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Contemporary Fiction Sad

My husband thinks I’m crazy, but I know I see your shadow. In the moments when the light is right. Outside on a sunny day, or even inside amidst the dim lights we’ve set for our relaxing jazzy evenings. 


I know I told you not to leave me, but I meant, stay here, don’t die. I didn’t mean for you to haunt me like I’m living out some spooky, Halloween movie. 


The sun is shining through the window this morning. It’s warming up our dining area/living area – no, we haven’t found a bigger place yet – and leaving a great big sun-patch on our couch for Spike’s giant balled-up body to take his morning nap. 


I see you. You’re right in the middle of my own shadow, and Ella’s. I see the swirling shadows of our beta fish who lives on the windowsill swimming above where your shadow’s head is. It used to scare me, seeing your dark silhouette imprinted on the ground before me, like you’re hovering right behind me. I didn't want to be haunted, but right now, in this moment, I welcome it. If you could not stay on earth with us, at least there’s this, I suppose. Though I wish I could see your face. I imagine you smiling. You always were.


Ella is making you a card. It’s for no occasion in particular, except for when “we see her next.” She is having a hard time grasping that material items like this piece of paper can’t and won’t ever go where you’ve gone. But who can blame a four-year-old’s good wishes? And who has the heart to burden her with reality when she asks to do something so sweet and sentimental like making her dead grandmother a card?


She knows you’re dead, by the way. Kind of. She says it sometimes when we talk about you or if there’s a picture that catches her eye. 


Grandma’s dead, she says, in a matter-of-fact tone that only a child who doesn’t understand the weight of those words can use. And while her deadpan expression – excuse the pun – is just her way of processing, repeating what she’s heard around her, it still punches me in the gut every time she says it. I used to tell her that I could see your shadow, but I can’t anymore. 


So, we’re at the coffee table, making you a card, Mom. I’m looking at you, and Ella thinks she has my full attention. You used to tell me how important it was to give her my full attention, even for a little bit – you knew how much I struggled with it, how much my brain would ramble on, stealing me from the moment. Does it count if she doesn’t know my attention is divided? If you were actually here, it wouldn’t be considered divided, would it?


She asks me how to spell “grandma,” and I sound it out for her. “Guh, guh, guh – what letter makes that sound?”


She smiles with her marker at the crease of her lips. “J!” she exclaims. 


“Close, honey. What other letter kind of sounds like that? Guh, guh –”


“G!” she hollers, pointing her marker to the ceiling in victory. 


I nod my head and smile. “Good, honey.” I manage to sound praiseful, but a trick of the light catches my eye. Did you just nod, Mom?


“What’s next?” Ella asks, ready to continue.


“Rrrrrrrrrr!” I growl at her like a bear, forcing a laugh that turns into a real one. It’s been months since you left, but the real laughs are still slow-coming. 


“R, r, r!” Ella bounces up and down excitedly before landing her marker on the construction paper. Did you notice she chose purple? She remembered. I hate to think one day she’ll forget any part of you. 


Her r’s are getting better. They look less like p’s and k’s today. Pride burns in my chest seeing it so legible, so recognizable. “Nice job, honey!” I clap. Ella wiggles at my adulation. 


“Ok, so we have ‘g’ and ‘r'. Now, what’s next? Let’s sound it out again. Guh-rrrr-aaaaahhh-ndma,” I say exaggerating the phonetic sounds. When she looks confused, I add, “Aaaaahhhhhh, what letter makes that sound?”


Ella looks at me mischievously. It’s her look when she’s trying to be funny. “Ahhhhhhh,” she mimics. “O!”


I’m a little disappointed she doesn’t get it. I know I shouldn't be. You wouldn't be, but still, I can feel the patience in me quivering. I rein it back in. “Clooose, Ella. This letter is in your name, and it sounds like aaaaaahhhhh-pple.”


“A! A! A!” Ella exclaims, rhythmically pointing her marker in my face as she chants.


“Yup!” I say, feeling the internal battle of my patience and annoyance budding elbows. You were always better at this, Mom. Patience was the virtue you forgot to give me, and I’m even more annoyed that you’re not here to offer it to Ella. You were supposed to help me with this mothering thing. 


