This is What Missing Her Feels Like: Chapter 6

Moths

We were small girls when we learned the word. Schmetterling. The German term for butterfly. Nancy had just moved into Dad's house, and we kept begging her to teach us German words, compiling our own secret language. We'd tricked her into teaching us Esel popo: donkey butt—something I'm sure my dad was quite pleased about as we skipped around the house singing, "Du bist ein Esel popo." (You are a donkey butt.) The other announcing her retort, "Nein, ich bin eine Schmetterling." (No, I am a butterfly.)

For more years than I ought to admit, we'd tease each other with these little phrases. As teenagers when I'd get angry with Al I'd lash out, "Esel popo!" And ever the deflector, she'd grin, "Schmetterling, schmetterling." 

My sister the butterfly.

--

That first day I spent so many hours crying my contacts became opaque, clouding my vision. I didn’t care. There wasn’t anything to look at anyway.  I sat on the back porch of my dad’s house in the beating summer sun, alternating between staring at the wooden slats of the porch and the blueness of the sky.

Eventually though, my hazy vision made my head ache.  My glasses were at my mom’s house, and I couldn’t drive. I would have been a hazard on the road. The fact that I couldn’t see was only amplified by my shaking hands and fear of engines, speed, ditches, oncoming traffic—the whole lot of it. So a friend picked me up, the boy I had dated during high school, Pat.

He'd called as soon as he heard what had happened. I didn't realize then how brave he'd been. When the phone rang I was wandering through Aleisha's room running my fingers over rows of French verb conjugations in her notebook.

It was my dad's landline that he called, and still I'm not sure how he found that number. He'd only ever called my cellphone. But my battery had died, and I hadn't charged it knowing full well it would unleash a flurry of sympathy I wasn't yet ready to deal with. Sometimes you need to hold the world at bay and sit in stillness.

 "Hi," I said, monotone. I stood at Al's window watching my dad and Nancy on the back porch, cups of water in hand, eyes blank.           

"Chels. I'm so, so sorry. What happened? Who was the guy that was driving? Is there anything I can do?" He talked quickly, filling the space.

"Could you take me to my mom's house?" I asked. "I need my glasses."
"I'll be there in ten, okay?"

As we walked up the steps to my mom's house, we froze. A lunar moth was perched below the doorbell. I’d never seen such an exquisite insect before—and that was truly the word for it: exquisite.  It was as wide as my palm, even folded in half, and the brightest lime green.  There were always moths swarming the porch light, but those were the size of a quarter and a dull grey-brown.  They were nothing like this creature.  We stood there for a few minutes staring before I went inside to find my glasses.  

A few days later, my mom finally made it home from Norway (a tornado warning had grounded her connecting flight, stranding her in Chicago).  She picked me up from my dad’s house. When we got home, there she was—the moth—still clinging to the doorbell.
                                                           
The next day my friend Charlie walked in carrying a basket of blueberry muffins his mom had baked.  “Chels, you’ve noticed that moth out there right?” he asked, handing me the basket as he walked to the kitchen. I nodded.  

“My mum saw it when she was here the other day, and she knew she’d read something about lunar moths before.” He grabbed a muffin from the basket as I set it on the counter. “Anyway, she looked it up when we got home. Apparently some cultures believe lunar months are the souls of people who've recently passed away returning to visit before they leave for heaven.” For three days, family and visitors trudged in and out of the house, ringing the doorbell only inches from the moth’s antennae.  But still, she stayed put.  

The morning we buried Aleisha's body, it was pouring.  Someone said the earth was crying to say goodbye to such a wonderful girl, but I thought that was bullshit. To me it just meant the weather had finally stopped warring with my emotions. It feels awfully strange to be grieving when it is 75 and sunny.

As I blundered toward the cars, surrounded by my family, I looked back again to see the moth. But this time she was gone.

On Father’s Day a full year later my dad took Louis the dog outside before bed. Standing near the woods, he saw a flash of green. He called to Nancy who was in the kitchen cleaning up from dinner. She grabbed the camera, ran outside, and started filming.  There he stood stonestill for fear of scaring her away. The moth fluttered to him, landing on his chest, right on top of his new #1 Dad t-shirt.  Then it flew up and landed on his lip, just for a moment. A gentle kiss.

He went back inside, but he was far too restless to sleep. If the moth had anything to do with his little girl, he was going back out to see it again. Quietly, he slid the screen door open and stepped onto the porch.  The moth was perched on the light as though waiting for him to return. So there he sat, with her, as Father’s Day faded to dawn.
 

This is What Missing Her Feels Like: Chapter 5

Define The Word Crazy
 

How tightly can you hold to things you know to be untrue before you begin to resemble what some may call crazy?

When it is only five hours after she died, which means five hours ago she was here on this Earth, if only five hours have passed are you allowed to lay on the floor of her bedroom and talk to her? At that moment can you speak to her out loud? Or is even five hours too long? Are you already too late? 

What if you are walking through her bedroom and in her French notebook you find the page where she was practicing writing, "I miss you," --in French, of course. If you feel, in your heart of hearts, that she left this message for you to find, does that too make you crazy?

What if it is Thanksgiving, the first holiday without her, and the day has been treacherous. You felt as though you were sinking into a cavern as you ate your turkey and stuffing, wishing she were across the table to joke with. When you are driving back to your mom's, you see a shooting star at the exact place you last saw her. If you believe this is her way of saying, I'm here, I really am, and I love you. You aren't as alone as you think, is this something you should keep to yourself so people don't start to worry?

What if you keep writing notes on her Facebook wall and dropping letters at her grave just because you need some place where you can still talk to her?

What if, four years later, you are coming home from a vacation in Italy. You're waiting in Moscow for a twelve-hour layover when you see her across the terminal. When you get closer you realize she is twenty pounds heavier here and ten years older, but other than that the resemblance is uncanny. It could have been her. As you stand there, unable to take your eyes from this girl, you start to cry. The flight crew announces boarding, but you don't budge. Tears cloud your vision, but you can't stop looking at her. You imagine being able to walk over, sit down beside her, and start talking. You imagine what she would say and how she would say it. You realize you're standing in the middle of the Moscow airport, staring at a girl you don't know, and crying uncontrollably, but you can't take your eyes off her. Because you want it to be her.

