the bases? And if such creatures do exist, she kept a team of
A few years later, she broke the same hand again. It was repaired then with a metal
plate and screws, producing an ache that never went away. After weeks of physical
therapy, she returned to work at Canlis Restaurant, where she balanced heavy plates
of haute cuisine on each arm while negotiating stairs between kitchen and dining
areas. Her wicked wit and charm, her subtle skill at upselling, her ability to spin
the stories her guests wanted to hear—all these helped her reel in astonishing
tips and generate six-figure revenues for Canlis. One night she received
a $600 tip at one table alone, though she was obligated to share it with support
staff. Eight years of this part-time work left Kelley disillusioned and with fulltime
pain in her shoulders and neck.
Two years ago, her other hand became infected after a bite from one of the dogs
her ex-boyfriend owns. Surgery relieved the swelling and reduced the risk of nerve
damage. She called you with the news, impressed that her surgeon had said her swollen
hand looked as if it had been run over by a truck. Uncharitably, you wondered whether
it was Rob’s van instead.
“Oh Mom, of course not!” she said. “I got in the way between two
pups playing rough, that’s all. Anyone who lives with dogs gets bitten sooner
You weren’t so sure that’s what happened, but you let it go.
And then there was the bruised hip from tripping on stairs at Rob’s house.
The cracked rib from another fall down the same stairs.
The toe she fractured twice in one year.
The upper lip supposedly clawed by a neighbor’s cat as it tried to escape a
Plus, a multiplicity of illnesses, including cysts, recurrent and painful endometriosis,
and pelvic infections that required round after round of antibiotics because Rob
refused treatment himself. He insisted he wasn’t infected despite
the fact that men typically show no symptoms of this disease. So he continued to
re-infect her while accusing her of unfaithfulness. Such ignorance and selfishness
you could not fathom, nor the fact that she kept returning to someone who treated
her that way. You wanted to educate him but she and Gary made you promise not to
confront Rob yourself. His denials not only hurt her emotionally but led also to
the pain of pelvic scarring, which led in turn to hysterectomy. And he had other
commitments the day of that surgery. So you drove down to Seattle to hug her
and assure her that everything would be all right.
And everything was, until MRSA attacked her incisions afterward. It took three more
hospital stays to vanquish the infection, one you believed was inevitable for someone
who spent so much time in emergency rooms. Hospitals are hazardous places, filled
with malignant microbes and mistakes waiting to happen. But you refrained from
harping. Why inflame her anxieties further?
The incisions took months to heal but your own wounds still weep. Hysterectomy!
Kelley was your only child, the one you thought would carry into the next generation
your legacy and your mother’s before you. You grieve that you will never share
the joys of reading with your grandchildren, never act goofy with them, never kiss
their cheeks and pamper them, even as you understand this could be a blessing.
Was she too sick for motherhood? She had said she didn’t want children
anyway, at least not Rob’s. Though she was silent after the surgery, you think
she too mourned the loss on some level. It’s only natural.
III. “For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into
the sun?” 3
Aging expands the vocabulary. With every move it seems, you and Gary grunt
and groan with new inflections. Climbing stairs, getting in and out of the car,
pulling on a sweater. No more wild love on the kitchen table. Your hips ache too
Pondering, you sit and look with tenderness at the skin inside your forearm. Beneath
its translucent stipples and crinkles, a blue-green vein runs prominently from wrist
to crook of elbow. When and how did this skin become so fragile-looking? And how
long before it begins to bruise spontaneously, like your mother’s during her
last years? How long before these newly developing freckles blossom into age spots?
Bleeding beneath your skin concerns you because you’re anemic already, but
spots hardly faze you. Pregnancy bestowed pigmentation upon the left side of your
neck from jaw to collarbone. San Diego sunshine first darkened this discoloration
thirty-one summers ago, leaving your neck looking dirty in a lopsided way ever since,
as if you forgot to wash after playing in the dust. But you will never lighten this
skin or conceal it with cosmetics as advised by nurses you’ve known. This
hormonal mask symbolizes your most important achievements: incubating, birthing,
and nurturing the child you will forever carry close to your heart.
Just as your silken wrinkles signify your good fortune to have loved and laughed
for half-a-century. You’re officially an antique and proud that your face finally
proves it. Having yearned for them since your twenties, you celebrate your crow’s
feet especially. Laugh lines are lovely on most any face.
