It’s a beautiful day, so you take the kids to a place where the sun meets the ocean: the Torrey Pines Gliderport on a cliff’s edge in La Jolla, where paragliders swoop into space high above the ocean, both beautiful and scary.
You sit on a nearby bench with a great view. It’s obviously too nice for a typical parks & rec bench. It’s anchored to a concrete slab, and the smooth slats gleam with varnish. Surrounding it are about a dozen potted plants, succulents because they’re hardier.
Underneath is a plain Tupperware container with a pink lid, the type you fill with old snapshots and store in the attic. Curious, you open it. It’s filled with bric-a-brac: an old Padres program, a rubber band, a small capsule of eye shadow. And there’s a book, like one that guests sign at a rented cabin. It gives reference to a website: morganrohde.com.
The book is filled with drawings, poems, the scrawlings of 7-year-olds and thoughtful notes from parents saddened by personal loss. Many of the comments are addressed to someone named Morgan.
Then you see a small plaque in the concrete. It says:
Drawn to the ocean and kissed by the sun;
radiant, exuberant, always smiling;
Morgan lives in our hearts forever.
This bench, you realize, is a memorial to a family’s loss and a mother’s grief. The items in the box were left by passers-by, reaching into their pockets for the odd item that would leave some little thing behind to say they were there, that they understand.
You carefully return the box to its place. The kids sense your mood change and look at you quizzically. But an older couple is looking for a place to rest, so you leave, a little quieter than when you came. When you glance back, the new couple is looking through the plastic box with the pink top.
April 14, 2007, late afternoon. Laura Lindsay, a 52-year-old biotech executive, is settling into her new home near New York City when the phone rings. She’s told that her 25-year-old daughter, Morgan Rohde, was in a boating accident in Arizona and has been airlifted to Phoenix. So far, Morgan’s condition is unknown, but the word “airlift” is scary; it’s not done for a broken ankle.
Laura is only told that Morgan was in a boat that rammed into a dock. She suffered a head injury, and she was the only one who got hurt.
With urgent words and trembling fingers, Laura makes frantic arrangements and arrives at the Phoenix hospital the next morning. She is immediately taken to Morgan’s room and sees her daughter.
Morgan lies quietly with her eyes closed. The tubes and wires of intensive care form a web around her. Laura takes her hand and softly, almost pleadingly, says, “I love you.”
Morgan lifts one eyelid and squeezes her mother’s hand.
Her mother’s spirits soar with hope. Morgan will make it.
Throughout the day, Laura and the rest of the family maintain a vigil, either at bedside when allowed, or otherwise wandering between hall and waiting room. Laura’s thoughts go into a limbo of hope.
Laura says since childhood, Morgan was vivacious, willful, buoyant and spontaneous. She was never a stranger in any room.
She had graduated from San Diego State University three years past and was aspiring to someday own her own business — what, she had not yet figured out. She had a starter position with a mortgage company, but that was just a job. Her life was filled with love, and most of her free moments were devoted to her coming September wedding. The planning committee was Morgan, Laura and her older sister, Skye. Even the light bickering was fun, because it was also sharing.
Sometime, deep in the middle of the next night, Morgan suffered a stroke that left her brain-dead.
Laura’s soul entered a dark pit. “Your child, your little one that you’ve been trying to protect all of these years. … It was a knife in my heart. I couldn’t even imagine her not laughing and singing and smiling and doing all the things that she had always done.
“I wanted to try to fix it. I was the mother, so I wanted to prove the doctor wrong. I said, ‘I’m sure you’ve made a mistake.’”
The family sleepwalked through the next four days, their spirits clothed in black, hoping for a miracle.
Finally, doctors gently, gingerly posed the inevitable question. Laura was torn. She didn’t want her daughter to be another Terri Schiavo, the brain-dead woman in Florida whose fate became an unseemly political carnival in 2005. But she dreaded saying — irreversibly, with finality — that her daughter would forever disappear from her family’s embrace, and that mischievous giggle would fade into a faraway memory.
Then a doctor pointed to a glass of water and told her that Morgan would never lift such a glass or drink from it ever again.
The family gathered in a circle to discuss what to do. Everyone had a say, and no one dissented.