--

My teacher in high school had lost her husband not long before I took her class. Her husband, I later learned, had died while driving across town. He stopped suddenly, and the printer in his backseat catapulted toward the windshield, striking him in the back of the head. How fragile we are. 

There were rumors that she couldn't accept the fact that he was gone. Someone said she never moved his things from the living room. They were still there, years later, just the way he'd left them. Coffee—stale, half-gone. A book—lying open, face down on the arm of the chair, spread to the page he'd been reading. Slippers—ready to be shuffled into. The last moment of her Before—suspended in time. 

I had thought she was teetering on crazy, slipping into the insane, and during class I'd search her eyes for signs of vacancy. But now, looking back, I don't blame her a bit. I can't.

I used to call Al's phone again and again to hear her little voice on the answering machine telling me to leave a message after the beep. And then one night, as I lay curled in my bed, the robotic recording of the operator greeted me instead.

In that instant I hated my mother, who had disconnected Al's phone, for she had taken her away from me, my last shred of her. Never again would I hear Al's voice.

If she hadn't disconnected it, I imagine I would still be calling her now, listening to the loop of mundane words just to hear the cadence in her voice. I'm certain of it in fact because as I wrote those words I searched my phone's contact list to find her number, hoping perhaps, just perhaps, I would call and there she'd be: back on the other end. The recording, I mean.

But her number is not in my contact list any longer. It hurt too much to scroll past it whenever I was searching for someone else. Eliminating moments of potential heartache has become vital, for subjecting myself to that day-after-day would surely devastate me eventually.

--


I remember the first time it rained after we buried her body. It was dark outside and smelled of dirt and ocean. A clear sign there's a storm in the air. When the downpour began, I panicked.

She was going to get all wet.

I was laying here under my quilt, dry and safe, and she was out there getting soaked by all that rain, cold, wet, shivering. As soon as I had the thought, I realized how ridiculous it was and clicked on the TV to distract myself from it all, worrying I was teetering too closely to sanity's boundary.

Dad saw it in himself too, I think.

"I got a light," he told me one day.

"Oh?" I asked. "For where?"

"The cemetery."

I cocked my head.

"Why?" I asked gently. He looked sheepish as though the thought had never occurred to him.

"I go at night a lot. To sit with her. It's always so dark. Some of the other graves had them. She needed one too. I don't want her laying there in the dark. It's scary."

At some point, I suppose, this will happen to all of us. We'll love someone so much that it will be impossible to stay completely in this world if it means we'll be here without them. 

This Is What Missing Her Feels Like: Chapter 4

Everything That Came After
 

Laying in her room, I suddenly realized I didn't want to be alone. I certainly didn't want to be in her bed without her, so I went downstairs and curled into the couch opposite my dad. His phone rang.

"Hello?" he said softly. He winced. "Yes, you're right. Hopefully we caught it in time." He closed his eyes and leaned his head back. "I'll take care of it. Thanks for calling."

I watched him, this man I knew so well, behaving in a way I couldn't reconcile with his personality.

"Who was it?" I asked.

"Your mom." His chin was still tipped up, eyes closed, head resting on the back of the leather couch.

"What'd she say?"

He blinked his eyes open, meeting mine across the room, his chin quivering. "She just remembered Aleisha's an organ donor." He looked out the window at the brilliant blue day on the other side of the glass. "It's almost too late," a tear fell down his face, which was so contorted in pain it made my stomach ache.

From the Will Smith movie Seven Pounds I knew you have a very small window after someone's heart stops beating to preserve their pieces. Aleisha's heart stilled more than five hours ago.  Dad dialed whomever it was you dialed to deal with things like this and lay down on the couch, tears spilling from his eyes. He told them what he needed from them. And then their questions began.

"Yes, I consent," he said. He paused, listening. "Yes, I understand. Yes, I consent," he said over and over again.

Later I learned what they were saying to him. They were reading a list of body parts, which he had to approve one by one. As they read, he crumbled.

Her eyes? Yes.
Her stomach. Yes.
Her intestines. Yes.
Her kidneys. Yes, yes, yes. Take it all. Just take it all.  He sobbed.

--

Nancy stopped me in the kitchen. The house was full of people I didn't know who walked from the front door to the back porch where Dad was sitting. Their trails blurred. I couldn't distinguish one from the next. They were all the same. Tight hugs, pity eyes, "one day at a time" speeches, armfuls of food.

I didn't want them there. I didn't want them to leave.

She pushed the hair out of my face and set her hands on my shoulders. "Everything is going to be about Aleisha right now," she said wiping the tears from my cheeks. "But you have to promise not to forget how special you are to us and how much we love you. We all love you so much. Don't forget that, okay?" She looked into my eyes to make sure I was hearing her.

I nodded. I wanted to say, "Of course, of course, I'm not that selfish. It never crossed my mind." But I realized it would have been a lie. I had thought it. I cringed at my own vanity. Was it vanity? Or self-absorption perhaps? How had she seen that in me when I hadn't yet seen it in myself? And how had she found space for that in her own grieving heart?

 Only weeks earlier we had gone to a funeral together, Al and I. Bob's mom passed away, and though we'd never met her, we loved Bob, so we went to stand by his side. We stood out of the way as the pastor spoke, not part of this family, not quite belonging in this circle. We stood so close our shoulders touched. After the words were spoken and everyone began hugging, Mom turned to us.

"Can you girls run to Hannaford? In case Bob wants to have some family over. Get eggs and oj and breakfast stuff?" She pronounced it "break-frist." I smirked.

"Yeah, sure. We'll take your car, and you go with Bob?" I asked.

She nodded.

"Funerals are weird," I said to Al as we walked away, arms linked, strides matching.

"I know."

"What do you want your funeral to be like? Hypothetically."

"P.S. I Love You," she said.

"Irish music in a pub?"

"Just not so sad."

I nodded. "Me too," I said, slamming the car door.

"She wanted it like in P.S. I Love You," I said to my parents. "She told me." We were sitting around a conference table in the upper floor of the funeral home. There were two boxes of Kleenex in front of us. I set my forehead on the thick, polished wood, my head too heavy to hold up.