Michelle’s beauty was undeniable yet her face was unmarked and therefore
unremarkable. “May I have a band-aid?” you asked. As Gary drove to the
hospital, you had distractedly pulled at a cuticle. Your finger still oozed blood.
“Of course,” she said, producing one. Then she eased papers in front
of you and gave you a pen.
Finger bandaged, you filled in the time as 4:09 p.m. before signing for Kelley’s
possessions. “I’d like to see her,” you said, your voice tentative.
“Is that possible?”
Michelle hesitated, said she needed to check with her manager, and hurried off.
“Are you sure?” Gary asked.
“I need to touch her,” you said. “Otherwise, this isn’t
real.” You understood the necessity even as you recoiled from it. How would
you know Kelley had actually died, until you saw her body with your own eyes?
Gary suggested taking her belongings to the car in the meantime so the two of you
wheeled them out on a cart. He hefted the suitcase twice—“Must weigh
fifty pounds!”—before figuring out how to maneuver the monstrosity into
the Malibu’s trunk. Next came a large backpack, a shoulder bag, and a purse,
each stuffed so full you marveled that she could lug around such weight. At 5’8”
your daughter was a tall woman, as tall as your mother was, but this was at least
a hundred pounds of baggage.
Not counting the hospital bags. Two contained clothing Kelley wore when she was
admitted, including a soft burgundy scarf which you instinctively raised to your
face. To your disappointment, it smelled like stale disinfectant. The third bag
held magazines and books, including two by George Carlin and one by David Sedaris,
her favorite comedians. You gave her the Sedaris book for her birthday three summers
ago, and four years before that, surprised her with tickets to hear him perform
in Seattle. You both guffawed while reading passages aloud from these books and
other favorites. The muscles of your belly, your ribcage, and your cheeks ached after
How did you fail to notice when the laughter between you stopped?
IV. “For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea
are one.” 4
Despite the hysterectomy, her pelvic pain continued, along with mysterious internal
bleeding which caused anemia so severe she received transfusions. Ulcers, you speculated.
Long-term use of painkillers can burn tiny sores into tissues whose ravaged capillaries
leak away a person’s vitality. Yet endoscopy and colonoscopy results were
“Gotta drink a whole glass of water with those things,” you reminded
her. This teetered between helping and meddling, but this was life and death. Yet
she continued to chase pills with only a gulp or two of water. Weary of your worries,
she said, “I’ll be fine, Mom.”
Of course you worried. You had lived and learned too much not to, though you grappled
with letting go. After all, you preferred not to meddle. She was an adult and, goodness
knows, you longed to live a quiet life. You wanted her to make her own choices even
as you hoped to protect her from self-destruction. How best to do that? Preferring
the middle way of moderation, you practiced a measure of tough love for 15 years.
You refused to buy or lend her money for cigarettes, alcohol, or prescription painkillers.
And you didn’t bail her out. Not seven years ago after she sideswiped a parked
car, got arrested for DUI, and spent a night in jail. And not four summers ago when
she was sentenced to thirty days in jail after failing to appear for a third DUI
hearing. That confinement was hellish for you both, yet it seemed to teach her what
you had hoped for: that her ability to charm her way out of trouble had limits,
and there were serious consequences to breaking laws designed to protect us all.
You hoped this wisdom was a step toward moderation in her life. And when she ran
low on cash, you bought vitamins and organic foods to nourish her beleaguered body.
You visited her in rehab, both times. You coached her through panic attacks and
encouraged her to manage these episodes herself rather than burden overworked
emergency-room staff. You urged her to join support groups, researching phone numbers
and addresses because she had no internet access and no bus fare to the library.
And Gary bought her an expensive set of quilted, lavender-infused wraps from the
mall. The largest draped across her aching neck and shoulders like a soothing shawl,
providing relief whether microwaved or frozen. Kelley wore her fragrant “shawl”
so often it soon needed a good washing. But soap and water would ruin the herbs
within, so the wrap grew grimy with oil and sweat.
The last day you saw her was nine weeks before her death. You remember her face
was gray. Even Gary said she looked sick. You remember she rarely laughed anymore.
She no longer surprised you with quips to make you giggle. In fact, you hadn’t
seen her smile in ages. It broke your heart she was always fatigued, always in pain,
always suffering anguish of one kind or another.
