Permission to Die
By ROY PETER CLARK
Some people called St. Petersburg the lightning capital of the world. The storms here can be spectacular, boiling with blue-black thunderclouds, silver slivers of lightning slicing through the sky. At least once a year, the newspaper ran a story of some unlucky soul who was struck by lightning and died.
It was a topic of conversation in St. Pete. What would it feel like to be hit by lightning? Would the light make you blind? Would the sound, like divine justice, make you deaf? Would sparks come from your hair, or puffs of smoke from the soles of your feet? Would there be peace in the suddenness, a liberation from pain? Not a slow lingering death -- as from AIDS -- but a heavenly beam of electrons transporting you from this world to the next.
On the evening of March 3, 1993, Erin Morse could hear only portents in the distant rumbles of thunder. She sat on the couch watching television, warm and dry from the misty rains outside. At 14, she was the youngest daughter of Mick Morse, who lay just a few steps away in the next room.
She had been in to see him earlier. But now she was content to be in the same house with him. People said she was like her dad, and she took that as a compliment. She was quiet and reserved, like her dad, except when she was with her friends. Then her smile could brighten up the room and her sense of humor lighten a gloomy day. She loved her dad and remembered trips to the beach and the swimming pool, learning to play cards, watching sports on TV. She thought her dad was patient, smart, and kind to others. Why wouldn't she want to be like him?
Her older sister, Meghan, was not there. She was attending college night at nearby Eckerd College. She was not sad to be away, for it was so hard to see her dad this way. She would dream about her father and still think of herself as "daddy's girl." He had taught her to love languages, opera and the ballet. She would hug him and scratch his back.
Her older brother, David, was in the next room with his father. David was crying. Holding his father's hand, his mother beside him. David would later tell a friend, defiantly, "I don't care what he did, or who he did. I loved him." Mick could see the love on his son's face and did his best to reflect it in his own.
David left the room.
Mick and Jane were alone now.
Jane moved to his bed, reached out, and held his hand.
It was the first time she had touched him that way in years.
In her mind, she had made a kind of peace with him. She was bitter and angry, yes, but she could not regret their life together. Their love had produced three children whom they cherished. He had taken her from a tiny town in Michigan to wonderful places all over the world. He had provided for her, made her a more sophisticated, more educated person. He was a wonderful teacher, a kind person and a loving father.
Mick looked up at Jane with a kind of unspoken gratitude. His breaths were short and raspy.
She began to speak to him:
"Things are going to be okay," said Jane tenderly. "We are really fortunate. We have three wonderful children."
She told him about Erin: "You know, Erin's done so well since she's been here. She just loves soccer. And she's very talented. She's a beautiful child, and she's really made a niche for herself. She's got lots and lots of friends. She's going to be fine."
Then came Meghan: "She's at college night, Mick. She's got some plans for school. I think she'll be starting out at junior college. Her language skills are so strong. She got that from you. She's going to be just fine."
And then David: "Boy, David is off and running. He's going to graduate soon. He's a hard worker and is going to get a terrific job and have a great life."
She held his hand more firmly. "You know, they're three really neat kids, and we were very fortunate to have them. And you don't have to worry about me, Mick. I'm going to be fine. I've got a job. I've made good friends. I've made a place for myself."
She looked at him. "It's okay, Mick. It's okay."
The last thing Mick Morse saw on this earth was Jane's beautiful face. Her lovely smile.
In the next room, young Erin was startled by a crash of thunder. She knew right away what had happened.
THE SERIES: This is the 26th installment of a 29-part story.