By Lori Tucker-Sullivan
For weeks in 2018, much of the world was focused on a killer whale, an orca, swimming off the coast of Washington State, with her dead calf across her forehead. It is typical, say those who study whales, for the mother of a dead calf to carry the carcass for a day or two, then drop it to the bottom of the ocean and swim off. But this mother whale wasn’t doing that, and no one understood why. Was it a reaction to the changes in the whales’ habitat, caused in part by water pollution? Did it have to do with a lack of food as a result of overfishing? Or was it a mother’s grief and inability to let go?
There were times when the whale, named Tahlequah, lost her daughter from her forehead, and went diving after her. Down into the ink-black waters of the ocean she dove, nudging her calf back up to the sunlight and air above.
* * *
My grandmother, Blanche Huskey, was born in a small town in East Tennessee called Tellico. Cherokee settled in the area and named it for the red-hued grass, or tahlequah, that grew in the fields. Tellico is the Anglicized version of the Cherokee name for the town. When I saw that the orca was named Tahlequah by the Lummi Nation tribe that monitors the whale pod, I immediately thought of my mother and grandmother. Descended from both Scottish immigrants and Cherokee, these earlier generations of my family settled into the rust-colored hills of East Tennessee until my parents came north searching: my father for good paying work, my mother for freedom from servitude to her mother’s disability. They migrated, as children do.
* * *
Last year, I returned my daughter to Chicago for her senior year of college. She had spent four months studying in Italy, and then remained in Chicago for the summer, coming home to Detroit to visit for a week before classes began. She managed school, a job, travel, internships and relationships with ease, despite loss and emotional challenges. She was already looking for a post-school job, one that would probably take her away from home.
An environmental science major, she worries about the damage being done to our planet. We talked about the plight of Tahlequah and she explained that it is but one more indication of significant trouble—a harbinger sounded by a mother in pain. We discuss the understandable reasons for Tahlequah’s behavior: overfishing and ecosystem impact on the Chinook salmon, disruption caused by increased shipping traffic, pollution in the seas. Together, my daughter and I have marched for change, our fingers and voices woven together, our pink hats matching, holding each other as we shouted. Back in Chicago, she marches for environmental causes, for dominion over her body, in support of BLM.
She is my youngest. Her older brother makes his way closer to home. Unknown to them both is the sibling they never met. The middle child. The child lost to miscarriage at fourteen weeks, just as we would have announced their impending arrival to friends and family. The pregnancy was a surprise. It happened when our son was just ten months old. It was a hectic time of home renovations, completing advanced degrees, working high-pressure jobs, and caring for a toddler. Where, in all of that, was there focus enough to remember a daily pill that would prevent us from getting pregnant again too soon?
My husband came from a family of stairsteps—three children so close in age they all came within two years, then two more close behind. He didn’t want that for us. We discussed abortion but couldn’t do it. We had room and resources, after all. We sat on the sofa while our toddler son stacked plastic blocks and decided we’d figure it out. Three weeks later I began to bleed. Two days after that, we were in the doctor’s office, hearing no heartbeat, making plans for a D&C. After the surgery, we spoke of the preganancy one time when, near the holidays, I became despondent, overcome by guilt and grief that had previously felt the size of a pumpkin seed. “I feel sometimes that the baby is still here, somewhere, but I can’t figure out where,” I explained. “There were times when I didn’t want it. How could that be?”
Kevin struggled to understand. “It was for the best,” he said. “It was no one’s fault. We need to let it go.” We waited three more years to get pregnant again.
* * *
Surprisingly, after losing the calf that had taken seventeen months of gestation, Tahlequah was able to keep up with the rest of her pod as they swam northword from San Juan Island to Vancouver. Holding the calf on her forehead meant Tahlequah had to swim for long periods above water, then dip below, drop the calf, take a breath and find her again, bring her to the surface and begin the cycle anew. As exhausting and heartbreaking as labor itself. Swimming sixty or seventy miles each day, the orca maintained commitments to her larger family, all while bringing along the daughter she couldn’t leave behind.
* * *
My grandmother Blanche was sent away from Tellico to the Tennessee School for the Blind in Nashville after being blinded as a six-year-old by her older brother, Charlie. A branch slipped from his hands while the two were hanging a tree swing. The branch blinded my grandmother in one eye; infection caused the other eye to lose vision as well. Her eyes were surgically removed and she went off to learn a new life. At the boarding school, where she lived ten months of each year, she flourished, memorizing Shakespeare, learning Latin and trigonometry. She played piano, wrote letters on a typewriter, and took dictation as a stenographer.
