Oct. 22, 1962-Jul. 23, 1982
Autumn is here. The air has cooled, the breeze turned brisk, the green world begun to color, the lethargy of summer transformed into the energy of expectation. It’s Paula’s month.
Yesterday, her sister, Miriam, and I agreed that the air is full of her. She remembers the intensity of Paula’s excitement her first day of school—even the dress she wore. For me, the first memory will always be the pumpkin hunts on her birthday, followed by the sleepover party when I found her awake in the middle of the night, agonizing over the surgical scar she saw on friend Annie’s neck. Then the Christmas when, after hamsters, fish, rabbits, and mice, Paula finally got her dog. For the space of a phone call, she is with us, with all the energy with which she devoured life.
Paula didn’t come into an easy world. She was born on the day our missile silos were open as Russian ships steamed toward Cuba, and her first-year check-up was interrupted by a loudspeaker announcing the assassination of President Kennedy. At seven, encouraged by her newly minted teacher’s civil rights lecture, her black friends pelted her with erasers. At twelve, she was torn apart by our divorce. She hurt deeply, reacted intensely, but found her survival in the track team. Nothing dampened the energy with which she greeted life.
She emerged from a tumultuous adolescence as a college sophomore with a sudden love of learning, eager to try her wings at a summer job out of town. So it was in Cooke City, Montana that my mother and I visited her, only to find she and a friend had quit their waitress jobs because of the boss’s cruelty, but were determined to stay, camped down by the creek, until they found new ones. They would ask the lady down the road, who was just opening her café. That lady did give them jobs soon after.
So it was the lady down the road who called in the middle of the night. There’d been an accident. Paula, not quite twenty, was dead.
Two drunken boys racing each other on a mountain road. There is nothing to express the depth of my rage, or the grief that drove me to Montana to meet that lady, Joyce, who, in the years since, has become my best friend and housemate. I had to see the trailer where my daughter spent her last days, hear stories about her, climb to the rock where she sketched the mountains. Take her back, breathe her in—make it real.
Miriam went with me on that first trip, but never could stand the thought of returning. I fully understand. My journal tells the story of our grim flight home with Paula’s ashes under our seats. It’s not an experience to be repeated. She now lies in the cemetery at the top of the children’s sledding hill—“the sledetary”—a block from our family home. Her father now lies next to her, and Miriam tends the graves.
My message for those facing such loss is—don’t question grief’s demands. They know the road to survival. I’d never lived with such compulsions, nor do I hope to do so again. But they carried me on, finally driving me out of Ann Arbor to a new life in California.
For years, fall, my favorite season, brought piercing pain. But yesterday, as Miriam and I shared memories, I realized the pain had been replaced by warmth. I felt Paula close to us and welcomed her presence. It feels like resolution, redemption—peace. And for the first time I can write—share this memorial with you.