When my mother died the summer I graduated seventh grade, the first thing I did after silently returning home from her funeral with my father was dig through my trash bin in search of a previously ignored leaflet distributed by our local Parks and Recreation. I then signed myself up for every class, workshop and camp they had listed. If my father was mystified or annoyed by my actions, he kept it to himself. Perhaps he was so overwhelmed by his own grief that it didn’t strike him as odd at the time. I also plastered my bedroom walls with the activity schedules for each class until there wasn’t a square inch of wall that wasn’t completely covered. It became an obsession. I attended each class religiously, never missing a beat. It took me from sunup to sundown every day and gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I stayed up late into each night working on this or that small class project. The classes I took covered a whole range, from kayaking to keyboard to cheerleading to modeling. In art I painted pictures of daisies and smiling fairies. I wrote poems in a kind of singsong rhythm about balloons and happy cows. There was nothing I was doing that even hinted at my loss. Something would have to break me and my newly focussed life because it was all an act. I lived like an actor who can’t get out of character and leads a kind of half-life. No one seemed to understand me anymore, myself least of all.
It happened in poetry class. I had been just about to hunker down for another three-hour session, and had a particularly sugary first line in mind when Mrs. Tucker, the instructor, made an announcement. “Today we’re going to have a special assignment, we’re going to write about some things that make us sad. Any examples?” She looked around cheerfully, her watery blue eyes slightly magnified by rectangular glasses. She was the typical well-meaning but clueless teacher. She didn’t seem to see the irony in her merry expression as she repeated the assignment: “Write about something that makes you sad” . . . smile . . . something that makes you sad . . .
She had started to pass out the papers when I asked numbly if I could be excused to go to the bathroom. She smiled. “Yes, you may.” I slipped out the door into the main hall of the YLC or youth learning center where the class was held. I didn’t go to the rest room, though. I just leaned against the wall and stared at the ceiling. I had been there longer than I had thought because suddenly my teacher was there, bending over me, and looking anxious. “Elle, are you all right? I thought you were just going to the bathroom . . .” She looked at me as though expecting an answer; an answer to what? Did she think I knew every little thing about myself?!?
Wait, I was being stupid. This was a simple question. The answer wasn’t simple but at least I could give the answer she was expecting to receive. “Yes, I’m fine,” I said.
“Good.” She looked satisfied as I followed back to the classroom, noting how her walk resembled that of a duck’s. Ducks seemed like a good subject for a poem. Then I remembered. My assignment was to write a poem about something sad. Instead of writing, I drew a cartoon-like duck wearing a purple vest (not unlike the one she had on). Then I sketched a cartoon of the actual Mrs. Tucker.
Mrs. Tucker wandered aimlessly around the room, every so often saying things like “Good job!” and “A nice beginning.” Even when she criticized, she beamed as though she were saying something nice.
When she stopped by my desk, her smile flickered and she drew her penciled eyebrows together in a look that might have been annoyance if she hadn’t maintained a partial smile. “Elle, you’ve never had trouble getting started. Why the exception today?” How could I answer that? “Ummm,” she peered closer at me, “yes . . .”
“It’s. . . hard,” I offered thickly.
She relaxed her expression and sighed. “You should have said you were having trouble, I could have helped you sooner.” She got down on her knees so her face was level with mine. “Write down five things that make you sad,” she said.
“I don’t know.”
“I’m sure you can think of something; everyone is sad sometimes.”
“Not me.” After I said this I realized both how childish it sounded and how utterly untrue it was, but I kept my mouth closed.
“It’s not a bad thing. Everyone . . .”
I cut her off. “I said nothing makes me sad, and I mean it, OK??”
She suddenly became uncharacteristically crisp. “I don’t believe it. You were sad when you forgot to do your homework that one day. You said, ‘Mrs. Tucker, I’m very sad that I forgot my homework.’ You said it, I heard you! I rememb- . . .”
Then it burst. All the fury and fear and grief and even guilt that had been silently smoldering inside me these past months burst. “Do you think that’s what real sadness is?!?”
She looked taken aback. “Well, I . . .”
“Do you??” My voice rose to a pitch. The other students started turning on me, looking annoyed, and alarmed and even . . . sad. Suddenly my pen flew to the paper and my hand started scribbling down words faster than my mind could take them in. I wrote about metal screeching against metal, muffled screaming, flashing red light reflected on water-drenched pavement, dark silhouettes being carried past on stretchers. Then there was fluorescent light shining on bare white walls. A naked light bulb, bathing everything in a blinding glow. Though the light never really ceased, somehow, in that empty timeless void calling itself a hospital room, the real light did fade . . . as my mother’s life slipped away from her. Everything became dark. Dark like black ink. . . dark like a polished oak box . . . dark like a bottomless hole in the ground . . . and dark like my life since my mother died.
As I wrote I shook violently. I was only dimly aware that Mrs. Tucker was still standing over me. Suddenly I collapsed on my desk. All that was left for me to do now was sleep. The faces above me swam strangely . . . and I slept like a baby.
When I opened my eyes I saw that I was no longer in the classroom. Where was I? The walls around me were covered in faded gray newsprint. Why though? Slowly I remembered . . . the poetry class . . . Mrs. Tucker . . . the assignment. But more vividly than that, I remembered my mother’s voice. I remembered her last words to me: “Now that it’s summer, maybe you should look into taking some classes, honey. I think it would be a good thing for you to try.” Then she had blown my father a kiss, backed out of the driveway and sped off to work . . . I never saw her again. Somehow the memory of her last words had been painfully branded into my memory, driving me on, believing I was doing what she wanted me to be doing.
I heard footsteps on the staircase leading to my attic room. I choked. Only my mother ever came up those stairs, but of course it wasn’t her now. Also, my father had always been irrationally frightened of the rickety staircase leading to my room, saying it couldn’t possibly support his weight, so his coming up here was a sure signal of something missing all over again. He came through the purple beaded curtain that hung across the entrance. He was carrying two cups of fragrant rose tea. I cupped a hand over my mouth to stifle a sob. Rose tea was one of my mother’s old specialties. She had always made it when I was upset, whether over a bad grade or a guy refusing to give me the time of day. I tried hard to keep the quaver in my voice down. “Hey Dad,” I said, “watcha doin’?”
He didn’t need to answer. “Elle . . .” He waited. “Elle . . . I read your paper . . . I wish I could help you . . .”
I felt a red-hot surge of cruel cynicism rise in my throat. “Well, you can’t . . . unless maybe you could bring Mom back to life . . . could you do that?!?!” Instantly I regretted my words. He ignored it. He must have known only too well the kind of anger I was fighting, and so he couldn’t really blame me for my harshness.
He pushed the magazines on my nightstand aside and set down the mug of rose tea. “I’ll let you finish this alone.” He rose and headed toward the door, but stopped halfway and turned back to me. “I love you, sweetie. So does she.” Then he walked through the doorway to the sound of clicking plastic beads. I lay back on the pillows. I could smell the tea wafting over the room, and as I lay there, breathing deeply, I remembered my mother’s voice, felt her hair tickling my cheek as she bent to kiss me good-night. I longed with every single fiber in me for her to live again, but I knew that even though I would never stop missing her, I would be able to move on and be happy. That was what she really wanted. I would laugh again . . . soon. I would be able to do the things that used to make me happy again. The storm had passed over. I extended my hand toward the wall and peeled away a single weathered schedule sheet. That was all. I wasn’t ready to let go yet, but staring at the pale blue square of empty wall, I felt like a small weight had been lifted from my chest. It would be a long, often painful process, but in time my pain would heal, one sky-blue patch at a time.