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36th Year

I want to work my hands raw. I want to let my nails grow. But mostly, I want my fingers smoothly wrapped around a quill, as the means to reach once again the softness remembered in her sweater. I remember a conversation. Eighteen year old girls gathered in a dorm room. It seems cozy and intimate, but it is a competition as most interactions are. It is a competition for sympathy. I feel uncomfortable. I am competitive and I want to win. I always want to win, but since high school, I have seldom identified the race I am running or why. I feel good when I impress people, but I can’t use my mother anymore for that. It is unfair. It is sick. She is dead. She misses everything that she should have seen, so I listen quietly to the tales of depression, pregnancy and injury. I look at the floor. I bite my nails. I listen and I pity them. I am sick with what I hear, and I wish I could not relate. I wish I had not been that fourth grader who dazzled audiences with the story of her dead mother, showing how strong she was. Or compelling her freshman year English professor to give her an A. When the newspaper article faded, we were again alone. People stopped asking. They do not even notice the simple replacement of a verb tense, “is” to “was”. If you noticed, I could give you an “is”. My mother is dead.

I have only ten year old memories. She didn’t leave me on purpose so that I would never know her. At night, my head allows me to feel what I cannot say with my eyes open. I have a dream that legitimizes my hurt. I dream that I see her. She is alive, with a new family. I call to her, and she turns her back. But, it is her. It is her hair and her hands. I wonder why she has disappeared. Where has she been? I wake up with an ache that cuts as deep as the thorns across my eye that April night years ago.

I could say that I remember the sun glittering through the trees and the crystal blue sky, but I was ten. In reality all I was conscious of, as I flew out the front door and skipped down the steps that April afternoon was that the sun was shining and the sky was blue. It was one of those first days of spring like the one I’m in now, when you get to put on shorts and enjoy the weather. As I went out the door, I passed my mom sitting on the step reading. I will always remember her sitting there as I danced around the small puddles in the yard. She was seated in the sun in a lawn chair with a bag of tortilla chips at her feet. Focused on the pages of her romance novel, her head was comfortably propped up by her hand. Her pinky finger rested slightly inside her lips. I have tried to do this, but could never make the habit mine. I stole a chip out of the bag, causing her to look up at me. I saw a smile creep across her lips, and I smiled her back.

Supper time couldn’t come fast enough for me. My ears were prepped for one sound only, and as soon as I heard the bike tires push through the gravel in the driveway, I was out the door. The sun glared in my eyes; I made out the forms of my aunt, uncle and three cousins pulling up the cement steps. My mouth watered, as I watched my aunt cut the toppings and distribute them on the cheese covered pizzas. Patience is never any child’s strong suit, but time never fails to pass. Before I knew it, the pizza was gone, and it was time for my aunt and uncle to leave for home. It was decided that we would join them.

We set out of the driveway in a line suspended by spokes and handlebars, with my brother racing for the front. The two year difference between our ages never made much difference when it came to speed, and he flew by me with ease. The sun was bright, but the air was cool. The trees’ shadows cast a pattern of darkness across the road. As we cut through the shadows, the sunlight slide across our backs. I escaped the tunnel of trees. The rays reflected off the aqua blue of my new bike and splashed across my skin. Once at the top of the landmark hill, we paused and looked out across the surrounding land. Bits of green were beginning to creep out of the rich brown earth and silhouettes of leavers could be seen beginning to overcome the harsh outlines of tree branches, something that always takes too long each Wisconsin spring. April 21 was giving us a taste of spring that called for a second helping, so it was decided that we would continue around the entire block. From the top of the hill, we could see our farm nestled among the hills of earth and trees, but we turned away and pressed down the hill. No one ever thought of looking back that day. Since that day, not one decision passes that I don’t look back.

At the next intersection, we parted with my aunt and uncle and turned toward home. The sun was nearing the end of its trip west, and the early evening light cast a warm glow. It was a glow that I could feel from my heart to my toes. Our line of four turned onto our road, with my brother leading the way. I followed. My mom and dad placed themselves at the end, in order to ensure that they could watch out for us, but the road now was quiet and without speeding cars.

My eyes focused on my grandparent’s house and followed it until my head was turned. I slowly placed my head forward once again. The sun’s yellow rays highlighted the green blades of grass that filled the overgrown ditch. The vibrant green blurred as I passed it. Then, there was black.

