What I Learned from the Deer — A Conversation with My Dead Son

Jane Harris

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Jane Harris' wide, meditative piece is a conversation with her recently deceased son, Christopher, who passed away in British Columbia of a fentanyl overdose after seven years of struggling with mental illness. Harris' text is vital: while carefully personal, many readers will undoubtedly relate with its earnest content.

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Yolk began as an electric conversation around a picnic table in Saint Henri Square.

Our scruffy pioneer and present prose editor had previously approached each of us with an idea, a vision: We would establish our own literary magazine in Montreal. And so it was, or so it would be. After that original encounter, eight individuals devoted to the word resolved that they would gather bi-weekly, on Sundays, and bring something new into this busy, manic world—something that might slow its spin down somewhat and cause its patronage to say: “You know what, it ain’t so bad, is it, Susan?”

We are undergraduate, graduate, and graduated students of writing. Some of us learn our craft formally from accomplished authors in seminar courses, and some of us learn by looking out the window of the world and onto the streets that sing below. Some of us learn from screaming squirrels, old curtains, departed grandfathers, and bowel movements. We learn from old lovers, long winters, imperfect mothers, and from the deep internet where a musical genius remains entombed.

Yolk is cold floors on Sabbath mornings, home-brewed ginger beer in the endless afternoon, and downpours of French-pressed coffee in assorted artisanal mugs. Our first official gathering was scheduled for a duration of two hours; most of us remained for six, departing only to attend to the summons of our own beckoning realities. Together, with time suspended, we talked endlessly of contributing something to disrupt Montreal’s literary ecosystem. Something unparalleled, something true.

But what? There was nothing to discuss. There was everything to discuss.

We volunteer our time, hounding some elusive beast composed of combustible words and works. We are hopeful, truly hopeful, that we can give something new, a new way, a new light, and that if we cannot, we might at least uphold the traditions of our predecessors, cast star-wide nets to capture their echoes. We are a thousand decisions. We are a sanctuary for the orphaned word, the solitary writer, the cereal-eating artist who yearns for company, for the comfort of a like mind; we sit together with them at foggy dawn, it rains a baptism, with our arms and hands intertwined, we form an umbrella—underneath, they scribble madly, the perfect picture.

Yolk in no way presumes to be superior to its contemporaries, but its contemporaries should not presume yolk to be anything other than loud—quite, quite loud. We are yippidy jazzed to address the oh-so-technicolorful magnificence of the human experience, but we are prepared also to address the ugliness, to stare at its wet, hairy snout and into its square depth and to roar in return at the things that yearn to devour our skin, beset our ethos, and dig graves in our own backyards.

There’s so much to say, there’s so much we don’t know, but together, with you, we can placate that ignorance, render it peaceful, tolerable, and perhaps even, fucking beautiful.

And Susan says, “Amen.”

CW: Mentions of drug use and death

I. During a whiteout snow blinds you to everything but dark objects 

There are people in this town who think that because deer eat flowers, they don’t belong in the cemetery. Not me. I bring roses to draw the Mules and White Tails to the place where your body lays. Do you know why?
       It’s because deer are the guardians of the dead. They walk among you after the groundskeepers go home, in good and bad weather. They never leave you alone for long, even when the people you loved get too busy to visit.
      Only a blizzard can make deer retreat from the prairie. I don’t know exactly where they go when the arctic gusts storm over the mountains whipping up snowy whirlwinds. Do you? Is it in the valley, nearer to the river? Do they hide with the rabbits and magpies among the cottonwood trees and chokecherry bushes? Do you go with them?


