I had barely gotten home from work when I hear a rapping on my front door. I open it to find my friend’s 11-year-old daughter, Audrey, standing before me, looking cross. I let her in and ask what she’s doing here, and she says, “I’m absconding,” which has been one of her favorite words for the past two weeks. She tells me she climbed out of her bedroom window to avoid the babysitter her dad has left her with. I ask her what was so offensive about this babysitter, and she tells me this woman talked to her like she was a kid, her lip curled up with disgust at the idea of it. She then tells me this babysitter wore clothes that looked like her mom’s clothes.
Audrey’s mother abandoned her when she was barely a toddler. After that, she only met her a handful of times due to her dad’s optimism that she had finally gotten clean. Audrey’s mother died of a drug overdose a few months ago, and her father has supported her through her grief amazingly, but that kind of complicated grief is impossible for anyone, especially a child, especially when this is the first time she has had a brush with death.
I bring her into my living room and I sit down but she paces like a caged animal, back and forth through my house. I call her dad to let him know I’ve got her for the evening, and then I ask her to tell me what’s in her brain when the words come to her. She takes her time, wordlessly pacing. She disappears on me. She is lost for the moment. This is something she has been doing with more frequency over the last year or so. It usually happens when she’s reading or drawing or writing in her sequin-covered journal. She disappears into herself or whatever world she is in the middle of building because she does not accept the one before her eyes. I have done this since I was her age and I worry that she will also continue doing it and also come close to the edge of not being able to be found. But for now, I let her disappear.
She finally returns to me and sits at my dining room table, eyes shining with the beginnings of tears that she is too stubborn to release. She looks at me and asks how long she will be sad for. She asks why she even has to be sad when she didn’t know her mother. She asks me how long she will be sad about everything, not just her mom. I sit across from her and tell her that it is entirely possible that a small part of her will be sad forever, but it won’t always be the biggest, loudest part of her. I try to explain to her that everyone has parts of them that are sad, but we get used to the noise so much so that most days, we can’t even hear it. It’s background noise. It’s the highway you’ve lived next to your whole life.
I tell her that it is sad that she didn’t know her mom and it is sad that now she will never have the opportunity to know her mom. I tell her that it’s even more sad that her mother never got to know her, because she’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. Audrey already knows about my dad and how he never got to know me when I was her age, and she asks if I’m still sad about him, even though it’s been a year and a half since he died. I tell her the truth. I tell her that I was more sad six months after he died than I was right after he died. I tell her that I’m still sad sometimes, but mostly because he never really got to find out who I am and I never really got to find out who he was. I tell her how lucky I am to have one amazing parent, and how she shares in this luck because her dad is also a wonderful parent. She frowns because she did not want this answer. She wants her sadness to go away.
We go for a walk through our neighborhood and talk about how school is going. She tells me that she doesn’t really like hanging out with her friends anymore. I ask her why and she says, “We aren’t sad about the same things.” I tell her I feel that way about a lot of my friends, too, and I’m struck by the accuracy of language and emotion of this child, as I always am each time I have seen her over the past five years.
She tells me she has been learning sign language because one of the girls in another class is deaf and doesn’t have very many friends at recess or lunch because she has no one to talk to. She teaches me what she knows and I watch as her hands create the language she so keenly wants to share with the world. Her fingers move quickly and I am envious that she holds the entire alphabet in her hand. She is equally excited to teach grown-ups something they don’t know and to have a new friend who also knows what it’s like to not be understood by her peers.
After I got off the phone with Audrey’s dad to let him know his escapee was safe and that he could send the condescending sitter home, he texted me to see if I can get anything out of her about the fights she recently got in at school. I point blank ask her about them and she furrows her brow for awhile. Finally, she tells me that she is angry all of the time and doesn’t know what to do with it. I tell her about how I’ve been angry a lot of the time too due to the events of the past year and how I sometimes take it out on the wrong people because it doesn’t have a place to go. I tell her how I write about my anger and that sometimes helps, or I go for a walk, or I make up a stupid song to sing to my cats.
We explore this for a bit and I ask her if I can make a phone call to see if we can go on an adventure. She agrees. I call my friend Ken, who I cancelled plans with once the runaway showed up at my house and ask if we can drop by since he lives in the neighborhood, too. We arrive at his house and he already has all of the necessary supplies loaded in the back of his truck. Audrey sticks out her hand in introduction, and they are fast friends. She starts to teach him a little sign language as well, and he surprises both of us by being fluent. He tells us that his wife was a sign language instructor, then casts his eyes to the ground. All three of us intimately know what loss is.
We pile into Ken’s truck and he drives us to the Sunfresh grocery store parking lot and pulls out a box of empty glass containers and sets it down in front of a huge Ripple Glass recycling bin. I hand Audrey an empty pasta jar and take one for myself. I put my mouth near the opening and shout something that made me angry that week into the jar, slap my hand over it to contain the sentiment, then slam dunk it into the container. I hear it break against the other glass in there and already I feel better. Audrey gives it a try. The first attempt, her shout is barely at normal speaking volume and she essentially gently lays the jar into the bin, but by the end, she is shouting to the sky and shattering things with all her might. The three of us look like lunatics, shouting into glassware and recycling in the most ridiculous way possible. We empty the box and Audrey high-fives us both and runs around. She is a kid again, just like she is supposed to be. I watch her with wonder as she whoops and hollers in the parking lot, circling the bin and stomping around in some ritual unknown to anyone but herself.
The three of us go into the grocery store to grab some food and someone tells us what a beautiful family we are, and none of us have the energy to correct them. We grab our dinner and return to the scene of our environmental activism to pile back into Ken’s truck.
