"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Dead bodies do get a grayish blue/purple hue because blood pools in the capillaries and the body starts to decompose. It’s not smurf blue, but it’s not a pleasant shade.
The ultrasound technician moves her transducer over my almost six-month-pregnant belly, sliding easily across the thick gel she’s spread there. The gel works as a conductor for the sound waves the transducer is producing in my uterus. Think of bats, a friend told me before the procedure. It’s the same kind of sonar. But as those sound waves bounce off bone and tissue and a black-and-white image of my baby appears on the screen, I cannot think of bats. Watching the fuzzy gray heart beat, I can only think of one thing: I want to hold this baby. Now. Forever.
“Do you want to know the sex?” the technician asks, pausing over something that my husband and I cannot identify.
We’ve already agreed that we do want to know, even though I am already confident this baby is a girl. I don’t know why I have such certainty about my pregnancies, but I knew that my first baby was a boy and that this one is a girl.
I am not surprised when the technician announces, “You’ve got a daughter!”
I am not surprised, but I am elated. It is the perfect family: a boy, then a girl. A big brother for a little sister. They are three years apart, my Sam and Grace, both names chosen during my first pregnancy. After a bumpy start to this marriage, to my move from Manhattan to Providence, R.I., things are settling. It is as if my life has taken a big, happy sigh.
My hands cradle my stomach.
Hello, Grace, I say silently, certain she can hear me.
When a person dies the body will begin to decay immediately. The bacteria in the intestines will still live and begin eating away at the tissues and emitting noxious gases
On April 16, 2002, my son Sam’s ninth birthday, I took Grace to her ballet class. It was a beautiful spring day, warm and full of blossoms: dogwood, magnolia and azaleas. That afternoon, I sat in my backyard, feeling lazy, watching our new puppy fall over her paws. I sat too long, and had to rush to pick Grace up from kindergarten. Tuesday afternoons were my most hectic days. Pick up Grace with ballet bag in tow; drive to Sam’s school; get to ballet class, change her clothes, occupy Sam for an hour; race home to make dinner. Today had the added errand of picking up Sam’s birthday cake at Ben and Jerry’s, and getting hamburgers and hot dogs for the half-dozen relatives joining us for a birthday cookout. Earlier, I’d made the artichoke dip they all liked, and put Red Stripe beer on ice.
Grabbing Grace’s ballet bag, I saw that she didn’t have any tights in it. I was late already. Surely she could do one class in just her leotard and slippers, I decided. I broke the news to her as soon as she got in the car and dropped her purple leopard backpack onto the seat beside her. That backpack was almost as big as she was, and a collection of trinkets she’d collected on our trip to Japan hung from it — a starfish, a little Picachu, a pink flower.
“Well,” Grace said in her characteristic husky tone, “ballet is better with tights.”
In the rearview mirror, I met her blue eyes shining behind her little wire-rimmed glasses.
“OK,” I relented. “I’ll stop at home and try to find some before we get Sam.”
On our way, she told me that Tamara, who also took ballet, was sick.
“Strep throat,” Grace said, handing me the bright red paper the school always sent home when someone had strep. Our 17-year-old German exchange student was just getting over strep herself. Today had been her first day back at school.
The clock on the dashboard seemed to mock me, showing me the minutes passing, reminding me how late we were running. I pulled into the driveway and told Grace she could not eat the blueberries I’d given her for a snack when she got in the car until I returned. I was a mother who worked ridiculously hard to keep catastrophe at bay. I didn’t allow my kids to eat hamburgers for fear of E. coli. I didn’t allow them to play with rope, string, balloons — anything that might strangle them. They had to bite grapes in half, avoid lollipops, eat only when I could watch them.
Grace closed the lid on the blueberries.
“Remember Tennessee Williams,” she said with a sigh.
I had heard that Tennessee Williams had died choking on the cap of an aspirin bottle he’d opened with his mouth. See what can happen? I’d told Sam and Grace. Now I laughed at her comment as I ran inside and miraculously located a pair of pink tights for her.
As we raced to get Sam, Grace told me her future plans. She would be in first grade at Sam’s school in the fall, and she wanted to take acting classes like he did.
“And art with Don,” she said. “And …” she paused, watching my face for a reaction, “no more ballet.”
“Got it,” I said. “Acting and art. No more ballet.”
Grace knew how much I loved ballet, how I had wanted to take it as a little girl but was forced into tap instead. As an adult, I took ballet classes three times a week, and I believed it gave me better posture, a stronger body, and made me more graceful. But Grace wasn’t very good at it. Why should she take it? My eyes drifted to that damn clock on the dashboard. I should let her skip it today, I thought. She could come with me to get Sam’s cake, help me set up the party.
As we pulled into the pickup line at Sam’s school, my husband called. “Can I take Sam with me this afternoon? Have a little boy time for his birthday?”
That decided, it seemed more prudent to have Grace go to ballet so that I could run the party errands alone and faster. Which is what I did. Sam went off with Lorne. Grace went into ballet class. And I dashed to Ben and Jerry’s and the grocery store, returning with only 15 minutes to spare.
Except when I walked into the hallway of waiting parents, they all looked at me oddly. Almost immediately, the door flew open and the ballet teacher came out.
“Oh good,” she said when she saw me, and she motioned me inside.
Rigor mortis (Latin meaning “stiffness of death”) is one of the recognizable signs of death that is caused by a chemical change in the muscles after death, causing the limbs of the corpse to become stiff and difficult to move or manipulate
The class of girls was silent as they watched me. The cavernous room was lit with beautiful afternoon sunlight, the wooden floors, scuffed from months of leaps and jetes. There, way across the room, lying perfectly still beneath a large window, was Grace.
“She fell skipping,” the teacher said. “Really, she kind of seemed off today.” She lowered her voice. “I think her arm is broken.”
