Thursday, December 1, 2011

'A Song for Sophie' by Jennifer Harris


The fear I always had was that my parents would die.

I remember my first funeral was Pop’s, my father’s

father, who died of a heart attack in Ohio, 1973.

I was four and kept looking for sand, asking

Where is it? Where is all the sand? I was looking for seagulls

and shells and other things I remembered from Mother’s Beach

in Kennebunk, where we would bury people on a temporary basis.

But of course, we weren’t going to the beach and

the burial would be final. No resurrection involved.

At least not one we could see, like at the beach

when you simply jump back up all sand-covered and run

to the waves and let yourself be immersed in all that rage

and churning water. That’s what you think at four.

That a burial is a summer vacation. That your Grandfather

is just playing games. You have no comprehension

of permanence. Of the world un-manifest.

It was the perfect name for a beach, Mother’s Beach.

Because of course, that’s what it was. Mothers and children

playing bocce ball or chasing the surf back and forth as the moon

transitioned pulling the tide along with it. I remember a private

club at the north end, just across the street, there was a small

playground with swings and we would run over the asphalt

in bare feet burning our skin crusted with Coppertone 15.

Even at four, we knew we didn’t belong. We snuck in

to use the bathroom. I remember because I often had accidents

at the beach. And the shame and humiliation of pooping

in my bathing suit stung. Like getting stung by jelly fish,

which was common enough. But it’s something you remember.

Sharp. Livid. Exposed. That is, I suppose, the trauma of growing up.

Not realizing everyone goes through it. Everyone has accidents.

Dies. Gets buried. It’s hard to think of my childhood without

remembering the beach and all that sand. Wiping up to go home,

sand stuck on me everywhere washing off before we go inside

my grandparents’ home. Carrying sand in my hands, making

balls of wet sand. Wondering where it all came from.

And why Pop’s wouldn’t get back up. Wondering why people

had to die at all. I remember at his funeral running into a big glass wall,

because I have no depth perception and couldn’t tell it was glass at all

or how far away it was from where I was and running and smacking face first

into the glass and falling over. And everyone who was crying came running

up to me. To see if I was alright. I was, of course, dazed and a momentary

distraction to the fact that Pop’s was really gone. That death was

what was meant by impermanence. And that I wasn’t immune.


So here’s what I want you to know: You’re not alone.

As small and as alone as you might feel on some future occasion(s),

when I am not there, when Susan is not there, when no one you love

or know is there: to put their arms around you, to comfort you.

To whisper to you that it is alright, that everything is. 

Our absence is only circumstance. A tangible result of the world

and all the obstacles that present themselves, but we are here.

If not in being, in sprit. If not in reality, then in mind. If not of the world,

then of the world beyond this world: that intangible thing that is life beyond living―

that is inexplicable except in terms of faith.

This is what I want you to know.

That you will lose someone. That you will lose many a someone

you love or like or hate or fear or desire or want. If I could protect you

from this series of facts it would be my greatest and most unfortunate feat.

It’s what we do: lose, fail, surrender, defeat, gain, die, fail, succeed.

Synonyms and antonyms―becoming in the terrible doing.


Sophie, we are not just one person. We are the people embedded

in the history of our story. In the history of what we choose to do.

How we carry something forward. No matter the field, the study.

One body in a cycle of thoughts, words, and deeds…


I pray I am the first to go in our family

I know it’s selfish, but one can only grieve so much.

Because there is a part of me that thinks

I would become something of a nova.

That I would simply implode with my own weight.

And someday perhaps, you will understand that.

Someday perhaps you will give birth and understand

that odd gravity between mother and child.

I never did understand before.

Even though, of course, you hear stories

you see it in your own mother’s eyes―

but the weight is easy to overlook.

It’s almost as if you want to shield your eyes

from so much love. Such a glare.


It has come to my attention that I am inadequate.

I keep waking up with the same song in my head

the same beat beat and thumping of guitar and bass.

I like old country tunes best, the ones where you think

it must always be raining wherever the singer is from.

Some sad place like Seattle, where suicide outnumbers

accidental deaths. I’m not sure this is accurate, but with all that rain

I would bet I’m not far off.  What is it about rain that makes us feel

so much? For years I have tried to feel less, not more.

I have avoided areas with heavy downpours, I have plotted against

nature. And then there was you, this beautiful, glorious thing:

from me, of me, from the world around us, space ad infinitum.


Do you know you were born completely intact, full of this core being

4.9 pounds of body, mind, spirit―traits that only now at three

seem normal for a child. But you were fully self-possessed. 

I’m not making this up. Your eyes were sharp focused. You trailed

every move, glance, touch. You watched everything you could.