You yourself had felt exhausted for years, with your frustrations and impotence
regenerating like blackberry brambles despite periodic pruning. You began to despair
that Kelley would ever get better. Or could ever take care of you in your dotage.
You began to resent her illnesses and surgeries, her latest encampment on your couch
in a crowded house, the weeks of listening to her snore and struggle to breathe
as muscle relaxant and pain relievers aggravated her sleep apnea. Up at two a.m.
to empty your bladder, you watched with alarm the spasms of her diaphragm. Her lungs
failed to draw breath until after you managed to roll her onto her side. She was
so tranquilized she slept through the nudging. Where was her CPAP? She explained
later that she’d left it behind at Rob’s.
“That thing made me feel claustrophobic anyway,” she said.
“Apnea is serious business,” you said. “It can kill
But she lacked insurance to pay for a dental device like yours which would keep
her tongue from falling into her throat at night. This device might have worked
better for Gary’s sake, too, since her snoring often awakened him. Despite
his reservoirs of patience, you imagined his sleep debt growing and you worried
about his health as well.
Not to mention your own. Restful sleep and the solace of dreams eluded you. You
grew cranky. Your efforts toward understanding and compassion split like rain-soaked
tomatoes on the vine. With aches of your own to manage, you resented Kelley’s
endless, enervating treks to one hospital after another for more painkillers. They
left her with little time and energy for much else. You resented her inability to
work and contribute to the household. Especially disheartening was her disengagement,
the way she immersed herself in stories she watched onscreen rather than talk with
anyone. On 22 May, you tried to update a client’s website while yet another
movie distracted you in the background—and your frustrations simmered over.
“I’m busting my ass to help support this household,” you griped,
“and you lounge around all day watching TV like a damn slug!”
To your surprise, Kelley jumped up and started throwing things into her bags. “I’m
leaving!” she snapped. “I can’t deal with you when you’re
The irony of her words stunned you. In peevish silence you let her go as she heroically
gathered her belongings and left the house. You both knew there’s no bus service
this far north on Sundays and she looked too tired to walk very far. Where would
The instinctive urge to hug her farewell seemed awkward and inappropriate so you
suppressed it. You forgot your cardinal rule, imposed the day you and your daughter
were first separated—the day you began working as a divorced single parent and she
began negotiating her way through kindergarten. You resolved then to hug and kiss
her whenever you say good-bye, because this could be the last time you see each
other. Terrible things happen. Children get kidnapped and parents get mangled in
car accidents. You resolved to make sure she knows you love her no matter what.
Yet you failed to do that on the Sunday she left your house. In the weeks afterward,
you remembered this breach many times.
V. “We cradled ashes into earth and cicadas began to
The end of August, and dahlias and daisies have been blooming fiercely for a month,
along with every other flowering plant in Gary’s garden. Each day since Kelley’s
death has brought sunshine and temps in the low 80s. Perfect weather for blossoms
and bees. They seem to know the season could end with any sunset. After all, Seattle
summers only last a few weeks before the chill and drizzle resume. It’s Grand
Central Station above the two hives in the backyard, with “the girls”
swooping in all directions as they forage for nectar and pollen and water. They
remind you of tiny pinballs in their frenzy to build stores for winter.
Questions have ricocheted in your mind every waking minute. What were her last hours
like? Nurses and their assistants are often so busy, they’re forced to leave
patients unattended for many minutes between ministrations. Did she die alone? And
who painted her toenails? After all, you found no polish in the baggage she left
behind. Did she borrow a bottle from someone on the floor?
You and Gary get copies of her treatment summaries and learn that her doctor had
ordered a 24-hour sitter for her. Thank goodness. She needed someone nearby. Solitude
only made her anxious. You research sitters and discover they’re called PCAs,
or personal care assistants, who not only act as caregivers but also as companions
when family members are away. It comforts you to imagine shifts of caregiver-companions
keeping watch over Kelley during her last five days. Her PCA called the code-blue
just after she fell.
After reading the summary, you and Gary accept that the doctors who responded did
all they could to save her. But there was simply no response from their patient.
The survival rate for CPR is only 18%, not surprising given the violence and invasiveness
of the procedure on already weakened patients. But how you wish she had beaten those
odds. Time of death was called a minute before midnight yet you prefer to think
she was gone as she collapsed at 11:15.
