The following creative nonfiction essay was voted the second place winner in the Ohio Valley Writers contest in April 2018:
As a young girl, I had an imaginary friend named Glue that lived in the Dogwood tree outside my parent’s bedroom window. On warm, sunny days after school, I perched on the picnic table and talked quietly to a tree about my day. A tree is a great friend to a child with a troubled home life. A tree is rooted, predictable, and a superb listener. When the delicate, white flowers started to drip, I convinced myself that Glue was trying to escape and would wait day after day for her to show me her true form. Really, the tree was dying. Glue, brittle and dehydrated, was cut down and thrown onto my dad’s burn pile. Then, even at my age, I felt nothing but inevitably as I watched her limbs crack and split. In a week I was eating a burnt marshmallow over her ashes. Change can be unceremonious when you know it’s coming. We instinctively put those things in a box and move on. Years after something, or someone, you love dies, memories tend to only sift through like a few flakes of gold from a pan, and even then bits of dirt and rock cloud them.
Today I’m driving back roads to go hiking with my husband and eight-year-old son, Pearl Jam is blaring on the local radio station, clouds are brushed like watercolor on a bright, blue canvas, and the wind blows in the strangely comforting smell of manure. The scene conjures a form of astral projection—my foot still braking around each winding turn, my brain back to the time when I was eight in the passenger seat of my sister’s car.
Amy and I are cruising similar, likely the same, country roads in her red Ford Festiva, the same piece of shit she would floor through an underpass or tunnel just to get it to obnoxiously backfire while she cackled like an old crow. My window is cracked for fresh air so I don’t get motion sick, but I can still smell the exhaust so it isn’t really working. I’m watching the road straight ahead like my grandma had always taught me, but I occasionally break the rules to glance at the rolling, grassy hills that weren’t yet disrupted by pipelines, vinyl-sided homes, or backyard trampolines my tethered body is passing in present day.
When Amy came around for a visit, it was usually to help me escape. We’d take these long, aimless country drives with no motive other than overcoming inertia. She moved out of the cramped trailer myself and two other siblings called home shortly after she turned 18. She jumped around different run-down apartments in town, and sometimes stayed with one of her many abusive boyfriends. Sometimes we’d go to the movies hiding snacks rather conspicuously in the pocket of her oversized Tweety Bird sweatshirt, ushers shaking their heads at us as they dumped discarded popcorn in large bags for resale. Often we’d settle in to a booth at Elby’s, always a booth, and she’d order a club sandwich hastily held together with a toothpick that had a red plastic tip. She’d tell me edited tales about the terrible-boyfriend-of-the-month as I picked at bland pasta or a burger thinking about how lucky I was to have such a generous and amazing big sister. More often than I care to admit, she hugged me, crying, telling me it’s wasn’t my fault when my dad, belligerent and drunk, shamed me for being too chubby, too loud, or too much.
It’s March 1999 and Amy’s no longer driving. She can’t keep much food down. She’s 27 with aggressive colon cancer. All her guts are gone, so she has to shit and piss in a bag. My hand is resting on her knee as other visiting relatives run off to a complex across the highway to go shopping. We’re sitting together in this dank Florida hospital watching Ricki Lake as she lies wasting away and weak in stale, papery sheets. Her frail hands barely gripping the sterile and beige hospital phone, we dial home to sing our mom happy birthday, a tradition Amy alone began after getting married and retreating south years before. As we sing, gripped by inevitability, my mom sobs quietly on the other line.
What’s left of Amy’s body was ground into a fine powder and now sits displayed in a small, decorative box. I take off my glasses and bravely stand up next to a photo of her face in front of a room filled with blurry, grieving shapes. Starting to sing one of our favorite songs, I instead crack and topple over just like my favorite childhood Dogwood tree.
Muscle memory guides my foot on the accelerator, whipping around another turn, my consciousness still with Amy. She and I are pulling over into the dirt and gravel on the side of the road so we can feed tufts of grass to a small herd of cows. As they lumber over to us, flies buzzing, I notice tags on their ears.
I point to the tags, “Why are those there, Ames? What do they mean?”
“That’s too heavy to explain to you yet, Nat.”
“I can handle it.”
“Nah. Maybe when you’re older,” she says as we walk back to the car.
Amy fiddles with the tape deck, Pearl Jam queued up. She puts the car in drive and sings along loudly to “Alive” leaving behind only a cloud of dirt and some faint tire marks.
Dust kicks up on the gravel road as my family and I slowly pull up to the trail head.