“Remembering may be a celebration or it may be a dagger in the heart, but it is better, far better, than forgetting.”—Donald M. Murray
It is the hardest thing anyone can face—the death of a child. A tragedy that has affected millions also touched Donald M. Murray, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Boston Globe, twenty-five years ago. Now, for the first time, he fully expresses what he lost—and learned—in a book even more moving than his inspiring volume on aging, My Twice-Lived Life.
Lee Murray was Donald and Minnie Mae’s middle child, one of three girls. An avid oboe player accepted by a prestigious conservatory, the family “caretaker” with compassion for everyone, a young woman with a devoted boyfriend and the whole world ahead of her—Lee succumbed at age twenty to Reye’s Syndrome, commonly considered a childhood illness. In The Lively Shadow, her father remembers the hell of her passing and the healing it took him years to finally experience.
From hearing the initial news that Lee was in the hospital and the four harrowing days spent by her bedside, to trying to teach, write, and love others while grieving, to learning to live at last with only Lee’s memory, Donald Murray embarks upon a journey that is at once universal and informed by his own life’s details. Whether he’s feeling irrational guilt at not being able to protect his child or pulling off the highway to release a primal howl, the pain Murray feels brings him finally to a place of peace, an acceptance whereby he realizes “the most terrible experience in my life has also been a gift,” requiring “a continuous celebration of the commonplace.”
Unflinching in its honesty, The Lively Shadow is a beloved author’s most impressive achievement—a book bound to be of continuing comfort to anyone who has lost a loved one, a touchstone on a topic few have written about, let alone addressed so openly.
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Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Donald M. Murray writes the weekly “Now and Then” column for The Boston Globe. Boston Magazine and The Improper Bostonian magazine selected him best columnist in Boston in 1991 and 1996, respectively. He is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of New Hampshire, which opened the Donald M. Murray Journalism Laboratory in 1997. His books include My Twice-Lived Life, Write to Learn, The Craft of Revision, Writing to Deadline, and Crafting a Life in Essay, Story, Poem.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
1. The Gift I set the alarm for five-thirty every morning. If I sleep later, I may once more live this dream.
The nurses, doctors, and technicians move away from the bed where Lee, my twenty-year-old daughter, lies in a large room in pediatric intensive care at Massachusetts General Hospital. Lee has been in the care of gleaming stainless-steel machines, left standing where they have last been used. I’m sure my Lee has received the benefits of old-fashioned nursing—a damp cloth to her forehead, the covers smoothed, a gentle touch to her shoulder—but all I see is cold, effcient (but not effcient enough) medical technology, all I hear are the hums, beeps, and blinking lights of electronic monitors.
A large metallic gauge is screwed into her skull. It looks like something that should be attached to a factory furnace. Plastic bags half-filled with potions hang high above her with tubes that loop down like jungle vines to her right forearm. An inappropriate thought comes and passes swiftly like a midnight raid on a village: Lee would find humor in all this machinery—she always found humor in the commonplace—but she will never know all that has happened since she passed into a coma in the ambulance transferring her from Exeter Hospital in New Hampshire to this Boston medical center only four days ago.
I feel as alone as I felt crossing a snow field under hidden enemy eyes in my war years. None of the quiet, lumpily clad medical personnel is there to comfort me. The doctors trained to deliver bad news talked carefully, slowly, patiently, softly to us in the waiting room. Each of us—her sisters, Anne and Hannah; her boyfriend, Paul; her mother—has had moments alone with her. Now it is her father’s turn.
I continue to stand at a distance from her bed, where I can see the tubes discreetly hidden under the sheet that carry foul-looking waste into jars below the bed. I follow the wires that lead from her up to the monitors, reading each screen in turn. One shows firm, even, jaunty pulses. That is her heart. One runs a continuous flat line. That is her brain.
I focus on her face, which is as beautiful as ever to me, the face of a middle child who is like and unlike her older sister, like and unlike her younger sister. She is herself, always herself from the beginning, but I see her grandmother and her great-grandmother as if they were shadow photographs, memory pictures, that lay over her face. She is slightly turned away, and yet they led me to this side of her bed. Her cheek at twenty is a woman’s cheek, yet still baby soft. Her skin always seemed especially soft, right from the moment I first saw her, washed and cleaned before being presented to her father.
Lee appears untouched by all that has happened to her since she had a fever, took aspirin as she was instructed, fell terribly ill, was diagnosed with Reye’s syndrome, and was brought here, where all that could be done has been attempted. Her face is peaceful, ready to wake with a smile. She is as she always will be.
Lee will never grow old, never have wrinkles. Her hair will never gray. She will not grow beautifully into her life, as her mother has, wearing her living on her face. She will not marry Paul or anyone else; she will never have children, never eat another sloppy submarine sandwich, never read again, never laugh, never play her new imported oboe. I will never again hear Albioni being practiced over and over again from the other room. No Mozart, no Bach, no Lee.
I touch her hand, still warm, still alive.
“Lee, I love you. We did all we could. . . . Goodbye.”
