A personal essay by Dorothy Ross

Tintype by Ed Ross

The Saddest Sorority

By Dorothy Ross                                                                            

The English language has no word to describe the mother who outlives her child. When Ed, my only son, was killed in a motorcycle accident, I was thrust into the sad sorority of women who have buried their own children.

All parents run the risk of losing a child. Human life is fragile. A baby’s breath can be extinguished like a candle’s flame. I hovered by the cradle while each of my babies slept—afraid the infant wouldn’t wake up.

Beyond babyhood, I seldom worried about my kids. They had instructions to wake Bill and me when they came home from their dates and parties so we’d know they were okay. I trusted them and I slept soundly.

An exception to my casual parenting was my nagging Ed about the dangers of motorcycle riding. His love affair with the two-wheeled monsters began during his college years. By the time of his fatal accident, he was a mature adult. I had no control. All I could do was implore him to give it up. He maintained that the shiny red finish on his bike made him more visible and safer. I wasn’t convinced. When he told his father and me of his plan to ride up to Yosemite on a Saturday in late July, we tried to talk him out of using the motorcycle on a busy summer weekend. We couldn’t change his mind.

Bill and I were out of town that last week in July. We returned home late Sunday afternoon and found a message saying we should call the Highway Patrol as soon as possible. We sensed that there was a problem and it had something to do with Ed. I stood wringing my hands as Bill placed the call that shattered our lives. My big strong husband slumped in his chair while listening to the officer. Looking up at me with tears running down his cheeks, Bill mouthed the words, “He’s dead.”

When he got off the phone, Bill tried to fill me in on the details of the crash. I refused to listen. I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want to believe it. I finally had to accept the fact that Ed had died early that Saturday morning on a narrow mountain road near the entrance to Yosemite National Park. Attempting to pass the car ahead of him, Ed was apparently in that driver’s blind spot when the man decided to go around the slow-moving truck that was causing the bottleneck.

According to witnesses, the car barely touched the motorcycle, but that slight bump altered the bike’s trajectory, sending man and machine careening off the road. Ed was thrown through the air, slammed into a tree, and rendered unconscious. His riderless motorcycle crashed into the hillside many yards away.

The weeks following our son’s death passed in a blur. Bill and I didn’t talk much in those early days. We couldn’t. We just held each other and let the tears flow.

Our Ed was a single man, divorced and childless. Although he was a lawyer and he knew better, he had never gotten around to putting his financial affairs in order—no will, no instructions. The probate process was another blow to Bill and me, a paper chase that dragged on for more than a year. We had to obtain copies of the death certificate, the accident report, the coroner’s findings, and much more. In the hot August days that followed Ed’s accident the mail carrier delivered one depressing missive after another.

I wish I hadn’t seen the coroner’s report. It read like an alternate and tragic ending to The Merchant of Venice. That doctor had held my son’s heart in his hands—like a piece of meat. The coroner listed the cause of death in impersonal morgue jargon as blunt force trauma. Translation: Ed suffered massive and fatal internal injuries. No blood and no broken skin.

Ed, our boy, was the grandson and namesake of a wandering Irish émigré, a restless soul who was drawn from County Cork to California in the 1920s and continued to the Yukon and Alaska before he returned to San Francisco. He died as the result of an accident when Billy, his only son, was just four years old.

Bill, my husband, has little of his father’s wanderlust. It skipped a generation. It was our son who inherited his grandfather’s love of travel and thirst for adventure. Our Ed toured the West Coast, from Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula to Mexico’s Baja, while still in college. His acceptance into the London School of Economics was Ed’s entrée into the larger world. A student in London for a year and a flanêur in Paris for six months, Ed was determined to satisfy his curiosity about other cultures. He went to Havana, through Mexico, while travel to Cuba was still banned, aware the trip could have cost him the license to practice law in the United States. Ed lived in Quito one year, in an Ecuadoran household, learning the language and indulging his love of Latin music. He then floated down the Amazon on a mail barge, sleeping in a hammock on deck. When he reached Brazil’s coast, he stayed there for several months.

Ed took many snapshots of the territories he visited and the people he met on his travels. When he discovered wet plate photography, he got serious about making artful images. Using custom-made equipment much like the camera Mathew Brady used to record Civil War battles and heroes, Ed experimented with wet plate/tintype techniques—time consuming and exacting work. His pictures of a Civil War reenactment could pass for Brady’s 19th century photos.

Yosemite was one of Ed’s favorite subjects. His studies of the park’s peaks and waterfalls appear old and faded, moody and evocative.

We’ve been told that Ed was considered one of the top art photographers in the world in the wet-plate field. His work has appeared in many photo magazines, especially in Europe—from Germany to Spain and Italy (Italian Vogue).

Facebook once deleted a few of Ed’s photos of scantily clad women, eliciting this scornful response from my son: “My plates are my life’s passion so I don’t take criticism lightly. And the people making the criticism shouldn’t either.” — Ed Ross, 5/4/2013.

During the year before he was killed, Ed went to work at Apple computers, purchased a home within walking distance of his job, and fell in love with a beautiful and talented woman. He was a happy man, content with his life and his lady—finally ready to settle down.

I didn’t fully appreciate the extent of Ed’s sojourning until after he died. Via the wonders of the Internet, his friends from all over the world – Tunisia? Romania? – have contacted his father and me. They’ve told us of Ed’s generosity in buying plane tickets for people seeking sanctuary, using his legal skills to help immigrants fight extradition, and opening his home to anyone in need.

It’s now three years since Ed was killed. I’m left with tender memories of the boy I loved so well and the aching wish to know even more about the special man he grew to be. I’m still conflicted about my identity in relation to my son. The day he was born I became his mother. Did that change the day he died? No! I was Ed’s Mom all through his life and I’ll always be Ed’s Mom.

But I have been changed. Having endured every mother’s worst nightmare, I’m a different woman in ways I can’t easily explain. I’m still Bill’s wife and mother of our two beautiful daughters. I’m a grandmother of five and grandmother-in-law of two more. I thank God that our family is growing, but the hole left by Ed’s passing will never heal.

Nights when I have trouble sleeping, I ponder what was, what is, and what might have been. I look up at the night sky and I remember sitting in the back yard with little three-year-old Eddie singing, “Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are.”

How I wonder where you are, Eddie.


Dorothy Ross is a native New Yorker who worked on Madison Avenue before moving West in 1961. On the Davis campus of the University of California, she served as editor and program director. Her work has been published in print and online by The Oasis Journal, Writing it Real, and True Stories Well Told, as well as Fourth and Sycamore, and the Story Circle Anthology. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2007, Dorothy now writes about the challenges of living with disease in a quarterly column for the Northern California Parkinson’s Association. Her memoir, NOT Just a Secretary, is now available for purchase on Amazon.

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