I dreaded my twelfth birthday.
I was panicked — I wasn’t ready for this. I tried to skew the details to my advantage: really, I’d been six and a half when she died. So double that would be … thirteen. Whew. One more year until I had lived half of my life without her.
I did a quick mental check, listing off the facts. I always wanted to know more facts. I made lists, scratching tiny numbers down the side of lined paper (or a sticky note, or diary page), thinking that if I knew more facts, it somehow made me know her.
1. She worked at the airport.
2. She studied math at UCLA.
3. She had a great smile.
4. She liked to remind people to not take life too seriously (this one was my favorite).
I listed them, the facts, as if it all could be mastered like a test, and by knowing the answers I achieved a mastery of her entire being.
I would list off the memories, too. Going to Blockbuster, anticipating the plunk of the hard and dusty gumball as it rattled from the machine into my hand. Me, soaking wet and laughing with glee as she greeted me at the exit of a water ride at SeaWorld. Riding my Razor Scooter on the hardwood floor when she pretended not to know. Her smile as I handed her a homemade Mother’s Day card crusted with pink glitter glue. And then I would get sad, thinking that the first three years of life don’t really count, because who really remembers them? Maybe bits and flashes, but nothing to put on the list. But it didn’t matter, I needed those years to count. So they did.
When my thirteenth birthday loomed, I was terrified. It wasn’t fair, it felt like such betrayal. She meant so much more than just half of my life. Really, I’d been older than six and a half when it happened. In fact, I’d been six years, seven months, and eleven days old. Which is practically seven, right? So if I was seven, double that would be fourteen. Whew. One more year.
I reveled in anything that was once hers. Her thin blue crew socks became my lucky socks. Photos of her friends and of her life — before I was her life — filled my photo albums. There she was, on a cable car in San Francisco (I wondered if maybe I’d ridden the same one); now she was in Mexico, her head dipped to her chest because she had fallen asleep while reading on the beach. She made goofy faces. Blew out birthday candles. It was strange to think that she existed before those seven years of my life. But it was even stranger to think that so many of her things still existed without her. Her driver’s license, her day planner, her receipts. Her humble penny collection in a dusty jar. They had touched her hands, occupied her thoughts. She was so close.
My fourteenth birthday passed, and with it, the struggle was over. I couldn’t argue with myself anymore. I felt a tiny fraction of my heart, this enormous tiny fraction, chip away.
I watched a home video that had been taped when I was five, on Christmas morning. I leapt up and showed her the new Pokémon toy Santa had brought me, squeaking, “Look!” And she smiled as if she was just as amazed as I was.
“What is it, Rachael?” she asked.
Everything inside me froze when I heard her voice. A feeling of dread snaked its way through my veins and my heart jumped and squirmed in my chest, forgetting all sense of rhythm.
I realized I couldn’t even remember that voice. It sounded so foreign, I wanted to cry. How much did I even remember? I couldn’t even recall the fact that I unwrapped the next gift, a garish Barbie, with such joy.
Now the silent memories came creeping in, the memories I never wrote on the lists because I knew they could not be forgotten: the powdery, choking fragrance of white lilies; the impossibly frigid touch of her skin; the love letters I’d written to her in fat colorful markers on pristinely folded printer paper, tucked under her hand — all lost under the earth with her beauty.
In that dreadful moment of betrayal, in the moment when her voice rumbled out and didn’t reassure me, I knew that it wasn’t the numbers that mattered.
The feelings I had felt when she was wrenched away from me, and still sometimes felt in waves, dull and sharp and overwhelming in my gut, the feelings I felt burning in the creases of my eyes and pooling on my pillow, slamming out of my mouth in sharp gasps at night — those were proof of what actually mattered. The facts (oh, to hell with the facts) could be stuffed into crumbling wallets along with her receipts. The knowledge that she would have brought those warm arms around me even when I wrote childish disjointed letters of “You are meen” and slipped them under her bedroom door, even when she barely had the strength to lift her arms at all — that was what mattered. There was no way to quantify the silent “I love you, too,” that I knew she wanted to say when she could barely breathe, even with her oxygen machine, when I whispered those words to her and they floated down to softly rest on her cheeks like the sticky tears that rested on mine. She would be with me even when I was eighteen, or twenty-one, or whatever form of six or seven times three or four or five I chose. Even when I was a hundred years old, she wouldn’t be reduced to just a fraction of my existence.
On my fifteenth birthday, I felt just fine.
This manuscript was granted a prize in the Avery Hopwood and Jule Hopwood Contest for the year 2014 at the University of Michigan.