Grief. It’s an asshole. An insidious son of a bitch, and once its hooks are in you, it never lets go. It tricks you into thinking you’re okay, only to hit you in the gut and make your knees buckle when you least expect it. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been. Weeks, months, years.
They say the pain lessens with time, but eleven years later I now knew that was a lie. The anniversary of my mom’s death never got any easier, it never hurt any less. Grief still held me in its razor-sharp claws.
It wasn’t like I could ever forget the day a piece of me died, but in those groggy first moments of the morning, reality hadn’t caught up with me. One look at the date on my phone screen and all the pain and memories I’d managed to bury came rushing back.
My chest throbbed and I rubbed my fisted hand rhythmically against it, trying to force the pain away, knowing all the while it wouldn’t work. It never did. My hands were incapable of touching the source of the wound.
I considered calling my husband, Dan, for about a minute before I changed my mind. He’d begun a new work assignment, one that had brought us both to this tiny island in the Pacific Northwest. He didn’t need the interruption, and in my current state, anything I tried to say would be gibberish.
Even after all these years, I still hadn’t found a way to talk about her death. It’d happened too fast for my teenage mind and heart to process. The terminal diagnosis and the rapid decline. I’d sat witness to the cancer as it took her life but never her spirit.
Within months my mom was gone and I’d been left with a father who never let down his walls enough to talk about all I had lost, all he had lost too. So I’d tucked those feelings and memories away, tried to act like they never existed in the first place. I’d thought my attempts were successful, even if I found myself drowning under the sudden crash of emotions at the most inopportune times.
Rubbing the tears from my eyes, I decided to do what I had done for the last five years. I set the timer on my phone for an hour, grabbed the box of my mom’s things that I kept hidden in the back of my closet, and gave in to all the memories and grief.
Some years I let myself linger over the contents of the box for longer than the hour, some years I couldn’t even handle that much time. I combed through the items in the box, crying over the cards and letters she had left for me, sliding on her favorite ring, a beautiful and dainty gold one that held both of our birthstones.
I even found myself able to laugh at some of the pictures in the box, ones from the vacations we had taken together. She’d always made sure we took two pictures—a nice, serious one that we could display in our home, and a goofy one of us posing funny or making silly faces. We always ended up loving the funny ones more.
I made it to the bottom of the box as my alarm began to sound, startling me. I wiped the tears from my cheeks and placed everything back in the box, sliding the ring off my finger last. I put the lid back on the box and on my emotions for the moment.
As an only child, I sometimes wondered if dealing with my grief would have been easier with a sibling by my side, someone else who knew what it was like to have her as a mother. Then again, living in denial the way I was would likely be impossible with a brother or sister to answer to.
* * *
I stepped out of the shower to my phone ringing. I ran, attempting to wrap my towel around my body and slipping on the way to my bedside table. It stopped ringing right before I grabbed it, and by the time it was unlocked, the text alert dinged. Josie.
Jos: Wake up and answer your damn phone, Ros!!!
I smiled to myself as I pressed her name and waited for the FaceTime call to connect.
“Are you awake, or will I have to suffer through zombie Ros?” She sounded put off even though her voice was laced with humor as her gorgeous, ethereal face filled the screen, her light blue eyes alight with mischief. Josie was wild, didn’t have a shy bone in her body, and lacked a filter between her brain and mouth.
My eyes flashed to my image in the little box on the screen. My tawny skin with cheeks tinged pink from the shower, freckles strewn across my face, hazel eyes, and dripping wet hair already starting to curl up couldn’t be more different from Jos’ face staring back at me.
“I’ve been up for a little bit.” I winced, hating the way my voice cracked, the fact that I had been crying now obvious to Jos’ practiced ear and gaze.
“Oh, babe. How long did you spend with the box?”
“Just an hour. I don’t think I can stomach any more. Maybe later. Probably not.” I turned away from the screen.
“Want to talk about her?” Jos swept a piece of her platinum-blonde hair cut into an angular bob behind her ear.
“No. Not yet.”
Jos asked me this every year on the anniversary. Sometimes she asked throughout the year when she could tell I was struggling. My answer was always the same. We had yet to talk about my mom’s passing in any real way.
There were times I wanted to, but every time I tried to get the words out, grief wrapped its claws around my throat and applied pressure, making it impossible to choke out the words. Jos always seemed to understand, never saying much more, never pressing me to do more than I was ready to. So there we sat in silence for a minute or two.
“I miss her so much too, Ros. She was amazing.”
I nodded my head. She didn’t say anything else. I knew the loss wasn’t mine alone, even if it felt that way most days.
Josie was my oldest, closest friend, and for years my only one. I remembered the first time I’d met her, this tall, gangly girl with her almost white-blonde hair cut into long, straight layers that I’d envied on sight. She’d been standing at the bus stop on our cul-de-sac, a fuck-off attitude radiating from her, even at the age of eight.
Immediately drawn to her, I’d inched closer, like a moth to a flame. She was the complete opposite of my short, crazy-haired, introverted self. For reasons I’d never understood, she’d found something in me she was drawn to as well.
Not five minutes after I made it to the bus stop, she’d sauntered up to me, her thumbs hooked in the straps of her neon Lisa Frank backpack, and said, “Hey, I’m new here. My name is Josie. What’s your name?”
The bus had pulled up as she finished her question. She’d followed me up the steps and surprised me by sitting beside me.
“I’m Rosalind, but you can call me Ros,” I responded in my whisper of a voice.
