Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Water and Light: From Hudson's Daddy

So much of life is light. We all carry a flame, but there was one little flame that lit my whole world. (How is it that such a young small person who lives such a short life could make such a big light?) But she is gone now and it is dark, and my own light is doused to embers. It feels so empty. And so I live by the light of our friends and family. Their breath keeps my embers glowing. In some ways, life has been so unfair to me, but this is not one of them. The day after Hudson’s death, my friend Lisa posted on my Facebook that she “found a place of peace tonight shortly after 7pm, gazing at Hudson's photo praying for a miracle, when clarity came to me that her life--however short--has been a miracle, and that we're all blessed to be part of a community that surrounds her, and you, and Mandy, with so much love.” She’s right (I keep finding myself saying that in response to the wisdom of my friends). Mandy and I are blessed by the people in our lives. Their love has found its mark and I want them to know that.

And I am most blessed to have Mandy. I cannot fathom being in this time – or any time, for that matter – with any other person. At times it feels like we are clinging to the bottom of a capsized vessel in stormy seas, and it is her voice and soft touch that keeps me present and holding on. And even though we are both adrift together, she still remains my magnetic north.

So much of life is also water. And grief often feels like drifting and floating (and sometimes drowning). I guess it’s no surprise that I find myself wanting to be near the water as much as possible. A few weeks ago, I went to visit my friends Claudia, Cal and Chuck in North Carolina. Claudia runs a retreat center on beautiful farmland near a small town called Mebane. She lives in a cozy house filled with the art and love of her friends, and the front of the house overlooks a small farm pond. It was a clear day, and you could see on the water the reflection of the sky broken by the occasional cloud and the watchful cedars that line the southern bank. After a yummy lunch, Claudia and I were drawn to go for a swim. We hopped in while Cal basked on a small dock that jutted out to the pond’s deepest point and Chuck roamed the land nearby. After taking a few laps, Claudia and I started floating on our backs, our arms to our sides, spinning on axis around each other like binary stars. It smelled like home, like the organic red clay of the North Carolina Piedmont. I rested my hand on my belly and felt myself breathing; my body rising and sinking into the sun-warmed water with each breath. Claudia noted that if you breathe just right, you can float forever with very little work. She’s right, of course. The breathing. It’s a foundation; a fundamental of staying afloat. I am adept in the water, but at that moment, I just wanted to float with my people among the comfort of our gentle ripples. It was – they are – exactly what I need.

* * *

A number of times, I’ve thought about Aeschylus’s famous quote on suffering (Robert Kennedy used a slight variation in his memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr.): “[E]ven in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despite, against our will, comes wisdom by the awful grace of God.”

This quote is commonly understood to mean that suffering brings wisdom, but in some ways, it is about the acceptance of suffering. And that is related to the lesson that keeps hammering me with every drop: that life is simply unfair and there some things you cannot control, and to survive, you just need to accept it. The drops look like this: Hudson as she was when I first arrived at the emergency room - splayed out on a hospital bed just staring off into space while two or three doctors and a crying Mandy hovered worriedly over her. Her bed being rolled into the intensive care unit, the useless antibiotics flowing into her arm. Her reaching for her mother – and her mother’s palpable desire to hold her – while the doctors held her back. The somehow gentle yet cold mechanical embrace from the tendrils of life support equipment after she fell into a coma. The way her eyes did not move during her brain death exam. The limp warmth of her body after she was taken off life support. And then there are the contrasting sister drops: Hudson’s involuntary smile as we swung around the kitchen singing Wagon Wheel. The way she paused in anticipation just before I snatched her up when we were playing run and hide. Her reflexive “No” that sometimes came out with a question mark. Her earnest look while trying to sing along to Row Your Boat or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. The famous Easter egg picture: her hand proudly showing the first egg she found at her first – and only – Easter egg hunt, her giddy, infectious smile commanding all attention. Sometimes, it pours.