We buried you five days before Christmas during a blizzard when the Polar Vortex pulled thermostats to -40°C. It was supposed to be the second darkest day of the year. I think it was the darkest. It was not yet 4 p.m. when we got to your grave, but it felt like dusk. 
       I didn’t see any deer the day we buried you. If they came, they kept their distance. But then again, I couldn’t see much of anything through the whirling snow, except the oak-stained wooden urn your father and I picked out and the picture of you smiling in a sunny mountain valley that was propped on the bench beside it. White flakes landed on the wreath of yellow mums we brought from the funeral home and on the white roses piled in a frozen heap beside you.
       Your sister and brother kept me from falling as we waded through the snow to the chair in front of your open grave. I sat. Everyone else stood. Your sister clasped her hands around my neck. She’d forgotten to bring mitts. I wrapped my gloved fingers around her skin. “Let me warm you up,” I said. 
       The priest prayed for you—ashes to ashes and dust to dust. The funeral director wrapped your urn in a purple velvet pouch before he placed it in the earth. This comforted me. I didn’t want you to be cold. 
      Somebody handed me a rose to toss on your coffin. I stood and pointed the long stem toward you. It landed crossways and stuck near the opening. Your sister’s husband leaned over to  push it into the pit. Your father tossed his rose, then your sister and your brother tossed theirs. Their aims were better than mine. 
      I wondered why the city crew made the hole so deep. I wondered why I hadn’t put my hand on the urn when your father and I lit the candle in the funeral home. Why had I waited until now to think of touching you again? Why didn’t I turn the camera on for our last Facebook chat?


The funeral director said deer would eat the yellow mums if we left them on the grave. I thought that was fine, but your father said to bury all the flowers with you. So that’s what we did.  
      I imagined your spirit standing a few feet back, laughing at us for talking about what to do with flowers in the middle of a blizzard. I imagined you among the deer waving goodbye. I thought how beautiful this white garden was—Narnia in winter.  
      Do you remember that scene in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, the one where the children open the antique wardrobe and rush into Narnia, a realm that’s waiting for them to undo the curse of endless winter?  Sometimes I think of you arriving there. I picture you turning blocks of ice into crystal flowing waterfalls, waking trees from their sleep, making flowers bloom again, becoming friends with the mythical faun. 


The deer didn’t get their supper, but we did. We went to your father’s house where your stepmother piled platters of your favourite deli meats on the dining room table. She put out stacks of fruit, vegetables, buns, and cheeses too. Then she spun around her kitchen making coffee and tea—trying to get everything right when nothing could be right. I sat in the living room, like a block of ice, catching snippets of swirling conversations. My flesh and blood were ashes and dust.
      Your brother and his fiancée drove me back to my apartment. It took nearly an hour to cross the ice-covered bridge in the storm. I was home by seven. It felt like midnight.

II. Christmastide is when babies save the world

 Who put the Christmas wreath on your grave? Who trudged through six inches of snow to get to you? It was not your father, your sister, or your brother. Not your grandparents, your aunts, or your uncle. It was not me. 
      When the weather’s good in December, people bring greenery to the cemetery. But this year, even the family that usually brings a six-foot Christmas tree laden with tinsel and ornaments to tower in the block across from you—where your stepfather is buried—stayed home.
      I found the wreath tied to your marker when I brought white roses in January. It stayed there, fading from forest to khaki to yellow-brown, until city crews cleared rubbish and mowed lawns just before Holy Week. Whoever put those twisted pine boughs around your picture knows love is stronger than death. They must love you immensely to have come to the cemetery in the coldest winter in a generation. This makes me happy—and leaves me utterly bereft—because after you got sick, you didn’t always feel loved.


Your funeral was Monday. On Tuesday, it was still too cold to go outside, so I ordered presents on Amazon knowing some wouldn’t arrive until Boxing Day. On Wednesday, I wrapped myself in my black faux-fur coat, hat, mittens, scarf, and boots. I stuffed shopping bags in my purse. I dug my walking stick into the ice and crossed the road to the bus stop. 
      Gasping for air and hanging on the rail to stop the wind from throwing me into traffic, I watched mini-twisters spin twigs and candy wrappers along the street. I could have hidden my grief from the clerks, but these gusts made me cry. So I went home. I ordered groceries and candles to be delivered on Thursday night. 
      The weather warmed up a bit by Saturday—Christmas Day. At dinner, we talked about you, then we toasted the coming spring.  