"Her funeral isn't going to be a happy thing, Chelsea. We can't pretend it is a happy thing," Dad said. "And we can't have it in a bar. She's a seventeen-year-old girl." Saying it out loud, just how young she was, made all of us quiet.

"Can we call it something else?" Mom finally asked. "What do they usually call it when it's for a child?" Her eyes were puffy, her face red, clutching wet Kleenex in a trembling hand.

"A Celebration of Life, I think," Dad said.

"Celebration…." Mom trailed off. "How can they call it that?"

"I guess that's what we're doing though. Celebrating her. Right?" Dad said.

"Missing her," I said avoiding eye contact, sinking. "Can we have Skittles at least? And music. She'd want that." I was still advocating for her, always advocating for her.

"Yes," Dad looked at me with warmth in his eyes. "We can do that." He put his arm around my shoulder. The weight felt good.

They walked to the other side of the room with Walker as he pointed out the variety of wood finishes on their caskets. Did we want the heavy cherry wood or something a bit darker in color, a walnut perhaps?

He was gentle and held himself with a quiet dignity. You could tell he had spent many-a-day consoling fragile people, broken families. But even so, it felt as though they were shopping for a new piece of furniture to round out the dining room. They picked the expensive one, as most parents, who could afford it, would, and we returned to our posts at the table.

"I've heard so many wonderful things about Alyssa," he said gently, trying to offer us a bit of solace. But Alyssa? Who was Alyssa? It felt as though the one beacon of light guiding us through this storm flickered out. We were in the dark, alone.

"Aleisha, you mean," my father said quickly before we'd moved too far from the moment.

"Right, of course," Walker said, backpedaling. "I'm so sorry. Aleisha."

How many of these meetings does he conduct every day? I wondered. How many names of those recently gone must he remember? How many families must he hold up? Perhaps I should have been angry with him, but I wasn't. Not at all. He devoted his life to this work, to being there for people in their most agonizing moments as he was right now for us. The man deserved a little forgiveness.

--

When the song began playing at the funeral, I started singing softly, nuzzling her casket with my nose, covering the top in kisses. The casket was closed, of course. For, as I said earlier, only in my imagination was she not mangled. Only in my mind did her little body make it through all this intact. I never saw her afterward. My parents asked if I wanted to, but they advised against it. Both of them. And I couldn't bear it. I couldn't stomach seeing how much pain she'd felt.

Al's boyfriend, Davis, stood beside me, one arm on the shiny wood, too shiny. "Why do you build me up, buttercup baby, just to let me down and mess me around," I whispered.

Davis joined in. "And then worst of all—you never call baby when you say you will, but I love you still." He put his other arm around me, and we stood there—a strange little trio. I rested my head on his shoulder and let my tears drip onto his shirt as I pressed my hands into the wood.

The chorus began again, and we sang louder this time, funneling our ache and our love right in. "I need YOUU more than anyone darlin', you know that I have from the start. So build me up, buttercup, don't break my heart." Soon we were singing as loudly as we could, shouting almost. Smile-crying. Singing to her. Celebrating her. Missing her. Loving her. Being alive.

After the funeral we all drove back to my mom's house, a small caravan of cars. There was my family in from Iowa, my group of friends from high school, and my friends from college. I was thankful they hadn't left straight after the funeral. I wasn't ready for silence just yet.

As soon as we got home I took off the black dress I'd been wearing, Aleisha's—all the good dresses were Aleisha's—wiggled into my yoga pants, and put on a pot of tea for the lot of us. It had been a long day, and we were all ready to collapse. I made seven cups of tea and began handing them out. I gave Davis a smaller mug that said, "Reading is Sexy" on the front.

"Uh Chelsea?" he said. "The hole is too small. My finger doesn't fit."

He said it at a particularly quiet moment, and everyone in the house heard him. My friends, all sitting around the kitchen table, looked at each other smirking, biting their tongues, holding back their laughter. But I slid onto the kitchen floor, doubled over, holding my stomach I was laughing so hard. When they heard my laughter, everyone stopped suppressing theirs. We all howled. Davis blushed something fierce as he realized the connotation of what he'd said. And then he too began laughing so hard he was crying.

We wouldn't stay silent and grey-faced forever, I thought. If something was funny enough, we would laugh. We would laugh so hard we cried. 

This is What Missing Her Feels Like: Chapter 3


The Haze Hours Were Full of Her

The week before, the sun had shone with such saturated light it felt like a boast. Look how beautiful I can make this land, it taunted after an 8-month stint of snowdrifts and frostbite. We'd been waiting for a day like this, and we set off on a bike ride—Aleisha and I. Peddling down our road we talked about doing the Trek Across Maine, a 3-day ride that would begin in less than a month.

"Maybe we can do it together every year," Al said. "Even after we both move away, we can come back and do the race together. It's on Father's Day, so maybe we could convince Dad to do it too."

I smiled. "Good luck with that. But I'll be there."

She smirked.

We rode toward to the place our grandma called "Double Bubble" when we were small, since the current rushes in both directions under the bridge creating a pool of saltwater foam. Then we turned left, rode past Lucia Beach, and headed back to Mom's house. The day was bright and hot, and we were happy.

The cars snapped around those bends without warning, so every fifty feet or so I’d look back to make sure she was still behind me peddling furiously.

“You alright, Al?" I’d holler into the wind.

“Yep!” she’d pipe back, working to keep her wide mountain bike tires moving as fast as my road bike. As we passed the path to the beach she yelled, “Chels!” with such panic that I spun around searching for her helmet as she crested the hill.

“What’s up, Al?”  
“Slow down and ride with me! I want to talk to you. It's lonely back here.”

Dad and Nancy took me home with them. I walked straight to her bedroom when we arrived, climbed into her massive bed, and buried my face in her flannel duvet. There was no one to see me—no reason to maintain any pretense of composure. Piece by piece, I let myself fall apart and lay gasping for air, exhausted and trembling.

It was rounding on 3 am. The night lightened to a dusty grey. I could almost make out the trees behind Dad's house and the mountain in the distance. Can't you just stay dark? I pleaded to a world that slows for no one.

I'd never lain in this bed before. When we spent time together it was most often at our mom's house, but this room at Dad's was where she'd spent her school weeks the past year, while I was at college. On the nightstand sat Wicked, her current obsession. Her bookmark poked out halfway through.