But here’s the thing. I don’t need this lesson anymore. I was mired in it when I was a gangly 13 year old and everyday after school my mother would make me roll up my sleeve so she could check my undersized forearm for needle tracks because she was convinced that I was a 7th grade dope addict and that my sisters were prostitutes and my father was plotting to kill her. She was losing her mind and I was deep in the midst of losing her in a painfully drawn out way. The loss wasn’t slow – time was slow. Crazy stopped the clock while her sanity raced away. It’s the same with grief. There is always plenty of time to listen to the drops and to contemplate the stolen days that would have inevitably raced by.

Before my mother’s mental illness, you could describe her in ways similar to Hudson – beautiful, vivacious, and intelligent. There is a great photo of her taken by her cousin when she worked as a journalist in college. It’s an 8 x 10 black and white of her laughing at something off camera. She’s gorgeous - she could have modeled – and there is a light in her eyes. But in some ways, my mother was my first child. So much of my youth and young adulthood was spent trying taking care for her - although I did a lousy job taking care of her since I was mostly learning how to take care of myself. And like with my real first child, I watched her die in a hospital bed surrounded by beeping instruments. She was finally taken by cancer, when I was twenty-five. The actual cause of her death was internal bleeding. Right before she died, she kept crying out for water.

It’s the grief for the loss of Hudson that owns me now, not the grief of losing my mother twice. But these losses, they run together. They have to – they are conjoined by love and life incomplete and utter unfairness. My friend and co-worker Grace popped into my office a couple of weeks ago and asked me if Hudson came to play with me at night. Grace lost her mother a few years ago and now her mom visits her regularly in her dreams. They have normal conversations about every day life. I had not then and have not yet dreamed about Hudson. I want to so badly, and Grace said that it would come soon. But as it would go, a day or two after Grace’s visit, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in a very long time. I was a finalist in one of the American Idol/America’s Got Talent shows and it was the day of the final decisive show. There were five of us, and we all showed up to the auditorium a few hours early to prepare (it was Beatles night, but for some reason I was singing Bohemian Rhapsody). My mother dropped me off in her burgundy Dodge Shadow and I realized I was wearing the wrong suit and I didn’t have my sheet music. I was completely unprepared and feeling panicky, and my mother – who seemed somewhat with it – promised me that she would go back and get her stuff. She left, and I waited. And she never came back.

It’s transparent that this dream was about my mother, but actually I think it was more about Hudson. She’s not coming back either, as much as I wait, as my dreams without her tell me every night. I would do anything to have her back. But I can’t. And although I’ve already had a life time to get used to the dripping, and to accept it, it still hurts like hell.

But what else am I to do other than to be. My friend Tony has created an internet based public art project – WDYDWYD. It’s a participatory project that invites anyone to artistically answer the question, “Why do you do what you do?” It’s a brilliant idea and elicits some really creative and poignant submissions. Many are in the form of self-portrait photography, as would be mine. I’m outside. It’s sunny and I’m standing in front of a body of water. Pinned on my shirt over my heart is a photo of Hudson – the Easter egg photo. My left hand is by my side and it holds the black and white photo of my mother. My right hand is in front of me, an open compass in my palm. Somehow, the words “Because the world is unfair enough already” are scrawled at the top of the photo. The bottom reads, “And there are some things we can control.”


  1. Words fail me. In a world adrift, I hope you both find many, many things --- your love of each other, your family, the endless possibilities for the future --- to keep you afloat. We are all so very sorry for your losses. No one should have to bear this level of unfairness, but you two do so with grace, dignity, and eloquence, even if you feel at times like you are floundering. Stay strong.

  2. I read these blogs regularly because I am in awe of both of you. I know my accolades do nothing to soothe the excruciating pain you continue to go through and yet I have to give them. Frankly, I feel inadequate even occupying the same space as your thoughtful writings. You're both amazing - as I regularly sit crying, mesmerized by the poignancy of your thoughts, emotions and gut-wrenching honesty, I know with utmost certainty that there are great things in store for you. I know because I'm in constant prayer for things to come your way, and despite all the awful things you both have suffered through and will continue to suffer through, He is still listening and is very much with you.