I choke on my tears and make myself turn away. I nod the final permission to the staff. I have given her release as I gave my father the gift of death in this same hospital and, two years later in another hospital, gave my mother the death she had so long said she wanted. I see my mother in her corset in my childhood, striding about our flat, beating her fists, chanting, “If I had the wings of an angel, over these prison walls I would fly” while I wondered what I had done, what I could do. Well, I finally did it. And now I have done it again, to my daughter who did not want death but life.
I leave the intensive care unit, not even trying to dry my tears, nod to my wife, my daughters, the man who has become a friend but will never be a son-in-law, and then I am asked something. I catch only one word, autopsy.
I step back as if I had been slugged, then ask Lee what she would want, hearing her say in my words, “If it would help others.”
“Then do it,” I snapped.
I turn away from the doctor and stand alone, knowing without being told what I must now do. The social worker, a kind, gentle middle-aged woman, leads me down a long corridor, where everyone passing by avoids meeting my eye. She offers me her office, then asks, “Is there anything I can do?”
“Just get the fuck out!” I yell, shocked at how I’ve suddenly given in to rage, but not apologetic, not then. Her office is at the end of the corridor that leads to intensive care. I call information and get the number of the Deware Brothers Funeral Home, where one brother with a mustache like my uncle Andy’s is named Donald Murray Deware. They are Scots Protestant. In times like this we return to our own. The brothers took care of Grandma when I was overseas, then Father, then Mother, now Lee.
I look down the corridor, realizing that as I was dialing the funeral home, Lee was not dead yet. They hadn’t pulled the plug, turned the switch, or done whatever they did to the machines that had been giving my daughter artificial life.
I see her sit up on the bed laughing, hopping down from the bed, racing down the corridor to tell me it was all a joke. She isn’t going to die. She’s alive.
This is the nightmare I may dream if I sleep late, and so for the twenty-four years since that moment I get up in the dark, nod to Lee, and start yet another day of a life made more terrible, more valued since we let her go. Innocence
2. Conception At seventy-eight I watch my five-year-old granddaughter, Michaela, fiercely concentrate on her drawing, remember her mother drawing with the same intensity, then remember a book I found a few years after Mother’s death that was awarded to her for her drawing in school in Scotland, and wonder if this visual concentration they all share came from Scots fishermen who had to read the sea and sky a thousand years ago, maybe ten thousand. Grandsons Josh and Sam stage a mock fight with sticks picked up in the yard—lunge and parry, slash and counterslash—and I wonder how much this instinct has been passed down through me from the great-great-uncle for whom I was named who took a ball in the leg at Waterloo when he fought against Napoleon with the Black Watch. The last time I saw Grandma Smith, days before I went overseas in World War II, she thought I was that uncle from her childhood and that I was off to fight Napoleon, not Hitler.
Lee, conceived during the ridiculous and sublime act of love on a summer afternoon, was designed by genetic codes formed long ago by ancestors we cannot name because our lineage so quickly disappears into the unrecorded history before history. Back through her mother, Lee was descended from the Germanic tribes who survived on the vast plains that stretched across northern Europe. Some may have been tailors, Jews who came here to escape the army and the old cruel prejudices. Certainly when I see Minnie Mae on her knees planting a garden in the way I saw farmers plant in Germany, I know that many who came before her worked the land. Through me, Lee was the child of farmers and probably fishermen, all Scots, Highland and Lowland, later factory workers and preachers, even a poet and a translator of the New Testament into shorthand for working girls and Hindi for heathens. They all came here after the Great Awakening, Baptists suffering oppression from the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
I feel the need to trace back these genetic rivers that combined to make Lee the woman she was. I am still a bit surprised that I became a father, a role that has been so central to my life that I cannot imagine it without children. I had never expected to be a parent. My mother should never have been a mother. She had no talent for it and took no pleasure in it. My father was bewildered by his role all his long life. I wasn’t against having children; it just never appeared in my plans. I was forever making plans of escape during my childhood, dreaming of faraway lives I might lead. Parenthood was, as I think it is for many men, simply not in the cards.
But then when I first held our firstborn, Anne, in my arms, I knew I was a father. In a matter of seconds, I was fully trained to love and care for this infant daughter. It had not been an easy birth. Minnie Mae had toxemia (also called eclampsia), and the doctors had to induce the birth. At Beth Israel Hospital in Boston I was told that there was a fifty-fifty chance that mother or child would not survive the birth, and if the baby did survive, she would almost certainly be blind.
“Would you like the name of a doctor who could tell you how to tell your wife your daughter is blind—if she and the baby survive?”
“Yes, I guess.”
“Dr. Green. He’s an expert in the field.”
I saw Dr. Green and, of course, discovered there is no good way to tell your wife the baby is blind. Armed only with instinct, I waited in the hospital lobby, seven floors away from my wife, as she went through thirty hours of labor. She was fine, Anne was not blind, but as Dr. Louis Zetzel told me the good news he rapped the back of his hand on my fly and said, “Keep it zipped up.”
