Emily M. Smith writes about loss, grief, and letting go in order to find yourself again.
I’m twenty, standing in front of a mirror and running a brush through my hair because the paramedics told me to get out of the way. I don’t know what else to do but brush my hair. It’s knotted, and I’m just out of the shower. My face is blotched red and my nose runny. I remind myself that I need to find my glasses and put on a bra before I drive anywhere. That is of course after I figure out where to drive. We’re staying at a beach rental in an unfamiliar town. I don’t even know where the hospital is.
I’m sitting beside my older brother in the ER. He’s in checkered boxer shorts and slippers, giggling as he obliviously plays “7 Wonders” on his iPad. He’s autistic and doesn’t understand why we’re here at 9 p.m. on a Monday night. I understand too well. I watch as people go in and out from behind the curtain beside us. I don’t know if I’m allowed in, but even if I am, I don’t think I can stand to look right now.
“Are you Mary Smith’s family?” a blond doctor asks, emerging from within.
“I’m her daughter,” I say getting up. “What’s happened to her?”
“Your mother has suffered a very serious stroke.” She says more that I don’t process, but she’s not answering the one question I want her to. As she turns to leave, I stop her.
“But is she going to live?”
The doctor’s face is stoic, her features hard. She looks tired and not just by this night. I assume she’s done this one too many times before, so the answer comes off cold. “It’s minute by minute right now.”
My father emerges at the end of the hallway an hour later. He is a beaming light, marching toward me to affirm that everything will be all right. His salt-and-pepper hair is disheveled with his own shock, but his expression is firm. He walks tall, every bit the former army captain who raised me. He hugs my brother and me. Then he goes to see my mother, the woman he had loved for twenty years and has been divorced from for six. My mother’s family hadn’t wanted me to call him. They don’t understand that she would want him here. That I need him here.
Her siblings begin to arrive, some of my cousins. The stroke is corrected to an aneurysm. A surgery is performed. We wait and pray the pressure building against her cerebellum stops. My brother giggles from under a blanket beside us.
I’m standing outside the hospital the next morning with my father. We’re along a quiet side of the building, with not a single car or person in sight. We overlook the green patches of trees that separate the lane in front of us from the highway.
“It’s not a matter of if, but when now,” he says turning to me. “She’s braindead.”
He holds me as I collapse against him, harsh guttural wails consuming my body like I have never experienced before. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to stop. My cousin and aunt appear around the corner and come up to touch my back. My father shakes his head. We all know he is the only one who can comfort me right now.
The two of us sit on the yellow curb sometime later. He tells me stories about my mother I’ve heard a dozen times before, but I listen to them now like they are the first. He makes me laugh when I want to do anything but. He’s always been good at that.
We watch a yellow butterfly drift past us. I’ve always loved the tiny winged creatures. Something about the colors, the fragility of their existence, their perseverance to transform into something entirely different.
I think about a time when I am five years old, when my mother and I order a butterfly kit. Within a few days, we receive a package that contains five larvae and a netted container. We hover over this mini ecosystem and witness as the five worms become three caterpillars, then two monarch butterflies.
“Why doesn’t this one hatch?” I ask my mother about the third cocoon that never opens.
“Sometimes it’s too hard for them to change,” she tells me. She looks at the two survivors, the streaks of orange and black distinguishing as their wings dry. “But these are beautiful.”
I don’t repeat this story to my father as the yellow butterfly flutters out of sight. I’m too busy trying not to think about who I am going to be without my mother.
A caseworker enters the waiting room full of my mother’s family. My mother has marked down on her license that she is an organ donor. The caseworker needs to speak to the next of kin. My aunt, her best friend, tries to stand up. My father beats her to it and gestures to me.
“She’s the daughter,” he says.
The woman nods. “We can talk privately in here or whoever you want can stay.”
I look around the room at the fifteen or so members of my mother’s family. I think about the intimate details I am going to have to share about my mother’s life. I politely ask everyone but my father to get out.
I sit down across the table from the caseworker, my father at my side. She asks about my mother’s history. Her physical health, her mental well-being. Her battle with alcoholism, her four-year sobriety. I cringe as I answer to my knowledge how many times she was pregnant in her life or whether she had any STDs. My father helps some. He was married to her for more than twenty years. He knows secrets I don’t. Neither of us can figure out if her middle name Anne is spelled with an E or not.