On April 20, 2007, they gathered in Morgan’s room for the last time. “She was lying on the bed, and she looked absolutely perfect like nothing had happened to her,” her mother remembered. “You would never know she had those injuries inside. She just looked absolutely beautiful.”
Then, the simple turn of a switch. Fifteen minutes later, Morgan Meredith Rohde quietly ceased to exist.
Laura and the family fought back. Morgan had been a person of laughter, not of tears. They took grief, dressed it in party clothes and had a “celebration of life.”
“We dedicated the bench on what would have been her wedding day, Sept. 22, 2007,” Laura says. “We had a party with music, cake, flowers, Champagne and wine from the Morgan Winery. We looked at all her pictures. Everyone had a chance to talk and share memories. It was sad, but it was good.”
It is a beautiful day in late June, seven years later. Laura Lindsay sits on Morgan’s bench. A single woman, retired and living in Ventura, she makes the three-hour trip through Los Angeles traffic every few weeks. She sorts through the Tupperware box and reads recent entries that strangers have left in the book. She talks about being here.
“A woman had just received a diagnosis of cervical cancer. She just wanted to come some place beautiful and quiet. She found the book and read the story of Morgan. The woman wrote in the book that she didn’t really know what to do next, but she knew that reading Morgan’s story had given her the courage to fight.
“It’s a beautiful place, lots of activity, lots of positive energy. This is the best place that I could think of to honor her because she loved the ocean and she loved the sun.
“I feel her presence at this bench. I feel that her spirit surrounds us. People who never met her sense what a beautiful person she was, and they take heart from that.”
The pages of the current book, which is volume eight, are filled from the labored penciling of children to the chiseled words of scientists from the nearby Salk Institute for Biological Studies:
“Hi Morgan! I just was (watching) the glider take off. The sun is bursting through the summer fog, and I gazed through the beauty of you and your life. Thank you for giving us the beauty of this (brief) pause. Wishing you peace, and (to) those who miss you, love.”
“Morgan, you seem to have been a beautiful soul. You were so blessed because you were so special to everyone in your life. I just thought I’d stop to visit with you. Michelle from Phoenix.”
“To Morgan, your memorial bench gave me great pleasure today and so I sat and sketched this cactuses pot for you. Peace. A person from Winnipeg, Manitoba.”
Laura, what brings tears to your eyes now, seven years later?
“It changes every year, but this year it’s the things that she’s missing: Her sister’s wedding, the birth of her niece, the joys of life that we are all sharing. … She should be here.”
Spiritual though her comments seem to be, Laura rejects religion, as she says did Morgan.
“We’ve had well-meaning comments from religious people who say, ‘God wanted her in heaven.’ I’m like, ‘Whoa, I thought she was doing really well right here.’ Or, ‘God only takes the best ones.’ I said, ‘Don’t even go there with me. I appreciate your love and concern, but that is not helpful to me because I want her here.’ Going to a better place? She was in a fine place right here. It makes me a little angry because I don’t want to hear it.”
What do you say to those who think “obsession,” but may only say, “It’s been seven years, Laura. Let it go. It’s not healthy.”
“I say, ‘Apparently, you’ve never ever experienced a loss, because if you had, you would understand that it doesn’t go away. You don’t forget them. Just because you don’t see them, it doesn’t mean they’re not part of your life.’
“We threw a bottle into the ocean out there beyond Point Loma with little notes and letters about Morgan and my business card. Two and a half years later, where do you think it turned up? The island of Tarawa (5,000 miles distant).
“This Australian shipbuilder called me and, with emotion, said that he had found Morgan’s bottle and thought the bottle picked him.
“I know that her spirit continues. I told you she would light up whoever she was near, and she’s continuing to do that, in her own way.”
Laura tells the story of an incident during the congestion of the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines a few years ago. A traffic cop stopped her from entering the area, but she told him she wanted to visit her daughter’s memorial.
“Oh, you mean Morgan’s bench,” he said, and let her pass.
Every day, young women and young men die. Each one was loved, and each one had something to offer they did not have a chance to give.
Morgan’s mother knows she is gone and not coming back, but what the daughter left behind reposes in the mother — love and remembrance, and the generosity to share it. It is hers to pass on.
Because of Laura and her family, Morgan is not a stranger. She is every parent’s child.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org