And zipped up we kept it, although we wanted more children. Then I became a writer at Time magazine and Minnie Mae went to a new gynecologist, Dr. Gussberg. He referred Minnie Mae to Dr. Tillman, who had studied Irish Catholic and Orthodox Jewish women who had disobeyed doctor’s orders not to have children after suffering toxemia. There was rarely a reoccurrence of toxemia. The idea of the child who became Lee was born.
But conception, so easy with Anne, did not take place. We turned to Dr. Marty Gold, who was truly a family physician. He also treated Minnie Mae’s mother, who had moved in with us. His medical advice was, “Go away for a week without mother.” We signed up for a farm vacation in Hudson, New Hampshire, and we are certain that Lee was conceived that first afternoon.
Nine months later she arrived in a rush. As the doctor was telling me on the telephone in Minnie Mae’s room how long I could expect to wait, I heard the nurses shouting to him that she was already arriving. Our first daughter had had colic and parents who did not know how to calm, feed, or care for a baby, but when Lee arrived we were experienced parents who could read each cry, who knew how to burp and change and nurse a baby. From the beginning she was a sunny child, greeting us in the morning with a smile, laughing at Anne’s foolishness and ours. Two years later Hannah arrived, and Lee became the middle child.
After she was gone at twenty we realized how she was central to the family in many ways, close to Anne, three years older, and just as close to Hannah, two years younger. Anne and Hannah were five years apart—Anne’s fifteen to Hannah’s ten; Anne’s high school to Hannah’s fifth grade—and were sisters but lived lives far apart from each other. As a middle child, Lee knew how to fit in and, in a way I did not realize until it was too late, disappear into the family, causing few problems and little concern.
As I write this I feel guilty that I didn’t know her better, that we didn’t design a life that allowed Minnie Mae and me to be alone with each daughter in childhood as much as we are in adulthood. Minnie Mae and I have a close marriage and we had a close family, but although each of us had a distinct personality, I think in our daugh- ters’ early years we were a unit, with the middle child most hidden, best able to fit in, and therefore less known.
And yet she was always there, sensitive and resilient, caring and self-directed, the child you knew who would always be there for her sisters and for you in the many years ahead. 3. Our Memories I don’t have a memory book in my mind like a photo album, arranged chronologically and able to be perused season by season: snapshots of Lee at the beach, play- ing in a pile of leaves, building a snow fort, bringing home a bunch of spring flowers. Her life was woven into the lives of each of us—mother, older sister, younger sis- ter, father—and the images jump about in time. She is a baby, a young woman, a teenager, a girl alive in re- ality and in memory, each moment a fragment caught out of time passing and held steady. Are the memories accurate? Each is true to me although they have, as all memories, been worn smooth with telling. In twenty-five years they have been changed by frequent handling, as I have feared that Lee would disappear into the past and beyond.
I see Lee sitting on the training pot. My arms are still heavy with carrying her from the car to her bedroom, sound asleep after a long trip. Lee is in her playpen laughing at Anne, her older sister, who is making faces from the freedom of an entire room; Lee is standing outside the playpen making faces at Hannah, her younger sister, who is standing wobbly-legged in the playpen, laughing at Lee.
When we found out who Lee’s teacher would be in third grade, her older sister groaned, and we joined in. The teacher was an older woman who was supposed to be tough. Although we didn’t approve of parents who did this, Minnie Mae and I volunteered to try to get Lee transferred, but Lee stopped us: “I’d like to give her a chance.” It was typical Lee, and she had a good year. The “terrible” teacher became one of her favorites.
When Lee was in high school, Minnie Mae heard that the police had given Lee a hard time about a six-pack of beer. Minnie Mae stomped up to the police station say- ing that her daughter hadn’t had beer, certainly hadn’t driven with beer in the car. Later Minnie Mae crept back to the police station and apologized. Lee had been driving our big yellow Chevy Suburban in a parade of victory after a high school soccer or basketball game. Someone had had a six-pack, and Lee had gotten rid of it—by tossing it on the hood of a police car.
Lee called during one of her first weeks at the University of Massachusetts. She had eaten alone in the dining hall, she told us: “I was down and felt sorry for myself. Then I looked around and told myself that all these people had had the chance to eat with an interesting oboe player and they passed it up. Then I was all right.”
She was puzzled that people in her women’s dorm kept talking about all the JAPs, because she didn’t see any Japanese girls. We explained the term “Jewish American princess.” We called to share the news we’d bought a new car, and she was delighted. Later she told us that one of the women on her dorm floor had called home and found that the phone was disconnected—her parents had moved and not told her where they were. This really upset Lee, and us.
In her sophomore year, Lee moved into a coed dorm, and soon the Paul we’d been hearing about came to visit. He blended right into the family in a way that made us understand what it would be like to have sons-in-law. We had known some of Anne’s boyfriends, but they kept themselves at a distance or she kept them at a distance. Paul was a biochem student who is now a professor at the University of Wisconsin, where he took his doctorate, and is happily married to a fellow scientist.
When I was discouraged by what I thought were poor student evaluations of my teach...
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