Then the woman asks me what parts of my mother I am willing to have cut from her body to save other people. Can I part with her essential organs? How about her skin? What about her eyes? Her crystal blue eyes flash through my mind. I shake my head. No, not the eyes. Anything but the eyes.
I’m at the wake, kneeling over her coffin, placing a pink rose beside her. I touch her hand for the last time.
“She’s cold,” I say surprised.
My father looks at me with pity.
I’m standing in front of a group of faceless people in a church, refusing to break down. I feel like they are all waiting for it, for the fragile composure I have kept through this whole process to finally crack. They think I am hiding sadness, but they are wrong. I am angry. I am angry at her. I am angry at God. I am angry at them for no reason, maybe because they’re here and she’s not. I stand tall, emotionless. I give the eulogy I wrote.
It is only when I am alone in the car with my father and brother on the way to the repass that I allow myself to truly lose it — at least until we reach the parking lot. Then my expressionless mask returns.
I’m driving my brother to the mall when a sudden headache comes on. I contemplate whether I will have time to pull over to the side of the highway before I have an aneurysm, too.
I can’t write, no matter how hard I try. I’ve always wanted to be a novelist but chose to go to undergrad for screenwriting. Now, the stories that once crowded my mind are dust, regardless of genre. I tell myself they will come back. They don’t. I take a semester off from college.
I’m in a hair salon, begging my hairdresser to dye my hair blond. She doesn’t want to do it. She says it will look bad with my skin tone. But I can’t bear to have reddish-brown hair anymore. I remind myself of my mother. The hairdresser finally agrees, but she’s right. My hair looks terrible.
I’m on a date with a guy I met in grief group. We’re ice skating, or rather, I’m ice skating. He’s falling every five feet. I don’t even like him. The only thing we have in common is dead moms. He’s depressed and wants someone to hold his head above water. I decide I’m cured and stop going to grief group.
I’m on my back in a CT scanner having my brain imaged. I clutch a white remote in my hand and fight the urge to press the button that will free me from this cage. The banging around me is deafening. The white cylinder I am enclosed in somehow dark. I lie there and spend fifteen minutes trying not to have a panic attack. It doesn’t work. I break out in sweats, shaking violently, wanting to throw up. My thumb closes in on the button. One push and I’m free. The only thing that stops me is the realization that I will have to go through this all over again.
I’m twenty-one, in my first class back at college. All I want to do is rush out of the room. Instead, I take a deep breath and spend the next forty-five minutes watching the clock as my professor rambles on about an ancient religion. Every word that escapes his mouth means nothing to me.
I’m checking on my father and brother in the middle of the night. I’m making sure they haven’t stopped breathing, too. I stand in their doorways, watching the gentle vibrations of their chests rising up and down, the sound of their exhales. I close my eyes and listen.
I’m in a guy’s room, asking if he has a condom. We haven’t known each other long. His room is small and cluttered, his twin bed and TV pushed against the wall. He’s shy and sweet and everything I want him to be. He knows nothing real about me. As I kiss him, I pray he’ll make me feel something, that he’ll end this numbness that has lived in my chest for the past year. It isn’t enough. He isn’t enough.
I spend the ride home alone wanting to call the one person I can’t. I watch as the skies fade from orange and pink to black as the sun sets on the humid mid-summer night. Then it starts to pour rain, the nearby thunder reverberating through my car, matching the chaos I feel inside. A country song comes on the radio that reminds me of her.
I’m finally writing again. Screenplays and TV pilots, one after the other for class. I realize that there are mothers and ungrateful daughters and addiction and death in every story. Something still feels off. There’s a missing piece in my writing that had been there before. I can’t feel the words. I return to prose.
My class friend asks how it feels to be motherless now. He wants to study me like a test case to model his characters after. I want to slap him in the face.
I’m on the phone, breaking up with a guy that I’m pretty sure is in love with me. I want to tell him that I’m not capable of loving anyone right now, least of all myself. Instead I blame it on my anxiety, that we moved too fast. He cries on the line and tries to get back in touch less than two weeks later. I block his number.
I’m in the office of the neurologist who tried to coil my mother’s brain. A CT scan of the organ that betrayed her is lit up on the board beside mine. They look the same to me, the only difference being the presence of what looks like a spring lodged in my mother’s brain.
I barely remember the doctor from that night. Just his blue scrub cap, his brown hair creeping out around the edges. Now he sits in front of me on a stool, adorned in a white lab coat, his finger pointing to a spot on my mother’s scan that means nothing to me.