I rolled off the bed and curled into a ball on the floor as the muscles in my stomach seized. Laying my cheek on the scratchy fibers of her carpet, I heard the door click as Dad and Nancy left for the hospital. I think they'd asked if I wanted to go, but I'd refused. It already didn’t matter. Her body was at the funeral home.

Dad asked the funeral director, Walker, to promise that she wouldn’t be alone for a second. Walker said the funeral home was attached to his house, and his family would be there with Al all night long. They wouldn’t leave her alone.

Going to the hospital then was just a way to keep moving, a way to avoid stasis. The hospital is where the hopeful families go, the thankful families, as they sit beside the person they love and croon to her, stroking wisps of hair from her face: Oh, I love you so. What would I have done without you? I am so glad you're okay, my darling.

But we didn’t get to stroke Al’s cheeks. Or coax her groggy eyes back to us. We didn’t get to press kisses into her warm skin and tell her how much we loved her. Her body was already tucked beneath cold white linen, or at least that’s how I pictured her—in a removed room in the hospital, perhaps the basement, far away from the hum of life, so no one would accidentally stumble in and see her graceful, strong, young—oh, so young, far too young— body laying mangled on a metal table.

But she’s not mangled in my imagination. She lay there in a kind of stupor, like in the first moments after you fall asleep, when your lips are still turned up in a smile because you drifted off while you were thinking of something beautiful. In my mind she is lying there in her Sleeping Beauty stillness as Dad and Nancy trudge out of our muted house and head to the hospital.

My dad, you see, isn’t the kind of man who curls up and lets the world shake him. He couldn’t sit down. Crawling into the fetal position was not an option yet, though soon he’d have no choice. But right then he still needed to keep moving. He needed to be near his baby, his precious cargo, the same little girl who’d held his hand and sang duets of "You Are My Sunshine" over and over again on the drive to preschool. He needed to pick up her abandoned car from the corner of the hospital parking lot, where her friend had left it. He needed to collect the pieces of her that lay scattered in the world and bring them back home to us.

The click of the latch meant I was alone. But I hardly noticed; I felt so full of ache and so full of her. I lay sprawled on her bedroom floor, not thinking about what I was doing, and I began talking to her.

"Come on, Al. Fuck. You know better, don’t you? He’s an idiot. You know he’d try to impress you. So why would you do that? Why would you ride with him? Jesus, that was dumb."

I immediately felt guilty for telling her she'd been dumb, but she had, had she not? And as her older sister it had always been my place to tell her such things.

"I don’t know how to do this without you," I pleaded. "You have to come back, Al."

Somehow it didn't feel as though I was asking for the impossible.

"We're supposed to go on family vacations together when we’re grown and celebrate Christmas with our kids. And I learned to ski so I wouldn't have to sit alone in the lodge, remember?" I rolled onto my back and stared at her ceiling. "And God knows I don’t even like skiing that much..."

"I need you to be here. How am I supposed to handle Mom and Dad by myself? Come on Al. Just come home. I need you…." I curled into a ball, cradling my knees. "I love you, Al. You know that, right? You can feel that, right?—how much I love you?" I climbed back into her bed and pulled the duvet over me.

An hour later I woke to the bright sun, and this time I could feel it in my heart, and I knew it in my head. When I woke this time she was gone. She was actually gone. My body knew she wasn't on the Earth any longer.

This is What Missing Her Feels Like: Chapter 2

The Darkness of One O' Clock


The room spun. I don't mean that to be a metaphor. I mean it dissolved in and out as my body began shaking. I screamed, my panic demanding to be heard. My stomach clenched, and I gagged again and again, dry heaving into my pillow.

Your body believes in terror much more quickly than your mind, you see, because even as I screamed I didn't believe him. This was from a movie. People don’t sit on my bed in the middle of the night and tell me that my sister, my person, my best friend, didn’t make it.  I thought all that, but I kept screaming. The mind's ability to multitask shocked me even then. I clung to my dad, clawing myself into his chest.

“Why Daddy? NO. Daddy, please. Say it’s not real. What the fuck!" I don't usually swear, but it seemed the only word that didn't fall short.  

I pulled on a sweatshirt because although it was summer I couldn't stop shivering. Afraid I was going to throw up, I sprinted to the bathroom but didn't quite make it. I collapsed in front of the door.

“I need you to get up now," my dad said as he squatted down. "Can you get ready to come with me?” 

Another man spoke. Had he been there the whole time? He must have been. It was my neighbor, Tim, the sheriff.  I knew his kids, and I felt my face flush, ashamed for screaming and flailing here on the floor. I started to whimper, hunkering more closely to my dad.  

“Is anyone else home?” the sheriff repeated.  But I didn't answer. Because Aleisha was the one that should have been home, the one I figured was home by now, but she wasn't in her room. Her bedroom door was open next to us, her clothes in a heap on the floor, her bed unmade, her backpack lying open, notebooks spilling out.  

“Honey, is Bob home?” my dad asked gently. Bob, my mom’s boyfriend. I nodded, surprised he hadn't heard me screaming. “Okay, sweetheart,” Dad said, trying to steady his voice. “I need you to get up now. I need you to get a message to your mom."  

My mom.  

My mom who didn't yet know her daughter was dead. I screamed wailing, sobbing screams, but my dad kept urging me up. “Put in your contacts, honey,” he said. But my body didn't move. I tried saying it out loud to myself this time. 

“Stand up,” I said, my voice echoing in the small bathroom. And I stood. “Put your contacts in. You can do it. Just put them in.” I realized how idiotic I sounded, standing there in the bathroom talking to myself, staring into the mirror at my own frantic eyes. But it worked, I suppose. I got them in.

I was breathing as fast as my body could inflate with oxygen and get rid of it. Was I hyperventilating? “Sweetheart, I need you to send your mom a message," Dad said again, nudging me toward the stairs.  I started shaking even harder. My legs couldn't hold my body up.

Could I really tell my mom? Maybe if we didn't tell her it wouldn't be real. We could all just go back to bed and wake up in the morning and Al would be there, sleeping in too late, and I'd go into her room and crawl under the blankets with her.