I opened my eyes, and they searched to ease my confusion. I awoke surrounded by the ditch’s undergrowth. The air was cold, and the warm gold had been replaced by a harsh black. My brother’s screams filled the air, and I struggled to understand where I was. Grass rose around me on either side, preventing me from seeing anything but what was directly in front of and above me. I heard my dad’s feet pounding on the road. Headlights illuminated the area in front of me as a vehicle slowed. The silhouetted figure of my dad appeared as the tiny glimmer of car lights turned into a flood. Doors slammed and a man and woman exited the car. Why did we need help? My heard pounded in time with my dad’s steps as he broke into a run towards my grandparent’s house.

The undertone of grief in my brother’s voice made my mind race. His screams continued, stopping only when his lungs filled with sobs instead. Could he see her? A lifetime later, I still left that question unanswered. My blood thundered in my ears. I wished with all my might that my eyes could penetrate the darkness, but I saw nothing.

An eerie calm covered the scene. I heard the grass swish as a woman approached me. As her face came toward me, I could see she was an elderly woman, but I saw no assurance in her eyes. She placed a wool blanket over me and turned away. My eyes followed her. She walked towards my brother and then back. As she passed me the second time, I forced myself to ask, “How is she?” The woman looked back at me and aid nothing. I asked again, “How is my mom? Is she dead?” Silence pounded in my ears. My entire body tingled. I wanted one word from her.

At last the woman opened her lips. “God takes care of all of us.” Resentment chased the silence from my body. I forgot my confusion, and focused all of my anger on the woman. How dare she not answer me. I wanted one word, but she would not give it. I hated her at that moment for lying to me, and I hated my dad, as if he had chosen her because she would deceive me. Yes or now, that was all I wanted, but I didn’t need to hear it. Even through the black night, I could see it in her eyes and feel it in her voice. In choosing silence, she had answered me. My eye was swollen, my shoulder ached, but all I could feel was emptiness.

Sirens screamed through the spring night. April had turned cold and dark, as if its earlier beauty had only been there to lure us, taunting us to go farther and not turn back. The wooden board was hard, and as the EMTs lifted me into the ambulance, I could hear sirens die as the first ambulance sped away from us. I never saw her again. My brother was placed next to me. His face was red from crying, but now he was silent. I answered each question as if I had been preparing for the moment my entire life, and my brother remained silent. Not a tear or a cry passed between us. Adults underestimate the core of strength that lies in wait within a child.

The sterile white and bright light of the hospital was a drastic contrast to the darkness my eyes had fought for those long hours before. My brother and I were questioned and tested, bandaged and cleaned. The hospital staff did their best to fix all the wounds that they could see. I ended up in a small examining room sitting on a cot, with my brother seated in a chair next to me. We didn’t speak. My eyes were shut as a nurse carefully cleaned the cuts around my eyes. I was startled as I heard the door open and close behind me. I opened my eyes to find my dad looking at me. His frame appeared small, as I would see it years later as an old man. His shirt hung untucked, and his arms were limp at his sides. His eyes looked tired, but they were filled with purpose. I knew what that purpose was. In reality, I had known for hours, but until this moment a tiny glimmer of hope had burned inside me, fighting back the hollow darkness.

“She’s dead,” barely escaped his lips as he sat down next to us. I was numb. He pulled us close, and with those two words, the light was extinguished.

My aunt and uncle drove us home. I sat still in the backseat and stared out at the black night that was now the next morning. We passed my grandma’s house, but this time I had nothing to look at but shadows. If my eyes had been able to cut through night’s blanket, I would have made out a tiny object. One of my mom’s socks hung tied in a knot around the cold wire fence. It has endured each day and each night, each summer’s warmest sun and each winter’s coldest storm. Even when I have not been, it was and is still there.

My grandfather would not even come into the house beforehand. He waited by the car until we were ready to leave. My hair was braided beautifully by one of her best friends. I was proud of my hair amidst the sadness. I wore a black velvet skirt and a matching jacket with a pink bow attached to the back. It had been purchased for a Christmas recital at school only months before. I had fought hero n it, but for some reason at the last minute I changed my mind. In this case, her victory resulted in the selection of what I would wear to her funeral. The people were endless. I did not cry in front of the people I had never met, just as I do not cry when I related the story today. It is a story, an act of narration that has matured over time. My brother became my emotional responsibility. He lay waiting next to a lifeless body. He screamed to her. I asked about his tours in Iraq, but we never talked about that April day. All I could do was proof every homework assignment, wear every flower given to the mothers, and love his daughter like she was my own. Four hours of hands and lines. I will never have a visitation for myself.

