Starting Over

The bumpy repair of a family after a sudden loss

"Sunrise and Silence" by x1klima / CC BY-ND 2.0

I sat in the kitchen the night my husband, Mark, died and stared at the list I'd requested the doctor make for me at the hospital. The three-by-five-inch slip of white paper was already wrinkled from my repeated opening and closing: call Mark's family; call friends; call the coroner and funeral home tomorrow; love your children through this. And so it began, this march through the rest of my life. Our six-year-old son, Dylan, was at my parents' house. Our twenty-month-old, Hallie, had been delivered home earlier and was asleep upstairs. I wrote out a script that began with "I have some very hard news." At thirty-four-years old, my healthy, athletic husband had simply stopped breathing. We would soon learn that an arrhythmia shook his heart until it stopped and never returned it to a regular beat.

After the calls, I wandered out into the summer garden. Mark and I had walked this land hundreds of times. Still, in memory, even one seared into the mind, there is distortion. Was the moon full? Was it really warm or had fog settled in? Was that wailing sound I remember music or Hallie crying? Was the owl calling as he was on most summer evenings? What was it Dylan said to my mother when they sat huddled together in the hospital waiting room? Did he say anything when I told him, "Something terrible has happened"?

I do remember that in the early morning hours during the first long night, drained by lack of sleep, facing a future magnified by all the terrors that sudden death invites, I called a friend who had said in an earlier call, "My tennis shoes are by the bed." Years before, she had been the one to tell me that the house I lived in well before I met Mark had burned down while I was at work. I'd lost everything, or so I thought then. Now, I knew it was just a house. She was at my house twenty minutes from the time I called at three a.m. What did we say? I have no recollection. If I were to guess at the memory, it would be the two of us at my table with me doing most of the talking while my friend simply listened. I suspect most of my sentences started with, "I can't believe this is happening." With sunrise, the vibrant August colors seemed to bleed from the images around me like a slow development of a black and white photo from a color image. Dark filters draped over everything, from trees to cars, rendering them in shades of gray to black.

Death, the old story, happens to families all over the world, often in ways far more violent and brutal than we experienced. How had others survived the compound fractures of families ripped apart by conflict, by war? "How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one's culture but within oneself?" asks the writer Barry Lopez. Through a dark filter, the world turned fearsome and mean; but the most difficult despair was within me.

There were times Mark and I had hurt each other through arguments and the quiet tension that is not easily broken. In our early years, I walked the path deep into the woods to escape the difficulty of opening my heart so completely to another person. Like most couples, we knew the places where a wound could go deep. We didn't go there. Trust and love grew. So did respect. When Mark died, my flaws did not go with him. I still hurt people with my silence, with ill-considered words or thoughtlessness. I constructed walls that others, even my children, at times couldn't penetrate. I wanted to live a life that would honor Mark's, not to live my life for him, but to take the vulnerability that I learned from our marriage and use it to look honestly at my life, at the degradation around me, at the hurt I caused and the ways I could heal it. I missed Mark's ability to cast a wide net of forgiveness over others and over me. But I didn't want to make him a saint. I ran over and over scenes with Mark. Most people idealize their dead, but it's hard to live up to saints. I wanted Mark in my life, but not at the expense of losing who he had been. "It's like you have to re-size the dead," a friend said.

As I walked away from the ambulance taking Mark to the hospital, I gripped my children's hands. It would be weeks before I could gentle my hold. I knew with chilling yet certain clarity why I was here and what I needed to do. I just needed to figure out the how. I had two people depending on me, not just for shelter but for healed hearts. I had to face not only an exterior darkness, but also the shadows within me. If death was, as some say, simply walking through a door, grief felt like walking into a door. I knew bereavement groups had helped friends, but I was private and afraid and not able to articulate, even to myself, what this new environment meant. I sensed that if I could get through the intense pain and sadness, I would be able to figure out how to live. If I could understand what was normal about sadness, I could navigate it and help my children do the same. "Sadness turns our attention inward so that we can take stock and adjust," says the bereavement researcher George Bonanno. "It narrows the focus, promoting deeper and more effective reflection. . . . [T]he functions of sadness become essential tools that help us accept and accommodate to the loss."