I withered into a clump on the linoleum next to the bath mat, and I could feel myself sucking in sand from the floor that never got swept because Al’s clothes were always strewn across it, so I couldn't clean up. I had just asked her a few days earlier if she could finally, please, just pick UP her clothes? She narrowed her eyes at me. They were still there, surrounding me now. Her sweatpants and her underwear, right where she'd stripped them off for a shower.  

My dad lifted me to my feet, and I walked down the stairs, one slow step at a time, to the kitchen where my computer sat on the counter. My feature article still up on the screen.

I opened my email and started typing a message to my mom, picturing her reaction, her paralysis, her fear. I wanted her to know it was important, that she needed to call quickly, but didn't want to say too much. I wanted to give her a few extra minutes of not knowing.

"Mom, Please call Daddy as soon as you see this," I wrote.  I hadn't called him Daddy since I was six. I included his number—not willing to take any chances.  I read it over and hesitated before adding "I love you with all my heart," knowing it wouldn't be enough. I held my breath and hit send.

Standing in the doorway, I stared into the darkness of one o’clock, the stillness of one o’clock. But it was all just a façade of calm, veiling the hellscape lurking beyond.

Bob walked down the stairs with the officer, rambling too loudly. “I thought it was the dog—that sound, I thought it was Beta. I couldn’t figure out why she was makin’ so much noise. I can’t believe I di’n’t hear you guys. Joyce is gonna die; she’s just gonna die. I saw Aleisha just a few hours ago. I was gonna build a campfire for her and her friend, but then I guess they left. I can’t tell Joyce. She’ll just die.”  

When he saw me standing by the door he came straight over and hugged me for the first time since he'd begun dating my mom five years before. He hugged me a long time. Tightly. Like I was his own daughter.

“We’ve got to go," Dad said. It didn't occur to me to ask where we had to go or why the huge rush. I may have been twenty-one, but here I was just a child, listening to everything my daddy said, hoping he could make it right, hoping he could tell me how to fix this.

I stared unblinking out the windshield.  As he pulled out of the driveway, his wife Nancy said, “Marlowe, can you actually drive right now?" I imagine he was shaking quite badly. "Do you need me to drive, Marlowe?"

He stared ahead. “No."

We'd only made it a mile when his phone began ringing. My body realized it was my mom before my mind did, and the dry heaving began.  I thought I might vomit. I couldn't listen to it happen—him telling her. I yanked the handle, but my door wouldn't open unless the one in front opened first. Desperate, I yanked the handle again.

“Pull over, Marlowe,” Nancy said as Dad reached for the phone. As soon as the truck stopped, she opened the front door, and I hurled myself out, sprinting into the woods. It wasn't long before I collapsed.

I hadn't noticed the police officer jogging behind me, not my neighbor, but another guy, much younger, a kid really. I realized then they had been following us in the squad car, making sure my dad stayed on the road.

He kneeled awkwardly but stayed quiet. I kept whimpering, my throat making noises I couldn't control. Enough time passed in silence that the officer must have felt uncomfortable. He cleared his throat.

“We knew it was her because of her ring,” he said. I rocked back and forth like some sort of mental patient trying to tune him out. Why on earth would he be saying this to me? I wondered. Don't these guys get sensitivity training or something? Jesus.

“Her friend said she was wearing a claddagh ring." Friend? What friend had the police been talking to? I realized how much I didn't know. He mistook my silence for confusion about the ring. "That Irish one with the crown?  It was on her finger.” he tried to explain. "That's how we knew it was her…"

What do you mean: that's how you knew it was her? Didn't it look like her? I whimpered. What happened to my baby sister? I looked at the same ring on my finger and thought about how she always wanted the things I had. I pressed my face into the gravel until I could feel tiny rocks jut into my skin, and I listened to crickets chirping into the otherwise silent summer night. 

This is What Missing Her Feels Like: Chapter 1

The Last of The Before

 

It's always a perfectly ordinary day until it's not. And on this day I was sitting in an armchair with my laptop on my lap, struggling to write my first feature-length piece for the magazine where I was working for the second summer. The cursor taunted me, blinking again and again, but the words simply weren't coming. An eloquent and witty introduction was circling just beyond my grasp. I stared at the page's blankness, hoping my bosses hadn't noticed my sudden spell of incompetence. 

It was a day of heavy heat, the kind that slows your thoughts, and lunchtime was approaching quickly, a ritual we encountered every day with surprisingly little pomp seeing how we were— after all—a food magazine. My phone lit up.

It was my sister, Aleisha, Al to me. Wanna workout at the Samo after work? She was talking about the Samoset Resort—the closest thing Mid-Coast Maine has to a luxury hotel—complete with an infinity pool, oceanfront golf course, and oversized ballrooms where folks host their wedding receptions, cutting cake over the same dirty, patterned carpet that the Rotary Club had their lunch meeting on the day before.

Can't tonight, sorry boo, I typed back. I'd already made plans to have dinner at our grandparents' lake cottage, and I wanted to keep them all to myself. I loved those evenings of their undivided attention. They'd talk about the stock market, politics, and history, and for an hour or two I wouldn't feel quite so young.

When I got home that evening I went for a short jog, but it was so muggy I didn't make it far. I showered, hopped in my Impala with its malfunctioning gas gauge and broken window, and headed to Lermond Pond. As I rounded the corner on Route 17, I saw a white convertible headed the other direction. I stuck my hand out the window and waved madly. It was Al.

She returned my flailing wave with a grin. At the next red light I texted her:

"Where are you headed?" Protective older sister instinct.

"Mom's," she wrote back.

"Ok, love you, see you later." I think I sent that message, but perhaps I'm manufacturing it now. Polishing off that final glint of her to see a brighter version of myself reflected back.

When the sunset over the lake turned to night and the loons began to yodel, I headed back to Mom's, read a few pages of my book, and stared at my phone, wondering why the guy I'd been seeing at school hadn't bothered texting all summer. I changed into a sports bra and shorts and cranked my window open. It was still humid, but in Maine we don't do air conditioners. The crickets chirped loudly as I fell asleep, never once questioning the whereabouts of my seventeen-year-old sister.