From that day forward we were inseparable. She had been there for me through everything: my parents’ divorce, the loneliness and torture of getting bullied in elementary school, first loves and the inevitable heartbreaks.
Even when I had to move in with my father and switch to a different high school, we still saw each other several times a week. It was always Jos and Ros forever. We even decided to go to college together.
Until this move, we hadn’t spent more than a month apart. She was the closest thing I had to a sister, at least what I thought it would be like to have one. And with her next question, she proved that she knew me better than anyone else.
“So what else is bothering you?”
“I don’t know. I was so ready for the move to be done. Now that it is, I’m ready for things to… change.”
The silence stretched between us as I debated what I wanted to say next, if I even wanted to say it at all. She just let the weight of my unspoken words sit there, waiting for me to decide. That was the thing about having a friend who knew you so well, someone who gave you what you needed when you needed it, and wasn’t afraid to kick your ass and force you to face the truth when necessary. You could be one hundred percent real with them, no masks, no artifice. I knew I could leave things the way they were now, not even bring up the shit bothering me, and she would probably let it slide today. The words were out before my brain had even decided.
“Shit is so weird with Dan and me, Jos. I thought this process would bring us closer together, but nope, we’re more distant than ever.” I covered my mouth with my hand, shocked that I let the confession pass my lips.
“How long has this been going on? Maybe it’s because you both have been going crazy trying to get shit figured out?” Her image on the screen went blurry as she adjusted her body to get more comfortable.
“It’s been going on for a while and I ignored it. He’s gone more than he’s home. You know that.”
“It’s always been this way, Ros, even when you guys met. So what’s different now?”
“I always thought I was okay with it. I worked a lot before we moved and kept busy to avoid dealing with it. I figured if I filled up my days it wouldn’t leave time to miss him and be lonely.”
“You’re really good at avoiding the truth when it hurts, girl,” Jos said.
“I know. Since we’ve been here I’ve had more time on my hands than I ever had before. And Dan’s been gone more than he said he would with this project. I mean, the whole reason I came with him and gave up everything back home was for us to connect.”
“And you guys aren’t connecting? Are things getting worse?”
“No, not worse. But not better either. But all this time alone has given me time to think about us and how our relationship has always been.”
I went quiet, unsure how to verbalize the thoughts racing through my head, the emotions running through my body. Without warning, the words spilled out of me in a rush.
“I’m not okay with it, Jos. This distance, this lack of communication. I always chalked it up to the physical distance between us. I figured I needed to just suck it up if I wanted to be with Dan because our relationship has always been this way from the very start.”
“And what do you think now?”
“Now I think the distance wasn’t it at all. We’ve both been complacent. But I’m not anymore. I fucking hate feeling like this, like I don’t even know my own husband sometimes. Texting and occasional phone calls for nine months out of the year isn’t working, I’m not sure if it ever did.” My chest heaved with the need for air as my heart pounded.
“Ros, calm down. We’ll figure this out. I promise—”
“No,” I interrupted, shaking my head and trying to get a handle on my emotions.
“Maybe it’s the seven-year itch?” Jos suggested, laughter in her voice.
“I’m pretty sure people are referring to a wandering eye when they say that, Jos. Plus, we’ve only been married for three years,” I huffed in response, trying to keep a straight face.
“Yeah, but you’ve been together for seven years,” Jos began, but paused after seeing the look on my face that clearly conveyed that I was done with both of these conversations. I didn’t want to dwell on the loss my heart had yet to recover from, and I didn’t want to talk about the issues with Dan anymore, not today.
“Random subject change needed?” Jos asked.
“Yeah, that would be great.”
“Hmm… what to share that you don’t already know?” She tapped her finger on her chin, probably the only nervous tic she had.
“Tell me about this new guy you’re seeing.”
She laughed and blew out a breath. “For starters, he is gorgeous and all wrong for me, and will utterly break my heart. I love him already!”
“Oh, God, Jos. Dramatic much? Think this will be the one to break the mold?”
“I hope so, but I’m not holding my breath. The guys here are a fucking waste. I know things are rough for you two right now, but Dan’s one of the good ones. How you managed to find that here, I’ll never know.”
“I don’t know how I found Dan. I got lucky, I guess. I really believe it’s just hard to find the right person. It’s so easy just to walk away when things start to go bad; no one wants to work on their issues anymore. It’s like, oh, life sucks, and we fight, so we’re done.”
“I just want to make it to the fighting part.”
My laughter rang out. Only Jos would want to argue with her significant other.
“What? I’d love to get to that point in a relationship. Plus, it’s not like you and Dan ever fight.” She had a point.
“We don’t because Dan isn’t around enough for us to argue. All of these separations keep us in the honeymoon stage. Arguing would be an improvement at this point. Pray for us, Jos, we might need it.” The chuckle that made its way through my lips was an awkward thing, my attempt to hide the worry chipping away at me.
“Oh, shut it, you guys will figure this out and we will be celebrating your twentieth wedding anniversary before you know it.”
“We just need to figure out how to get you to meet someone you can celebrate a twenty-year anniversary with, Jos. Hell, even a one-year anniversary.”
“I know, I know.” She sighed. A moment passed, and then another. We both said nothing, just stared at the image of the other on the screens of our phones. “Ros?”
“I know you’ve only been gone a few weeks, but I fucking miss you.”
“Me too, Jos. Me too.”
Somehow, in spite of all the things we had talked about that day, just hearing how much she missed me made all the difference.