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Revisiting the Beginning of My Grief

Clear, corked bottle with rolled paper inside, washed up on beach at sunset

When I was a little girl, I was a tomboy. I’d rather be outside than in, and playing with balls and riding my trike, instead of playing house and having tea parties. I also loved jigsaw puzzles, Playdoh, and jacks. The sizable juniper berries on the bushes in the front yard of our tract home in San Leandro were “ammo” in our war games. From the time I was six, the walls of my room were covered in maps, mostly National Geographic magazine maps that came as an insert. I was fascinated by all the places, with how massive the world was, and how everything was connected.

The Talk That Blew Up My World

Smiling girl with short brown hair in black leotards, pink tutu, pink headband.

Aside from the usual pastimes, I loved to tell stories and to dance. At seven or eight, my tap and ballet teacher wanted to move me up a level. I was so excited. I don’t think anything else, up to that point, had made me more proud. Before that could happen, however, the “talk” happened instead. Not the “birds and bees” one. The “blowing up my world” one. Either in one conversation, or in two, within a very short space of time, Mom told me:

  1. Dad retired (Yay! He’ll be home more!)
  2. Dad is dying of leukemia and has 10 years to live (Wait! What?)
  3. We’re moving to Washington state, near Uncle Bill (Two states away?)

What it meant for that 8-year-old aspiring dancer:

  1. My dad is sick and he will die before I’m grown
  2. I will lose all my friends and have to make new ones
  3. I will have to give up dancing, instead of moving up
  4. There’s absolutely nothing I can do about any of it

That’s a lot for an eight-year-old to take in. I think this was right around the time I was taking swimming lessons. I remember acing everything except the back float. No matter what the teacher did, I was convinced that when she let go, I would sink, and so I would. Every time. She always caught me, but it was just no use. Why should I expect the water to hold me up? The world was cruel and people died. Didn’t she understand that? I would climb back into the Pontiac after class with its bubble-wrapped bench seat, wrapped in my towel, the smell of chlorine stinging my nose while the embarrassing failure stung my pride. Oh, well. If I was lucky, we’d stop at 7-11 for a slushy on the way home.