I am embarrassed to write this essay.
I feel myself hesitate, fingers wavering suspended in midair over ebony keys.
Even now I picture you, my reader, reading this essay and I cringe. Maybe you have a latte on a rich mahogany table in a chic café of Seattle. Maybe you’re in a posterless blank dorm room lying on a lumpy bed. Instinctively I want to cave my chest in, my arms itching as they eagerly strain to cross themselves and fabricate distance between you and I. Habitually I type honest words before my hand compulsively slips forward and I forcefully hit the backspace button, the familiar clacking sound filling my room.
I want you to understand, my old friend, the turmoil that overcame my life senior year; how long I fought, not comprehending the grief that swept through my life again.
But I don’t want you, my dear brother, to understand; to know how far I let myself fall down the rabbit hole when I was supposed to be strong, a role model, okay.
My backspace key, smoothed to a reflecting onyx color from use, tempts me.
From the day my mother was diagnosed with cancer we were living on borrowed time. Someone had firmly glued our hourglass to a high table in an empty room. I watched the sand pour like water into pools below. No matter how desperately I clasped my hands together, destructive time flowed between the cracks of my fingers. As steady as the days passed I felt the warm sand grow lighter, losing substance, until I looked down and realized time is deserting me, and I am shivering now, I am terrified as the golden sand slips faster and further away from me, until I can see the impending end and the last grains are slithering out from the palm of my hand, and they are falling, and I am falling, and for a moment everything stops as she passes away. I was left with the overwhelming emptiness as my shocked fingers groped for more.
Now, my unknown reader, we fast forward nine years to my last year of high school as I will try to show you how things fell apart.
It started with an ordinary September; my dad had just remarried and our new lives were unfolding.
I worked harder than I ever had in October. I saw the inevitable end, college, and threw myself into school.
Then November a breath caught in my throat. I always trod on pins and needles, the rare thorn bringing back unexpected memories from my past with cancer, but this year her anniversary slashed into my conscience daily. Suddenly I was afraid and I didn’t know what I was afraid of. It was horrible, my neighbor, crying without stop and losing my frayed tether to normal life. I can still feel the constant pulsing ache I felt in those weeks as I tried to ignore the unexpected turbulence that rocked my world. I desperately searched for routine by vigorously working on applications, telling myself that one more hurdle and I will have made it; all these feeling will dissipate into thin air.
This continued until the early decision for my top college, Duke, came out on a gray December day. One of my friends adored constantly reminding me how many seconds were left until the 3:00pm release and reiterating that it didn’t matter because I was going to get in anyway. With prodded anxiety, I scrapped my plan of waiting until I was within the sanctuary of my room, and instead I nervously checked after school as soon as I could. It felt as though my entire life had been rising to this climactic moment of rich accomplishment, so close I could hold out a hand to the radiance and feel the warmth. I was in! Stunned, I stopped at a grocery store parking lot on my way home to let it sink in as I repeated my achievement to myself, looping it through my ears. I sat in my dusty 1996 car and watched people carrying stiff paper bags spilling fruits and greens, watched with a new outlook because I was going to Duke. At least – that’s what I thought would happen. But in reality I sat on that uncomfortably neither light nor dark overcast day and frantically searched for that satisfied perspective. I waited for overwhelming joy, beams of sweet sunlight to break through my being. Instead I found myself driving away unaware, pulling into my garage silently, crumpling onto my bed and crying each night. You know what I did, stranger? I told myself they were tears of relief, that this was normal. But what I thought had been a bright light at the end of the tunnel was a train.
January I lost sight of the end because my life goal had ended. I would rip open mail and unfold a letter of nomination for an award, smile, nod, and return to my room to cry. I aimlessly drifted through routine. My dad would go visit his wife, still living in a separate house up north, and I would wait to hear the garage door clank shut and scamper to a window to peer through the blinds as his van pulled away. I wanted to be left to my loneliness and to cry without fearing that he would hear. One night I shut off all the lights, my shadow only illuminated by my laptop’s blue screen. I spent hours sitting on my bed clicking on each yellow folder icon in hope of finding any image labeled “mom”. I scoured through the hard drive for remnants of her, looked for the charger for our old video camera, searched through our recorded files of her existence. My room is the hottest in my house, but I unsealed a window as the moon rose higher in the sky and that night stretched on. I could feel the tendrils of frigid air clawing towards me, cooling the dampness on my cheeks as I allowed my body to be swallowed by the raw cold. One day, you reader will be my dad, and I want you know that I needed that solitude. I was bitter, I felt cheated on. I had worked so hard and she was still not here. I was reaching milestones and what did it matter? She was still not here.
