10 min read

Looking Back After 364 Days

Reflecting on the last year through the kaleidoscope of The Amber Spyglass.

Your death taps you on the shoulder, or takes your hand, and says, ‘Come along o’ me, it’s time.’ ...your death comes to you kindly and says, ‘Easy now, easy, child, you come along o’ me,’ and you go with them in a boat out across the lake into the mist.”~The Amber Spyglass (2000), Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials

Two winters ago, Michelle and I were sitting next to each other in our apartment, snug in the two mid-century chairs she’d lovingly rescued from a garage sale in Baltimore years before and had reupholstered by a small workshop in North Seattle. It was dark outside, probably steadily raining—which in Northwest Decembers meant it could’ve been 5PM or 11PM; there is never any way to tell.

I was obsessively tapping dates and locations in an airline app on my phone, chattering away about how we could use points, take this day off, find an AirBnB and zip away to the Puerto Vallarta for a sunshine-filled reprieve. Friends had just gone—they’d said it was the perfect Pacific escape. We were just three months removed from our wedding in Western, MA and another nine months from our planned honeymoon.

As I write this, the wind is slipping off the Gulf of California and buffeting my back at the kitchen counter. The sky is blue and the waves are rollicking for the third day in a row, while birds of prey surf the steady draft as it whips over the house, into the desert scrub just outside of town, on its way to the (atypically, I’m told) green mountains of Baja California Sur.

Not in a lifetime could I have anticipated the events between that night in our apartment and the kitchen stool on which I’m perched now.

A little over a month after Miche and I returned from our honeymoon (which doubled as a one-year anniversary trip), a family friend we’d just visited with in Copenhagen passed away from a multi-year battle with a nasty disease. And I was shut away in an upstairs bedroom in rented San Diego home on a reporting trip, listening to a nervous voicemail I’d received from my mom’s friends.

Also recently back from a trip to Europe, Mom was acting funny. Keeping to her rigid exercise and social schedule, she was showing up for walks, bike rides, and gatherings with the bags under her eyes—the ones she’d spent my entire life trying to massage away—darker than normal.

She said the jet lag was bad. Something about the meditation on the retreat in Italy had been really tough on her. Not to worry, she was taking a homeopathic sleep remedy. She’d get through it.

Her friends had given her the benefit of a couple of weeks to recover. It was late October now. Her behavior was getting erratic.

I called her and she delivered the same reassurances friends had heard. It was all a pain in the ass, the sleep deprivation, but she was on a walk while I was talking to her, busily trying to exhaust herself to guarantee uninterrupted sleep. She had more plans the rest of the week. She was taking the remedy diligently—and she’d already visited her doctor to deliver the news about the sleeping issues.

But Mom’s community wasn’t convinced she was doing enough. After a group phone call, I volunteered to call Mom’s doctor and add more information to the chart. Then I’d call Mom and ask her to go back, simultaneously completing the task that so many grown children face without preparation: convincing an elder that they were, at least for the moment, showing signs of not being able to properly care for themselves.

By the time I made the call, I was back in Seattle. And when I dialed her number, Miche and I were walking back to the apartment on a gray Sunday in Ballard. It lasted all of five minutes and I managed to convince Mom to agree to see her doctor again without wavering.

She really didn’t like that I’d made an appointment. Even though at that point she was struggling to express complete thoughts, she could get that much out: why I had I done this for her? She’d already gone to the doctor. She was taking the remedy. It was sleep deprivation.

And of course it wasn’t. I sobbed a bit after hanging up and we walked the last quarter mile to our apartment building. I think it might’ve started to drizzle.

This newsletter will publish on December 22, 2019. 364 days after Mom passed away from Creuztfeld Jakob Disease. It was hardly two months between that horrible phone call and her death, a wild a precipitous journey for all of us in her community that ended just 25 months after my father’s battle with pancreatic cancer concluded.

When we arrived here in El Cardonal last weekend, I dove into a daylong pursuit of quiet reading and sitting by the ocean. It helped that our first full day here was one the stillest. The Gulf was calm and warm and half our group was enjoying a fishing trip while I let my skin bake a bit in the sun and my mind wander between the gripping final book of Phillip Pullman’s lauded His Dark Materials and reflections on the last 12 months.

