In 1961, Michael Rockefeller, son of then-governor of New York State Nelson A. Rockefeller, mysteriously disappeared off the remote coast of southern New Guinea. Amid the glare of international public interest, the governor, along with his daughter Mary, Michael’s twin, set off on a futile search, only to return empty handed and empty hearted. What followed were Mary’s twenty-seven-year repression of her grief and an unconscious denial of her twin’s death, which haunted her relationships and controlled her life.
In this startlingly frank and moving memoir, Mary R. Morgan struggles to claim an individual identity, which enables her to face Michael’s death and the huge loss it engendered. With remarkable honesty, she shares her spiritually evocative healing journey and her story of moving forward into a life of new beginnings and meaning, especially in her work with others who have lost a twin.
“The sea change began one November day in 1961. I remember the moment before. A window in the corner of my parents’ living room drew my attention. A windblown branch from an azalea bush scratched the surface of the glass, making a discordant sound. My father stands out clearly, his figure powerful and solid next to the soft, down-pillowed sofa. By the window, my two brothers and I are clustered around my mother, wary, and watching him. It was barely two months since Father had separated from her. And just days before, he’d called a press conference, choosing to publicly expose his affair and his decision to remarry. Father held a yellow cablegram in his hand. Mike, my twin brother, was missing off the coast of New Guinea. Missing . . . The ‘s’ sound. Like a thin knife, it slipped deep inside me. No resistance, just a sharp, knowing pain and then shimmering silence.” —Adapted from Chapter One
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When Grief Calls Forth the Healing
A Memoir of Losing a Twin
By Mary Rockefeller Morgan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2014 Mary R. Morgan
All rights reserved.
We are in that place of floating again. Tiny arms are holding me. I am holding, too. We are swaying, moved by a gentle breathing sea—new, entwined beings as big as everything, existence held in our arms—the beginning of an "I" held in a frame of "we."
Now I reach that place with my tears. I know my tears belong to the deep. I am drawn to pour them back into the vastness. Darkness folds the roughened water. There are no arms to hold me. My heart will burst with the pain of releasing. I will drown in the empty sea.
* * *
The sea change began one day in November 1961. I remember the moment before. A window in the corner of my parents' living room drew my attention. A windblown branch from an azalea bush scratched the surface of the glass, making a discordant sound—an intermittent squeaking. The branch had strayed way past its sculpted boundary. Why hadn't my mother had it pruned?
My father stands out clearly, his figure powerful and solid next to the soft, down-pillowed sofa, his face squared off by his right-angled jaw. By the window, my two brothers and I are clustered around my mother, wary, and watching him. His arrival and bold presence had pushed our little group away and drawn us together. Why had he come? Why had he asked us to meet?
As it was a Sunday, we were gathered at our country home in Pocantico Hills, New York. It was barely two months since Father had separated from our mother. And just days before, he'd called a press conference, choosing to publicly expose his affair and announce his decision to remarry. My brothers and I were still reeling from the family fracture, trying to make sense of our own feelings, trying to support our mother.
Father held a yellow cablegram in his hand. He extended it toward us as if to give reality to his words.
"I have troubling news: This morning, the State Department wired me. I just finished talking to them at Uncle David's. They received word from the Dutch government in New Guinea; they don't know the specifics yet, but Mike is missing."
Missing ... The 's' sound. Like a thin knife, it slipped deep inside me. No resistance, just a sharp, knowing pain and then shimmering silence. I could feel the shimmering spread, numbing any feeling or sensation. I watched myself retreat from the others.
There must have been questions—anguished, fearful questions. What were my family's reactions? They must have shared some form of horror and then disbelief. I remember the force of Father. He always solved the problem at hand, and he had already come up with a plan. He would go to New Guinea, he said, leaving that night. The family office was arranging for the planes. There he would help to coordinate the search efforts and mobilize the necessary support. And he would charter a small seaplane so he could visit the coastal villages where people knew or had heard of Michael. He wanted to see for himself, to talk to the local villagers. They would know best where Michael might be. Responding to Father's confidence, I found my way back to the group. Within his warmth and within the solid structure of his resolve, I emerged from the silence.
"I want to go with you, Father," I said.
In minutes, everyone agreed it was the right thing for me to do. My older siblings, including Ann in Chicago, had families. Steven was in graduate school, and I was back from the West Coast because my husband, Bill, had recently embarked on a six-month naval cruise in the South Pacific. If I went, Father would not have to go there alone. For me, there was no choice; Michael was my twin.
Yes, I would go with Father to look for Michael. As I joined Father's mission in my mind, lost, engulfed in silence, began to turn into found. And I began to develop my own vision. Father and I would travel together to this foreign land. We would search and we would find Michael. I could even see him when we found him—disheveled, valiant, and even a bit surprised at our concern. Not easily prone to worry or fear, he would have surmounted the obstacles and landed on his feet as he always had. In a fleeting fantasy, I became the princess, departing with my father, the king, to find the lost prince, soon to be reunited in twinship as it was meant to be.