I'd just dozed off when I thought I heard boots thudding up the stairs. I was sure I must've been hearing things. Even so, my heart raced. “Maine State Police….is anyone home?” a man said with force, hard-edged. I tried to shake off the dream world, but it happened again, louder this time, “Maine State Police…is anyone home?”  I opened my eyes widely and stared at the ceiling. Whatever this was, it was not a dream.

“In here. I’m in here." Calling to them went against everything I'd ever been told to do if strangers entered my house.  When I was seven and imagined a home invasion, I planned to hide behind the clothes in my walk-in closet. I'd take little Al too, and we'd both hide there, pink-painted toenails peeking out beneath a row of jumpers and turtlenecks, suspending our breath until the strangers went away.  But on this night I beckoned them straight to me.

You can plot and plan for something until the cows come home, but the truth is, you don't know what you'll do in that instant. As children, our dad would quiz us all the time. Practicing for those moments.

"If someone comes to pick you up from daycare," he'd say, "what are you supposed to ask them?"

"For the password!" we'd chant. This was a routine we knew well.

"And what's the password?"

"Watermelon!"

"And what if someone asks if you want a ride when you're at the grocery store?"

"We say nothankyou!" (we shouted as though it was one word).

"But what if they grab ahold of you and try to take you anyway? What do you do then?"

"We yell, THIS IS NOT MY MOMMY OR MY DADDY. HELP! HELP!"

"And what else?"

"We kick and bite and scream!"

We were two little girls prepared for any emergency.

On this night my mom was on a business trip in Norway working on a computer-programming project, so I had no choice but to face these heavy-booted strangers alone. No one would come to my rescue.

As my bedroom door creaked open, a flashlight illuminated two silhouettes. Big men with big shoulders.  One of them walked to my bed and sat down, nearly landing on my legs.

“This is your dad,” he said, which seemed a peculiar thing to say, an unusual way to phrase it at the least. His voice was unfamiliar. And besides, my dad hadn't been in my mom’s house since he moved out ten years earlier. He wasn't allowed here, especially not in the middle of the night. I tried to speak—I even opened my mouth—but the words were stuck.

He said my name, but again his voice sounded foreign, his intonation unusual.  “Who are you?” I finally mustered.

He touched my shoulder, but even the weight of his hand felt awkward. And though he tried to soften his voice, it still had an electric quality, like the power source was jolting in and out.

“It’s your dad, sweetheart.  I need you to sit up.  I need to talk to you.” He tried to temper his breath, and as I felt my bed quake I realized he was shaking. “There was an accident, honey. Sit up."

Now I understood why my dad would be sitting on my bed in the middle of the night: my mom. It must be my mom, I thought. I pictured her plane heading over the Atlantic, hitting some turbulence, erupting, and plunging into the dark water below.  

I reached for to this man, deciding he must actually be my father. But he almost pushed me away. He wasn't finished yet. “Aleisha was in an accident, honey."

I grabbed my glasses on the nightstand and an elastic for my hair. I needed to get ready to go to the hospital to take care of that little blonde girl until she was okay again. I'd sit by her bedside for as many days as it took, sleeping in the little hospital cot with her if she’d let me.  I ran through a list of things I'd need to grab from her bedroom on my way out: her phone charger, a book, her makeup, her boyfriend's sweater.

My father gripped my shoulder more tightly.  “You don’t need to go so fast, sweetheart,” he said, voice wavering, chin trembling. “She didn’t make it.”  

This Is What Missing Her Feels Like

Prologue: The Danger of Non-Fiction


We almost hit him. We didn't. But it was close.

An old man was backing out of his driveway as we'd rounded the bend, and Dad screeched to a stop. We sat there breathing heavily as the old man finished backing out, one centimeter at a time.

"Well," Dad said. "He probably shouldn't be driving, huh girls?"
"He's slow as molasses!" said 10-year-old Aleisha.

"You almost hit him," I said, thirteen and ever-so-sassy.
"Can you both remember his license plate? Just in case we need it later."

"7022 HB," Aleisha read.
"Will you remember that in an hour?"
"7022 HB, 7022 HB, 7022 HB," I said. "Repeat it with me, Al."

"7022 HB, 7022 HB, 7022 HB," we chanted together.
"Think you'll remember it in an hour?" Dad smirked at us.
"Yep, we will," I said.

A year later I made the four digits my debit card pin. And now, more than ten years later, I made it the code on my library card.

This summer I was back in Maine driving that familiar road, and I saw that same car we'd almost hit sitting in the driveway. The license plate was 7222 HD. I'd been repeating it wrong for more than a decade.

I tell you this only to warn you. This book is non-fiction, which means it is as close to the truth as I could possibly tell you—my truth that is. It means I will share my heart with you in hopes that it will sit with you through your own kind of missing someday. But I'm certain there are moments I will retell imprecisely, just a bit off the mark.

I can't help but wonder though: what shapes a person more– the way the day happened or the way you always remember it?

Los Angeles Crusader

“We like our rural property values,” he retorts with a laugh that says ‘Ah, how young you are and how naive.’ I am making the case for my new home city, Los Angeles. A city I am unsure I’d actually like to defend. But during these conversations I have no choice. I become LA’s champion, advocating for it, endorsing it in every minor battle.

Who is my enemy in these battles, you ask? They differ in age and intelligence, ethnic background and income level. But they have this in common: they live in cities where you can buy a reasonable family home for less than 600,000 dollars, where kids do not need to go to private school to get a ‘good education,’ where traffic does not clog the freeway like an artery--stopping you up until one day you simply collapse, your body tired of dealing with it all.

“How can you stand it?” they ask about the smog that makes our mountains seem encased in mist on an otherwise bold, sunny day. “Isn’t it hard to breathe? And what about the movie stars, everyone so shallow, drinking their green juice with kale-- how odd-- and going to yoga all the time-- men too, can you imagine grown men in yoga classes? It’s a city that just goes, goes, goes, no time for contemplation, isn’t that right? And I’ve heard that no one lets anyone merge in on the highway! A highway with seven lanes no less. SEVEN lanes. I could never drive on such a road.”

