“What They Taught Me” by Lisa Poulson

His eyelashes. They were the only part of his bashed-up face that I recognized. Careful to avoid the IVs, I reached for his hand. It was still as warm as it had been two nights before, at a friend’s wedding at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.

We’d sneaked out of the reception into the gardens. The velvety moonlight made every leaf luminous. The delicate breeze carried the warm scent of flowers. When he kissed me, a flower he’d tucked into my hair fell onto the grass. It was the most romantic moment of my life.

My fiancé was in a coma after the Coast Guard helicopter he was piloting crashed into the Atlantic. We had been engaged for two weeks. When I first met Marc a year before, I didn’t feel a crazy frisson of attraction. I just felt calm. He reassured my senses. Day by day, as we grew to know and love each other, hope filled my soul.

For four days, Marc lay in a coma. On the fifth morning, he stopped breathing.

⋑ ⋑ ⋑

In the days between his death and burial, time didn’t move. Cement seeped into my lungs, making breathing a Herculean labor. I reminded myself how it was done — in and out, over and over, without stopping. I could not bear for another moment to pass. And yet each moment did, drawing every morsel of strength and hope out of me.

We buried Marc at a tree-filled cemetery near his parents’ house in New Jersey. When the hearse opened and I saw the coffin, I almost lost my capacity to stand. 

Finding the courage to create a new life took months. I thought of my great-grandmother, Emma Poulson, who bore nine children, seven of whom died as babies or toddlers. She then lost her husband, Otto Julius, in the influenza epidemic in 1920. She was 46. She raised her two remaining children and ran her farm on her own. Her example could help me find a way forward.

A year after Marc died, three job offers in Palo Alto materialized. I decided to take one.

Before I left New York, Marc’s grieving parents told me that it was possible for a person who is alive to be sealed to someone who isn’t. At first I was bemused, then ambivalent. I was certain that he and I were eternally connected. Was this strange form of sealing at cross-purposes with God’s timing? Or a validation of my deep love?

The two weeks that Marc and I were engaged I’d come close to feeling “normal” at church — finally a woman that a Mormon man wanted, a woman with an eternal future.

After much prayer and consideration I decided to apply to be sealed, which meant a letter from his parents, as well as interviews with and letters from my bishop and stake president. The sealing had no legal significance, but I wanted to honor our relationship in this sacred, private way.

After completing the application process I packed up my life, left New York City for California, and threw myself into work.

Sealing a living person to a dead person requires the approval of the President of the Church. In April, after I’d moved to a little cottage in Palo Alto, I received a crisp white envelope with the Church Headquarters address embossed in the top left corner. Just holding a personal letter from church headquarters was scary. My request had put me on their radar screens.

Suddenly aware that the sanction of my eternal love was hanging in the balance, I took a breath and opened the letter. After reading the first paragraph, I doubled over and hit the floor as if I had been kicked in the stomach.

No. He said no. President Howard W. Hunter’s letter didn’t offer much explanation. I lay there rocking, sobbing, overcome by visceral grief. Devastation replaced detachment in a nanosecond. It took a long time to stand again.

I felt torn apart — as if my ultimate religious authority had reviewed the quality of my love and found it insufficient, as if my relationship and I had been weighed and found wanting by our church’s highest authority.

In June of that same year, my brother got sealed. As the officiator talked about the wonderful blessings he and his wife would receive, my insides liquefied in hot grief. My offering — my pure heart, my love for a remarkable man — none of it was sufficient. I had been officially excluded. I could not control my tears at the ceremony, so I sat in a back corner of the room snuffling, feeling self-absorbed in my misery.⋑ ⋑ ⋑

During the next twenty-five years I faced despair, isolation, and anger as an iconoclastic, faithful single woman, reminded frequently that our church seems to esteem motherhood and wifehood more than personhood. I hoped to be valued for staying and contributing, even without a husband or family, while carrying a huge hole in my heart.

When I was 55, I stopped at the Pleasant Grove Cemetery, a few miles north of Provo. My father and so many of his family members are buried there.

The cemetery is neither grand nor large. It’s in a modest neighborhood at the foot of Mount Timpanogos, which towers 7,000 feet over Utah Valley. The snow-covered peak against the bright blue sky was breathtaking — the mountain looked like a movie set, created for magnificent effect.

The earth in Utah has a particular, rich, old-fashioned smell. The generations of potatoes farmed there, cows and sheep fed there, and clear, clean snowfall that melted there were vivid in my nose as I looked up at the mountain and down at the graves of my grandmother and great-grandmother.

My grandmother, Virginia Bird Booth Poulson, used to climb Mount Timpanogos and then slide down the glacier on the other side. Raised by a bed-ridden mother, she was self-sufficient, practical, energetic, and cheerful. She had a great career as a department chair at BYU. She encouraged me to be independent and useful.

My great-grandmother Emma, her husband, and her lost children are buried nearby, commemorated on both sides of a single stone pillar.

In the shadow of the mountain, I felt the strength of these two resilient, determined, independent, faithful women. They lived with an immense, generative power because they had to, because they wanted to, because they were called to. For the first time, I saw that my dogged independence, my complicated strengths, and the refiner’s fire of my grief were consonant with theirs. And I felt that they saw me.

My skin started to tingle — I could feel their radiant courage in my veins. I could feel their fierce and beautiful love. “Am I not them?” I asked myself. “Are they not me? Aren’t I another in this line of singular, powerful, unbreakable women?”

Yes. Yes I am. Their examples show me exactly who I am meant to be. We are of the same blood, the same bones, the same earth. Our every moment in darkness delivered sacred gifts of resilience and grace. Their bright and fierce way of living is my birthright. ⋑

Lisa Poulson, who was once a tech industry badass, a grieving widow, and a faithful Mormon — all at the same time — is now a writer in San Francisco. | lisapoulson.com

This Essay was nominated for a 2021 Pushcart Prize.

“Remember Them Alive” by Annelise Duque 

Annelise Duque is a Filipino-American artist who explores cultural identity, heritage, and belonging in her photographs. Her work borrows from the aesthetics of mid-century home magazines and uses the symbol of the garden to seek connection and healing. Her work has been shown by The Utah Museum of Contemporary Arts, Tropical Contemporary, Rio Gallery, and Humble Arts Foundation. In 2019, she received a BFA from Brigham Young University. She is a 2021 Visual Arts Fellow with the Utah Division of Arts & Museums. @annelise.duque

More from Exponent II