  3. This is so beautifully written. Life is unfair. Life is hard. There is balance, but rarely fairness. I truly hope the balance finds you both. It is simply inspiring to read the words written here, and one can not help but hold hope. For what I am uncertain. But there is hope.
    Like I quite accidentally found your blog while cruising through crafty blogs, I unfortunately came upon another blog of a couple who have suffered a similar loss quite recently. I directed them here. There is so much love here, I can not help but hope that it will help others.

  4. Wow...Ed, this was beautifully written. As I sit here at my desk with tears streaming down my face, trying to come up with something to say, I have nothing. Nothing will take away this amount of grief. Nothing will bring Hudson back. But, faithfully, every morning, I ask God to take away your and Mandy's pain and ask that you may find peace and comfort in this tragedy. Although life has been so unfair to you, in many ways, it has been so kind. You have found the love of your life in Mandy, and God blessed you with an angel in Hudson.

    I hadn't shared this with you or Mandy because I thought it would incite more grief, but I will share it now, in the hopes that it brings you comfort. I recently had a dream about Hudson. She was playing outside...running around in a playground, giggling the entire time. She was gliding back and forth on a swing one minute and racing down a slide the next. I can't remember anything else about the dream, but I woke up the next morning thinking, Hudson is in a place where she is happy. She was smiling that bright smile of hers and with her twinkling eyes, she lit up the sky. I hope that you and Mandy may find comfort in my dream. My grandmother passed away recently, and I have dreamt about her often. She has always been happy in my dreams...and I truly believe these dreams are a sign that she is at peace. I hope that my dream of Hudson gives you and Mandy some peace.


  5. My heart aches at the image of Hudson reaching for her mother and her mother being unable to hold her. Sometimes I just can't stand the unfairness of life: Hudson's death, your and her mother's suffering through the experience of losing her and living without her. Then I think of the poor children who are abused and neglected and feel so grateful that although Hudson's life ended tragically, every day of her life was full of love and happiness. Certainly Hudson is one of the greatest blessings of your lives, despite the unfairness of her early death. I hope someday the pain of her loss will have faded enough for you to feel the joy of her life more clearly than is possible now. In the meantime I hope your friends and family can continue to carry you through this terrible time. We who do not know you or Hudson will continue to remember her through this blog and hope for peace for you all.

  6. Ed, your writing is beautiful, just as Mandy's is. I continue to pray and hope for peace and comfort for both of you. Hudson's light is still so bright.

  7. One of my old headmaster's other lessons -- besides "life is unfair" and "you will die" --was "count your blessings." Now would seem like a really really difficult time to do that for you, Ed, but I'm glad you can. They are real blessings, even though the losses you've experienced are beyond what anyone should. I hope I can be a good friend to you from here on.

  8. Ed, this is so beautiful and heartwrenching. You were and are an amazing father to that little girl. Thank you for sharing these thoughts with us.

  9. Such beautiful and awe-inspiring writing. I understand your feeling of unfairness when you have already been through so much. There is mental illness in my family too - TWO of my children have mental illness. And one of them has cancer. Life is such a journey of transformation, my friend. You have lost such a beautiful light in your life - but her light is still shining - it is in every word you and Mandy write about her, it spreads over into all of our distant worlds and you make us see her, and know her, and love you all. Keep holding that compass out, you will find your way. I hope she visits you in your dreams soon. Though the waking up will be so hard. Blessings to you and Mandy. Keep writing!!!!!!!!

  10. Ed,
    One Father to another - well done brother, well done! You and Mandy have both seet the bar so high for the rest of us, and that is perhaps Hudson's greatest legacy.

  11. Kate Ackley ZellerJuly 21, 2010 at 1:18 PM

    Ed, thank you and Mandy for sharing your love and Hudson's light with us all. I feel very grateful and blessed to know the three of you.

    While I wish these words didn't have any reason to exist (because Hudson should be radiating her light all by herself in her smiles and giggles and her curiosity and mischief-making and joy at living her life), your writing, like Mandy's, is beautiful and inspiring. Thank you.

