She titled it “Autumn Beauty.” Three crimson maple leaves hang from slender, silvery branches, backgrounded by a watery swirl of teal, lime, burnt umber, and gold. A quiet peacefulness balances the bold beauty of the leaves. The painting was her favorite, and she brought it “just to show” when she and my dad came to Michigan for a weekend visit. That visit was when I learned, thanks to a phone call from my sister, that my mother had been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. “I emailed the news this morning,” my mom said, but I never received her message. She slipped “Autumn Beauty” into my hands when she and my dad were heading home, cheerfully promising, “I’ll come back to see it in every season.” She died three days before the winter solstice, at age seventy—younger than she should have been but perhaps far older than she ever anticipated.


Loons use four distinct calls: the tremolo (for signaling distress), the wail (for social interactions and responding to distress), the hoot (for loved ones to check on each other’s well-being), and the yodel (for males to defend territory). What a clear taxonomy! We humans tend to confuse these categories, hearing tremolos as wails, wailing rather than risking a tremolo, failing to recognize yodels-cum-tremolos, yodeling when a hoot is what’s really needed. If only we could stick to the forms, hoot more, call yodels yodels, respond to tremolos with the clarity of the loon’s mournful wail: “I’m here. Where are you?”


We bury his ashes in my mother’s garden. Stubborn in death as in life, he is sharp shards of bone and gritty, grey sand that clings to the container’s sides. “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,” my brother-in-law reads from the Yeats poem that I gave my dad thirty years before. “And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,/Dropping from the veils of the morning. . . .” But three years after his death, I still hear my father’s restlessness in the “lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore.” My nephew announces “heartsease” as the word of the day. Yes, that’s what I long to hear “in the deep heart’s core.”


“The dead have only the voices we give to them,” writes Sherman Alexie. What words should I give to my dad as he stands behind the camera, patiently filming five young children as they wave, skip, somersault, dance, march, grin, make silly faces, jump off chairs, kiss the baby, run through the room with naked bottoms, swing on the tire swing suspended from a tree, swing on the rope swing suspended from the living room ceiling, and run full-speed toward the camera, as if overcome by desire to share something with the cameraman? What is the sound of his call when he enters the frame, tickling my siblings on the couch or playing Ring-around-the-Rosie in front of the A-frame cabin that he and his brother built in the Pennsylvania mountain town where my parents met? And what sounds should I assign to my mother as she enters each scene, a smile on her face, baby in her arms, and sixth baby in her womb? I am that pending baby, born too late to know my parents in this vibrant, hopeful phase. When I try to conjure voices to accompany these scenes—calling, “I’m here. Where are you?”—my weeping is the only sound I hear.


Megan Sweeney is the author of Reading Is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons (2010) and editor of The Story Within Us: Women Prisoners Reflect on Reading (2012).  She has published articles about reading, African American literature, and incarceration in journals such as Modern Fiction Studies, Feminist Studies, American Literary History, and Publications of the Modern Language Society, and in collections such as Teaching Human Rights in Literary and Cultural Studies, From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, and After the Pain: Critical Essays on Gayl Jones.  Sweeney is an Associate Professor of English and Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where she serves as Director of the English Department Writing Program.  She is working on a creative nonfiction project provisionally titled Mendings.

Photo by Lauren Crux