“And aren’t there a lot of “gay people” there, in Los Angeles? Not that I have anything against the gays. I mean, to each his own. But I just don’t know if I could deal with them, like, holding hands in the grocery store or, I don’t know, kissing on the street. It’s like, do whatever you want in the privacy of your bedroom, but I don’t need to see that. I will say, I’d love to be able to get Mexican food; I love a good taco. But I’ve heard the streets where the Mexicans live aren’t that safe at night anyway, so people can’t even go out to get the Mexican food. Is that right?”

I am too young to combat all this. I feel ill-equipped, inadequate. How do I explain that you’re a bigot when you think you’re anything but? How do I tell you that the very reasons you hate LA are the reasons I am having a love affair with this city? How do I convince you that the traffic and high housing values are worth living in the middle of this incredible vibrancy? That here, in the middle of this, I feel more alive than I do anywhere else? I live in the city where people writing scripts at Peet’s Coffee and Tea will be getting an Academy Award less than ten years from now. The city of SpaceX and Disney and Mattel. The city of imagination and creation and ambition and intuition. I live in the middle of it all.

So yes, my rent on my Santa Monica apartment is four times what my parents paid for our house on the coast of Maine. And no, I don’t have a backyard with a barbecue or a two-car garage, and I have to go outside to use the washer and dryer. But on the first of January I can go surfing under a blue sky, and my friends are all working on “passion projects” on top of their day jobs. We get pollo tacos on Tuesday nights and rock climb on the weekends. We live by the red rock clay of the Canyon and the smashing waves of Porto. Walk down the street and you’ll hear conversations in Korean and Russian and Spanish. The Birds of Paradise and bougainvillea decorate our street corners, and the roots on the trees in the Palisades are as large as my torso. I live in home of Joan Didion.

 

how we handle problems that arise regularly

My little all-white kitten wakes me up several times throughout the night. I think she gets lonely and wants someone awake to keep her company. So she scratches at my bedspring cover until the noise wakes me and I either scold or pat her, depending on my level of exhaustion, and we all go back to bed. 

But this kind of interrupted sleep means that nearly every day I wake up tired. So last night, at 7:30pm, as I was reading and my eyelids began to feel heavy, I decided I was just going to go to bed. Pete's in Oregon for a few days, so I didn't even have to explain myself to anyone. I just brushed my teeth and hopped in bed. 

As usual, she woke me up at least five times last night. She was clearly more anxious than most nights. (She doesn't like it when Pete is gone.) Even so, I woke up at 6:45, ready to go. 

It got me thinking... how many other obstacles like this do I repeatedly encounter in a given week? Do I find ways to work WITH and AROUND them or am I continually expecting them  to disappear-- and feeling anxious and angry when they do not? 

Questioning originality in business

Anyone who started their own business knows how this feels....

You have an amazing idea for a new product or service, and you think: no one else is doing this. HOW is no one else doing this? So you do a bit of research, and the playing field looks empty. So you start hashing out the project. You build out a mini business plan, consider what your branding would look like, think about how your messaging would read.

Less than 3 months in, as you probe more deeply into the niche world in which you are now invested, they come out the woodwork--or so it seems--all the competitors who are doing something eerily similar to you. Perhaps they've been around much longer than you, but you'd never heard of them. Perhaps they are new to the scene. Either way, suddenly your idea doesn't feel quite so original. Things feel like they could deflate in an instant.

When you get to this place, you have two options.
1. Let your imposter syndrome take control and decide to jump ship. Because if it isn't original, COMPLETELY original, is it even worth doing? OR...
2. Make a cup of tea, break out a notebook and pen, and really ask yourself: in what ways am I different? And how can I emphasize what sets me apart? Use the busy-ness of your industry as a challenge to create a product more original, more compelling, with more depth than anyone else. Give yourself permission to keep tweaking your mission, your messaging, and your brand as you push yourself further in this direction with every passing month. 

I'm going to put on a kettle of tea. 

 

The problem with: GIRLS COMPETE. WOMEN EMPOWER

A few months ago I posted a graphic on the Bossladies Instagram that read: "GIRLS COMPETE. WOMEN EMPOWER."

I meant it to be a motivational call for solidarity, I suppose. But as I've been seeing more and more people posting those words over the recent weeks, it's beginning to bother me. 

Because who says girls should compete with one another in the first place?
Who says girls can't empower one another as well?

I'm not okay with the notion that girls are bad and women are good. And perpetuating that idea isn't doing anything positive for any of us.
 

 

Does the age in which we move in with someone impact the gendered difference in the relationship?

I have a theory.

But I really have no way to test it. So I figured I'd share it with you all here, and if anybody has had a contradictory experience, you'll tell me.

Here it is:
The more years that heterosexual people spend living independently as an adult (before they move in with a partner), the less likely they are to assume traditional gender roles within a household when they do move in with a partner. 

In other words, if a man has to cook and clean for himself for 5+ years, if he decides to move in with a woman after that time, he won't just unlearn his 5 years of cooking and cleaning. The guy will still whip up a mean lasagna and chicken noodle soup as often as he did before. And conversely, if a woman has to change lightbulbs, wash her car, and take out the trash for 5+ years, it's not likely that she'll suddenly stop doing it if she decides to move in with a man. 

So then, as the average age in which people get married increases, does the gendered difference in household participation decrease proportionally? (Not that people aren't living together without getting married...but in general...)

The things that occupy my mind on otherwise quiet Sunday mornings... 

how women are interviewed differently than men

Women entrepreneurs are featured in the media quite often. But most of the time their features have nothing to do with the businesses they've built. 

Instead they get asked to do house tours-- to show off their homemaker skills-- and beauty interviews-- to tell us what makeup they use to make their face look just-so.

They get asked to share their workout routines and their morning routines and talk about how they balance work with motherhood. They get asked to show off their baby's new nursery or share their wedding photographs or list the staples they keep in their purse. 

We even get tours of their gardens, clips of their favorite recipes, and lists of their favorite new fashions this fall. 

But what I want to know is how they kept going when things got hard, how they stay relevant in a business world that moves so quickly. I want to know their thoughts about different types of marketing strategies and the first things they consider when developing new products. I want to know how they manage their team and what part of being a leader still feels hard. 

I want bossladies to be interviewed in the same way that male entrepreneurs get interviewed. With the same gravitas. With the same respect.