Late that evening, Father and I; Robert Gardner, director of the Harvard Film Study Center and the Harvard-Peabody Expedition to New Guinea; Eliot Elisofon, author and Life photographer; Robert McManus, Father's press secretary; and a few other trusted aides boarded a flight to San Francisco and then continued on to Hawaii, where we spent the night.
* * *
Nap time. We watch bumblebees through the bars of the large wooden crib. The screened-in sun porch, covered in wisteria vines, has become our house. Our time, our house, inside out, outside in.
Hanging purple blooms call droning bees so close we almost touch their sound. Light air lifts your hair and brushes my cheek. It moves with spring's sweet scent.
We're drowsy now, the soft air touching, bees buzzing, flowers sweet. We snuggle closer, curling around each other. Nap time, our time, inside out and outside in.
* * *
Early the next morning, we started the long journey across the Pacific Ocean to the Dutch East Indies. Finding scheduled flights would have been challenging at best, and focused on the urgency of our mission, Father had chartered a plane to take us, with refueling stops, to the west coast of New Guinea.
We had been accompanied by a few familiar reporters from New York City newspapers on the first leg of the trip, but the news of Michael's disappearance had quickly spread, and in the Honolulu airport we found ourselves surrounded by a growing crowd of journalists. My eyes widened and blinked into a sea of noisy, aggressive faces and flashing lights. Father's somber words, however, satisfied their questions, and their ranks opened and parted, offering us a path to the stairs. I felt his protective arm as we climbed up and away from the reporters into the safe belly of the plane. I never expected that inside we would face a sim-ilar scene. We found ourselves within a new group of strange, staring faces, except this time there were no cameras, and the sounds of conversation we heard upon entering turned to expectant silence that spread up and down the aisle as we found our seats in the front of the large cabin.
Father turned and spoke again, welcoming the seated reporters, telling them about the journey ahead, introducing them, revealing his plans for our private now public search for Michael—our Michael, and, I thought fiercely, my Michael, not theirs. I felt that these reporters, with their questioning and analyzing—these reporters who seemed to siphon Father's quiet words from his mouth into their notebooks—were stepping on and into our very private lives, into "our mission," as if they were trying to claim it before it could carry itself out on its own.
I didn't dare ask Father why we had to charter such a large plane or why he felt it necessary to play host to this swelling group of press. His arrangements confused, dispirited, and even angered me. As a family, we'd gotten used to the publicity that surrounded us since he'd become governor of New York. I had mixed feelings about the public attention. In the circle of Father's aura, I became an exciting "somebody," but I found this attention fickle and sometimes invasive, and I was becoming aware that any public image I had acquired had little to do with the person I was inside. The fact that I belonged to the Rockefeller family only made the discrepancy worse, for I quickly became the image of people's preconceptions. Now I realized it would be the press corps that would try to define our unfolding reality and create the dominant images.
I must have displaced the anger I felt then at Father onto the press. But I was in way over my head, in a situation without context, holding on for dear life to Father's strength and ability to control our family's destiny and to grasp a victory out of the uncertainty. Sitting beside him, I reached for his hand, for I could feel my own sense of self shrinking, and our fairy-tale mission beginning to fade and break apart. Where was Michael in this press corps' vision? It was too unsafe to reach for the answer.
* * *
"We get out now. See bears!" Michael's eyes gleam in his small, round face.
"Not today," Pat replies, no allowing in her voice. "I've told you, not until we reach the playground. We're just walking through the zoo."
"Now!" I echo Michael and throw my mittens out of the carriage.
Michael looks at me, then at his mittens. He pulls them off and throws them, too. We giggle and begin to pull at our woolen hats.
"Stop it this minute," exclaims the nurse. She stuffs the fallen mittens back into the carriage. "One more naughty thing and we'll go straight home. You can sit in the dark now and think about what you've done." She unhooks the two accordion hoods from each end of the large, gray pram and closes them together over our heads.
"Geedie?" I whisper our love name in the sudden black dark. "Geedie!" I reach out my hands. No safe shape, no sound, just the feel of a wet mitten. "Where?" I whisper again, frightened. My hand finds a shoe, then a leg. I inch forward.
"Here!" Michael finds the flap of my coat, then my arm. Our hands meet, little fingers curling together—shut tight.
"Bad Pat," Michael whispers, holding on.
"Bad dark," I answer, holding, too.
* * *
Many restless hours stretched and stretched out over the end-less Pacific Ocean. I hardly slept. I thought of Bill, my husband of eight months, floating somewhere in his troop ship on that huge sea. I wondered if he'd gotten my telegram. No real sense of him came to me—no missing or longing for his touch. This lack of a sense of connection brought with it a vague, fearful shame. I reached back to our wedding day, and then remembered it was the last time I'd seen Mike. Mike and I had danced together, he helping to hold up my long train. We'd laughed about how I'd finally done something first and now it would be his turn. Coming back to the present, I became aware of Father and our "mission." I tried to picture the moment when we would find Michael. But when I got there, I couldn't see him. A vacant space came instead, refusing access to his presence.