Counseling helped me put sorrow into words that, over time, moved me forward. We found a counselor who became integral to our lives and an especially staunch ally for Dylan. "She had an aura of confidence," Dylan later said, a quality that was not evident in our family right then. She met with us off and on until her retirement fifteen years later. She helped me answer not only the question "What do I do now?" but "Who will we be now?" She helped us survive physically and practically, but more important she showed us how to work our family into something stronger, toughening the sinew that would hold us together in the years to come. She helped us weave some of the old pieces of our lives into a future. When life felt too overwhelming to manage, I would say to her, "If I fall apart, will you come get me?" Her answer was always "Yes."


Mark was a man who loved to talk. I would ask him to go to the store for milk, and he might return two hours later, without milk, but with stories about everyone he ran into. If I was frustrated at both his lateness and lack of groceries, he would say "Don't you just love me?" raising his eyebrows like one of the Marx brothers. Occasionally I see that look on my son's face, nearly always when we've reached some kind of impasse. When I went to the store and returned on time with the groceries, Mark would ask me who I saw. I'd rattle off a few names. Then he would ask me how they were, what they were doing, how the family was, even about what they were reading or movies they'd seen, gardens they'd planted, trips they'd taken, new cars. I would never know the answers, and he would encourage me to reach out more, "Melis, you just don't ask the right questions to get to the details."

Details. We married in June of 1979 after an all-night drive to New Meadows, Idaho where our friends Michael and Annie lived in the rectory of a small Methodist congregation. At dawn, the morning after our arrival, we sidestepped the church and hiked up Brundage Mountain to get married. Annie played her flute. After breakfast, we headed out for an all-day drive home and Chinese food at a restaurant in The Dalles, Oregon. We had to work on Monday. Friends threw us a party the next week.

Eight years later, at the memorial gathering, those same friends told stories at Michael's invitation to speak about Mark's life. In the old barn-cum-school we heard about Mark rafting, working, moving pianos, playing basketball, baseball, and once, when out of work, his instruction to a gas-station attendant to "fill it up with unemployment." During the sharing, Dylan had wandered up and down the rows, crawling onto laps, and wandering off again. At a pause in the stories, he walked up to the stage, stepped onto it, put his hands on his tiny hips and started to speak. His voice, even at six-years old, was clear and loud enough to reach the people who had overflowed outside onto the back deck. He talked about Mark taking him swimming, bicycling, bushwhacking, and between each story he would say "Yeah," in the way of a soft exclamation mark. "He was a good dad, yeah."

While tempted to move to the city where steady work was more available, I knew that, if Dylan wailed "I liked it just the way it was" the day I got my hair trimmed, or Hallie walked around the living room with the cereal box tucked under her arm lest anyone make it disappear, leaving our home might be the change that would push us all over the edge. If I could make it physically and financially, we would stay. We'd already had too much change.

I moved at inevitable shifts slant and slow. I transferred Hallie's bike seat from Mark's bike to mine while she napped. I started to look at what needed to be done in the house. We had two doors, a front door and the bathroom door. This meant the new, upwardly mobile Hallie, the Hallie who had learned to vault childproof gates and escape car seats, had free and ready access to Dylan's room. I nailed planks over the bottom half of Dylan's doorframe and hauled a chair upstairs for him to step on as he crawled over the faux-door barricade and thudded to the other side. Our neighbor Jim saw my makeshift barrier and, within a week, I had doors for every room in the house—most handmade. Dylan approved this change. "All children want to crouch in their secret nests," Seamus Heaney said.