All that potential! And only partially realized. As a gifted child, she dabbled
creatively—music, dance, literature, art, drama—and you tried to entice,
rather than push her into these interests. Keeping things fun would keep her engaged.
She voluntarily took clarinet, piano, trombone, and flute lessons. She studied ballet,
marched with her high-school drill team, and earned a Brown Belt in Shotokan Karate.
Like you, she enjoyed reading, everything from nonfiction to literature to pulp
fiction. Like your mother, she had an eye for perspective and liked to draw and
paint. She loved watching movies and her greatest talent may have been acting. She
performed in school plays, and later in offices of high-school officials to explain
why one of their best students was skipping classes. And later still in courtrooms
to petition judicial authorities to give her second and third chances. Her knack
for eliciting sympathy often mitigated her punishments.
Did this knack also help destroy her? If only you could have persuaded her to stop!
Stop taking all those prescription meds and give her body what it needed to restore
balance. Initial cause of death was cardiac failure triggered by pulmonary embolism.
Official cause is pending toxicology reports, which could take 8-10 weeks to complete.
You could die yourself before then so you gather data to fuel your speculations.
The medical examiner says Kelley’s autopsy shows no signs of trauma—the
“bruising” was a natural pooling of blood after death—and no pills
in her stomach that would indicate suicide. Plus, she was awake when she collapsed,
which rules out asphyxiation from apnea as you first thought. Which leads you next
to suspect poly-drug interaction. Not an overdose, but a fatal synergy between prescriptions:
anti-anxiety med, painkiller, and muscle relaxant. You spend hours researching these
tragic interactions, but until those reports confirm specific meds in Kelley’s
system, you’re stymied.
So you put aside the how and ponder the why. Was her death random, or was it predestined?
Was her work done here? When she was barely two, your toddler told you something
remarkable. She said she slid down the rainbow from heaven into your tummy. “I
wanted you for my mommy,” she explained, before she had learned about guile.
You’ve forgotten your reply, but no doubt your mind churned: where did
she get such an idea? Now, you think maybe her spirit did choose you. Maybe “Kelley’s
mom” was your calling. Certainly, this role has directed and defined and anchored
you for thirty-one years.
If indeed she chose you, did you meet her expectations? Does that mean your own
work here is done? But if you failed, what can you do now? Even if you could
arrange at 56 to give birth again, you lack the resources, the monumental
stamina, willpower, and time that raising another child would require. Besides,
your mother died of heart failure and Alzheimer’s disease at 70, and you expect
something similar, though sooner than later. Forty years of migraines and a mild
stroke last fall put you at risk of full-blown stroke or heart attack which could
leave a new child motherless from infancy. No, you cannot initiate such a selfish
enterprise even if it means there’s a chance Kelley could, or would, choose you
again. How can you make it up to her then? Warn the world about fatal poly-drug
interactions? Lobby Congress to ban certain medications?
How these ponderings exhaust you! At the heart of it all, you long to believe that
Kelley’s essence, the laughter and sweetness you treasure from her childhood,
is eternal and remains unharmed by human experience.
While organizing her belongings, you remember a CD long tucked away, a disk burned
from her Fisher-Price® tape recordings for your birthday ten years ago. You sit
and listen anew to the voice of your child singing verses from a song about bumble
bees. She must have been five or six and was giggling so much she could barely speak.
In the recording, you laugh in the background, just as tickled as she was. Here
is unmitigated glee that takes your breath away. Here is undiluted joy as contagious
now as it was then. You cannot help but laugh though your tears follow close behind.
When her song is over, she wants you to speak. “Say something weird,”
she wheedles, “like a joke.”
You claim playfully not to know any. “Besides,” you say, “my mind’s
on paying these bills.” Your tone slides from silly to somber and immediately
she says, “I love you,” as if her affection is the most natural and
self-evident thing in the world. “I love you too, Kelley,” you reply
on the CD, your voice brightening, and it’s clear that in this archived moment
your mind has veered from the mundane to the magical, from the domestic to the divine.
You are listening to one soul reveal the unified field theory of life to another.
And listening, you remember your last words to each other.
On the night of 22 July, you finally reached her by phone. After you agreed again
not to confront Rob (a promise you and Gary now consider breaking), she
described what happened since she left your house. The news was upsetting, but the
upshot was this: she had left Rob for good—“that son-of-a-bitch,
that heartless monster,” she said—turning at last to domestic-violence
counselors for help. She was shuttling from shelter to shelter for her protection,
between Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia.