Who would have believed me if I had said then what I felt? As I ran to my beautiful daughter, something was telling me that this was very, very bad, even as the logical part of my brain knew that a broken arm was a badge of childhood, that she would get a cast and have her friends sign it, and gain some cachet because of it.
Yet as I moved through that afternoon, lifting my daughter in my arms and carrying her the four blocks to the car; frantically checking on her as we drove to the emergency room, her eyes cloudy even then; pacing during the X-rays; holding her as we waited for the doctor to pronounce her arm broken; rocking her on my lap while the nurse explained what to watch for: There’s something called small compartment syndrome that’s serious, she said, and when she saw the look on my face, she quickly added, No, no, it won’t happen to her; through all of that I could not shake the idea that I had started down a road that led to heartache. And that no matter what, I could not turn back.
The muscle in the eye that controls constriction or dilatation in the pupil, is no more … The pupils will dilate and no longer react to light or dark … Some of us in the profession have a saying when one dies that they have found everlasting light … This is because light is generally what causes the pupil to dilate … When we deal with death, the pupils will always be fixed and dilated, which indicates that there is no longer brain activity or response
I held Grace that night, as she moaned in pain.
By morning, her fever was 105.
By noon, we were back in the E.R., Grace semi-unresponsive. Something is very wrong, I kept thinking. Every nurse and technician and doctor who came in the room, I told that she’d been exposed to strep. “Mmmm-hmmm,” they said, and walked back out.
I held her hand. I hugged her close. I stroked her beautiful hair and her beautiful face.
By late afternoon, she’d had a grand mal seizure. She’d had a spinal tap, a chest X-ray, an EKG, an echocardiogram, an EEG. Everything was normal.
By dinner time, she was admitted to a room, given a grape Popsicle, and a video was popped in a TV for her. “She’ll be home tomorrow,” a doctor said. “The seizure was probably febrile.”
Something is very wrong.
By 7 p.m., a doctor was intubating my daughter, pushing me out of the way, looking me in the eye and saying, “Your daughter is not going to make it.”
I tried to hit the doctor. I tried to pull Grace off the gurney that was on its way to the ICU, surrounded by a team of doctors and nurses.
“The mother is hysterical,” the doctor said. “Make a note of that.”
All that night they forced me out of the room and into a waiting room outside the ICU. The waiting room had mauve furniture that looked like it belonged in a Holiday Inn. I would sit on the slippery mauve couch for five or 10 minutes, then run back into ICU, into Grace’s room, and find her hand to hold between the tubes and machines and working medical team’s hands. Then they would throw me out again.
Until finally they gave up and let me stay.
Sometime in the middle of the night they did surgery on her arm, right there in the ICU room. I had to leave her. They warned me she was so fragile that she probably wouldn’t make it. She did. I went back into the room and there was blood everywhere: in her hair, on the floor, drying on her neck. I got wet paper towels and wiped it up, carefully rubbing it from her body. A nurse said, “If she makes it, you can wash her hair tomorrow.”
I slept with my head on the gurney, breathing in Grace. I kept waking up, drinking water, and making sure she was alive. I kept saying her name over and over. I kept telling her I was there.
At some point, there was talk of her losing the arm.
At some point, doctors changed.
“Is it small compartment syndrome?” I asked the new doctor, who looked at me like I was crazy.
“It’s strep,” she said.
For the first time in hours, I felt relief. “Strep? Then you can give her antibiotics. You can cure her.”
The doctor was already busy performing some procedure. “The strep isn’t the problem. We’ve probably already cured that. But it’s a virulent form and it’s shutting down all of her organs.”
“Well, stop it!” I said.
At some point, there was hope. Her gray skin turned pink. They eased her from the ventilator. I saw those blue blue eyes.
“No wonder that the moon in the window seems to have drifted out of a love poem that you used to know by heart” — “Forgetfulness,” Billy Collins
By that night, April 18, in an instant, she died.
They tried to resuscitate her. They injected her and pounded her small chest. But they failed.
Lorne and I were allowed back in the room. Grace lay on that gurney. I looked at her, my daughter. I knew I should hold her. I knew I should take her into my arms. But I couldn’t. In the nine years since Grace died, with all the pages and pages I have written about losing her, I have never written these words.
My beautiful girl with her long legs and pale hair was now rigid, mottled, her tongue pushed forward, her hair pink with blood. This was death. It was ugly. Something acrid filled the air, a smell like a chemistry lab. This too was death. I tasted it for days, that smell. Her blue eyes were no longer blue. The dilated pupils took all of the blue away.
Nurses kept asking us questions. Did we want this? Did we want that? But all I wanted was to leave that room, that hospital. All I wanted was to run as fast as I could. So I did. I left that room where my daughter lay dead, and I screamed so loud that my voice remained hoarse for a long time.
What kind of mother leaves their child like that? I have wondered this. But now I know: Seeing death like that, seeing what it looked like and smelled like, how it robbed Grace, how it robbed me, I knew that this was final. Grace was really dead. I never had that feeling some people describe of waking up and forgetting the person has died. I walked out of that hospital into a warm spring night, my arms empty, and I knew: Grace was dead. I fell to my knees from the weight of what I knew. Even now, I am barely able to stand.
Ann Hood's most recent novel, "The Red Thread," is just out in paperback. She is also the author of "Comfort: A Journey Through Grief" and "The Knitting Circle."More Ann Hood.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)
It's been said that all great autobiography contains at least one mortifying disclosure. Inspired by that notion, this essay series focuses not on personal triumph or tragedy but, rather, embarrassment. Each week, writers will share the secrets they've tried to hide, in the hopes that readers might find a bit
of comfort with their own. Send your mortifying disclosures to email@example.com.