My heart shattered with a single ambiguous text message.
I walked to my last class of the day on a crisp afternoon, the sun playing games with the clouds and the breeze teasing my hair. I went into the building and approached the staircase as my phone vibrated in my back pocket. I slowed down and let the hordes of people pass me on either side.
At that moment, my hair stuck in the cracks of my chapped lips and wound itself into a tangled snake around the wire of my earbuds. I wondered if I had Chapstick and a hairbrush in my backpack to remedy these petty irritations. I opened the text message I just received as I began to climb the stairs, anticipating a statement about how boring class was or how stupid people are.
I never expected my heart to shatter in that one text – in that one moment. The message was a single line – Lee might be dead
What do you mean might?! What the hell happened?
Tears began to fill my eyes; my breath stopped halfway in my lungs. Mouth agape, I could not complete one full breath. The air transformed into shards once it hit the cracks in my lips, cutting my attempts to breathe into jagged gasps, edges that stuck their sharp corners into my throat.
I tried to picture the last time I had seen Lee.
My body jammed itself in-between the doorframe of the classroom and another person – reality was brought back to me momentarily.
I walked through my classroom door and took a seat through the trance of anxiety and misery that had been cast over me in that one strange instant of a text. I took my seat slowly, as my body was still under the sick spell of grief and guilt. I had given my boyfriend a good morning kiss when we woke up that day, ate lunch with my friends while we listened to music – all while Lee had suffered a heart attack and died shortly after that same morning. I didn’t know if she had given her husband a kiss good morning beforehand, or when the last time she had talked to her group of friends was. My day up to that point had been fine, and I felt guilty as hell for it.
I imagined the eyes of my peers on me as I felt everything inside me constrict into the squeezing sensation of my chest. No one, of course, was looking at me - the only light in the room was the mellow glow of the projector and the cracks of light that made its way through the closed shades and onto the tables and notebooks in geometric chunks. That was good, I thought, as the dark hid my wide haunted eyes that put me as a ghost on a different plane of reality that was strangely still intersected with everyone else.
The professor droned on as the class half-assed their notes – it felt so unimportant in comparison to those few short text messages I had received mere minutes before. There seemed to be no point in listening to a lecture, of going through the motions of learning, of putting on the studious façade. There appeared to be no point because I was broken. No one realized that one of the most important people in my life had left me without one last goodbye. Oblivious pens scratched paper, and somebody sneezed. No one realized that the woman that had become like a second mother to me would no longer share her wisdom or encourage me to better myself.
I watched Lee’s smile in my head while my eyes stared listlessly as the shadows shift slightly on my blank paper and the limp hand that held my pen. Eyes darting side to side nervously, the anxiety and anticipation of numbing depression rose higher and higher until their murky waters brushed my chin and threatened to drown me right there in the classroom. Right as I felt as though the pressure had become overwhelming, the class was dismissed. I ran out of the room, stumbled down the stairs, and emerged into the sun and wind.
In record time, I reached the building my boyfriend was in. The moment he saw me, he took me into his arms and began to pat my back reassuringly and sooth my hair back down from the frizzy mess the wind had turned it into. Though my body had managed to escape the hypnosis, my mouth was unable to articulate anything other than “Lee is dead.”
After several minutes that seemed to last for hours, I was finally able to mumble coherent sentences into his shoulder.
“I don’t remember the last time I saw her,” I said softly, choking back the wave of tears that threatened to erupt. “It was probably at work – my shift had ended, and I was on my way out. She leaned over her register or the office counter and wished me goodbye and a good week at school. I bet I smiled and said, ‘see you later!’ or just ‘goodbye, Lee.’
