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5900 words
SHJ Issue 4
Fall 2011

The Fragrance of Levity

by Clare MacQueen

I. “Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.” 1

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 this?”

“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 are.” 2

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 them busy.

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 or later.”

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 barking dog.

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 much afterward.

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 such merriments.

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 inconclusive.

“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 you.”

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 like this!”

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 she go?

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 sing…” 5

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 regret later.”

“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, Mom.”

“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.

VI. Wallet-Size

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.

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…”9

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 again…” 10


  1. La Rochefoucauld: Maxims, trans. Leonard Tancock. Penguin Classics, 1982.
  1. Lababidi, Yahia. Signposts to Elsewhere. New York: Jane Street Press, 2007.
  1. Gibran, Khalil. “On Death,” The Prophet, trans. Juan R. I. Cole.
  1. Gibran, “On Death.”
  1. Luria-Sukenick, Lynn. “Elegy: Three Months,” The Hue Everyone Living Knows. Berkeley, Parentheses Writing Series, 1993.
  1. MacQueen, Donald. “Wallet-Size,” written especially for Kelley’s sixth birthday. Santa Rosa, California, 1986.
  1. Bernstein, Judith R., Ph.D. When the Bough Breaks. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC, 1998.
  1. Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufman. New York: Random House Publishing, Modern Library, 2000.
  1. Kübler-Ross, Elizabeth and David Kessler. On Grief and Grieving. New York: Scribner, 2007.
  1. 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 her favorites.


—Editor’s Note: Essay was subsequently nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and appeared in the anthology, Winter Tales II: Women Write About Aging, edited by R. A. Rycraft and Leslie What (Serving House Books, 2012).


SHJ Issue 4
Fall 2011

Clare MacQueen

Photo of Kelley Smith and Clare MacQueen, by Gary Gibbons
Kelley and Clare
Photograph by
Gary Gibbons

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.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury