Q&A with Sukey
Your memoir, The Angel in My Pocket, is the deeply personal story of losing your young daughter, Charlotte, to a rare genetic disorder. When did you begin to think about sharing your story?
Shortly after my daughter died it became clear to me that I was grieving in a different way than others. I struggled initially with a numbness that was only slightly less crippling to experience than the full brunt of sorrow. I was filled with questions about what happens when we die, where we go, how the soul does or does not continue to exist. I tried to understand grief before I allowed myself to feel it. When I finally descended into the grief I felt alienated and as though I was doing it all wrong.
I wanted to know the possibility existed to survive and even thrive after the crippling blow of losing a beloved child. I became determined to learn and grow as a woman from the grief rather than stay mired in it. Although I would never be the same I could re-build strength in the broken places while also acknowledging the full weight of my sorrow. I found no books that gave me hope that that could be my outcome. I told myself that if I emerged on the other side as I desired that I would share my story in hopes that it would give assurances to others walking through personal crisis that they too could have a similar outcome. My experience seemed relevant to me not just for the experience of grief but for any game changing life event that knocked one flat. I took notes and wrote my way through the sorrow with an eye towards sharing it later if my story ended the way I trusted it would. It did.
By deciding to work towards discovering the gift of loss and becoming a better person, mother, wife I felt like a heretic. Being positive seemed a betrayal to my dead daughter and that message was reinforced to me by the dearth of books that addressed thriving after such a devastating loss.
Towards the end of ‘The Angel in My Pocket’ I describe a boat ride followed by a conversation with a taxi driver. I knew the moment that I closed the door upon exiting the cab that I had made it to the other side of my grief and that was the day I sat down to pull together the story to share
You write about how, in the aftermath of Charlotte’s death, you felt you were merely existing, but you wanted to want to live. How did you begin to find your way toward wanting to live again?
Fairly quickly I came to the stark realization that I really only had three choices for my path: I could die, I could exist, or I could live. As the mother of two living children the only choice for me was to find a way to live and the only way I knew how to start down that path was to just fake it for a while. I am a big believer in routine and studies show that habits are formed by repeating the same actions. I’d show up at the kid’s sporting events, make conversation with my husband over dinner, force myself to walk or spend time outside and to notice the beauty and the gift in each day. I forced myself and it was terrible and yet it felt right on a gut level. Eventually moments of peace or hints of grace would flicker into my daily activities. I would notice a blue sky and a bird in flight. One of the children would do something silly and I would genuinely laugh without the kicked-in-the-gut guilt feeling overtaking me immediately after the laughter. I began to be thankful for the blessings that did exist in my life. Going through the motions brought me into the daily busy-ness of living and in doing so I slowly eased back into the comfort of being there. But for quite some time, in some cases years, I was going through the motions and waiting for that spark to ignite on any front. It took time and persistence. I didn’t have any other option and I was quite clear that the only way out was through.
One way you attempted to reconnect with Charlotte was through mediums and clairvoyants. What led you down this road? How did these experiences affect how you view life and death?
48 hours after Charlotte died I received a letter from friends in San Francisco. They shared a near death experience story with me that was the very first hint of comfort that my daughter was in a good place. What happens after we physically die is still unknowable. My maternal instincts for protecting my daughter were still heightened and I could not move into any form of grief until I knew where she was and that she was being well cared for. I had been comfortable with the presence of ghosts all of my life having sensed their presence regularly both in my childhood home and on Naushon Island but before Charlotte’s death I had no interest in communicating with them other than for entertainment. Once she died I wanted a solid validation that I was not imagining them and also that my daughter was alright. I was curious as to what other information clairvoyants and mediums might be able to give me about my daughter. After reading that letter I began seeking more information about near death experiences. I wanted as much data as possible and then I was determined to figure out a way to make sense of it all. I was desperate to gather as much information as I could rather than dismissing anything outright.
My experiences since Charlotte has died both with clairvoyants and mediums as well as my own personal experiences that defy logical explanation have led me to be clear that life and death are only points on a continuum. We do not disappear when we die. There is some other place that our loved ones go that is separate and yet close to us. They retain some of the essence of who they are such that we can recognize them. We get ourselves in trouble when we start labeling that place or state of being as ‘heaven’ but I have personally experienced my daughter since she has died on numerous occasions and I know to my marrow that she is only dead in the medically descriptive sense of the word. While she lives in my heart and and in my head, experience has also proven to me that some tangible part of Charlotte clearly remains. It is with the full experience and acceptance of that experience that I am able to continue to embrace life and move forward with the full knowledge that not only will I see her again but that she is not truly gone.
You have an impressive lineage that includes the iconic Ralph Waldo Emerson. Tell us a little about your ancestors.
The Saltonstalls came over on the Winthrop Fleet in 1630. One was asked to sit as a judge in the Salem Witch Trials and refused. Another was eaten by cannibals off the coast of Africa. Others went in to politics and many went into academia.
The Forbes were relative newcomers in the mid 1700s. Most of the family money was made trading opium and furs during the China Trade and the American Railroads and Telephone afterwards.
John Murray Forbes (my Great Great Great Grandfather) was a close confidante to several US Presidents. He spent time advising Lincoln, Stanton, and Grant during the Civil War and, along with Emerson, was a fervent abolitionist. While living in Washington DC for a year his son Malcolm (my Great Great Uncle) attended the theatre the night Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth. I have the family letter that details the evening and the following days as they unfolded.
William Hathaway Forbes (married to Edith Emerson Great Great Grandparents) was an officer in the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry during the Civil War and was captured by Colonel Mosby whom he befriended after the war. (A character from the movie ‘Glory’ is based on WHF). Robert Gould Shaw was a dear friend.
William Cameron Forbes ( Great Uncle) was Governor General of the Phillipines and Ambassador to Japan.
The house I live in on Naushon Island, Mansion House, was built in 1811 by James Bowdoin III who was Washington’s appointed Ambassador to Spain. He died in the house in 1811 and the entire family abandonded the house immediately. For 9 years the house remained locked and unvisited. When the family agent returned 9 years later he was met with unwashed dishes and evidence that the family had departed in great haste after Mr Bowdoin’s passing. Mr. Bowdoin’s ghost remains in the house and I have had several encounters with him. Mansion House has welcomed Presidents from Grant to Clinton along with artists from Sargent to William Morris Hunt and Thomas Hinckley as well as a long list of Americans of significant influence on varied fronts (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Edwin Stanton, Herman Melville, Japan’s Emperor Akihito , Peter Yarrow) General Pershing wrote his war report after WWI while he was a guest at Mansion House. At least once a generation a horse had been led through the front hall of the house and then back out of the house.
You feel a particularly strong connection to Emerson. What about his life and philosophies brought you closer to him?
Emerson wrote about experiencing God in nature. Like Emerson, in nature I feel comfort and solace and a strong spiritual connection to thoughts larger than my own. While I do enjoy the rituals of a religious service, the times in my life that I have felt most close to God were always in the natural world rather than in a church or house of worship. I had to look no further than nature to find God and in finding God I was reconnected with Charlotte.
“All objects are part of nature’s whole but each is particular in itself. Without the many, there could not be the one; without the one, there could not be the many”. -Ralph Waldo Emerson
Self-Reliance has always been a strong through-line in my family as well as trusting one’s innate sense of good-ness. Emerson and his ideas were not discussed at great length in our house when I was a child. We lived them as part of our family tradition. Childhood complaints about self-reliant activities such as splitting wood and mending our own clothing were met with responses from our parents of “it’s character building”.
I was initially drawn to Emerson not as ‘Ralph Waldo Emerson’ but as a family member who shared the loss a child from a high fever at the same age as Charlotte. His reaction to his son Waldo and first wife’s death instilled in me a greater sense of kinship with him as family. There is a distinct separation of RWE my Great Great Great Grandfather and RWE the Great Transcendentalist. Emerson’s last words “That boy. That beautiful boy” were curious and telling to me. It is my belief that his long dead son Waldo appeared before him as he lay dying. This final statementfrom the lips ofthis great thinker and philosopher, lured me further along my path to explore the afterlife and our connection to it.
All of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s (my Great Great Great Grandfather) direct descendants are members of the Forbes family. His daughter Edith married a Forbes and I descend directly from this line. His son Edward did not marry a Forbes but both of his children did. Thus Emerson’s daughter and all of his grandchildren married into the Forbes family. RWE was referred to as ‘Grampa Moo Moo’ because he lived near cows in the country. Grandfather Forbes was referred to as ‘Grandpa Tick Tick’ because he wore a large pocket watch. Emerson had a very high regard for JM Forbes and they were close friends aside from parent in laws.
Ralph Waldo Emerson composed his poem ‘Waldheinsamkeit’ while visiting his daughter and grandchildren on Naushon Island. It is written in the guest books on the island in his own highly illegible ink handwriting.
Emerson’s wife, Lidian Jackson Emerson, had clairvoyant abilities. She also was addicted to morphine later in life. A strong woman in her own right, she kept a journal containing many of the ideas that were the seeds of Emerson’s Transcendentalism. He married Lidian after an extensive inquisition by her with a promise she would be an equal in their marriage. She was marginalized over time as other intellectual companions took her place in his library.
How does your family history intersect with your story of loss?
Early in ‘The Angel in My Pocket’ I discuss genealogy and the important role it plays in both sides of my family. The Forbes Family Tree is lovingly maintained on four walls of a barn on Naushon Island and each of the 500+ descendants of John Murray Forbes has their own card on the wall with color coded ribbons linking relatives above, below, and to the side. In the center of the barn are photographs of each family member. We lovingly refer to this as a family wreath as there are numerous overlaps (my mother’s sister, a Saltonstall, married my father’s first cousin, a Forbes. Their offspring are first cousins on the Saltonstall side and second cousins on the Forbes side).
The family tree has always given me a sense of great pride in belonging to a group. I know the face of each of my cousins on my branch of the family going back to 1850. My Great Great Uncle Don died of a ruptured appendix on Naushon Island at the age of 17. I know his face well from his sepia photograph on the barn wall and remember him through stories. When Charlotte died I found comfort in knowing that she was a recorded part of our family. She existed in the barn on the walls. Her nametag and her photograph would always be there and many generations hence she will continue to be remembered.
You reflect on the way you were brought up in relation to your own parenting style and the process of grieving. What have you done differently as a parent? How did your upbringing help or hinder your grieving?
Going back to my ancestors, most of them came from Scotland and England. They were strong believers in holding their emotions at bay while they marched boldly forward. As early settlers of the Boston area, they brought their powerful determination, and unlimited perseverence to the task of making the best of it, whatever “it” was. When I was catapulted into grief this expectation to keep marching forward helped to keep me going as I knew no other way. It also, rather profoundly, held me back. Extreme emotion in any direction was met with a withering raised eyebrow of disapproval and it was quite clear that the expectation was one of complete self control. I was equally terrified at the thought of losing control emotionally as I was of not feeling anything at all.
I learned how to move through the world by watching my parents and elder relatives. A good sail, a walk down a familiar path, tending a garden were all activities that were pursued with the closest thing to religious fervor I could see in my family. In times of emotional challenge and strain I was taught to walk it off and/or go commune with nature. Nature was a safety net, even in all of her untamed wildness.
As a parent I have worked to allow more true freedom of emotional expression in my children and within the family. We are very demonstrative and regularly speak of our full range of feelings. There is more tenderness in our day to day interactions.
What were some of the ways you remembered Charlotte and honored her memory?
We established ‘The Charlotte Saltonstall Memorial Fund’ in her memory. The fund mission statement is “Through the eyes of a child, making the world a better place”. Each year we decide as a family where we should make contributions from this fund. Our decisions are made as if we were Charlotte at the age she would be now. It is our way of spending a bit of time reflecting on how she might have grown and what sort of organizations might be of interest to her.
In our home we painted a mural on the ceiling of the night sky exactly as it was (according to the USGS) over Palo Alto, California on December 23, 1997 when she was born. Very faintly we connected the constellations of each of our birth dates.
Each year on the anniversary of her death (some call this an ‘angel day’) we dress in full pink. Many members of our community and family join in this tradition and August 18th is now a bittersweet sea of pink for our family.
What do you hope readers will take from your book?
Hope. Resilience. It is my deepest wish that this story will inspire others who have been leveled by loss or pain to first find the courage to feel the pain and then the courage to let it work its way through them before they let it go. There is an added humanity and richness to life that is our gift if we allow ourselves the space to live and learn from our experiences. One can never fill the gaping holes in our hearts that loss creates. They will stay black and they will stay painful. But the compensation for that hole is that our hearts can grow in capacity. There will be more room for life. There is room for grief while also being filled with life. None of our loved ones would want the legacy of what they left behind to be that of a destroyed life and unrelenting sorrow. We honor our loved ones by living life fully and carrying them inside of us. They honor us by staying nearby. I know Charlotte would want nothing less.