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The Ocean

Maya Angelou paid people to be at

her dying mother’s side to hold her hand

when she couldn’t, but it didn’t even occur to

me. I was too busy moonlighting as livestock. All the

milking and prodding held all other priorities hostage and

I was thrashing, gasping for air like I’d suddenly

forgotten how to swim. When grief is

consumed by the undertow of

guilt, there is no bottom to it.

The sorrow has dimmed, its flashlight

flickers to speckle the black depths on special

occasions but the guilt, it devours my insides like a

piranha. The tsunami of motherhood banished you to

the backburner and then you died, and I learned of

it from a text message. You know dad’s never

been great at approaching sensitive subjects

with tact and my surprise was idiotic. You were

wasting away in a hospice and deep down I knew your

final breath was imminent even if I wished for more time.

It’s not the infrequency of my visits that keeps me up at night,

it’s what happened after. Or, more accurately, what didn’t

happen. We never buried you. There was no ceremonial

farewell. There was a service, but it was rushed

and stiff, trying to be too many things

and instead, being nothing at all.

As your family and friends trickled through the

door, I couldn’t think of much to say to anyone other

than to remind them to eat the platters. I was even pitched

into a giggle fit when James looked at dad’s dog and with

his sublime concoction of British dryness and perfect

comedic timing said, what a ghastly little animal.

I love dogs but this one barked spastically

any time my infant son made a noise so calling him

ghastly really tickled me and those were the only tears

that fell from my face that afternoon. If there were a more

official ceremony where we lowered your ashes into the ground

and tossed flowers and wiped away tears while someone—

me—delivered a eulogy, maybe I’d have the closure

to confront this cavernous grief head on but

instead, its suspended in purgatory,

held there against its will by an

anchor sinking toward a floor that doesn’t

exist. Because how could I let you die alone after all

you did for me? You stepped in to help raise me, filling the

gap in mom’s too-big shoes and I should have been there

every day at the end, holding your hand, lying that

everything will be okay. But I wasn’t there,

and I didn’t have the foresight

Ms. Angelou did to send

someone on my behalf and now

you’re punishing me, aren’t you? You

came to me in a dream once and you were smiling.

It was a smile I’d never seen on your mortal face,

completely free from the burden of worry.

That ethereal smile was the most

beautiful thing I ever beheld,

second only to my son’s slightly

over-bitten grin. But then you never came

back. And now the only thing keeping me afloat

on this saltless ocean is that I know you live inside of

him and when I hug and kiss him, I’m hugging

and kissing you, too. Even if you

never come to visit

me anymore.

trailing-off (Jake photo).jpg

About the Author

Ashley J.J. White is an English student and poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction writer from Canada. She has had several poems, short stories and essays published in various magazines; she loves to read and write about philosophy, human nature, and relationships. Twitter @ashleyjjwhite

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