by Ashley Weeks Cart

Hi, Mom,

You died two years ago this morning. Valentine’s Day 2016. While you were dying, I was lying in bed, posting a photo of your two granddaughters to Instagram. I wrote about love in the ways I understood it at that time:
Celebrating love that brings a pig in the house in -17 degree weather, that shares brand new sticker books with younger siblings, that brings joy and anticipation despite searing pelvic floor discomfort, that shampoos away skunk spray, that tolerates Cheerio farts, that permits nachos for dinner (every once and awhile), and that looks like the stuff of everyday life but is what keeps this whole thing together. 

And while all of those sentiments are still true, through my grief, I have come to understand love in its darker, more complicated forms. I’ve been writing essay after essay about your death, my grief, and the love found in all the broken spaces. This one I feel ready to share. I dream of such an essay one day gracing the pages of “Modern Love.” But I’m not there yet. For now, these inadequate words will have to suffice as I continue to do the work and navigate life in The After.

I miss you. I hate this day and all that it represents, and yet, I feel a more deep and honest understanding of love in the wake of your death. I am a better person for it. What a cruel and stunning truth.

143 Your Ashley


A Literal Shitstorm

For my mother’s 65th birthday, our family gathered in Saratoga Springs, New York, home of her alma mater, Skidmore College. My father arrived with my mother after a lengthy car trip from their home on Cape Cod, and my elementary-school aged daughters greeted them with great enthusiasm.

“Can I hold Momar?,” inquired my Kindergartener. My father obliged, and my child proceeded to skip down the streets of Saratoga with her grandmother safely concealed in a small Rubbermaid container. I watched on with a mix of amusement and dread, envisioning the stumbles of my child and a stiff breeze as a recipe for disaster under these particular circumstances.  

“Don’t worry,” my father chuckled, recognizing the potential calamity, “there’s plenty more of her back at the house.”

My father is a scientist, and for him, practicality and efficiency reign supreme. Naturally, the kitchen tupperware was the most secure method of transport for my mother’s ashes. Dignified? Perhaps not. But certainly safe, and certainly amusing, though I could picture my mother’s heavy eye roll in response to being treated so casually. But I hadn’t been on the receiving end of such admonishments in over a year.

Admittedly, I can recall the mix of annoyance and humor that accompanied her reprimands, as our final conversation the evening prior to her death was of this nature.  We lived in Vermont, and the weather was predicted to fall below zero degrees. My mother, who was visiting the next day, called to insist we bring our household’s potbellied pig inside for the night. She didn’t want to find frozen pork in our barn. Potbellied pigs are Vietnamese, she reminded me, and couldn’t be expected to tolerate a harsh Vermont winter.

Despite this lighthearted conversation, my mother died hours later, suddenly, unexpectedly, in the arms of my father, her husband of 42 years, in their bed on Valentine’s Day morning.

When my father called to relay the news, my husband was elbow deep in pig shit, as Penelope Pig had had her morning constitutional all over our kitchen floor. And seeing as I was nine months pregnant at the time, he’d offered to handle the clean-up. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” he muttered sarcastically moments before the phone began to ring.

The painful clichés of this entire experience do not escape me. A Valentine’s Day death in the arms of one’s soulmate. The loss of life on the brink of welcoming another. Our kitchen floor covered in animal feces as the universe dropped the most extreme load on our household.

This couldn’t possibly be real. It was all too contrived. Too movie-scripted in its staging. And yet, there I was, expeditiously unmothered.

Death from a theoretical perspective is serious in its contemplation. It is unknowable and inevitable and universal, which make it all the more complex.

The lived experience of grief is, of course, all these things. It is marked by a pain I can only equate to the deepest, most intense moments of labor. That visceral, unhinged agony that accompanies giving life and letting life go is fittingly synonymous, two realities I faced cruelly side by side. Grief is traumatic in all the somber, serious ways one anticipates.

And yet, the evening of my mother’s death, my husband and I found ourselves huddled over the bath tub scrubbing pig poop from the coats of our two large retrievers. In the hysteria following my father’s phone call, my husband had flung our swine’s droppings onto the back deck, and our dogs had gleefully rolled in the tempting excrement. As I hefted my 37 week pregnant body into the tub, and swore and pleaded and gagged in response to my dogs’ disgusting life choices, the heavy fog of shock and emotional turmoil briefly lifted.  James and I found ourselves in fits of uncontrollable laughter, a display of levity in the face of this calamitous day.

On the face of it, cleaning up poop in a bathtub while pregnant on the eve of your mother’s untimely death feels like an unnecessarily cruel reminder of life plowing unrelentingly ahead. And yet, the ability to still find humor in such a preposterous state of affairs, even on one’s darkest day, was deeply reassuring. To feel laughter, and that momentary reminder of the joy that makes the loss of life worth grieving, provided hope.

