Thursday, September 1, 2011

My Book of The Dead

Re in his Night Bark

   My mother died in the evening of January 9, 2011 in Harbor Springs, Michigan.  My phone rang at one in the morning the next day, my father on the other end weeping.  He’d been at the hospital through the night.  I was staying at my daughter’s house downstate in St. Clair Shores.  Later that day, I was to fly back to Houston and prepare for the beginning of the spring semester.  Plans change.
   At ten in the morning, I was driving back up north singing “Thunder Road.”  My daughter’s fiancée had found a cd of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” in the snow outside his house, and I played it passing through Flint, Grayling, Gaylord, exiting I-75 at Indian River.  My mother in her lifetime listened to Elvis, The Lettermen, and the Beatles.  Long ago, when I was eighteen, I insisted that she listen to “The Boss.”  Decades later, we were sharing it again. 

  Well the night's bustin' open, these two lanes will take us anywhere

  We got one last chance to make it real

  To trade in these wings on some wheels

  Climb in back, heaven's waiting down on the tracks

And so I drove into the northern woods, singing with my mother and Springsteen about death, regrets, lost love, and a refusal to accept it all with a bowed head.  What had thrown me the most about my father’s voice on the phone earlier that morning, echoed in his tears, his crying—fear and hurt lurked in my father’s words.  My father, who never cried.
            I would spend the next four days and nights with my father negotiating the business of death: death certificate, funeral home, social security administration, flowers, phone calls from friends day and night; and in the evening, we would sit down together in the big room in the big house and he would tell me stories about not only my mother’s life, but his life as well.  Stories about my father’s time in the national reserve, crawling through ditches in Arkansas, almost ending up in Vietnam; about his father’s people back in Cornwall, England, his mother’s people in Glasgow, Scotland; stories about meeting a girl in high school, showing his car off to her, marrying her and spending the next 50 years of his life at her side.
            On the night of January 15, 2011 my father had a heart attack in the big house, falling at the bottom of the stairs.  I pumped his chest, breathed into his mouth; the paramedics arrived.  My father’s heart began to beat again, but he never regained consciousness and twenty-four hours later we took him off life-support and he passed quietly away.  
            My sister and I organized a funeral for our parents later that week.  Neighbors, friends, paramedics attended and spoke of our mother and father, and their love for each other.  A friend of my father’s brought a newspaper, cup of coffee and a dog biscuit.  Every morning for years, my father had stopped at the local coffee shop, bought a paper, regular cup of coffee, and picked a dog biscuit out of a jar for Martin, his beagle back at home.  My father’s friend asked if her could set this in the coffin, and as he did I thought of a book I’d lectured on at the college a few years back, of the night-bark in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and how the deceased goes forth with the objects, the material of their daily human existence—goes out into a great beyond that looks very much like their life in Egypt.  So my father and mother set sail, climbing into a sky where for eternity they kiss in the morning, my father drives to the coffee-shop to buy a dog biscuit, and then continues on with the great work of being alive.
—John Harvey


  1. This has got to be one of the most moving and heartwarming stories I have ever read. Thank you for sharing this, Dr. Harvey.

  2. Thanks Dr.Harvey for sharing such a moving story.

  3. This almost brought me to tears. Your mother and father's love for each other lives ever on.

  4. Thank you for sharing this story Dr. Harvey. I am so sorry for the loss of your parents.

  5. Thanks for sharing your heartfelt story, Dr. Harvey.

  6. Your story reminds me of how I lost my grandmother in tenth grade. I often wonder if I harp on it too much, or if it will always be a part of me now. She lost her entire home in hurricane ike in 2008. We were in the process of rebuilding when she fell in Walmart and hit her head. After that she was moved between hospitals and rehabilitation centers for almost half a year before she got an infection and passed away. I didn't heal for a long time, I didn' because I thought I was alright. I thought I understood, and I didn't want to grieve, but now I realize no matter how much you think you understand the afterlife, we still must mourn here on Earth. Maybe not because we're sorry for the life lost but sorry for ourselves who have one less person to help us through this unforgiving life. Either way, after you've done the majority of healing, you still have to spend time fighting the sadness that wants to overtake you. We can't lose the ability to progress as human beings to our sadness, so we trudge on, reliving happy memories. Thank-you for sharing Dr. Harvey.