She returned to Tellico at age twenty after graduating from the school in a class with nine others. Back home, she helped her mother run a boarding house where she met my grandfather Carlton, a traveling salesman. The two married and lived nearby so Charlie, who never married, could check in when my grandfather was away, which was frequent. Within six years of marriage, my blind grandmother had four children—stairsteps of her own.
Sometimes the family packed up my grandfather’s 1928 Buick and spend a few weeks with his family in Newport, along the North Carolina border. With my grandfather away, I’ve often wondered what it was like for my grandmother to be in strange surroundings with in-laws she barely knew. She was never a trusting person, the school having told her many times that her disability allowed others to take advantage.
My mother and her sister were pressed into service to their mother at a very young age and were never able to be around her without that sense of duty, as though their roles had flipped, the daughters always caring for the mother. As a child, I was never close to my grandmother. I understand more about my grandmother’s childhood now, how difficult it must have been for her to leave her family and live apart from them; how she must have felt a stranger in her own family. I now regard her much differently. But it confused my childhood self and caused me to become defensive because of her treatment of my mother. I wished for her to stand up to my grandmother’s constant, impossible demands. I wished she hadn’t remained silent.
* * *
After my daughter’s college graduation, I helped her move into a new apartment. I am in awe of her confidence, knowing there were recent times when she was overcome by grief and loss. I remember nights, barely asleep myself, when she would climb into my bed to cry herself to sleep, her hand reaching out to find my shoulder, my hand wiping her tears. “This isn’t fair,” she once said, mostly into her pillow. “You are right,” I responded, stroking her hair.
At thirteen, she lost her father. At fourteen, her best friend committed suicide. On the verge of adulthood, at that precious time when each step forward should bring excitement and promise, my daughter was stopped in her tracks. Together, we huddled under blankets as though adrift in an ocean that neither of us quite understood. I held her close during that time, trying to find the right balance of comfort and security and release. She is armed for life’s realities now, with a deeper understanding of its fragility. I know she loves deeply.
It has now been ten years since my daughter lost her father. My husband Kevin died in my arms when a tumor on his spine suddenly ruptured, pressed against his trachea, and, within minutes, caused him to suffocate. Through an interminable two years of cancer diagnoses and treatments, of long hopeful days followed by longer hopeless nights, death, when it came, was frightening and swift. I knew as I held him that no matter how tightly I clung, no matter how long, nothing in that moment would change and yet everything in my life would be different. As paramedics pulled me away, I understood fully that breaking that bond would create an immeasurable chasm: a terrible demarcation of before and after that I could not abide.
Two years after Kevin’s death, I lost my mother. By then, she was in a nursing home, needing the type of care she had often offered her mother. At Kevin’s funeral, she was already confused. “Isn’t this terrible?” she kept repeating. Near the end, I sat with her, helping her eat. She had suffered several bouts of pneumonia and was weak. I think of her and the role she played as advice-giver to me and Kevin when we first started out. I can’t understand how it is that I am now the advisor, encouraging my daughter to fight for her beliefs, to hold fast to her memories. Accepting that role means accepting this passage of time, this loss of my own role models, of those upon whom I relied to help with decisions.
* * *
After seventeen days, Tahlequah gave up her baby to the depths of the Pacific. When finally she swam off alone to join her pod, my eyes welled with tears. A combination of happiness that she had survived, but also a deep sorrow for understanding what it is like to give someone up for one last time, to admit that they will take no further breaths, and that you must leave them in this spot, whether earthen ground or ocean water, forever. Knowing of her only through her acts of mourning, I continued to hold her in my heart. I found strength from her strength. Over the past two years, I’ve visited the website that tracks the pod to check in on her. I imagine that grief-filled memories, like ocean waves, still lap at her skin from time to time.
* * *
In 1931, Blanche and her family spent the winter in Newport with her in-laws, but while my grandfather was on the road, all four of the children—Vivian, my mom Lillian, Carlton Jr, and Marshall—became ill with measles. The doctor was summoned, though nothing could be done. One-by-one, the older children shook off the virus. But Marshall was just an infant and his small body could not fight. And so, early in the morning of February 3rd, as my grandmother held him in her arms, Marshall passed away.
Blanche, however, would not let Marshall go. Perhaps at first she didn’t realize her baby was dead. Within a few hours, her mother-in-law understood and tried to take the child. My grandmother held fast and fought. Without her eyesight, all she had was touch; once this child was removed from her arms, she would never know him again. She would lose her only connection and she couldn’t let that happen. Irrational, perhaps, but any mother would understand. It wasn’t until my grandfather returned some four hours later that my grandmother would be coaxed into letting Marshall go. Even then, she insisted on being the one to wash his body.
Marshall was buried in an unmarked grave in a plot along a two-track road beside a barn. The family couldn’t afford to transport him to Tellico, so he remained in Newport, much to my grandmother’s great pain. To her, it must have seemed she had to keep letting him go, again and again. She would have held him for seventeen days and more if possible, I’m sure.
