Matt asked me at Christmas what we are doing for my 31st birthday. But he wasn’t asking about me. He was asking about you. He wasn’t thinking about birthday cake candles, but memorial flames. My borning cry and your last breath are separated only by 11 years and now Matt tells me it’s been 20. He wants to capstone our graduation of living two decades in grief with some sort of event. I don’t need an event. I still think about you daily, I think that’s enough.
Two years ago, Matt wasn’t there—no one was—when I celebrated my birthday and simultaneously mourned your passing by inking myself in memory. I laid stomach side down on the black padded table while a stranger used permanent blue ink to stain your initials into me: EGM. Unlike this story, I was able to complete it. Unlike this story, the pain subsided.
I’ve been trying to document this memory for nearly 20 years, as Matt has recently reminded me. It never comes out right. I never write it well enough. I want to feel it with the weight of a thousand broncos like the one that crushed you. But my words are never heavy enough for that or I maybe I just pick all the wrong adjectives. So, I leave it unfinished in ink laden notebooks. I guess that too is just another metaphor for your life: Incomplete.
I did finish another story. It isn’t nonfiction like the real sorrow you left behind, but a world made-up by grown woman imagination. I feel strange that I’m dedicating my book to you, but I can’t even write your last moments with the beauty they deserve. I can’t seem to think of the right words to mark the final ticks of your life clock after you crossed the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Maybe that’s because I’ll never know. I’ll only know what Mom and Matt and I were doing.
We were sitting around the dark wooden dining room table talking about me—as I was beginning to embark on pre-teen years. We didn’t know you were already gone from this world. We didn’t know your years ended at 35. We didn’t know your salt and pepper beard was already stained with red.
In years before cell phones it didn’t seem odd that you didn’t call to say, you were making it home late. You weren’t the considerate one anyway, that was Mom’s job. But when the phone finally did ring at 10:29, Mom already knew. She knew it would be an unfamiliar voice worn-down with officer guilt for not bringing the news closer to the time of death, instead of your hello. She said it was a synced connection you two had that she lost that day. Mom has spent the years that followed that phone call complaining that the officer took too long to break our world with reality. I never minded that he came late. I wish he never came. Then—while wrapped in my childhood security blanket—I never would have had to hear that wearing a seat belt could have saved your life.
Mom also complains the officer didn’t bring us stuffed animals. Somehow this is important to her. Nonprofit organizations are set up to donate stuffed toys for this purpose. She’ll never donate to those organizations again. I stopped liking stuffed animals.
Society says I’m not allowed to be mad at you for leaving me. But I’m so pissed I have to live my life in your loss. I loss the last of my childhood on that birthday and no blown-out candle wish is ever going to change that.
But everything else changed. I lost my other parent to depression pills that never gave a high enough upper. She walked around the house, your carpenter hands had crafted with remodel, contemplating how far she could wander off the edge of life and death before she had to pick a direction.
You gave us a broken Mom unable to learn independence in heart break and left a little girl too independent for her own good. But I think I’m most pissed about what you did to a 7 year old boy who questions what actual memories are his—and what recalled events from family stories he has incorrectly claimed credit for. He’s damaged with superstition, not allowing himself to enter 7/11s for fear that he’ll return to that sibling age with grown up pain. And he won’t say “I love you” to me. He won’t say the last three words you gifted me on my birthday because he’s too scared to love anyone as much as we loved you.
I guess we’re all just totaled car wrecks trying to repaint the exterior, hoping the used car salesman can find us a home. Maybe if you aren’t too busy up there, Dad, you can help me pick out the color.