Once upon a time there was a girl. Nothing she did was forced upon her. She had choices. Fun. Love. Happiness. Then it all began to crumble around her and because she had no experience of the horrible things that life could throw at her she was flummoxed. She tried to find answers to questions like ‘Why would a man who said he loves you, hit you?’ But there was no answer and so she left him. She floundered and made things up. She wouldn’t tell anyone the truth about her life. She said ‘It’s okay. I got this.’ She said it a lot even when she didn’t. She’d smile the whole time. People liked her.
Even when she’d go to her torn up, cheap, falling down rental house with a tarp on the roof. She would smile all the way up the driveway and up the back porch stairs, because someone tore the front stairs off years ago and there was no front door. She’d smile her way into the house and then sit on her sprung sofa, with the sharp edged linoleum floor that never got clean, and she’d cry and cry and cry. Because she didn’t have this. She didn’t know who to ask and for what. She would cry and take bathes. Sit on the back porch and look over the fence and hope no one came to disturb her because she was tired of smiling.
Then she left. One day she packed one suitcase, loaded her 3 cats into the front of her 1985 Dodge pick up truck, and she left everything she owned behind. It was time to start a new life. Start off with nothing again. She had nothing, now she had nothing again.
And for 6 months it was wonderful. She got a job she liked. She found a tiny 450 sq ft house in the driveway of a mansion. A gate house. It had a porch and was surrounded by pine trees. She painted it green and raspberry and hung up curtains.
Then there was an accident. It killed the best man she’d ever known. It almost killed her sister. It tore up her family and it tore a gaping hole through her shiny new life.
She went back to the town and arranged his funeral. It was the hardest thing she’d ever done. No one was there to help. He had family, he had hundreds of friends but everyone was so shocked that they were immobile. And the sister was going crazy. She wouldn’t talk. She wouldn’t answer questions. Her brothers and her mother and her sister were all there but no one talked to her. Every day for 5 days she would get up and start doing things that needed to be done. It’s not easy to bury a man.
The girl had sat beside his coffin in the funeral home alone, waiting. For something. For someone to come. But no one did. She handed them the clothes she’d brought to dress him in. The ones she remembered he liked. His favorite hat, his shorts, his tee shirt. She wondered if that was right. She remembered him teaching her to fish in the river wearing that very pair of shorts and hat and that tee shirt. They left her there and she sat for a long time and finally she said good by to him and she told him she would take care of his wife and she left.
She drove to a lake and watched the clouds in the water. Then she got up and smiled. Yes, it was time. She arranged payments for the services and made notices and drove around putting them up in his home town. It was up the valley a ways. She put the notices on telephone poles and in bars and grocery stores, smiling when she thought someone was looking at her. She was trying not to cry.
When there was nothing left to do she sat in the parking lot of the funeral home and waited for them to bring him out in the urn she’d found at a store. It wasn’t a real urn. It was a Chinese vase. And she’d found a lid made of ceramic that they could glue on top. There wasn’t much money and she didn’t know how to get any more. So she waited. It was in a parking a lot across the street from a Circle K quick mart. She just sat for hours watching people go in and out. And finally they gave him to her.
And as she drove home, back to the town that was once her home, with his urn on the front seat beside her, it was still warm. And she talked to him. All that long drive home she talked to him. And when she got to the sisters house she got hit and punched and screamed at because the sister couldn’t handle her grief and there she was with her husband in a jar. She had to leave at midnight in her truck and go park in the dark on a dirt road and try to think of a reason not to just drive over the edge.
And when the funeral was over, and there were so many shocked and grieving people, the Mom decided there was no chance for grief or goodbyes. Not for her. She didn’t see her sister or her brothers again. The Mom and her, they left early in the morning the next day when it was still gray and dim. It was time to leave. Immediately.
And so she swallowed it all down again, all the grief and sorrow and terror and she drove and drove back to the place she was living and she went into her raspberry and green house and she realized that the second half of her life was going to be about crying. Eventually she brought her sister and her niece away from that little town and got a bigger house and they lived together. She knew there were things that were going to be taken away from her. She needed to work more to pay the bills. To support her family. She needed to be careful. There was no time for travel or vacation or writing or painting. No. All the time, loss was the new lesson she was learning. It was going to be rammed down her throat. She would accept loss. Small losses, big ones, didn’t matter, things would be taken from her. It didn’t matter if it was dignity or pride, it was going to be taken. She lost her beautiful niece. She cried and when she stopped, she would smile and smile.
It wasn’t enough.
She started bleeding one day and it didn’t stop. She lay down on the bathroom floor and looked at the beautiful, cool linoleum and she was dying. She didn’t call out for help. She didn’t do anything. She lay there bleeding.
And her dog found her and got her sister to come and there was chaos. The new life she was making for her widowed sister, the nice clean rental house they’d found, the excitement of moving in, even that had fallen apart. It was gone.
She had stage 4 ovarian cancer and it was all through her. There was surgery and radiation and chemotherapy and she got sicker and sicker. Then her dog died. Then her cat died. Then the other cat died. It was all too much.
She smiled in the face of all this shit storm because that was the only thing she knew how to do. She is still smiling. She was smiling when they told her it had come back. She was smiling when they told her there was more surgery and new drugs. She is still smiling. There is no difference between smiling and not smiling.
I just lean out the window and look at the field. I’m so terribly tired. I’m not sorry about anything. Not anymore. I feel empty. I am hollow.
Now, I am in chemotherapy again. I am on new drugs. They are terrible things, these drugs. They make me feel as if I have the flu, while suffering the worst hangover I’ve ever had and I tried to fix it with a few grams of cocaine.
And my boss talked to me about smiling. She wants me to smile. She said I needed to be nicer to the customers at work. Two days after chemotherapy, after all this news, she told me to smile.
Once upon a time there was a girl and she used up all her good times when she was young…and in the end there was nothing left to do but smile.