Perhaps the strongest belief I’ve developed since is how important it is to talk about death. To plan for it. Expect it. Accept it as a part of life.

And it’s this principle that Pullman’s two protagonists, Lyra and Will, discover just before diving into the final act of the The Amber Spyglass. They are standing in a dingy cabin, surrounded by souls waiting to enter the Land of the Dead. And each member of the cabin’s family has a ghostly figure nearby—their death. Those deaths don’t say much of anything, but every occupant has accepted their existence, that as soon as you enter the world, your death comes with you and stays with you. And at the end, your death takes over and guides you out.

Though many people in my life have assured me that I’ve already gone through more than anyone my age should have to endure, it’s all the more striking to read a novel about two barely-twelve year-olds embracing the same truths.

Pullman’s trilogy is, perhaps too simply-put, a refutation of the Fall of Man. (This isn’t much a spoiler—if you’re reading this, I’d bet that you know what happened when Eve bit into the apple.) And so the knowledge that Lyra and Will uncover—about what it means to be alive, to be in love, and to live in the present moment without ignorance of end—underscores  the tsunami of experiences I’ve lived though in the last three years.

We didn’t talk about death as a family much. But Dad, with his wits about him in the final days before he passed, mustered the courage to take stock of everything and bring Mom, Michelle, and me into the moment with him before he slipped into his last few days. Were Dad to have been a character in Pullman’s trilogy, he might’ve been seen in the last week of his life having a brief, perfunctory conversation with his death, before calmly walking out of our house hand in hand.

Mom literally couldn’t talk at the end, and before that it would’ve taken a stroke of blind luck for us to chat about her death. While earlier in my life, Dad had told me his advanced medical directive was, “Buy me a gun,” if he started to lose his faculties, Mom was quite clear that she intended to receive any and all possible treatment. That’s as far as the conversation ever got with either of them.

In Mom’s closing moments, the disease took away her awareness and ability to speak. Two weeks before she passed, she was still able to share a word or two, and acknowledge those around her. One week before, she woke up briefly after getting settled at Hospice, saw me, smiled, made a noise, and went back to sleep. So even if she had embraced her death and wanted to have the conversation, we wouldn’t have received the same respectful introduction that Dad had bravely offered three years ago.

As Lyra and Will learn more inside that cabin, the death belonging to the host family’s matriarch, Magda, speaks up, rising from a pile of blankets to address the children.

“‘I have heard of people like you, who keep their deaths at bay. You don’t like them, and out of courtesy they stay out of sight. But they’re not far off. Whenever you turn your head, your deaths dodge behind you. Wherever you look, they hide. They can hide in a teacup. Or in a dewdrop. Or in a breath of wind. Not like me and old Magda here,’ he said, and he pinched her withered cheek, and she pushed his hand away.”

I have a sense that, as the disease took a greater hold on her, Mom must’ve caught her death peeking out at her from around a corner. And, rightly so, it scared the crap out her. Once, as I tried to calm her at our kitchen table and explain a little more about the medication her psychiatrist had prescribed and why, she managed to tell me through tears that she’d suffered from serious anxiety before and that, “This isn’t that.” At that moment, her death may have been sitting with us, calmly listening and saying nothing as his presence filled her with dread.

Though they are both scared throughout their journey through the universe of His Dark Materials, Lyra and Will meet these facts about death head on and continue courageously, setting an example for the characters around them and, I assume, for many of Pullman’s readers. Much the same way that the two child-adventurers articulate hard truths to the adults around them in the book, I’ve taken it on myself to talk as clearly and openly about my parents’ deaths as I can—the clarity is disarming for some and resonant for most.

And that is of course one of the reasons I started writing this newsletter last winter: sharing and exploring my observations and updates as I explore the new reality of life without my parents, like one of the many new worlds that Lyra and Will wander through.


Before I get to a long list of recommendations from the last few months, I want to thank everyone that’s supported Michelle and me over the last year. There are too many of you to thank by name in one email newsletter. We are deeply grateful for all of you, near and far, that have maintained support or reconnected with us since my mother passed away.

And course, thank you all for reading this newsletter.

