Looking for your next spooky October thriller? WE GOT IT. This week we’re reading I Know You Remember by Jennifer Donaldson!
Scroll down to read the excerpt.
The urn is smaller than I expected. It’s green—her favorite color—and made of aluminum, and even though it’s less than a foot tall it’s heavy. Dense with her ashes. With her body.
With my mother, broken down into a million crumbling pieces.
It sits on a small altar at the front of the little chapel, and I can’t take my eyes away from it. Even with the funeral director standing at the lectern, reading some poem I’m sure I okayed in the meeting we had a few days ago. Even with the sound of weeping behind me. The urn takes up all my vision, soaks up all the light in the room. The green is dark, the same color as the Douglas firs she loved. The color of the mossy stones in the shadows of the Columbia River Gorge.
The thought makes me close my eyes tight.
It’s been a week since the accident. My body isn’t a body anymore, it’s a machine that I have to operate through force of will, pulling levers with all my might. I’m somewhere inside of it, tiny and exhausted. I have to shout to be heard from in here, and so sometimes it’s easier not to speak at all. Sometimes it’s easier to close my eyes and sit in stillness. But everyone seems to want something from me, and so I keep having to guide my machine-body through the motions.
For instance. Next to me, I feel Ana Maria putting her hand on mine. She’s my case worker. She’s nice enough. I don’t have any family in Portland, besides my mom, so Ana Maria’s been helping me make all the arrangements. She helped me set up the funeral, helped me make a reservation for the flight to Anchorage tomorrow night, helped me close out Mom’s accounts, her credit card and the utilities and the apartment lease. She’s definitely one of those people that believes in meditation and support groups and grief counseling, and she’s already given me a book called Present in Loss: Surviving the Death of a Loved One through Mindfulness. And even though I just feel numb, and tired, I have to force my machine-body to move yet again, so that she doesn’t think I’m just some kind of monster who can sit here during her own mother’s funeral and stare out in space. I open my eyes and look down at my lap and let her take my hand.
The room is packed, but that’s only because it’s such a high-profile death. The women from her office sit in a row just behind me, crying into their handkerchiefs. There are college kids in the crowd—Mom was a well-liked registrar at Reed—and a handful of my schoolmates, though I hardly know most of them. All around I hear the quiet rustle of people shifting in their seats, craning their necks to get a glimpse of me or of the urn or of the blown-up photo on the easel at the front of the room that shows my mom, smiling her dimpled smile. Even in the midst of all these people, all these well-wishers, all I want is to talk to Zahra. But she’s a world away, and I’m alone, and surrounded.
“And now, Lori’s daughter, Ruth, will play one of Lori’s favorite songs for us,” says the funeral director, nodding toward me.
I make my robot-body get up and walk onto the dais. I don’t look out into the crowd. My guitar is already set up next to a chair; I pick it up, hook the strap around my shoulder, and take a breath. Then I start to play.
It’s an old pop ballad from the nineties, and I’m playing an instrumental arrangement—I’m not a singer—but everyone recognizes it. I can see people moving their lips to the unspoken words. In the arms of an angel. Mom used to sing it off-key every time it came on the radio. I remember her in the little trailer where we moved after she left my dad, crooning while she did the dishes. I remember rolling my eyes at Zahra as we breezed past her on the way to my room, the two of us laughing hysterically over her earnest, yearning face. I remember every part of that sun-drenched summer when I was fourteen, when my mom fluttered at the edge of my vision like a mildly irritating moth. When I ran free with Zahra, the two of us writing stories and roaming the woods, turning our jeans into cut-offs and eating mountains of candy.
It feels like forever ago, even though it was just a little over three years.
All I want to do is go back. That girl I was—she seems impossibly young, impossibly innocent. She takes so much for granted. She has no idea how much she stands to lose.
The song comes to an end. I sit still for a moment, cradling the guitar. My machine-body feels frozen, and I realize I’m not sure whether to get up and go back to my seat or not. Nobody moves.
My eyes light on the urn again. And now there are more memories to deal with: my mom, sipping from a Nalgene bottle on a high promontory in the Gorge. Below us stretches the river. Mountains bare their jagged teeth against the horizon. This is her favorite place, and she is peaceful.
