Philippe Ellison

To My Mother

My father is an emotional man, but you know that, mama. He’s the one who told me to speak to you. So, I went to your grave. I don’t believe in that stuff, but I decided to give it a try.

When I got to the cemetery in Amsterdam I could barely remember where your grave was. The reception wasn’t open yet – and that’s the first time I started to cry.

I think I’ve seen my father cry more than anyone else in my life. I’ve never been a crier, and always tried to hold my emotions. I’ll try to give you an update through the tears:

“I’ve seen some things. You died when I was eight years old. Cancer — do you remember? Your heart stopped beating just fourteen days after you were diagnosed. I can’t remember your voice anymore, and that sucks. I’m twenty-four, so if I live as long as you I’ve already lived half my life.

“Eight year olds don’t really process death. The day you died, my father and I had to deal with your death paperwork. I asked him if we could at least go get a new LEGO set after going to the hospital. Guess who was the one who cried?”

Your grave is small and unassuming, on the edge of a quiet cemetery on the Amstel River. In the winter it’s covered in beautiful nothingness, but today it is verdant, humid, and filled with the lively buzz of insects.

“Four months ago, I traveled to Greece on a whim to volunteer as a lifeguard in the Syrian Refugee Crisis. I was going to be a lifeguard. When I told my father my plan, guess who cried?

“Everyone who knew you said you would be proud of me. I must have helped a thousand refugees get to land, though I didn’t do much, to be honest. Not all of them were alive when they came on shore. One of the women screamed at me, shaking my shoulders and grabbing my Neoprene wetsuit with white knuckles and tears streaming down their eyes. My eyes stung, but I did not cry.”

“My husband, my husband,” She cried. “God, where is my husband? God, he is dead. God, where are you?”

I pointed her to the ambulance. I won’t ever forget her face, or the wailing sorrow that pierced straight through my soul that night. She had six kids or so. She fit them all in that tiny dinghy, over the waves, under the radar, past the NATO boats doing “surveillance” and the Turkish coast guard. Past Scylla and Charybdis, borne from fable into horrendous reality. Death by war, by waves, by smuggler, by truly awful circumstance: in the end it is different even if the final result is the same.

“Mama, her husband’s dead body was crushing some children underneath it because the boat was so small. Can you imagine?

“Ex-military men around me and people twice my age stood around in shock while I dragged the dead weight of a fifty-eight-year-old man out onto the shore with the help of a Spaniard who grabbed his feet. I know what lifelessness is now, how heavy it is.

“The kids under the body had blank expressions on their faces. They looked drugged, like they’d done ketamine or something. Maybe that’s what fleeing from war is like for kids: a sort of hazy drug where you can’t know what is real, or you don’t want to.

“I took turns doing CPR for one hour until the ambulance came. I crushed his ribs doing CPR. Afterwards, I refused to cry.

“Now I’m in front of your grave, talking to you, Mam, and I can’t stop crying.”

I wish you could give me some advice. Anything. I feel like screaming at the tree above your grave, at the clouds above that, at the sun, at anything.

I punched the ground until my hand became bloody, the warm liquid streaming down my wrist, but it didn’t make me stop crying.

“At the refugee camp I volunteered at, a woman came up to one of my teammates, asking us to take her baby in her backpack. Safer in a white woman’s backpack than in her brown mother’s arms. ‘Take my baby. Please.’ she said to her. How do I deal with that?”

Tears mixed with the blood in front of the grave.

“How is the world so messed up, mam? Why did you leave? Why did you have to go so early, even the refugees who I tried to breath life into had longer lives than you did. I’m sorry if I sound resentful…normally that’s not me.

“I’ve been talking to my father a lot, and he told me to talk to you. I wish you were here, mom. I wish I were strong enough to do this on my own. I’m in love, what do you think about that, mam? I wish you could meet her. She’s really amazing. She has her doubts, too, about me and us, but making life decisions are always hard.

I looked above at the massive oak tree, casting its shadow on your grave.

“Can you hear me, mam?”

But the wind just whipped the tree and the mosquitos buzzed around my ears and I tasted the salty tears out of the corner of my mouth.

“I wish you could have been there in Greece with me, to give me strength. I supervised doctors who treated patients in a makeshift refugee camp near the Greek-Macedonian border, because the big NGOs were too weighed down with bureaucracy to reach everyone.”

A bird tweeted gibberish above me.

“I think I need help.”

I walked back to the somber church. I asked a woman at the cemetery where to go get a coffee; she looked about forty. After seeing my swollen red eyes, she asked me if I needed a lift.

“Sure,” I choked.

We talked as she drove. She asked me if I was okay, and I told her it was a powerful year and that I was trying to ask my mom for help, and while she is a great listener, she doesn’t have so much to say. I asked her why she was at the cemetery.

“My mom died yesterday,” She answered.

I look over at her, but say nothing, and smile a little bit.

“I know it doesn’t look like it, but it gets easier…”

She laughed for a brief second and then we were silent — for an infinite second — and then she started to sob. Of course, I resumed too. She pulled the car over, and we sobbed together.

Two strangers, two graves, two worlds apart. We both cried, together, strangers in life and death. I told her again that it would get better, that it always gets better, even if sometimes through the mire of death it can be difficult to see the light.


Philippe Ellison went through a (hopefully) early midlife crisis and thinks humans probably shouldn’t have left the trees. When he doesn’t work in humanitarian aid, he lives in Amsterdam.