A Long List Of Stuff To Read While You Have Time Off

In no particular order of importance, here’s some of the stuff that’s caught my eye in the last few months.

Things You Can Watch

Movie For The Whole Family, Or When You’re Trying To Escape Your Family: Knives Out

This movie was a blast. Witty, well-paced, and creative. Look out for red herrings.

Movie To Tear Your Heart Out: Marriage Story

If watching a relationship completely fall apart isn’t your thing, skip this movie.

If you’re willing to tough out Noah Baumbach’s deeply honest portrayal of divorce (inspired by his own story), you’re in for two deeply personal and devastating performances from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson.

Serious TV Show: Watchmen (Season 1, HBO)

I can’t say enough about Damon Lindelof’s fantastic remix of (what I consider to be) the greatest graphic novel/comic-run of all time. Over on The Watch, Lindelof gave a terrific interview to hosts Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald, where he explained how he leveraged the Watchmen source material to tell a story about the Tulsa Race Riot.

Watchmen isn’t something you need to read before watching this companion piece of 10 episodes, although those with no previous knowledge may need to buckle in for a few extra episodes before anything starts to feel connected. It’s worth it. Episode 6 of this season may in fact be my favorite single episode of television ever.

If Watchmen Isn’t For You: The Expanse (Season 4, Amazon)

For my Sci-Fi people out there, the TV adaptation of the books by James A. Corey lives on after Amazon Studios rescued it from SyFy. The intra-solar system politics in this show are well-developed and entertaining. The interpersonal dialogue leaves a lot to be desired. But rest-assured, now that The Expanse is off cable and onto a streaming platform, the entire cast can unleash the F-word the way they’ve clearly wanted to for three previous seasons.

Things You Can Read

  • The Wild Ones by Melissa L. Sevigny (Atavist Magazine). A tremendous piece of reporting on the first two women to ever raft the Grand Canyon.
  • I Accidentally Uncovered A Nationwide Scam On AirBnB by Allie Conti (Vice). Reasons to reconsider the next AirBnB you book, especially if you’re in a hurry. Those of us on the Ultiworld staff can relate to extremely sketchy host behavior.
  • In The Abyss: How Sockeye Embraced The Unknown To Win A Title by Edward Stephens (Ultiworld). I had the pleasure of getting to work alongside Edward as his editor this past October at Club Championships. He’s got some of the best prose we’ve had the pleasure of publishing in the history of the site and here puts some excellent reporting on display alongside it.
  • Even The Shitheads At Barstool Deserve A Union by Samer Kalaf (The Outline). Right after Kalaf and his compatriots made their exit from Deadspin after months of internal controversy, Kalaf continued his very necessary reporting on Barstool, a place where employees are cajoled into thinking they have it great and everyone else is just whining.
  • Beck Is Home by Amanda Petrusich (The New Yorker). I fell in love with Petrusich’s writing after reading her retrospective review of Steely Dan’s Aja.
  • Bad Case Of The Blues by Katie Moulton (Oxford American) I’m proud to call Katie a friend and I was thrilled to see her excellent liner notes essay on this Linda Martell song. This is a smart and thoughtful short essay on a singer I had never heard of. While I’m bending you ear about Katie, go check out her gripping personal essay The Woman In The Wall: Answering The Knock In The Middle Of The Knight via Catapult.
  • How NBA Executive Stole $13 Million From The Sacramento Kings by Kevin Arnovitz (ESPN). Arnovitz is one of the great contemporary NBA storytellers out there. For this piece, he managed to get remarkable access to the loved ones affected by the exec named in the headline. I first read Arnovitz when he published his wonderful profile of NBA referee Bill Kennedy, who was forced to come out after Rajon Rondo insulted (and never quite apologized to) Kennedy.
  • The Right To Bear Arms by Anne Helen Petersen (Buzzfeed News). I think it’s fitting to end this long list with a piece by the journalist who inspired me to start this project. Petersen continues her thoughtful exploration of American culture with this excellent piece, which is set in the remote town of Sand Point, Idaho and focuses on residents who disagree strongly on the Second Amendment. If you like newsletters, remember that AHP writes hers somewhat weekly and that it is great.