We'd built our house in 1981 with $2,000 in savings and a $4,000 bank loan. It was on several acres of land near the boundary of the Siuslaw Forest. There was no front door for the first week after we moved in. The window frames held plastic instead of glass. One temporary outlet, nailed onto a four-by-four, powered the fridge and circular saws. We soaked diapers for Dylan behind the house. We installed a front door that opened and shut only when you lifted it in a deft hip maneuver. The door was second-hand or maybe third or fourth as was the cast-iron tub my sister gave us. We didn't have running water, but we were optimistic.

Our first wood stove was a compact cast-iron model from Ireland. We seasoned it, and learned to use the drafts to regulate the fire. Our house measured a little over eight hundred square feet. Even as we lost air through the windows and doors, it didn't take much heat to get it warm. We learned to finesse the fire to avoid the kind of heat that would force us outside to cool off. That first late fall, I was cooking dinner when I heard a loud boom. I ducked. Cast iron cracking is the bang of thunder directly overhead. We took the defective back off the heater and replaced it with one the company sent. The second time the back cracked, we learned the business was in receivership. We would just have to assume the loss and buy a new stove—a Vermont Castings Resolute. And it has been.

The plans we'd had to finish our home were put on indefinite hold when Mark died. But, as they had in every chapter of grief, friends stepped in to pump life back into Mark's vision. If Mark had taught me to reach out, our friends were the ones who pulled me forward, out of grief and into a revised life. The first spring after Mark's death, I took Hallie and Dylan to eastern Oregon for three days. It was Mother's Day weekend. I came home to kitchen cabinets instead of boxes. Where skates and kettles had hung from bathroom beams, the studs and insulation were covered, and new cabinets held our toothbrushes and toothpaste. A used dishwasher one friend had retrieved from a remodel was installed; the walls were painted. Three friends; three days; new house.

Mark is the one who has guided me in a world without him in it. In all his complexity, he remains a guardian twenty-seven years after his death. He is the watcher who encourages me toward truth, even during the times I fail to find it. His voice is the voice I listen for at the river when deep darkness visits. His ability to forgive is what I ask for when some event begs for this trait. His humor still helps me lighten up when I take myself too seriously. His death has pushed me to live my life as if I might not be here tomorrow, and one tomorrow I won't be. Loss sharpened the focus on what mattered, and it wasn't answers to questions about death, but how we would continue to live.

In life, Mark and I had carried each other. We changed each other. Now, I was getting to live; he wasn't. I carried him. I had to. The weight had become a compass. So I rode my bike both because I loved it and because I could do it and Mark couldn't. My children and I got to paddle the river, to camp and dam water with stones. We could pile wood on bonfires, read stories and hike. We could argue and apologize. We could offer and take second chances. And when things were bad, when it felt as if our family might be breaking apart, we remembered that we had been loved and believed in by someone enough to keep going. We kept going.


Death and Dying, Family, Identity, Home


4 comments have been posted.

Dearest Melissa, I was going through some old adoption stories and letters and I found your note, letter about Mark and pictures of Dylan and Hallie. We had adopted our daughter from BGAS and I shared via. a phone conversation our positive adoption experience. I wanted to reach out and hope your family is well and happy. Jill Carmody

Jill Carmody | February 2019 | San Rafael, California

This really touched me. I too, lost my husband, who was also named Mark. I went through a similar grief and, like Melissa, found a way to carry on. I am inspired by her sharing what she discovered through it all, and I discovered some own new revelations of my own by reading this.

Joy Massey | April 2016 | Oregon

Thank you, Melissa. I am so happy to see this in print.

Jane Salisbury | April 2015 | United States

This excerpt is breathtakingly beautiful and recalls to my mind the excruciating transition my own family weathered following an unexpected divorce. My son went to school for a time with Melissa's son, Dylan, and while I knew that Melissa writes, this is the first I've read of her work; it won't be the last!

Melonie Ferguson | April 2015 | United States

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