  12. I am so sorry for your unimaginable loss.

    I just wanted to share with you that I dreamed of my father a few months after his death five years ago (after suffering terribly from congestive heart failure). He assured me that he was okay now, not in pain any longer, and we chatted for a while without any sense of grief.
    Then I asked him what it was like for him, now, on the other side. He said, "I'll show you. Touch my hand." As soon as I touched him, his whole body started to shimmer and radiate energy. A bright white light emitted from his body, and he began to break apart (kind of like looking at lava as it flows from a volcano - glowing through the cracks as it emerges). He was turning into engery, and I can't describe it very well, but he began to change into a limitless thing... I was suddenly no longer in a room, I was looking at the universe, I was a part of the universe, but I could still feel his energy. It was an amazing "I get it, now" feeling that I've carried with me ever since.
    I don't believe that we 'end' when we are done here, we simply become these wonderful energy forms that are one. We're all one.

    I know this all sounds rather ridiculous, but I truly hope that you are blessed with this knowledge, yourself. It was and is such a comfort to me.

  13. Ed,

    I’m a quoter. I memorize quotes and shuffle through them in my mind at moments, often thinking that if I could combine enough wisdom of others, I could make sense of it all. I can’t. But, I can quote. Aeschylus also said “There is no pain so great as the memory of joy in present grief.” He had it right. Closer to our time, The Counting Crows sing, “The price of a memory is the memory of the sorrow it brings.” They have it right too.

    As I read your blog, I thought of the post I made to Mandy’s Blog “Lighting” a couple of weeks ago. Although I’m sure you may have read it, I report part of it to you now:

    “After my dad died, my mom's favorite phrase turned into "Life's not fair." I heard it constantly as a child and still as an adult. There were never any explanations or reasons, just her "Life's not fair" for all things. I resent it and always have. I simply hate it and hearing it, even now (as she still loves to say it), makes me cringe.

    As I read your post today, I thought about how there are no guarantees, but how you and Ed certainly deserve them. You deserve to move forward (not on) with the guarantee that nothing as devastating as the past will be in your futures. And I beg the powers that be to make this so...all the while thinking...Life's (just) not fair.”

    I say again, directly to you, how I wish, beg and pray that life will be fair to you both. And Aeschylus, much wiser and articulate that I, would read your blog and say “I'm not afraid of storms, for I'm learning to sail my ship.”

    Much love, Sharon

  14. Seems appropriate to share one of my favorite quotes here too: "Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it is learning to dance in the rain." It seems you and Mandy have danced in the rain much of your lives already but I am amazed and truly inspired by your ability to continue dancing (even if it is a slow waltz) in the midst of what is surely the greatest storm of your lives.

    While this storm may never completely pass, I do believe that the sun will peak through the storm clouds again. Until then, I wish you peace and hope the rains wash away some of the heaviness that surrounds your heart.

    Keep dancing! I imagine Hudson would enjoy watching her parents dance from above!

  15. Thanks for sharing Ed. We continue to grieve with you...adrift in grief and questions of why, but I think the end of your blog summed it up best: Life is unfair and there are some things we cannot control.

    I am so glad that you threw a good-bye party for Andrea and Jake so that we got to meet you guys. Stay strong.

  16. I have been catching up with this blog, and just wanted to let you know I am still thinking of you. After reading this, I told my family about it, and from now on, whenever "Wagon Wheel" is played at our house (which is pretty much all the time), we will think of Hudson.


  17. Thank you for sharing so much with all of us.
    Your pain and experience have taught everyone who reads this what life can hold, what parenting can mean and how valuable each minute we exist is..
    Already I see this short life of Hudsons as meaningful and exemplary via your reaching out to us. Already her short life has given greatly. When we ask WHY? time will show us....Hudson and you, her family, have been chosen to open many doors of insight and spirituality for mankind.

    When you ask Why? View the changes already being made by all the people you come in contact with. Some may call you messengers, others angels, but you are chosen and the future will be better because the Lord called Hudson home early and gave you each a new challenge.