“Mom would be so appalled that instead of donning a dramatic black gown for the next year in a show of mourning, I’ll be covered in baby poop, spit up, and spoiled breastmilk, likely wearing a stained nursing bra and mesh underwear, ” I mused to my husband through a mix of laughter and grief-induced tears.

My mother was the kind of person who swooned over the story of her grandmother covering her grandfather’s grave in a blanket of fresh roses while wearing black for an entire year. While an elegant mourning dress would convey the seriousness and drama of death and the blanket of roses would certainly pay tribute to my mother’s passion for flowers, the five day old sweatpants and soiled t-shirt were a much more authentic display of the work of grief in the face of life moving unforgivingly forward. And my mother never wanted a grave, so the floral covering was a truly superfluous consideration.

I couldn’t fathom how I would mother without my own mother a phone call or car ride away for support and encouragement. I heard her loving voice reminding me this was all just a phase. This time would pass, and it wouldn’t feel so debilitating and all-consuming weeks, months, or years from now. She had said this when I was puddled on the floor of my bathroom, my oldest daughter wailing in the adjoining nursery at 6 weeks of age. I’d called her weeping I wasn’t cut out for parenting. She’d gently reassured me, “You can do this.”

While my love for her and grief over her death will never subside, I’m learning, a year into this process, that it evolves and shifts. The notion that time heals all things is utter bullshit. But time does allow for growth and adaption. Time permits balance and gentleness and forgiveness, with the world and oneself. And it has a way of stripping life down to its most essential parts.

Love presents itself in all of its messiest, purest, unfiltered forms in the aftermath of death. My son was born, three weeks to the day, following my mother’s passing. While I had had relatively uneventful, smooth deliveries with my two older children, my son’s labor was predictably fraught.  Fortunately, baby remained healthy and strong despite the upheaval of its incubator.

With the love and presence of my dearest family and friends, I made it to ten centimeters. With three strong, determined pushes, I brought my son into the world. He pooped on arrival, a fitting tribute to my mother and the trajectory of our story.

I held my newborn to my chest, the sticky meconium further binding us together in those final moments before my midwife cut the umbilical cord. My third birth, and yet for the first time, I envisioned my mother similarly cradling me during my first breaths. I beheld the fragility and power of new life, the sweet half strawberry nose of my mother atop my son’s face, the mystery and universality of it all. Grief ushered in an even deeper gratitude for this life, a grace and gentleness previously unknown. One of the many surprising gifts found in such heartbreak.

Shortly after his birth, I developed an infection that resulted in days of extremely high fever.  We couldn’t figure out the cause, and the postpartum realities combined with my grief were only further confusing the situation. As James ran through symptoms and potential causes over the phone once again with my doctor, I mumbled through a feverish haze, “I think I saw some white spots in my poop. Could that be something?” We were desperate for answers and some relief from the 104 degree reading on the thermometer. We scheduled an appointment for the next day, and I agreed to provide a stool sample.

That evening, when I had a bowel movement, I asked James to bring me gloves and a container. I lay down on the floor of the bathroom, the tiles cooling my feverish cheeks, and promptly fell asleep alongside the toilet bowl. When I awoke, James was once again elbow deep in shit, this time my own. As he went to transfer my excrement into household Rubbermaid, he inspected it closely, carefully considering  these white spots of which I spoke.

“Oh my God, Ashley. That is oatmeal. That is oatmeal from all the damn lactation cookies you’ve been eating.”

Apparently, we did not need to provide a stool sample. A sneaky case of mastitis was slow to show its most notable symptoms, but by the morning, I was on a heavy dose of antibiotics, and the dynamics of my marriage had forever changed.

I knew how much my husband loved me. I had experienced his caregiving and support in unmatched capacities over the course of that three weeks following my mother’s death. But I had no concept of the unwavering depths of his love until I witnessed him literally holding my own shit in his hands. In a month’s time, the death of my mother, the birth of my son, and the caregiving of my husband had tested my own capacities for love. And, more significantly, I had experienced the intensity and scope of how I was loved in return.

And with the strength of that love, we continue to make our way through grief. In death, love shows itself most boldly. In the Kindergartener skipping through the streets with her grandmother in Tupperware. With dogs covered in pig shit. In meconium-coated newborn toes. With a husband picking through his wife’s feces in a quest for answers. While it may not be terribly dignified or romantic, it is what makes death such a worthy, formidable adversary.We carry the light and the dark, the joy and the pain, as all humans do.

A year following my mother’s death, we approached her freshmen dormitory, now a residential apartment building. My father suggested that we scatter a few of my mother’s ashes over the gardens out front. “Momar can feed the flowers,” he told my daughters. “She would love that, because flowers were here favorite thing. Besides us, of course,” responded my Kindergartener. As residents strode in and out of the building, caught up in the rhythm of their daily lives, my family stood around an ordinary rose bush, and through tears, we smiled.

All this shit is compost for the future. And I’ll always see my mother in the flowers.