I wrote this piece on the 29th, but couldn’t manage to hit “publish”. Sometimes I have to sit on it for a day or two until I can.
Last week turned out to be a pretty stressful week, and then the weekend was less stressful, but just as busy. By the time Sunday rolled around I was absolutely wiped out. The sky was a brilliant blue, the temperatures were climbing by the minute into unprecedented territories for this frigid winter so far. My body was telling me to curl up in a sunlit corner of the house for a nap, but my brain was telling me I needed to be outside, soaking up whatever sliver of warmth and light this tightfisted season was willing to offer. Errands and meal planning and laundry running and naptime rituals down, it was time. I was changing into running clothes when E, fresh out of the shower, came in to ask me if she could join me on my run. She told me that she had already asked her dad about it, but he (being protective of my own own-time) told her that I like to run alone, that I need that time just to myself. She told me she knew that, but then suddenly she was crying and telling me how much she needed the sunshine and the exercise as well. We dried her hair, put on our shoes together, and headed out the door.
The park was brimming with people, every parking spot we passed was full with another car idling, waiting. We finally found a spot to slide into and I described the loop I liked to run from there. I told her we’d start slow, but we’d pick up the pace if she was up for it, and I’d throw in a good hill for good measure. She was up for the challenge – she who runs up and down a soccer field for an hour with no problem. A sustained run for several miles was a different thing she acknowledged, and (after various stints of winter hibernation from the trail) I didn’t protest with the interval training. We set long distance goals down the path, and ran to them before slowing down for a brisk walk and some breath-catching again. I got her up that hill, to the tip top, and we stopped for a moment to take in the view before heading back down again to our car. We waited to cross the street one last time, and she grabbed my hand and squeezed it and told me how much fun she had running with me, and she was so glad that I had let her come along.
We headed over to the shoe store to get her feet measured – a task I’ve put off for the last two weeks, despite her gentle reminders that her shoes were feeling a little snug. For good reason, I discovered. She was over a full size larger than the last time. She needed a size six – the last pair of girl’s shoes she will likely own before moving into women’s. She could shop from the women’s shoes now, we were told, but they run you another forty or fifty dollars, so we opted for the thriftiness (and more color options) that come with youthfulness. Her new feet looked enormous to me (although I would never tell her that) – not in a clown-like way, but in the way that my girls’ feet grow just before the rest of their body catches up. Big feet, like a prediction. Like an assurance – of health, of growth, of more time, of the future.
It is the 29th, a day that marks three months without my niece. There are pictures shared, quick notes of support and remembrance. I get up and go to work but my head isn’t really there, it’s back in Sunday afternoon.
E and I buzz through the grocery store with our week’s list, she wrestles the obstinate cart we’ve selected behind me while I pull items off the shelves. We pay for our groceries and she checks her new shoes for any dirt or scuffs. They are glowing new-blue and purple still, and she’s bouncing along in the way that you do when you are ten and you have new shoes. We come out of the grocery store into the busy Sunday afternoon parking lot, but as we head to our car we notice everyone standing still. The sky to the west of us is lit up in the most incredible sunset, hot pink at the edges, and vivid orange towards the center. I first described it as beautiful, but it wasn’t really that. It was powerful, and the two of us stood there by our open car trunk and just stared at it. We noticed most people around us were doing the same – this busy parking lot, for a moment at least, was standing completely still. We couldn’t move. All of the moments from the afternoon bubbled to the surface, the feel of the sun on my shoulders, the crunch of the gravel under foot, the way her hand slid into mine and she thanked me for the afternoon. The way she talks to me when it’s only us, the way she looks running next to me, the way she high fives me when we make it to the top of the hill, her pink cheeks, her laugh.
Why do I get this moment, whatever did I do to deserve it?
The tears well up in my eyes and I start to tell her “The sunset reminds me…” and she cuts in with “I know… of Erin.” The tears spill over, and I let them, even while emptying the cart into the car, passing bags from my hands to her. Her eyes are full as well, but her feet still dance in her new shoes.
We track the sun all the way home, as it lowers, the oranges turn to hot pinks, darker and deeper by the second. We sit at a traffic light on an overpass, and people have their windows down, snapping photos. Two bikers have stopped on the bridge to just stand and stare, another person has parked his car haphazardly on the shoulder and is setting up a tripod. Soon enough I have to turn, and I watch the sky in my rearview mirror, and I watch her too, neck craned to see the sun slip down behind her. I cry the rest of the way home.
Early last year I decided to declare 2013 to be lucky, despite any sort of tie to the number thirteen and unluckiness. And at the end of the year I was angry at the rotten, rotten luck of such a rotten, rotten year. On Sunday, and the days leading up to it and following it as well, I’ve been thinking about luck. When I drive up to the house at night and see that dormer light on I feel lucky. When I check on the sleeping girls at night I feel lucky. When I get test results back from the lab I feel lucky. When I get to climb big hills with my girl, and then race back down the other side I feel lucky.
For Christmas this year we received several really special photographs of my niece – one was a picture of her standing next to an IV stand, impossibly long dancer leg extended 180 degrees in the air, parallel with that pole. Her mother wrote a quote from her on the back – it said “I might be sick, but my legs still work”. I wonder, if given the same circumstances, would I be as strong and as wonderful and as brave as her parents? What miserable, impossible times, and yet, they never stopped. Every single moment of that dreadful year was filled with as much joy as they could possibly squeeze into it. I am angry about all the days that she didn’t get, but a friend reminded me once that she lived every single day of her life.
Of course she is right. We have no idea how many days we have, but the assumption is that there are many, and when there aren’t we feel robbed. I feel robbed of that time. I feel such sadness for her parents, for her sister, for her grandparents. But for her, she lived them, she lived in them, every one of them, even if that number wasn’t as high as it should have been. I struggle so much with this – how unlucky that we lost her, how very lucky she was to be so loved, so alive, so happy while she was here.
I think of her often, and I think about that photo, and her words a lot. I think about them when I’m running, or when I’m standing at the kitchen counter, or when I’m stretching them out late at night in a quiet house, under warm covers. I might be tired, or sad, or uncertain, but at least my legs work. They can run up hills with my daughter and stand still to take in sunsets as beautiful and as bright as she was.