The weather was too good to waste, yet she had. I imagine her afternoon spent in smoke covered darkness seated at a bar stool. I know too many drinks had slid down her throat, but no one took her keys as she stumbled out the door. I imagine the light getting dim through her windshield, and the road was harder to see. I think she focused on the ground ahead of her in an attempt to ease the blur. Her truck sped down the quiet road, and for all the times my dad looked back, he never saw it. Our lawyer spoke of all the things that my mother will never see: my wedding, my children, all the moments of my life.

I imagine the edge of the road blended into the evening shadows, and that before she knew it, the wheel had slipped from her impaired control. The truck swerved across the road. A shotgun sound thundered through the silent evening. She must have regained control, but she also must have felt something strike the right side of the truck. Did she ask if she hit something? Did she hit a mailbox? Probably, she clicked on her brights and drove on, her foot never leaving the gas pedal. If you want to quiet a room, tell the story that a drunk driver committed hit and run homicide, that you were there, and your eight year old brother lay next to his mother as she died, and the woman got three thousand hours of community service. The irony does not escape me that have I lived my life doing this community service.

I don’t know what the obituary read. Mine reads like this. Elissa was born November 4, 1952. She grew up in New York City. She died in Wisconsin. She loved skiing, biking, canoeing, camping and cats. She threw a rag at my dad when she was angry. She was a physical therapist and played piano. She fought with her mother. She studied Tai Chi. She taught me the fight song to her alma mater, the University of Colorado. She was a vegetarian. She escaped the hurt of her first marriage. She had two children, one of them is me. She taught me to read very young. We wrote stories together. By fourth grade I was one, a statistic and a celebrity all at the same time.

I have written the story of her death so many times. But, it isn’t the story I want to tell anymore. I am in the midst of a career change and a life shift, and the story is the life she I imagine for her, the one she was robbed. As my 36th birthday loomed last year, I knew it. Even if I didn’t know exactly where to start, I needed to stop wasting time. I am now older than she will ever be. Every next breath we take together; every step towards could instead of should, I owe her.

I remember her hands. She would come and tuck me in, and the in the winter when I was in pink flannel nightgowns, her soft hands did not catch on the fabric like my dad’s. His were rough and torn from the winter winds that whipped through the barnyard. She was soft. Her hands and her sweater. She hugged me and I would sleep. That was before she was gone. Before I made up songs that only the school bus window heard so that I would not forget her. Now, the reflection I like most is my own, my hands, the fingers that can hold the pen that can write these words now. And my dog’s head holds the pages.

I spent time tearing myself apart between my inability to believe in God, and my desire for Heaven so that one day my dream of her may be a vision of the future when I will see her dark hair that I wanted on my head, but that she bestowed upon my brother instead. She will turn around. In disappearing from my physical life, she became every thought, and every breath of my life so that I may relive a thousand last words and million goodbyes and forget the one I never had. She will hug me again with her soft hands and draw me into her sweater like when I used to stand on the kitchen step to welcome her home from work. I will see her hands and they will not be attached to my body. Maybe if I share a little more, I will hate myself a little less for sharing when I wasn’t asked. She will tell me that she was with me each step of the way. She will tell me that when I speak about her I am not looking for pity.

Sometimes I think I could be so many things, if I wasn’t so many things to begin with. It’s mostly my mother’s fault; although, it’s hard to blame someone who is dead. But of course you can’t be like everyone else, because even everyone isn’t like everyone else, but they’re part of one group of everyone else. I’m from too many places and have nowhere to go. How do you decide what you want? A little bit of everything all added up is just too much. Hair and eyes. Religion and race. Languages multiplied. For one part to become a little more, another part becomes a little less. And all on your own, how do you decide? This year is twenty six years. When I was twenty six I was in Peace Corps Guatemala, and this year I am one year back from ten years in Guatemala. What will the 36th year bring? When I am home for ten and she will be gone all her life, over again.

The prompt for my freshman English class almost twenty years ago was “write about a moment that changed your life.” Written in the dark beneath the glow of my computer monitor, I told this story for the last time in an essay my freshman year of college. My English professor’s eyes witnessed the final curtain, a deep, slow bow. This moment was chosen for me. The next life changing moment, and then the next, I choose for myself.

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