Evening darkened the beach and still you wanted to swim. It was the weekend of grandpa’s funeral, and we slept in tents in the Upper Peninsula all weekend to say goodbye. If we let you, you would have spent each night diving into Lake Michigan’s blue and surfacing with a splash, your arms spread wide like you knew the water and dunes and disappearing light and smiling aunts in folding chairs and sky of cawing gulls were all for you.
I cut long gashes into my thighs the last few months of your life. I wanted to cut my wrists too. You wanted to turn fourteen, get a job driving carts at the golf course. A doctor prescribed me bright orange pills. You wrote the poem we read over and over at your funeral. I am from the green grass and the grey brick house. It sounded like birds chirping. I am from the swamp in the back to the rose bushes and the old maple tree.
I still don’t know how to talk about your accident. Strange crash on a golf course. You, broken on an early spring night. Struck by a golf cart, an off-road vehicle, an ATV. What do I call it? Impossible thing.
On my lunch break at work, I walk to my favorite bakery. It’s April in Chicago, cold and cloudy with sunlight shattering the gray sky every few minutes, like someone shaking sleep from the body. A boy chases his sister up the sidewalk ahead of me. They shriek and weave between hunched passersby. The boy grabs his sister’s small hand and they careen down the block as one shape. His laugh sounds just like yours did.
When I found out about the crash, I searched the internet for “gifts for loss,” “sympathy basket,” “grief present for parents.” I looked at windchimes full of tiny silver angels, beautiful arrangements of lilies and baby’s breath, boxes of cookies, terrible handkerchiefs with “heaven gained another angel” embroidered in curled purple script. I chose a “deluxe sympathy package” of pears wrapped in gold foil, cheeses and sesame crackers, truffles with raspberry filling. I paid for rush shipping and deliberated for an hour about what the card should say. I wrote, “we’re so sorry,” and deleted it. I wrote, “we’re so very, very sorry.”
I can’t stop listening to Taylor Swift. I sing “Enchanted” in the shower, hum “Blank Space” as I wash dishes, fold laundry. I watch videos of her singing and strumming an acoustic guitar while I sew. I think of Christmas, years ago, when you wore a Taylor Swift shirt to the family party and I made fun of you. How your dad said, “Matt’s in love with her,” and all of us laughed. You were so small. You blushed and smiled and pointed at the picture of her stretched across your chest. Her curly blonde hair. Her red lips.
They didn’t bury you. Your mom and dad and sister carry pieces of you with them in matching necklaces. You are thirteen and you are ash. From the green grass.
Greensboro smells like wildflowers. Perrin and I moved to North Carolina not long after you died, left most of our apartment in a Chicago alley and drove until we were warm. Our new backyard is full of old overgrown trees, ivy and moss, morning glories planted by whoever lived here before us. If I were younger, I would believe fairies hid in the canopy. It gets so much darker at night here than it did in Chicago. I let the dog out before bed and worry that she won’t come back. Crickets sing wild.
My students joke that everything I make them read is depressing. “Ms. Reed loves death,” a boy in the front row laughs. I try to explain the importance of inspecting humanity in its entirety: how grief shapes us just as much as beauty. How grief and beauty meld. I think of the day Perrin and I drove from Chicago to Michigan for your funeral—sunlight illuminating Midwest cornfields like a postcard; giant, gauzy clouds drifting in cerulean.
I’m so much better than I was before, but still, I fall sometimes. I have to go to my bedroom and crawl under the quilt. I have to count as I breathe—inhale for four seconds, hold for seven seconds, exhale eight slow, long seconds. I have to fold my knees into my chest. Tell myself not to think about the bread knife in the kitchen. Part of me wants to be gone like you are. Treading water unknowably deep. Unspeakably blue.
Your death drifts away, returns. Is slippery like the waves you loved to disappear in. I stumble on the sidewalk and remember your body, unseen. I get up at midnight to fill my glass with water and find a cockroach waiting in the sink. And you wait there too. You come back when I’m doing nothing at all, looking at the broken sunlight drifting through my window, slicing my living room into jagged pieces.
Last night, I collapsed. I don’t remember it. Perrin says I crumpled against the wall and fell hard on the wood floor. I dreamed something I can’t hold onto now—something about Michigan highways, lake bluffs, cedar branches, giant bodies of turquoise water, the glass bottles my step grandmother made into planters for her garden. It sounded like birds chirping. I woke up to Perrin shaking me and our little black dog sniffing my fingers. Both of them thought, for a moment, that they’d lost me.
Not even your parents saw you after the accident. The casket was closed. I used to imagine all the ways your body might have been broken—what was opened, distorted, gone, unspeakable enough to hide forever. Now, I try to imagine you whole. Matthew of the grey brick house, my cousin of botched card tricks and endless afternoon swims. Complete, miraculous, boy.
Author Bio: Michelle S. Reed’s first book of poems, I Don’t Need to Make a Pretty Thing, was a runner-up for the Hudson Prize and is available from Black Lawrence Press. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Verse Daily, The Fem, Reservoir, Waxwing, and Salt Hill, among others. She is currently an MFA candidate and teacher at University of North Carolina Greensboro. She writes nonfiction when she is feeling very brave.