We return to my house to cook dinner together and eat at my dining room table, which is a rarity in my house. After dinner, Audrey almost disappears again but pulls herself back and asks what it’s like when a person dies. She knows that I often sit with the elderly in their last moments, and she knows that I sat with my boyfriend in his last moments this past December. She wants to know if it’s peaceful and easy. She wants every death to be fulfilling like Harold’s or Larry’s.
I pride myself on being honest with Audrey, and it’s something her dad has encouraged me to do, no matter the topic. I don’t talk to her like she’s a child, which is why she absconded to my house, after all. But I couldn’t bring myself to be fully honest about what has been plaguing me about death: that not all deaths are emotional affairs with everyone gathered around talking to the nearly deceased. Some go quietly after growing weaker and frailer for days or weeks. You don’t recognize their spirit at the end, and you don’t get to hear their life’s story. They don’t sum it all up with anecdotes and bits of wisdom and beauty to pass onto the next generation. They slowly fade out, they collapse in on themselves and fizzle into a great, blank nothingness. And that’s if they’re lucky and die of old age and aren’t ripped violently from this life, by accident or illness, all alone.
What I do share with her is the one thing that has given me hope. I tell her that everyone I’ve sat with at the end has the same something that I can’t name in their eyes that I manage to catch when they barely crack them open. I flip over the cross-stitch I’ve been working on and tell her that it looks almost like the backside of that. So many bright colors tangled together in an unruly mess and you can just almost make out a silhouette, but you’re on the wrong side, you don’t have the context you need. You can’t see the other side, but something in you knows it’s beautiful, even if only for its stillness, even if it’s not a place or a destination. You see this in their eyes, only for a split second and then it’s gone and they’re gone and you’re left on the side of the living having just stared death directly in its face.
Audrey asks if her mom saw the other side of the cross-stitch when she died as she inspects the one I’ve been pecking away at, one of wildflowers with uneven and missed stitches because this is my first attempt and I don’t know if I have the patience for this kind of delicate, precise work. I wish I had something more beautiful for Audrey to hold in her hands and look at. I tell her that her mom probably did see the other side of the cross-stitch at the end. Audrey asks me if we will see the same cross-stitch when we die, and I tell her that I don’t know but that I’d like to think everyone has a different cross-stitch based on how beautiful their life has been and how we can strive our whole lives to have the most colorful, complex, vibrant cross-stitches at the end.
Audrey finally gives into her tears and lays her head on my lap. She has always been hesitant to display any vulnerabilities, so I let her sob and simply stroke her hair without offering any meaningless platitudes. She puts her hand in the palm of mine and starts finger-spelling things against it. I don’t know what she is signing. Perhaps she’s hoping that this language that is new to her will hold the vocabulary she needs to grapple with the weight that is on her. She cries until she has nothing but empty shudders left and I get her to sync her breathing with mine to calm her back down. Ken has politely excused himself, recognizing that he did not need to be a part of her breakdown, and somehow magically produces hot chocolate by the time Audrey has settled. We wrap ourselves in blankets and sit on my porch, sipping our cocoa and watching the dusk settle around us. When it gets too cold, we go back inside and Audrey dozes off in my lap, having taken it out of herself. Ken carefully carries her up into my bed, where my cats surprise me and snuggle next to her.
Ken and I go back downstairs, where I immediately burst into tears that I didn’t know were coming. Ken silently holds me and doesn’t ask questions, for which I am thankful, because I can’t form words for why I’m crying and I wonder if people who only use sign language run into the same problem. I’m crying because I can’t imagine any person not wanting that incredible child and I don’t want to forgive Audrey’s mother for being an addict or for dying. I’m crying because Audrey reminds me too much of myself and it feels like I lied to her when I told her the sadness grows quieter when the truth is I don’t know if it does because it still roars around me and drowns out the other sounds, and I pray to anything that will listen that I was right and it will eventually become background noise. I’m crying because I miss all the people that have died and I’m crying because Ken lost his wife at such a young age and he’s the only one I can stand to be around for longer than a couple hours at a time. I’m crying because I don’t know if I said the right things to her about death and anger and friends not understanding. I’m crying because she is so creative and strong and I don’t want for her to feel that she has to disappear sometimes. I want for her to stay visible so that the ones who are sad about the same things she’s sad about can find her. I’m crying because I don’t know if what I see in the eyes of the dying is real or just what I’ve tricked myself into seeing to somehow make this all somewhat bearable.
A little while later, Audrey’s dad shows up at my house. I know he’s angry at her for sneaking out of their house and walking by herself without telling anyone, but I ask him to save punishment for another day. I tell him all of the things we talked about and did and now it’s his turn to cry. Like any parent, he constantly worries that he’s doing it wrong and that he’s messing up his kid. He doesn’t know what to do with his own grief or how to help her carry the weight of her sadness. I tell him that I know nothing about parenting but can tell he’s doing amazingly just based on how expressive and open and deeply kind that kid is. Audrey promised me she would talk to him when it gets overwhelming, and we set up a kid-safe messaging app on her tablet so she could send me messages anytime she needed to talk to someone who is often sad about similar things as her. I assure him that I also made her pinky-promise never to sneak out again, and we take our pinky promises seriously around here. As her dad carries her sleep-wilted little body out of my house, she lifts her head and blows me a kiss and I blow one right back. We sign “I love you” with our hands and she falls back asleep, safe in the arms of the good parent she will always be lucky to have. I feel myself starting to disappear but Ken lightly touches my shoulder to keep me there with him since he, too, knows what it’s like to disappear and because we’re sad about the same things.