I had so much left to learn from you...


…Did you just squeeze my shoulder?


“Next, next, next!” Ella demands. I can tell I’m not the only one losing her patience. At least she can blame it on her four-year-old attention span. 


“Try sounding it out again, honey,” I offer. 


She starts making silly sounds that are not in the word "grandma". I exhale in an attempt to keep my eyes from rolling. This is hard, especially without you.


She’s only four, dear, I hear your voice in my head. 


I’ve been afraid to close my eyes. I don’t want to open them only to realize your shadow was my imagination. But, reflexively, I shut them, take a deep breath – like you taught me – and open them again. 


Thank god, I still see you. 


“The next letter is ‘n,’ honey.”


Ella tilts her head, and draws four vertical lines in the air in the shape of an “m.” “Like this?”


“Nnnnnn,” I emphasize. “N, so there’s only three lines.” I trace the shape in the air with my finger. 


She nods, accepting the reminder. The next letter is “d” and she tells me it is a backwards “b.” 


“Mmhmm,” I hum. I’m looking at you, wondering how differently we would be in this moment. Ella’s literacy skills weren’t as advanced as they were when you left. She wasn’t writing as legibly and sounding out her words as much. It wasn’t even that long ago… I hear you shouting your admirations at my daughter, clapping your hands, and telling her she’s the smartest girl in the world. You always did love to indulge us with praise. All the way into our adulthood, you were cheering us on. All the way til the end. I miss that. I wish Ella will remember all the times you cheered her on. Her first steps. Her first time pedaling her bike. Her twirls around the kitchen. A part of me cringes as I hear myself in those moments, No twirling by the hot stove!


I justify it; I just want her to be safe. But you, you were the fun one. Safety and fun might not be sleeping together, but they can share a room, you would say.


Ella’s ready to write “m,” but when I look over she’s already made it to the edge of the paper. 


“Uh-oh! We ran out of room, and we have two letters left!” I say, giving my best shocked, how-did-that-possibly-happen face.


Ella giggles. “Mommy! That’s OK! We can just write it up here.” Her pen is on the paper, far, far above the rest of the letters. And right next to the edge again. 


My type A personality is the death of my neck. I feel it tighten and twitch internally. Most people wouldn’t notice this tension, but you knew me so well. A phantom squeeze presses into the nape of my neck. It’s the strangest feeling. Like reflexive pressure, or like hearing the beginning of a song in your head that usually follows the one that just ended. 


After finishing her “m,” Ella looks at me. “Done?”


I’m trying not to mention how much it bothers me that her letters are not linear. You wouldn’t correct her, so I’m not going to.


“One more letter, sweetie,” I say. I point to the previous “a” she wrote, and Ella grins at me knowingly and offers a thumbs up before drawing it on the left side of the “m.” My shoulders cringe upwards. I know, I know, I know, I argue back to you in my head. 


“There! I did it!” Ella slides her finger over all the letters as she reads, "Grrrraaaannnndddmmaaa!" She’s proud of herself… until she realizes: “Oh! I have to write my name now, so Grandma will know it’s from me!”


She’s an expert at writing her name now — can you believe it? — and gets right to work. She writes her “E” upside down, too close to the edge of the page, leaving no room for the rest of the letters in her name. “Whoopsie!” She laughs at her own joke. “Maybe it can be a spooooooky “E”, an upside down “E”, like a monster tipped it over!” She's really excited for Halloween this year, and she loves the idea of anything spooky. Giggling, she traces over the upside down letter again. 


Ella finishes writing her whole name. Her picture is a word-search puzzle, but it’s an accomplishment she’s proud of. And despite my rigidness, so am I.


I know you would be, too. I think about how much you would cherish this picture from Ella if you actually got to receive it. You would love the disordered letters, and laugh at the spooky “E.” You laughed so easily that I heard it all the time. It’ll be an echo in my head forever, and I’ll always be envious of how you managed to live a life so unbound. 


Ella is adding a rainbow to the picture. I hear her singing a song about them, double-checking the order of her colors. I recognize it, because it’s the one you taught her. 


