The Good Father
Times photo - JOANNA B. PINNEO
Meghan Morse shares a quiet moment with her mother, Jane. Meghan had a special relationship with her dad and had vivid dreams about him after he died.
By ROY PETER CLARK
The bell is an ancient symbol, an archetype and its ringing stands for many things. The bell invites us to church or school or dinner, warns us of danger, signifies our liberty, wakes us up, or tolls for the dead. The bell alerts our attention to the priest carrying the sacrament. In olden times, lepers carried bells to alert the healthy of their approach. "Every time a bell rings," said the little girl in It's a Wonderful Life," an angel gets his wings."
What, then, to make of the bell that they heard after Mick Morse died? Aunt Joan heard it. It had the same sound as the silver bell she had placed at Mick's bedside. "I'd go to bed at night," she remembers, "and I'd hear the bell. And I dreamed that I was in a room with Mick. He was in a bed, but sitting up. And Meghan was in the room. Meghan, Mick and I."
In her own dreams, Mick's daughter Meghan heard the bell, too. She would hear it in a state between sleep and waking. And she would hear it when wide awake. One morning, she felt the weight of someone sitting on her bed. She opened her eyes, but no one was there. No one. The presence was so heavy, it scared her. "I'm sure it's him," she thought.
For the year after Mick's death, Jane carried the weight of his presence in other ways, especially through her tears. She cried over her loneliness. She cried when she realized that John, whom she continued to care for, was not interested in a committed relationship. She cried when she thought she might never find a man who could truly and deeply love her.
She had her work, but she cried there too. She cried when a cancer patient in her support group would receive a dark prognosis. Or when another AIDS patient would die.
She cried when she went, once again, for an AIDS test, and cried as she waited for the results, and cried in the arms of Aunt Joan when she got them.
Jane was safe.
After that she went into her closet and lifted out the box containing Mick's ashes. Without telling her daughters, she stashed them in a corner of their closet. There was so much stuff in there, they would never notice.
If one thing made her feel better, it was telling her story. Much of her pain, she thought, had been caused by their silence and denial. The best way to fight against those forces of fear and repression was the simple statement of truth: "My husband died of AIDS." It felt good to tell her new friend Karen Clark. When Jane's tears fell in the telling, they had a cleansing quality.
Jane felt the need for one more ceremony of healing. On the first anniversary of Mick's death -- 3/3/94 -- she gathered her family to distribute Mick's ashes. First they had dinner at one of their favorite spots, La Cote Basque restaurant in Gulfport. The name referred to the Basque country where the Morses had lived in northern Spain.
Jane was there with the three children, Uncle Ralph and Aunt Joan and Victor Baez, a former student of Mick. Over dinner they spoke of their good memories of Mick. There were smiles and laughter.
Then Jane asked them for their advice. She said that she had met a writer. "Nothing happens without a reason," she told them. She thought that they needed to tell their story. That it would help them give meaning to their experience. And, more important, it would help others.
The family was surprised by this declaration. Having been silent so long, now to tell the world seemed so bold. Her son David spoke first. "I think you should go for it, Mom."
By 10 o'clock they had driven to St. Petersburg Beach. They didn't know it, but they had picked the funky south end of the beach. Pass-a-Grille is not Key West, not by a long shot. But gay men and women could be seen there, strolling along the water's edge.
At the top of the pier, Jane broke the seal and opened the cardboard box containing Mick's ashes. She untied the plastic bag inside. She brought out a serving spoon, the kind you might use for cauliflower or candied yams. She took three spoonfuls of Mick's ashes, placing each one in a tiny bag. It was odd, but perhaps the children would want some ashes as a keepsake.
"Can you believe this is Dad?" said Meghan. "I hope he's happy."
They carried the box of ashes to the end of the pier, past a sign that said "Dangerous Currents," past two fishermen who were through for the night. The salty wind off the gulf chilled them and made their eyes water. They hugged to keep warm. Then, one by one, they scattered handfuls of Mick Morse into the sea.
First Jane: She whispered a prayer, hoping she was doing the right thing. She felt so sorry for Mick. "He never realized it didn't matter to a lot of people. That he could have received a lot of love and caring from people he couldn't open up to. Not to be able to tell them goodbye or thank you. All I could think was ashes to ashes."
Then David: He had wanted to carry his dad's ashes back to Brazil, scatter them over the school soccer field. But this was better. His father loved the ocean. His whole family did. As he scattered the ashes he thought: "The reason I am as lucky as I am today is because of him."
Then Meghan: "Don't worry about me. I'm doing okay. I miss you. I love you. But I'm okay."
Then Erin, quiet and simple: "Goodbye. I love you."
Jane had accomplished her most important goals. Her family had gotten through the worst days. Without forgetting, they were starting over. Most of all, in spite of the stigma attached to this plague, the children remembered their father with unconditional love and affection.
Back in Jane's home town, Union City, Mich., they don't blink an eye when you bring up the name of Mick Morse. They speak two truths about him, as Jane's father, Russ Brandt, did over coffee in the City Restaurant: "When people ask me what happened to Mick, I tell them the truth. He had AIDS, and he was a fine man."
In Mick's home town, Fennville, Mich., folks still think that Mick died of cancer. There, the truth cannot yet be spoken.
Morse family photo
In 1980, Mick and Jane pose for a classic American family portrait in the town square in Union City, Mich. David and Meghan are up front, Erin in her father's arms.
Mick's sister Debbie met with Jane's mother, Ruth Brandt, to reminisce about Mick. They chose a spot where Debbie's children would not overhear them, a tiny park between a playground and baseball diamond. They sat at a picnic table in the shade of a large tree across from the pretty yellow house on N Maple Street where the Morse children once lived. A big American flag fluttered overhead.
"I understand why Jane would be angry with Mick," said Debbie. "But what about you, Ruth? You don't seem angry at all. You seem at such peace with what has happened."
Ruth's silver hair framed her face like a halo. "I'm sad for what happened to Mick," she said. "I'm sad for what Jane and the kids had to go through. But I can't be angry with Mick." She spoke the next words like a benediction. "He was a wonderful man, and a wonderful father."
Next: Epilogue: The Dance