erik kirkland memorial prize finalist
I understand I was too young. I know it is hard to speak about, and even harder to tell your children. I find it inexplicable, but no matter how much you polish the innocence on the smooth skin on your child, they will always be drawn to darkness. For us, death in the family has two heavy names: Uncle Randy and Craig. All I know are these whisps of shadow.
Uncle Randy’s death was a secret, and I was six years old. Far too young by everybody’s standards except for mine. I wanted to know. What child doesn’t crave the sweet taste of secrets, popping them in their mouths like candy? I have no idea how I found out his manner of death, but once I found out, I spread it around in whispers to my brothers and to my friends, watching their eyes widen, their jaws drop, my adrenaline spiking. Dark, sickening gossip and my hands, sticky with the truth. I was too young and stupid to know the laws of gravity.
Do you remember, when I was about nine years old, we hired a professional photographer to take family photos as gifts for Mom-mom and Pop-pop’s 50th anniversary? All of us were there, even cousins I didn’t know existed. It was haunting to me, then and even now, that in every single photo, only one person isn’t smiling.
My only childhood memories of Craig are from when he and Christopher would come over to Mom-mom’s house while we were visiting. The only way I could tell them apart was the large mole on Craig’s cheek, the size of a quarter. To my little brain, the two of them were practically twins. Inseparable, although they were neither twins nor inseparable. Christopher would tease me ruthlessly—I hated it, but I would roll my eyes and smile. I don’t think I ever saw Craig smile. I can only picture him with a frown, permanently glowering. I can’t remember his voice, or anything he ever said. I wonder if I ever heard him speak.
I don’t remember clearly what Uncle Randy looked like, and I’ve never seen any photos of him, but I have a hazy memory of sitting on his lap when I was very small. There were thin-framed glasses on his face, and he looked like Dad. Soft and smart, wispy brown hair, a faraway look in his eyes.
He was incredibly artistic. We are surrounded by his art and his love of art. Our house has been decorated with his photographs for as long as I can remember, landscapes of waterfalls and foggy trees in the living room. His drawings hang in my brother’s bedroom, pencil sketches of horses and cars. His movie collection fills the bookshelves in the basement, everything from Monty Python to Les Misérables. I drive his car, which has become much more our car than it ever was his, a 2006 Honda Civic. A little two-door silver car. Mother, you’ve told me that you don’t think anyone ever sat in the passenger seat until it was given to Dad. But my brothers and I have filled the car with countless friends and teenage laughter, hoping it seeps through time and bleeds into the past, and reaches the lonely man that once sat alone in the driver’s seat.
As I got older, Craig began to disappear. Soon it was only Christopher visiting. , and Iinstead of it being Christopher-and-Craig, now it was Christopher-and-Nicole, getting married and adding more baby cousins to the family. The only times I heard Craig’s name were in whispers. Your voice, Mom-mom’s voice. I can’t remember if I was told these things or if I overheard them, but I grasped onto them with that same dark, childlike curiosity. He’s stealing. He stole jewelry from Aunt Jocie, money out of Uncle Scott’s wallet. Stealing? I wondered. For what? I didn’t dare ask. The word “jail” was floating around. Should we send him, should we not? I could feel the weight of them in my hands now.
Uncle Randy was another victim of a creative mind, just like Sylvia Plath or Van Gogh. Swallowed by his own sadness, his name became blasphemy. Alone in his apartment with a shotgun, no note, nothing but a stain on this family of picture-perfect Christians. His descent into taboo unearthed thousands of dark questions and even darker blame: What went wrong? Who failed him? How could he do this? How could he dare to throw away God’s greatest gift?
When Craig died, you and Dad told us what happened. We were old enough to know, we had passed the threshold of secrecy. You gave us a heavy word: overdose. Through my shock, it started to thread together. The money, the stealing, the absence. But that was all I had. That was all I could get. He was still a gaping hole in my mind, an endless series of questions piled up in my throat. How did this happen? When did it start? Will I ever get the courage to ask?
I’ve only seen Dad cry three times in my life. The first was when Uncle Randy died. Of course he would cry—he just lost his older brother, the one closest in age to him. I don’t remember what the spark was; all I remember is hearing Dad’s quiet sobs and hiding. I was six years old, watching my towering figure of a father crumbling crumble in the middle of the kitchen. I ducked underneath the counter, out of sight on the other side of the peninsula, holding my knees and curling into a ball. I was trapped. I couldn’t run away without being noticed. I needed to disappear; I couldn’t bear the awkward atmosphere. I was a child of the clouds, sensitive and flowing. I hated false steps, twisted ankles, and tones that were stretched too thin.
I think I got this from you. You like to say I take mostly from Dad, and this is true, but I take from you too. We both have thin skin and bleed easily from sharp voices. You are much more sociable than I am—a true master in the art of conversation—but we both tend to speak like we’re holding ribbons, defying gravity. You tell me you love me every day. Dad loves me just as much, but he gives gifts instead of speaking the words. You hand me your heart with a warm smile and I hand you mine, but our feet are light, and like feathers we dance around the things we don’t want to speak about. Maybe this is why I’m writing to you. I couldn’t write like this to Dad—he’s worse. He’s heavy. He’s always holding way too much inside, weighing himself down. I’m too scared to talk to him, so I’ll talk to you instead.