“You see how she had this weak spot here,” he says. “You don’t have that. Come back when you’re thirty to make sure.”
I’m twenty-two, seated in Yankee Stadium with my classmates. It’s our graduation day. It’s ninety-eight degrees out, and I’m getting a sunburn that will be immortalized in pictures. There is a sea of purple graduation gowns and hats as Pharrell stands center field and gives a speech about how we’re entering into the age of women. I watch as a white butterfly flutters over home plate. I text the observation to my father, who is further back in the stands.
The response comes back almost instantly. “She’s here.”
I’m directionless and lost, working at a dog kennel, a bakery, a gym, an office. I’m trying to figure out what I want to do with my life, who I am now without school and without her. I interview for production assistant jobs in New York. I contemplate going to baking school. My father offers to hire me permanently to help run his insurance firm. I just want to write, but I don’t know if I can do that here, home in this same place where nothing ever changes, and everything reminds me of her.
“I want to go back to school,” I finally tell my father. “I don’t want to be a TV writer or producer. That’s not who I am.”
“So what do you want then?”
“To be a novelist. I want to love to write again.”
“Okay then. Be a novelist.”
I’m twenty-three, opening rejection after rejection letter to grad school. Maybe I’m not cut out to be a writer after all. I’m getting into publishing programs but no creative writing ones. Then two acceptances come. A New York school, one I had dreamed about going to all year, and a D.C. school, one I had applied to on a whim.
I no longer worry when I get headaches that the same thing that happened to my mother will happen me. I don’t check on my family while they sleep anymore. Overnight, an invisible weight has been lifted, an unknown future to look forward to in front of me.
I go to the hair dresser and have her cut out what remains of the blond from my hair. I vow never to dye it again. I look in the mirror and embrace the reddish-brown that makes me look like my mother.
I’m seated at the NYC grad school’s orientation. It’s less than ten blocks north of my undergrad. It’s only an hour from home. I could still live with my dad and brother. I wouldn’t have to leave them. I always wanted to end up in New York, anyway. These are the reasons I tell myself this is the right choice.
I see a girl I met at an orientation at the D.C. school a week before. She sits down next to me and prattles on about how she is going here so that she doesn’t have to leave New York or give up her incredible apartment. I search around the room and everyone looks exactly the same as the people I went to undergrad with. This room feels exactly the same — competitive, detached, cold.
A speaker walks up to the podium, ready to start the presentation. I think about D.C., about how much it scares me, about how it would mean I was actually leaving and not allowing my grief to consume me forever. I look down at my phone. If I leave now, I can make the eight-fifty ferry back to Jersey. I let out a shocked laugh, realizing the decision has been made. My companion looks over at me.
“Yeah. I’m out of here,” I say.
She looks at me confused.
“I’m going to D.C. Good luck with the apartment.”
I walk out onto the New York City street and toss the college brochure in the first trashcan I see.
I’m at the cemetery. It’s been three years and two weeks since we laid her here. I tell her that I’m leaving and how much I’m going to miss her, but that I need to go. I need to find out who I am as a woman without her. I get in my car and pull down the drive, about to turn back onto the main road. A monarch appears in front of my windshield. I stop and watch as it flutters around my driver’s side mirror.
I find myself thinking back to that butterfly kit I had at five years old, to those two little monarchs that somehow beat the odds their three siblings had not. I look at them with my mother a day after they first hatch from their cocoons. They hang upside down from the netting, bridging their wings together in harmony.
“We need to release them,” I say.
“What?” My mother asks, turning to me.
“Butterflies live only two weeks. We need to let them go, so they can live outside.”
She furrows her brow. “Can’t we keep them just a little longer? We worked so hard.”
I look at her. She sighs. She knows there’s no arguing with me. We bring them outside and open the net. The first insect flies out almost instantly, gone before we can say goodbye. The other clings on to the net, though, perhaps reluctant to leave the safety of the only place it’s ever known. My mother gives the net a little flick. Then it is out, soaring down onto her garden tiger lilies. We watch as it drinks in real nectar for the first time, its wings opening and closing hypnotically. I think my mother puts her arm around me.
“You were right. It’s better we let them go,” she says.
I’m back in my car, eighteen years later, watching this beautiful tiny creature as it glides off into the woods. I smile. I feel her with me. Then I pull back out onto the road.