It was always December when I found out I was pregnant. The first time, I was 21 and wearing a wedding ring, but I looked 18 and I was nervous. Maybe that’s why the nurse asked me if I really wanted a baby when she gave me the test result. I stared at her in disbelief. Couldn’t she see that you were the best Christmas present?
      That old story about your father playing “Got Mashed Potatoes, Ain’t No T-Bone” over and over on the stereo before I went to the doctor is true. He thought it was funny. And it was, because though we were hardly “rolling in dough,” we knew we’d be able to feed you and keep you warm. We knew we loved you. We also knew we were not alone. 
      When you were born, your dad’s mother helped us buy a house with blackberry bushes in the flower beds, a plum tree in the garden, and peach saplings beside the fence. On your first Christmas and every Christmas after that, she arrived with suitcases of presents, cookies, and fruitcakes. You called her Knittin instead of Grandma because she spent her afternoons making blankets, sweaters, and mittens for you. 
      When you were 17 months old, I snapped a picture of you, rosy cheeked and beaming, running towards me hugging a battery-operated Santa you found in Knittin’s suitcase. You had sunlight in your eyes, joy across your face. I kept that picture by my bed all the years that you were sick. 

III. Lent can last a decade

You came home for Christmas too skinny for your tall frame. Fresh from a breakup with your live-in girlfriend. You drank too much at dinner—something I had never seen you do before. I told the other kids I was worried. They said you would be fine now that you were home. 
      You stayed at your father’s house for six months, but I didn’t see you much. It wasn’t unusual for you not to call when you were with him. I knew the reasons why. So I didn’t find out about the conspiracies circulating in your mind until that Saturday morning in June when you texted me from Toronto. You talked about Nazis and stolen inheritances. You said you wanted to hurt people. You said you had flown to Ontario without saying goodbye to your dad. Nobody but me knew that you were gone.
      We soon learned that’s how it was when you got sick. You disappeared without a trace. Went silent for weeks. I tried to find you when I won a trip to Toronto for a writer’s conference, but you didn’t want to be found until you lost your job and had no place to live.
      I spent hours on the phone trying to get support for you when you were homeless, confused, and afraid. A Toronto police officer told me that there were too many poor to help—that we had to leave them on the street. I told the heartless oaf he should quit his job and hung up on him. I found a street ministry that tried to help you, but you didn’t like what they were preaching.
      A few days later, your old girlfriend sent you money for a Greyhound ride back to British Columbia. She still loved you, but you were sicker than she thought. Not sick enough for the doctors to keep you in the psychiatric ward for thirty days, though. So that Christmas you wound up alone, living in a hotel on Social Assistance, not getting better. 
      After you died, the front-desk clerk said you kept to yourself, that you liked climbing the mountain trails and swimming at the outdoor pool. When your things came home, I found your poetry slipped between pages of old books you bought in thrift shops. Your handwriting was beautiful, even, and clear. Some words didn’t make sense, but even after you got sick there was brilliance in your writing. 


We waited for a miracle for seven years. You wouldn’t talk to your father, and sometimes you didn’t answer me, but I sent birthday and Christmas presents. Sometimes you’d thank me. Sometimes you’d say you loved me. Sometimes you weren’t in the mood for talking, so I’d check in with the staff at the place you lived to make sure you were ok. They liked you. You always paid your rent on time, had good manners, never made a ruckus. Your landlord said he couldn’t believe it when you overdosed and died alone in your room. 
      The last Christmas you were alive, the courier didn’t deliver your presents, and you didn’t go to pick them up. Instead, I mailed a gift card for your birthday. It got there late. But you were ready to talk to me again. 
      I said I was sorry the Christmas gifts never arrived and that I felt awful that I hadn’t mailed your birthday present on time. I told you I was late with everything lately, that I couldn’t walk without sticks and the doctor didn’t know why. I sent you a photo of my grey cat because you loved grey cats. That made you happy for a moment or two.
      Then you told me that you were getting older day by day and that you felt like you had run out of time. I told you not to believe that lie, that you were young enough to start again. I told you that I loved you. I still believed we would bring you home again. I didn’t understand that you were saying goodbye.