I want to stop there, but I can’t. My muscles seize up now, my fingers curling anxiously around the guitar’s neck, because it happens again and again in my memory, and I can’t stop it or change it, because it’s done. The next moments come in choppy fragments. She takes a step. She’s so close to me. If I’m fast enough I can put out my hand to stabilize her and stop it all from happening. But I’m not. I’m not. Her foot twists and the water bottle flies from her hand, out over the cliffside, and my eyes follow it as it spins around and around into the vertical drop. And then I look back at Mom. She’s leaning backward over the empty air. Her eyes are so wide, so wild. And then she’s gone.
I am only vaguely aware of time passing. I shake hands, hug classmates, talk to people who knew her. She was shy but warm, my mother, and the people around her were drawn to that. But it strikes me that there are no dear friends here. No one who knew Mom’s stories and her tics and her jokes. We kept to ourselves the last few years, and these people all worked with her or knew her superficially. The thought hits me with a pang, and I think, am I finally going to cry? Am I finally going to feel something besides exhaustion?
Then it passes.
Three hours later, I’m back at the apartment. I kneel on the floor of my living room in front of three boxes (donate, throw away, keep), sorting through our piles of belongings. I’ve been holding a throw pillow for twenty minutes, trying to decide where to put it.
“How you doing in here?”
Ana Maria stands in the hallway, a box of half-used shampoo bottles in her arms from cleaning out the bathroom. She’s a short, round woman, still in her funeral clothes. For once I can see the tattoos she usually covers up with her cheap work blazers: birds flying, flowers bursting into bloom. I usually feel like tattoos are supposed to make you look tough, but on Ana Maria they somehow look vulnerable, and the phrase wearing your heart on your sleeve keeps popping into my head.
“I’m fine.” I shove the throw pillow into the donate box just so I don’t have to look at it anymore. “Just a little distracted.”
“Of course.” She sets the box down and sits on the sofa, watching me closely. “Maybe it’s time for a break. Want to go get coffee? Or ice cream?”
“Thanks.” I give her a weak smile. “I just want to get this done.”
She’s so shabby and so earnest, and I don’t know why but some tiny part of me despises her for it. There is too much pain in the world to live like that. She’ll get hurt, and it’ll be her own fault. I want to tell her to toughen up. I want to hug her close and then shake her.
She picks a piece of fuzz off her skirt and idly rolls it between her fingers. “Are you nervous about seeing your dad again after so long?” she asks.
I look down at the pile of clothing on the floor—Mom’s clothes. I know immediately I’ll donate most of them, but I pick up a fuchsia cardigan and pretend to examine it so I don’t have to meet Ana Maria’s eyes.
“I guess, a little,” I say. “I talked to him on the phone. He sounds . . . different. He’s been sober for almost three years now, so that’s good. But it’s going to be weird to see him again.”
We’ve barely spoken since the day Mom packed up our clothes and moved us out of the house at the end of eighth grade. He went to rehab not long after, and I guess it took, but Mom had had enough by then, and I guess I had, too. We talk on the phone a few times a year, and he always sends a gift card at Christmas. Last year I missed his wedding to Brandy, some woman he met in AA (and yeah, I had a good laugh about her name). “But I’m glad I get to go back to Anchorage,” I add. “I miss it.”
I glance up to see that familiar look of interest in her eyes. Everyone reacts like that when they hear I was born and raised in Anchorage. It’s either, oh wow, what was that like? Cold? Dark? Did you ride a dog sled to school? Did you see moose walking down the street? Are you an Eskimo? (Yes/yes/no/yes/that’s actually a slur, and no, I’m obviously not Inupiaq.) But Ana Maria just nods.
“I’ve heard it’s beautiful,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to go.”
That’s the other reaction. People have seen footage of the cruises and the bus tours. Calving glaciers, frolicking otters, grizzlies catching salmon, jagged peaks. All of which is a part of it. But living there is different. Living there means shoveling snow and getting up in the dark to go to school and practicing regular earthquake drills. Still, I miss it. I miss the long summer days, the honey-colored light stretching into midnight. I miss the mountains across the east and the dark glitter of stars in the winter. I miss the inlet and the lagoon and the creeks and lakes and streams.
I miss Zahra.
“Mom didn’t miss it at all,” I say. I throw the sweater into the donate box. “She hated the dark and the snow. It made her depressed.”
“I can understand that,” Ana Maria says. “It’s hard to imagine what that’s like.”