 

the absence of people

When I was small, my mom travelled a lot for work. Once she went to Paris and brought me back this stunning black velvet scarf. It had all the colors of the rainbow woven into the pattern and was very sophisticated, or seemed so to my little eyes-- the fact that it was French making it all the more glamorous. I wore it constantly for at least two winters until I lost it.

Then she went to Cork, and the stories she told of the green hills filled with sheep stuck with me years later when I was deciding where to study abroad. I got my own apartment in that Irish city and had one of the best times of my life.

But despite the fact that my mom's travels were nothing unusual, every time before she left I'd work myself into such a distressed state that I became sick. There was an empty, hollow feeling in my stomach that resembled nausea, so I'd walk around the house unable to stop gagging. Once she was gone, I calmed down a bit. The gagging would, thankfully, go away, and I'd settle into my routine with my dad and little sister for the week.

Actually being alone was easier than sitting with the idea of losing her

--

Pete leaves tomorrow, heading to New Hampshire for a week to work at his high school's orientation camp. And though I haven't felt that gnawing hollow feeling in years, here it is, back in my stomach, reminding me that I'll be without the person that feels like home, and I'd rather not be. 

My body has such an interesting reaction to the absence of people.

tyra banks?!

Guys, guess who started following the Bossladies Instagram this morning? 

TYRA BANKS. (!!)

And yes, it's really her. She has the blue checkmark and 4.4 million followers. 

Please excuse me while I freak out.

 

 

 

protecting your creativity

I have always done my writing in the morning.

My brain slows down around 11am., and I feel as though I'm operating on foggy autopilot for the rest of the day--creatively at least. So the hours between 8 and 11, that is when I do all my writing. (Except this post, which I am writing at 8pm. I'm already dubious about the result...) 

For a while, as things began to pick up with Bossladies, I was scheduling a lot of morning meetings. "Coffee dates" mostly, where I would drink tea instead of coffee and mildly resent the fact that I wasn't at home, sitting in front of my computer with candles burning and classical music playing, piecing together my thoughts into short essays.

Don't get me wrong, I love meeting other women for tea and rambling about life and business. I thrive on it. But I missed my writing time something fierce. So as the months have gone by, and I've settled into my role at Bossladies, I've become much more protective of those morning hours.

I savor them and keep them for myself as often as I can. I plan meetings later in the day and, frankly, take a lot fewer meetings than I did a few months ago. Because my creative output is one of the most important things in my life. It's something that makes me feel the most connected to the world, and it's my favorite way to communicate and contribute. I am a better person when I give myself time to write. A happier person at the very least. 

So, the take-away thought of the day? -- Know yourself intimately. Pay attention to your soul's rhythms and honor them. Because as a woman I admire recently said, "Self care is never selfish." 

compassion of thought

I was a senior in college when I first heard the idea.

We were having brunch with one of Pete's mentors, an especially warm, thoughtful man named Jed, who worked at our college, when he told us about something he and his wife had been working on: compassionate thought.

As he explained it, and I'm sure I'm paraphrasing now, they were trying to be more conscious of the dialogues they allowed to play out in their mind. "Most of us spend time trying to be compassionate through our actions and our words," he said. "But how many of us pay attention to how compassionate we are in our thoughts?" 

It's been almost five years since that brunch, and Pete and I still talk about it often. It came up last night in fact. 

Because I think it makes us ask ourselves a fundamental question: are we kind because we want TO BE SEEN as kind or because we value bringing light into the world? 

 

don't let things get precious

I've made a list of things I want to feature on the Bossladies blog. It goes on and on and on: women I want to interview, studio tours I want to create, ideas I want to explore, debates I want to create space for.

But instead, for the past month, the Bossladies blog has stayed silent. 

I create excuses for myself--well thought-out excuses that even I can buy. I've been writing all the content for Issue 02 this month, so I don't have time to work on the blog as well.

But, as demonstrated by this here post, I clearly DO have time.

So, as I was laying in bed this morning, scrolling through Insty and trying to figure out why I haven't been working on the Bossladies blog, despite my million ideas for it...I decided it's because I've built it up in my head. 

I have this picture of perfection for the blog--the types of images and illustrations and witty narratives that I want to share. Anything less than that seems inadequate, a failure. So rather than posting something that isn't quite perfection, I don't post anything at all. I stop contributing to the conversation. 

Liz Gilbert talked about this a bit at her workshop last October. She said that every idea writers have is like a purple amethyst butterfly fluttering around above their heads. And in order to take that beautiful idea and actually create it in the world, you have to grab that butterfly, set it on the page, and smash it with a hammer. She said this is one of the hardest parts of being a writer--seeing your perfect ideas smashed to bits again and again and again. 

Because nothing will ever be as beautiful or as perfect in real life as it is in your imagination. And if you require perfection of yourself, you will never actually create. 

So, I suppose, the lesson I'm learning today is that, if you are a creator, you must continue to create. Every day you must put something out into the world. And some days it will be quite horrible. But some days it just may surprise you. 

Either way, you can't let your art (or your business) get so precious that you stop creating. Because silence is no kind of perfection. 

 

the beginning

This particular moment feels...saturated.

I think that's the best word to describe it. I feel so incredibly where I ought to be, doing the work I ought to be doing. It's as though I've pushed a tiny snowball off the top of a very tall mountain, and it's rolling down now, gaining momentum and mass as it falls. I truly believe that Bossladies will bring with it a sort of revolution, a new way of thinking, a quiet critique of old forms of media, and I'm proud to be guiding its direction and growth. 

But I certainly haven't always felt this connected to my work. There were many days, in my early time in LA, as I was fetching my boss's dry cleaning and dog food, when I felt underutilized. When my days didn't feel well spent. When I didn't feel useful or engaged. 

So, for all the other women out there feeling that right now-- I get you. 
Just know, it won't stay like that-- unless you let it.

As I put together the second issue of Bossladies, I've been spending a lot of time writing other people's stories. But I wanted a place where I could share my own. And not just Bossladies-related things, but other things too: my favorite bits of LA, my dreams and hopes and fears, the VW bus that my boyfriend and I are refurbishing, snippets of my favorite conversations throughout the week, books I'm obsessing over, editing projects I'm working on.

So I'm claiming this little nook of the web as my own, and here I will share those pieces of myself and my life with you.