* * *
Months after his passing, Kevin’s ashes were spread at the graves of his father, my father, an uncle, along his favorite running path, and among the wildflowers in a memorial garden. A bench with his name inscribed sits adjacent to a stone labyrinth near a river in a park that was a favorite family picnic spot. There is no one place where he has been interred. In each of these separate places, I feel his presence.
When my mother was healthy and active, we once visited her brother Marshall’s grave in Newport—nothing more than a tiny indentation in a field of raspberry brambles. A small, crooked stone the size of a brick marks its place. He is buried next to his father, my grandfather, who contracted Typhoid two years after Marshall died of measles. My mother, by then the only sibling remaining, needed to find this small spot of ground to prove that her father and brother weren’t forgotten. I held her arthritic hand as we hiked the path behind a deserted barn. We took this trip, the two of us, mother and daughter, tracking down family history and gravesites.
* * *
In the years since Kevin’s death, I have found comfort in books that deal with grief. Many have helped me to feel that my experience is more universal than I sometimes believe. Losing myself in these stories has made me realize that time does not fade memories. Descriptions of illness or treatment shake me back to that place at the University of Michigan where Kevin spent so much time. I hear the sounds, smell the odors, re-live the emotions. I will always be able to conjure those memories of warm sunny moments spent in the hospital courtyard, or the feeling of his hand holding mine as we lay in bed bracing for what was to come after hearing the words “stage four.” It’s all still there, ten years later, this painful muscle memory. I can reach out and touch it as though there’s no distance at all.
Books on grief sit in piles on my bookshelf, pages marked by notecards and colored slips of paper. I’ve underlined many passages in my reading, understanding that commiting memories to the page creates a sense of permanence, both for the writer and the reader. I refer many times to this passage from Meghan O’Rourke’s memoir, The Long Goodbye about her mother’s death from breast cancer and her time of grieving:
“I went to the pond for her. Diving in, I felt for a moment that I was my mother. But I was aware that she was dead; I could feel it in the shadows in the green leaves. This is where the dead live, I thought, in the holes in the leaves where the insects are biting through.”
O’Rourke admits, “After a loss, you have to learn to believe the dead one is dead. It doesn’t come naturally.” I too, have felt that resistance to understanding the loss of my husband and my parents, the growing and moving away of my children, and the child I never held. Like my mother, I too have felt the need for confirmation that they were here, our connections real. Where do the people we cherish go once we put down our memories, or our burdens, or our love? Once we drop that all into the sea?
We want to touch again the life we’ve known and the people we’ve loved, whether those relationships have ended or just changed with time. I have moved on in life, the yearning is not so strong as it once was. I have a new home, new relationships, new outlooks. And yet, I don’t want my memories, regardless of how painful they may be, to crumble on the ocean floor, abandoned. I don’t want to lose the feel of that touch my grandmother knew not to relinquish.
* * *
Word has just come that Tahlequah is pregnant again. Drone photos show her wide belly moving through the waters of the Pacific with her pod. Researchers are cautiously optimistic there will be babies given that multiple orcas are pregnant. But sustaining the pregnancy will require plenty of food, which is, two years later, an even more fragile situation. I imagine Tahlequah, slowed by her new girth, feeling this life inside, unfurling old memories. I call my daughter, now part of an environmental start-up and celebrating with her boyfriend the first anniversary of their first date. We talk briefly about Tahlequah and what a new baby orca might mean for a world turned upside down and desperately in need of good news. Despite our times, my daughter tells me she is happy.
As we both move on, me through life and Tahlequah through bright cerulean ocean waters, I send my thoughts to her across the universe—the universe of my mother and grandmother, of my husband and all three of my children; the universe that holds our fears, our grand efforts and our mistakes; the universe that pushes us forward and that cradles the remains of those we’ve lost and have had to leave behind. The universe of possibility and second chances. I send her my thanks, for helping us understand that, in life, and loss, seventeen days is nothing, but holding on is everything.
Lori Tucker-Sullivan is a published writer whose essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Midwestern Gothic, Passages North, The Sun, The Detroit Neighborhood Guidebook, Red State Blues, The Cancer Poetry Project, and others. Her essay, “Detroit, 2015,” which was published in Midwestern Gothic, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and selected as a Notable Essay of 2015 in “Best American Essays 2016.” Her book, I Can’t Remember if I Cried: Rock Widows on Life, Love and Legacy, forthcoming from BMG Books in 2021, profiles the widows of rock stars that died young and how they helped her through grief. Lori holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Spalding University, and currently teaches writing at Wayne State University in Detroit.
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