* * *
The long ocean flight ended at Wake Island, where we stopped to refuel. From there we flew to Biak, a northern island in the Dutch East Indies. Local dignitaries and Dutch officials waited for us at the base of the metal stairs to the plane. They escorted us through a new and larger throng of flashing lights. Men pointing huge newsreel cameras crowded us to the door of a small anteroom near the waiting area. Inside, we were seated with cold drinks and then given a message to Father from the Dutch government: Michael had "gone missing" from a capsized boat at the entrance to the Eilanden River on the Asmat coast. René Wassing, the Dutch anthropologist and interpreter accompanying Michael, had just been rescued from their partially submerged boat miles from land, but Michael had not been seen since he had left the boat the day before in an attempt to swim ashore.
I have a visual memory of sitting next to Father while he held a press conference for the fifty or more international reporters who clamored for this news. But I have no sense of how I felt about the government report or the words Father spoke. From the newspaper articles I have since read, Father handled himself with dignity as he shared the grim news and extended grateful recognition to all who were organizing the search and helping us get to the Asmat. In one article there was mention of his optimistic outlook and abiding hope.
When the press conference was over, I went in search of a bathroom. It was situated on the outside wall behind the small arrivals building. Alone, I appreciated the privacy but felt trapped in the tiny toilet stall. There seemed no way out; the press had captured Father and me, expand-ing and moving as we moved. Minutes later, I pushed the bathroom door open upon four or five waiting reporters. I took in their sweating faces: tired, hard, hungry, knowing and encircling me. Their ties were askew, shirts open with sleeves rolled up, jackets flung over arms or shoulders. Their pencils were behind ears or were poised above waiting notebooks, or pushing aside filled pages until a clean sheet appeared.
No fairy tale would spin itself out on those pages. The eyes in those faces—they saw the fear in my heart. I felt surrounded by the very place I did not want to go.
One reporter smiled. "We'd like to know what you think," he said. "How does it feel to have your brother missing at sea—to know that he might have been eaten by a shark?"
"We heard about the headhunting in the Asmat region," another followed. "If your brother made it to shore, do you think the natives might have killed him and taken his head?"
I cannot remember how I got away from them or what I said.
* * *
"It's time for school; where's Pat?" I follow Michael into Pat's room, dragging my coat. A man's voice comes from the radio:
"I repeat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the United States, died yesterday afternoon, the twelfth day of April. The family continues to gather at the White House ..."
Pat clicks off the news. She sits in her chair, clutching a handkerchief, dabbing at her face. She looks up at us; her eyes are rimmed red. Michael and I step into place next to each other. We look back at her. Pat opens her mouth and closes it again. Tears spill down her cheeks. We have never seen her cry. Her voice begins, hoarse and cracking:
"Yes, school," she says. "Michael, put on your coat. Mary, yours too. And your leggings."
"It's too hot for leggings," I exclaim. "Can't I be like Michael and just wear my coat? Who was that on the radio? Who is dead?"
"Your country's President." Pat hesitates, "And mine, too." Fresh tears spring from her eyes. She covers her face with her hands. Michael pulls on his coat and points at mine. Pat has not noticed it's on the floor. My leggings lie on the bed. I step into these heavy fitted pants, opened at the bottom with zippers. I can't get them over my shoes.
Geedie glowers and pushes me back on the bed. He straightens my legs and struggles with the zippers. I put on my coat.
"I'm sorry, children," Pat murmurs, standing up.
She buttons my coat and the chinstrap hanging from my hat.
We follow her through the hallway and down the stairs in step, our heads bent like hers, our sides touching.
* * *
We left the big Boeing 707 at Biak and changed to a smaller, two-engine DC-3. The plane took us to Hollandia, the capital of Dutch New Guinea, where we refueled and left immediately for the trip across the mountains to the southeastern Asmat coast. The Owen Stanley Range, with peaks of 17,000 feet, created air drafts that dropped the old plane in precipitous dips. I wasn't frightened; I was too sick.
Jimmy Desmond of the Daily News was on the plane, and he wrote in his column of the suffocating, wet heat that filled the cabin of our DC-3 during our descent and remained present from then on throughout our stay in the Asmat. Even though I am very sensitive to temperature, especially to heat, I cannot recall the high temperature and humidity during the Asmat trip, or any of the clothes I wore, or what we had to eat.
When we reached Merauke, a coastal Dutch outpost south of the Asmat territory and the base for the search, a sense of urgency galvanized our immediate group. Father wanted to see where Michael might be found, where his boat had capsized, and the extent of the planned search. We quickly refueled and took off, this time flying low over the coast.
Below our window, as far as my eyes could see, stretched vast jungles, seemingly uninhabited. They were punctuated by meandering rivers, some large, ending in huge spreading deltas. I was struck by the lack of any clear boundary between the land and the ocean. As we dropped closer to the shoreline, we could see row upon row of waves moving in over shallow mud flats, which stretched for a mile or more before meeting the trees. The sun glinted off the water between their trunks, until it was extinguished by the thickening foliage. How could Michael find his way if he made it to shore? This swamp, this huge expanse of trees growing out of water, seemed impossible to navigate.
Excerpted from When Grief Calls Forth the Healing by Mary Rockefeller Morgan. Copyright © 2014 Mary R. Morgan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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