The way I danced with the radio turned way up, the blinds shut

closing my eyes, hips swaying, head rolling. The constant

drumming of rain against the window. I could see you struggling

wanting to cry out to anyone who would listen. So impatient to begin.

So impatient to get on with it: learning and falling and soaring.


You have been sick for a week now. Amidst an epidemic

it is terrifying to consider.  Last week a girl died. She was ten

not even old enough to ovulate for the first time. She missed

her first kiss, acne, raging hormones, crying because she

wasn’t allowed to go to whatever heartthrob concert it was.

It was the flu. And you are feverish and coughing and I can’t

do anything. I am helpless and sick too, but don’t care.

It no longer matters what I do or do not feel or experience

this is the curse of being a mother. To feel so much.

Buddhists call it attachment to the world, Samsara. The world

of suffering. Of clinging. Of words, thought, sensation.


It’s true. It is a suffering of our own invention―the pulling

of gravity on our bodies, of weight without end, of madness.

Everlasting. Eclipsing. Ecclesiastic. A sweetness.

A letting of blood. A letting of hands, letting it all go.

This is the truth: there will never be a circumstance too great

or too painful or too sweet in which I will not love you.

I watch you sweat and cough and I pray it will pass.

You will flower again, you will, you will, you will.


I am a wrathful deity: I am my mother, my father’s mother

who killed herself in an insane asylum, 1967. Two years

before I was born she hung herself from the rafters

thinking At long last, I will have peace! But there is no

peace for mothers, is there? There is only worry and

more worrying. Pieces, rather than peace.

Pieces of it. Glimpses of calm. Glimpses into a future

where you can take care of yourself when I will no longer worry.

I resented my mother for so many years for her worrying.

It made me feel so inadequate as if nothing I could do

was good enough but it’s not that. I get it now.

A mother’s love is a fierce thing. I need to be so careful―

to always be gentle about it. To cultivate only the most gentle

of touches, not to let worry turn into something ugly

something controlling and strangling where love becomes

this terrible gravity. Where love becomes something

that makes me need to climb onto a chair and tie a noose

around my neck because I can no longer tolerate what is called “love.”

I wonder if she knew what she did―Louise, the one who hung herself.

I wonder if she knows that her granddaughter missed her

looks just like her, that her son cannot even bring himself

to talk about his mother. To say her name. For years I didn’t know her name.

Is this what love does? Does it turn into a nova and simply implode

so that no one can bear its touch?

Let me be wrathful. Let me burn all the fetters away.

Burn so bright that all you feel is the leftover embers

a sort of pinkish glow. Orange in the dimming light.


Before we ever met, my lover was told by a gypsy

a sun was coming her way, a giant red colored sun. 

I think this was you, Sophie. I would say you―

there is a lightness about you, your entire being is

light light light. Such a gentleness, you hint of pure joy.

Something unbridled, something innocent like a monk

who spends hours sweeping sidewalks so as to avoid

stepping on ants. It’s this sort of gentility

I hope keeps in your heart, always, that you

let nothing deter you, that you blossom, bring comfort

to the comfortless. That you never turn cold.

I want to keep you safe so your heart is nothing but wildflowers. 

Pure joy, a sort of gold among the ruble of broken parts.

But we are human and part of that is to feel it all,

not just this joy of being but the pain of it, the sorrow too.

Suffering is not just about sadness and aching and fear.

Suffering is joy as well, to feel so much your heart burns with it

throbs deep inside you burning and burning and burning.

To shield you would rob you of who you are

beyond the skin and bones. Beyond the body of self.

I want you to feel all of it, not to avoid things the way I did.

Running as fast as I could.  I carried bricks. I carried

concrete, dirt, ash. I made a mess of it. I felt nothing.


I surrendered. I let go absolutely…

Let go completely, even when you think you can’t

When you think you have given every bit of yourself

Sophie, yield and yield and yield.

(I hope you understand this some day

I hope someday you will burn with it.)


Yesterday “Jesus and crackers” was your description of going church

I can’t help but think how appropriate it is that you equate church with doing

eating the wafer, taking God deep down into you. It’s what you see. 

Of course I’m a Buddhist and have a certain bend. I’ve heard it said God

is either everything or nothing. Buddhist or no, it’s true.

For so long I’ve let language alienate me:


You should know, I sometimes think I’m just trying to cover the bases.

I am terrified of dying and finding out I was wrong. That all along

I was just too stubborn to consider the possibility. I hope you are never

conflicted about this. I hope for you, faith is an immediate thing.

That you can have faith always, forever, without doubt or fear or recriminations.

(Originally published in the Venus Salon at

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