“Shelters for battered women,” she said, “not for the homeless.
Big difference. Private rooms with real furniture for one thing.”
You told her you admired her courage. “Thank goodness, you’re safe!”
you said. “Sweetie, you can stay with us if you need to.”
“I’m not a slug.”
“I know,” you agreed. “Fatigue can make people say things they
“It’s okay, Mom, thanks. But I’ll take a raincheck anyway. The
house is just too far away. My whole support network is here.”
“How about I drive down tomorrow to see you then? Where will you be?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “They move me day-to-day while
they help me look for a safe place to live. I’ll call you when I know more.”
Her nurse arrived to take vital signs and Kelley signed off. “I love you,
“I love you too, Kelley. Call me soon then, okay? Good night.”
You clutch your shoulders now and rock yourself, crying with emotions more intense than
ever before: relief, gratitude, anger, anxiety, sorrow. Yet you have faith that
you can survive this. Be thou not afraid
Here in your sixth decade
you’re strong enough to travel this path of transitions, despite the heartbreaking
work ahead. And the rate of loss can only accelerate with each step: your eyesight,
your independence, your memories, your dearest friends. Whenever you falter, you
can reach for Kelley’s CD to hear her laughter light your way.
And you can hold Gary’s first grandchild and giggle as she reads to you someday.
You can delight in her joys and help salve her sorrows as she grows. You can spend
more time with your stepdaughter Jamie. Her baby was born the last day in May
and already Evelyn’s dimpled smile takes your breath away.
Little Miss Watch-Me
with her dandelion smile
dancing on the tips
of her butterfly toes.
She can be thoughtful
once in awhile
but she’d much rather follow
where the soap-bubble blows.6
You read that a child’s death is trauma that parents never get over, despite
misperceptions to the contrary. Such trauma cannot be overcome and there is no recovery,
no return to life as it was. But there is integration. Adaptation.7
And you can accept this. The work of grief has begun transforming you as water and
light transform the seed. With your palms open toward sunlight and rain, you sit
each day with the ragged tides of emotion and listen mindfully as they speak about
compassion. Not only for Kelley, not only for yourself and Gary, not only for your
family and friends, but also for the immense circle of all sentient beings who suffer.
This wisdom harvested in the final season of your life shall be your legacy to the
teacher and friend who visited you in the guise of your daughter—“a
fragrant drop of levity”8 whose divine spark has returned home
to that place where rainbows were born.
“You will heal, and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered.
You will be whole again, but you will never be the same
Yet why would you want to be?
In memory of Kelley Marie Smith:
born Saturday afternoon 5 July 1980;
died Saturday night 30 July 2011.
“Good night, sweet rainbow rider, until we meet
- La Rochefoucauld: Maxims, trans. Leonard Tancock. Penguin Classics,
- Lababidi, Yahia. Signposts to Elsewhere. New York: Jane Street Press,
- Gibran, Khalil. “On Death,” The Prophet, trans. Juan R. I.
- Gibran, “On Death.”
- Luria-Sukenick, Lynn. “Elegy: Three Months,” The Hue Everyone
Living Knows. Berkley, Parentheses Writing Series, 1993.
- MacQueen, Donald. “Wallet-Size,” written especially for Kelley’s
sixth birthday. Santa Rosa, California, 1986.
- Bernstein, Judith R., Ph.D. When the Bough Breaks. Kansas City: Andrews
McMeel Publishing, LLC, 1998.
- Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufman. New York: Random
House Publishing, Modern Library, 2000.
- Kübler-Ross, Elizabeth and David Kessler. On Grief and Grieving. New York:
- Brenna, Duff. Personal quotation for Kelley’s eulogy, 2011. Duff’s novels,
especially The Book of Mamie and The Altar of the Body, were among
—Editor’s Note: Essay was subsequently nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and
appeared in the anthology, Winter Tales: Women Write About Aging, edited by
R. A. Rycraft and Leslie What (Serving House Books, 2012).
Kelley and Clare
is a copy editor, Web designer, winner of an Eric Hoffer Best New Writing
Editor’s Choice Award, and two-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize.
She and her husband Gary Gibbons live north of Seattle, where they design and
build custom websites. They also share obsessions for sci-fi movies, flower
gardens, and keeping honey bees in the backyard.