I found the first passion pink bloom opening on my gnarled Christmas Cactus on November 18—a week and day after the coroner said you died. It rarely blooms anymore. But this year its cascading flowers spilled out and pointed themselves toward the sunlight until-mid February. 
      I’d cleaned the house, put up the tree, and thought of what to buy you. I’d polished your silver baby cup and moved your Santa picture to the foyer—tamping down the fear that woke me up every night. Sure, you’d been silent before, but this time it felt like you had left the world. 
      On Thursday—the night they found you—I slept long and deep. I didn’t wake up until after noon on Friday. I decided to bake bread. Advent was still three days away, but I was almost ready for Christmas when the police came. As I placed the last loaves in the oven, the bell rang. I don’t usually open the door unless I know who’s there, but I buzzed the visitors in and ran to the lobby. The tallest cop I ever saw and two women from Victim’s Services insisted on coming in. It was about 5:00 p.m.

IV: The last day of Easter brings the gift of Ordinary Time

We left an empty seat for you in the front row at your brother’s wedding. Did you come? Did you see the stag that stepped out of nowhere to stare into the window while we waited for the bride? 
      He was a Mule deer—the black tuft on his tail gave him away—taller than any I have ever seen before, with newly sprung velvet covered antlers, charcoal grey. They had grown enough to make his giant ears look like they fit his head. I was transfixed by the ruddiness of his coat and the strength of his chest. Perhaps it was the greenness of the baby grass and leaves that made him look redder than  most deer who live around here. The buck’s haughty gaze told us he needed nothing from us, unlike like the shivering does who come meekly, begging shelter on my patio in the winter.
      I wondered if his antlers would get as big as the rack I found in my grandmother’s attic when I was a little girl. Did I ever tell you about those antlers? They were from a stag my Swedish great-grandfather shot when he first came to this country. My brother has them now. Old Anders, so the family legend goes, was a wanderer—mad, addicted, or maybe both. A dreamer whose adventures never turned out right. He died alone, too.  
      The stag had returned to the valley by the time your brother and sister-in-law began married life dancing to “Forever and Ever, Amen.” We didn’t see him leave. 
      A few days later, the girlfriend you brought to my second wedding emailed to say that you used to sing “I’m gonna love you forever and ever and ever, amen” over and over to Wilson the Cat when you lived with her. She said listening to it on the wedding video I posted gave her chills. She said you would have loved to hear that song again.  
      Eastertide and the wedding both ended at midnight. The next morning, Pentecost Sunday, I brought you a bouquet of sunny yellow lilies. My parents and your aunt came too. They took pictures of your grave and left an angel beside your marker. Then we returned to Ordinary Time.


Though I have seen your grave a half a dozen times, my mind can’t grasp that you are dead. I want to undo time and bring you back. I want to find a way to make you well. I want a miracle that cannot happen until the end of time. 
      Yet tiny miracles are everywhere—the poem that writes itself at four a.m., sweet ripe apples that fall unbruised onto my walking path in September, the sound of your voice inside my head, even the deer who seem to seek me out. 
      I saw a fawn in June, the day after the summer solstice—the second longest day of the year. The newborn nestled in the grass, waiting patiently for his mother, knowing she would return because that’s what mothers are supposed to do. Anyway, when I saw the fawn, I knew what I wanted to say to you. It’s this:
      You are with me always. I carry you everywhere, like I did all those months before you were born. I will never leave you behind, but I cannot come to you yet. I have work to do. I need to make the world better for other mothers’ sons before I see you again. I have books to write and paintings to paint, flowers to grow and friendships to make. Most of all, I must help your brother and sister heal and be happy again. Don’t worry. They are going to be okay. So am I. You will be, too. Never forget, I love you always and forever and ever, amen. Mum.

Jane Harris is a Canadian poet, essayist, and author. Her books include Finding Home in the Promised Land, A Personal History of Homelessness and Eugenics and the Firewall. Her essays have been published in two University of Alberta Press anthologies. She also won an Alberta Literary Award for short non-fiction.

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