I’ve never told you this, but when I was thirteen years old, I caught you talking on the phone. I don’t know who you were talking to, or why you were talking about this seven years later, but you were sitting on the steps of the deck on a warm spring day, and I heard your voice. I was probably about to join you, to open the screen door and sit beside you, but I froze when I heard you say, “Oh, when he died, I was so furious at him. I thought he was selfish.”
I stood inside the screen door, listening. Bristling.
“I just don’t understand how he could’ve felt alone, because he wasn’t alone.”
My thirteen-year-old life was colored with the red of constant, underlying anger. I had touched the pain that leads to the endings of things, to the endings of lives. I had seen that darkness. I felt a certain connection with my late uncle. I felt a protectiveness over the slivers of him that I knew.
“People have told me that I don’t understand the pain he went through. I know that. I know it, but I still don’t feel like his decision was justified.”
“Justified”? He was “selfish”? How could you say that when you don’t even know what it’s like? I remember thinking, well now I know how she’ll react if I kill myself.
Mother, I know both you and I have changed a lot since then. I wouldn’t say these things anymore, and I don’t think you would either. I am in a much better place now, and you have learned a lot. But if I caught you on that phone call now, I wonder what you would say differently.
At six years old, I stood with you and Dad at Uncle Randy’s funeral. The only thing I can remember is my dress, bright pink and soft velvet, embroidered with flowers and strawberries. I had been dying for a chance to wear it and the occasion just happened to be a funeral. In a sea of black and tears and hushed tones, I was a radiant pink. Soft velvet and strawberries. Why did you let me wear that? I didn’t understand.
Eight years later, you and Dad attended Craig’s private viewing while my brothers and I stayed home. When you came back, you were carrying a little laminated card. It was tossed onto the kitchen table, sky blue against off-white linoleum, scattered amongst our everyday junk of life (mail, keys, your purse). There were birds on it, and on the back , it said in sweeping cursive, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” I stared at it for a very long time, feeling the weight of the words sinking into my heart, desperately wanting to understand them.
I was fourteen years old, and it was the third funeral I had ever attended. I was wearing a new dress. It was lacy and dark, navy blue this time—I wasn’t six years old anymore. I knew better now. I kept my head down, quiet and solemn, blending into the heavy air. Besides our family members, the pews were filled with strangers. I was trying so hard not to stare too much at the body in the casket, pale and pristine. He was caked in makeup, but you could still see the quarter-sized mole like a stamp on his cheek. It was the first time I had seen him since those family photos five years ago. I swallowed nervously, awkwardly. Only the blood in our veins was keeping this man in the casket from being a stranger to me. I knew two things about him: drugs and stealing. My mind had taken these two facts and molded him into something scary, one of those “monsters” you’d see on the streets. Cold and intimidating, a mess of a person. I was fourteen years old, still wearing glasses with black and white lenses. Standing in the pews, I looked at the casket and thought of him as a bad person. thought of him as I had begun to those past few years: A bad person. From what I heard, howHow could he be anything more?
When the funeral reached the point where the officiant allowed people to share their thoughts and stories, everything began to change. People I had never seen before stood up and spoke in strong, tearful voices, about the goodness of his heart, his kindness, his generosity. They shared heartwarming stories, funny stories, and shone a light onto everything I had never known. I was awestruck, my idea of him disintegrating into dust right before my eyes. It was in that moment that I realized I had only ever heard bad things about him. He existed to me solely in fragmented whispers, heavy sighs, dark tones, and shadows. This man they were speaking about with love spilling from their voices, pumped straight from their hearts, was the same man?
He was my cousin, Mom. We were family. Why did I only ever hear the good things after he was already dead?
My brothers and I drove home together after the funeral. It was a beautiful June day, warm and sunny, so we rolled down the windows and blasted summery songs. We sang along at the top of our lungs as if nothing had ever happened. We barely knew him, after all.
Every time Thanksgiving ends, Uncle Randy comes to your mind. You love to tell me about when he lived in the basement-converted-apartment before I was born, how you always knew it was Christmastime when you heard his beloved Nat King Cole and Vince Guaraldi Trio’s Charlie Brown Christmas drifting up from the stairs at six in the morning, while you were sipping your morning coffee in the kitchen. Every time you tell me, I can picture you sitting there with a smile on your face, savoring the sweet solitude of morning as you always do, and thinking about the Christmas tree you’ll be picking up in a few hours. You love to tell me about how you learned the difference between “clean” and “neat” from Uncle Randy, how he must have had some sort of OCD because everything he owned had a very specific place. When he picked up his comb, there was always a perfect outline of dust around it as if it never left the table. You always laugh as you tell me, “I never knew someone could be so extremely neat and so unclean at the same time.”
I love these stories, Mom. I store them in my head like movies. I dust them off every year like cherished treasures, savoring every moment that you retell them. But mother, what makes Craig’s stories any different?
I am old enough now. I have finally found the courage to scatter the shadows. , and I’m strong. I can handle the weight of our history, of our imperfections. Mother, let’s weigh down our ribbons and search for the truth.