I was unable to place the last day we had worked together, but clips and images of her played and flashed in a montage that juxtaposed laughter with surreal heartbreak. I could picture her standing behind the counter of the little grocery store we worked at. She was of average height with short blonde hair that she always kept in a fluffy bob to frame her kindly, aging face. Her beautifully rich yet translucent eyes were always alive with a spark of mischief, yet they knew the right moment to switch into a shade of warm concern and understanding. Her age showed in the wrinkles around her eyes and lips from years of laughter and heartache, giving her character, and a genuine smile that lit up her whole face and cast a glow onto anyone in her path. The scent of either her favorite perfume or the Marlboro light 100s she smoked to help calm her nerves from years of teaching and dealing with the local clientele clung to her hair and the soft fabric of the sweaters she loved to wear in the chilly store.
I paused as my thoughts took over and shut off my ability to speak yet again. As I mentioned the void of not knowing when I saw her last, I prayed that the last time I saw her was on a Sunday morning. Not any Sunday morning, but one of the Sunday opening shifts when she would buy a dozen donuts from the shop down the street because she believed in the little acts of kindness that can make someone’s day. Or even just one of the mornings when she left me a note or a little drawing on the slip of paper in my drawer because she knew that it would make me smile even that early in the morning.
“She knew you loved her,” he crooned. I nodded and sunk my head further into the soft fabric of his sweatshirt, taking a deep breath of his familiar scent to help calm my nerves.
The thoughts that bombarded me left me weak and the fraction of a functioning human. I called out of work that night, unable to face the store and the memories that were within those dirty walls and dusty shelves. If I had walked into the store that night, I would have crumbled onto the old linoleum floor when the mirage of Lee smiling and handing me a drawer over the lottery counter filled my senses to the point of realism. I knew that it was a ghost I couldn’t avoid forever, though. I knew I would have to go back into that store and face the emptiness of her absence - I just couldn’t face it at that time.
For the longest time, and even to this day, I think long and hard about Lee so that I can never forget anything about her – at least that’s what I tell myself.
I remember so many things, but here is one of the saddest parts of life - memories fade over time. An image that was once a real and vibrant passage of reality became quiet and blended, the edges of one bleeding into another until everything recedes into the fabrics of the mind. It’s gentle, though, a gradual declination into the abyss of time. One day you’ll be searching to remember something dear to you with frantic desperation as you find that you can’t recall the details. Eventually, you will become exasperated when you find that you simply cannot focus the blurry image of times past. One day, Lee’s sweater will no longer be soft and smell faintly of cigarettes, and her eyes will lose the distinct details of their character. It will all inevitably fade into a new reality with time.
I don’t know where she’s buried, even to this day. Some people say they don’t know – others say she wasn’t buried at all. I just want to find her and say goodbye one last time. I would walk to her grave, the hem of my dress caressing my legs, the thorns of a fresh rose pinching the palm of my hands. I would kneel down and feel the engraving on the cool, smooth surface of her gravestone, which I imagine would be simple and classy like herself – she wasn’t one to make a fuss. With the wind tossing my hair as it did on that afternoon before class, I would tell Lee everything that has happened since she left. In the words I would speak to comfort my soul, I would smile as I imagine her proud and quirky smile as I rambled on – just like old times.
Quick with a snide remark to make you laugh or heartfelt advice to get you through a tough time, Lee was one of the people I looked up to the most in life, admiring her optimism, kindness, and wisdom. She was a mother figure that I loved and admire – that I still love and look up to. I miss her, more and more since she vanished. She’s gone, like a ghost that shifted into my life, torn away in a single text message that was burned into my mind with the feeling of my cheeks burning from the wind and sadness. All I was left with was the memories and advice she gave to me whenever she possibly could.
It took a long time to realize that though she was no longer here, she still shares her wisdom with me in the advice she had given to me before. I still hold onto these tidbits and mementos and remind myself to follow her heart-to-heart advice, as these tokens of times past keep her alive to me.
“You can’t take life too seriously,” she would tell me. “Just take it seriously enough and have some fun while you’re at it – you’re going to do some wonderful things - I know you will.”