I battle the strong tug, dear reader, of my ring finger to that soft, easy backspace.
It got worse; I started missing days of school in February, shutting myself in my room for weekends at a time to not talk to anyone. I was brittle, parched clay, my friend, I could feel myself deteriorating as splinters of me shattered off. One stormy afternoon I stopped at my friend’s house to talk to her mother. Chinese and not fully fluent in English, we spoke in disjointed phrases in her petite kitchen. She carefully watched me with those sad wondering eyes and told me she had heard my story. I reverted to my usual defensive echo as my eyes drifted downward to the grape I was stripping of its tough peel, saying I was okay. Still gazing, she responded that it was still sad. The conversation diverged, but I remember leaving in torrents of rain as I ducked back into my car and sitting, trying to count back the days to when I was last sober of tears. I remember the sound of hammering pellets on my tin roof as I drove away, hurtling fast down the freeway and starting to sob. I sped forward, water streaming down my window, allowing myself to not be okay. But my personality had grown around the idyllic role model persona and I refused to sabotage that image. I sucked back my tears and plastered a smile on before arriving at my next destination.
In March I sank like a stone, spiraled further into my cycle. At some point, reader, you will be my friend and know what happened here. One day, I retreated back to my bedroom after school with a heavy face. Slumping onto my floor and letting gravity pull my limbs down, I faced the glow-in-the-dark stars spattered across my ceiling feeling insignificantly small and wondering why my penance had not ended, why I was holding all the tickets and grief was holding all the fines. I got on Facebook to message my friend and we casually chatted about her dress for prom. She asked me if I preferred a lilac mail order ensemble or a classy velvety purple gown. I would weep, dampening my keys, as I gave chirpy advice and used smiling emoticons that smiled patronizingly back at me. Some part of me hoped I would tell her. Everyday, every single day I wrote the same message to my friends asking for help. I would spend ten minutes carefully picking words as my laptop hummed. I stared at the harsh, crude text I had typed until it blurred, until I forced myself to rigidly press the delete button and watch the words ebb into oblivion.
How much I yearn to stiffly punch that backspace once more.
It was my birthday in April and I was turning eighteen, a legal adult. I cried driving to school asking where my mom was now I was all grown up. Stopping at red lights, I yanked down my mirror and frustrated, smeared away the water leaking down my face. I gritted my teeth during my math test to stop the loneliness from coming back, searching for emotionless logic in complex numbers. The day after my birthday I brought myself to visit her grave for the first time since she had been buried. It was a drizzly Saturday afternoon as I worked my way through the old town’s traffic, tears uncertainly finding a way from my eyes seeking answers to answerless questions. I drove past the cemetery, U-turned, drove past again until I felt familiar enough to stop in a nearby neighborhood and walk the dirt path to the grassy hill dotted with trees and covered with stones. I floated around the mosaic of engraved granite using my childhood memory to draw me to her grave at the crest of the wave in the hill. I remembered being there at nine years old and not being able to cry, releasing doves by that sooty fence separating those who had passed from those living. I collapsed on the damp grass feeling the water instantly soak through my jeans and again there were no more tears; I had already cried so much. I picked out the mud collected in the smooth grooves of the Swiss Alps on her stone, moved to sweep away an ant crawling on the letters before thinking better of it. I left my college acceptance letter and a birthday card under a weighty pebble and watched the rain speckle on both, slowly filling in the pages until they were dark, saturated with water. I got up and left to write.
What happened next, you ask?
May will be prom. June will be graduation. One day I will finish college, get married, have a child.
I wish I could say that it got better after that, but still I struggle with my grief almost a decade after her death. In writing this essay I hope to understand and sort out my thoughts for you and me. It is seducingly easy for me to say that you, unknown reader, won’t understand, mostly because I don’t fully comprehend myself the distortion that happened this year. Already I glace up at the words on this document and nitpick at inadequate explanations. Already my fingers feel jumpy, nervously quivering in anticipation of deleting and trying to forget the words I have written. But something in me says: try, make them understand.
I feel my hands again drift to the backspace key, but I will press enter. It’s time to move forward.
I am embarrassed to write this essay.