“It never bothered me too much.” It’s not totally true—but I do have some good memories, of curling up with a book and some hot chocolate, of watching the neighbor’s Christmas lights make colorful patterns in the snow. Darkness is like that. It can make you tired and sad, or it can make the bright spots stick out even more.
“Well, it’s going to be a big adjustment,” Ana Maria says gently. “And . . . look, Ruthie, I’m not here to tell you how to feel, but . . . there are a lot of different ways to grieve. Some people cry and scream and suffer out loud. Some people . . . some people need a little bit of time, to process everything. And whatever you’re going through, whatever you’re feeling, it’s okay. It’s not wrong. Just make sure you listen to your heart and give yourself room to heal.”
I look up at her, startled. I thought I was putting on a good show for her. But suddenly I realize Ana Maria isn’t quite as oblivious as I thought. I feel seen, which is both scary and soothing. Is she saying it’s okay that I’m numb? Okay that I’m feeling flat and robotic?
“Grief unfolds over time,” she says, making an opening- book gesture with her hands. “It changes day by day. Today you might be going through the motions. Tomorrow it might all hit you, or the day after that. Just be kind to yourself, no matter what. Okay?”
I feel my lips start to tremble. And I realize, this is what I needed. Permission. Validation. It’s okay to feel nothing. It’s okay to feel tired.
“Okay,” I whisper.
I glance at the urn where it rests on the kitchen island. I think of my mom that day in the Gorge. She loved hiking but she usually went alone. We’ d grown apart over the past few years. I suppose a part of me resented her for moving us down here. But that day, I’d decided to go with her, on a whim. And I’m glad. Because the look on her face when I offered to come made it worth it. She’ d been surprised, thrilled, her eyes lighting up. “Oh, Ruthie, I can’t wait. It’s a perfect day for it. Here, you can wear my boots.”
Yes. I’m glad I went. Because even though it’s not the goodbye I would’ve wanted, it’s the closest I have.
I look back at Ana Maria.
“Would you mind if I finished up on my own?” I say. “It’s almost done. I just want a little time alone with her things.” I tug at the end of my braid, twisting it around my fist. Ana Maria’s gaze softens.
“Are you sure?” When I nod, she looks around the living room. “Well, the bathroom is done, and the bedrooms are mostly empty, I think. This is the last of it. Arc of Multnomah County will be out tomorrow morning to pick up whatever you don’t want. Are you sure there’s nothing else I can do to help?”
“I’m sure. I’m just going to order pizza for dinner, get through this last little bit.”
She chews her lip, then nods slowly. “Sure,” she says. “If you need me, you can text me.”
I hold back as she gathers her bag and jacket, half afraid she’ll change her mind. But then she’s gone, and I’m finally, blissfully, alone.
I turn back to the almost-empty apartment. Really all I want to do is curl up in the pile of my mother’s clothes and rest. Instead, I start to gather up armfuls of her things. Her work clothes, her jeans, her exercise gear. The one snug blue cocktail dress she never had a chance to wear anywhere. I shove them all into donate. The box isn’t big enough but I don’t care. I shove shirts and skirts and slacks on top until it looks like some kind of clothing volcano, exploding in color.
I pick up the urn and again think how strange, how unlikely, that this is the entirety of her body, made into a small, portable object. It doesn’t feel like her. It feels like a thing—one more thing that I have to pack.
Our balcony looks out over a narrow strip of landscaping to a busy street beyond. My downstairs neighbor isn’t home, which is good; I don’t want them to freak out about what I’m going to do next.
The cremains smell strangely earthy. The pieces are bigger than I expected, but they crumble easily in my hand, into a fine powdery ash. I hold out a handful and the breeze catches most of it, though some rains down on the hedges below. I’m not sure if human remains are good for the soil, the way some kinds of ash are—but I like to imagine that they are. That she’ll make the trees grow big and strong, that they’ll house baby birds and squirrels. I honestly don’t know if Mom would approve of this or not. We didn’t understand each other. But I do know she wouldn’t want to be stuck in a vase.
The urn is light and empty, and I feel that way, too. I feel more focused, more centered. I go back inside and put it into the throw away box. Then I pull out my phone and pull up Zahra’s number.
Arriving in Anchorage this Sunday, I type. Can’t wait to see you.
I hit send.
I’m ready to go home.