“Let’s go give it to her!” Ella yells jubilantly, jumping up and waving her art in the air, as if just saying the words would deliver you to us. “We haven’t seen her in a long time. She’ll be so surprised!” 


I catch a falling tear down my cheek, because I know before I even look: your shadow is gone. It happens every time my desire to see you gets too strong, too hopeful. 


We can’t give the card to you, and you don’t want us to. You don’t want us to be where you are.


You wanted us to keep living. You didn’t want to hold us back. 


Don’t get stuck, you’d said.


You wanted us to live our lives without you, and you'd said it like it was actually possible. You wanted us to look for you in the places where we were happy, like in the light cast down by the sun. Or to find you in a rainbow, after we’ve spent the day cuddled up for a family movie during a rainstorm. 


You wanted us to be happy together, to celebrate life. For you, and for us. All of it. 


I miss you, Mom, I whisper in my head.


Then I smile at my daughter, who wants so desperately to see you again and can’t understand why she won’t. “One day we’ll give it to her, honey, but for now, let’s go outside.”

October 28, 2022 04:33

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8 comments

Amanda Lieser
00:47 Dec 01, 2022

Hi Anne! Oh this story was so sweet. I am lucky to have both of my parents around and I know it’s a huge blessing for me. I think I loved so much that this story frightened me at first, but made me feel like it was much more of a happy story. A story of a blessing. Nice job! I picked a favorite line: Thank god, I still see you.

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AnneMarie Miles
20:48 Dec 01, 2022

Thank you, Amanda, for your investment in my work. I really appreciate it. This story holds a special place in my heart. I still have both of my parents currently, but one has health issues, so I guess this was a bit of a cathartic reach into the unknown future. The spelling out Grandma is complete nonfiction - my daughter really does write her words all over a page in a nonlinear fashion, lol! What a great line you chose. Sums up the core of the story. Thanks again!

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Sophia Gavasheli
02:29 Nov 05, 2022

Oh wow. This was so sweet but heartbreaking. I love how the grandma's spirit is a shadow; it represents how the deaths of our loved ones haunt us. They are always attached to us, but sometimes they fade because of the sun's angle. I also like how the narrator compares herself to her mother; every mother struggles with parenting. The narrator wants her mother back not only because she loves her, but because she needs her guidance and support. The spelling out of 'grandma' also parallels the narrator's characterization; with each letter, we ar...

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AnneMarie Miles
03:17 Nov 05, 2022

Hi Sophia, this means so much to me thank you! This story was very dear to me, as it was a compilation of many things going on in my life. A very cathartic piece for me, and I'm glad it was clear how bits and pieces came out with each letter. That is a sweet relation you made to your grandmother. I think if we didn't believe our loved ones could still be around once they passed, grief would be even more unbearable than it already is. It is comforting to feel them, or to try to. Thank you again for your kind words! ❤️

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Charlie Murphy
20:15 Nov 02, 2022

I relate to the narrator. My grandma passed away months ago and I sometimes talk to her,

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AnneMarie Miles
21:14 Nov 02, 2022

I'm sorry for your loss, Charlie. I wrote this with my mom in mind who is battling cancer. I think talking to them and writing about them is very carthardic and healing. Thanks for reading. ❤️

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Michał Przywara
20:48 Oct 31, 2022

A very real kind of haunting going on here. The mother is a flavour of miserable, because she feels she can't measure up to how good the grandmother was, and it eats at her. But she tries, nevertheless. We can probably assume the grandmother went through something similar once upon a time. Maybe part of this has to do with mourning. She's not over her mother's death yet, understandably, and she can't really talk about it with her daughter, because she's four. So she's kind of stuck with herself. We'll, there's mention of a husband, but "...

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AnneMarie Miles
13:46 Nov 01, 2022

Hey Michal! Wow, thank you so much for your feedback. I appreciate the critique tremendously! This is a piece I really love and felt genuinely proud of which makes it that much harder to see its flaws, so thanks for pointing that out! It sounds like you'd like to see an externalization of the internal conflict? I will have to consider this... Your suggestion of startling the child with impatience might be a viable option. As always, thank you so much reading and your thorough comments!

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