Today, I am three years old. Mama—my grandmother who is raising me because my mother is now a quadriplegic—has dragged me along with her while she picks up a prescription. I don’t mind. Armed with newfound knowledge, I march up to the pharmacist and announce that I’m learning to spell. Mama beams proudly—she has sat on the floor with me from the time I could speak, trying to teach me to say my alphabet, read, and spell. The patient lady at the counter smiles serenely and requests a demonstration.
“Cat. K-A-T. Cat.” My first unofficial spelling bee, and I am already disqualified. Mortified, I vow never to misspell that word again—and I never do.
In kindergarten, we are learning to spell three letter words and even put together basic sentences. One day, after I draw a rabbit, I decide to label the poor creature so no one will be able to mistake my sketching for a dog. Unfortunately, I have not yet learned any five letter words besides my middle name (Marie). Devastated, my eyes well up with tears and I drop my head in my arms on my desk.
Lauren, the only friend I have this year, taps me on the shoulder and inquires about my tears. After explaining my dilemma, I sigh. Lauren smiles, shrugs, and blurts out, “B-U-N-N-Y.”
My jaw drops to the floor. I’m convinced—my best friend, the only person at school I know who doesn’t let my speech impediment creep her out, is a genius. She is my hero. I vow I will catch up before the first day of first grade.
I spend the entire summer cramming my head full of words and letters. By the first day of first grade, I proudly march down the hall for reading—in a second grade classroom. My hard work has paid off, and for one hour each day, I get to learn to spell big words. During my class’s spelling hour, Mrs. Denbow allows me to sit apart from the class and read chapter books. I devour Ramona Quimby and Bunnicula books by the day, while my classmates are lucky to achieve a whole Clifford, the Big Red Dog book in a week. I have fallen in love with language.
My love affair increases exponentially the following year. Upon moving across the state, I discover the Nancy Drew Files, and I spend many hours curled up in a dark corner of my bedroom, my adrenaline racing as Nancy comes face to face with the true villain of the story. I “borrow” the magnifying glass, grab a notebook, and spy on summer guests staying in the RV park. I attempt to hide under trailers, in the laundry room, and behind the public restrooms. I am bitten many times by many insects. I am now terrified of spiders. I decide detective work can wait until I turn eighteen, like Nancy. Or better yet, maybe I’ll leave it up to the professionals. Maybe I’ll just be a supermodel.
In third grade, we are given the opportunity to write our own books. Being the avid reader that I am, the wheels in my head begin to turn. Should I write a Babysitters Club-inspired novella? Would a Nancy Drew-style mystery grab my readers? Or should I embrace my own history and create a story from real life?
I think back to my friendship with Lauren—my only kindergarten friend. I have not forgotten the rejection I faced. The voices that once sang out, “Why do you talk like that? You sound so weird,” still remain etched my memory. I remember countless recesses during which I spent the entire twenty minutes walking along the wooded beams that outlined the playground, while my classmates dragged Lauren away from me, informing me, “Lauren doesn’t want to play with you.” Lauren looked back sadly, and I walked alone.
Grabbing my pen and paper, I write my first story title: Teasing Trouble in Kindergarten. The story itself soon follows, and being a bit of an artist, I fill in the blanks in my writing with illustrations. In third grade, I can only describe so much, so I rely on my drawings to convey the utter rejection: the image of a small child helplessly watching a group of girls whispering viciously as they walk away. Mama saves the story in the cedar chest. She has not forgotten those days either.
In third grade, I am no longer merely living with my grandparents—three years ago, they adopted me. Now Mama and Papa are Momma and Daddy, and my mom will always be Mommy. Mommy has been sick for as long as I can remember. Having battled cancer of the spinal cord during her nineteenth year, she is now left paralyzed from the neck down—and I can remember no differently. I am growing closer to her, now that my level of understanding has begun to mature. That Christmas, when she spies me spying on my presents before dawn, I join her at her bedside. Talking the rest of the night, the two of us welcome the holiday sunrise. Soon, the rest of the family joins us, and our quiet mother-daughter repose is broken with Momma taking directorial control of the day’s activities. My mom and I exchange amused glances—that woman will never change!
As Easter draws nearer, my mom’s begins to show signs of improvement. One day, on the nursing home parking lot, she single-handedly teaches me to spell “Honolulu,” showing me the patterns in the repetitive spelling. Proudly, I demonstrate my genius to each of the nurses on duty. The nurses and my mom have become best friends over the past few months. No one can resist Michelle’s smiles. In spite of her pain and helplessness, her smiles bring a glow to a building so often filled with despair. Everyone around celebrates with us the day she lets slip that she has begun to feel tingling in her legs again. Hope!
However, only one month later, our hopes are dashed. The Wednesday before Easter, she wakes in a fever, flushed deep red from head to toe, and she immediately finds herself in Cox South Hospital for the last time. An infection from a surgery some months before has silently spread upward over the preceding months until it seizes her lungs. By Easter morning, the doctors have moved her to Intensive Care, and I may no longer see her.
I stand in the doorway, begging to be let in. “She’s my mom. What if she doesn’t make it this time?” My pleas fall on deaf ears, and the doctor tries to assure me that my mom will be out in no time. I take one last look at my best friend hooked up to a room full of machines, and I surrender.
I soon return to school, engaging in my favorite arts and crafts. Wednesday, I find myself particularly engrossed in a glitter project and laughing at the banter between two of my classmates, when I see Momma and Daddy motion for Mrs. Porter. My stomach sinks, and Mrs. Porter embraces Momma. I don’t often see my parents tear up, and I have a distinct feeling that it has to do with my mom.
Mrs. Porter walks over to my desk, squats down, and quietly explains that my parents have come to pick me up. I nod, take her hand, and walk to the door. All the way to the car, I beg them to tell me what is going on. They refuse to tell me. Sitting between them in the truck, I stare at the silent radio. Dad always listens to the radio. I look up at Momma and see that her eyes are red and glittering. Glitter—my project—Mom’s eyes. My head spins like a top.
I have moved along to fourth grade, despite the fact that my world is forever crushed, and once again, we have a writing assignment. For once, I do not need to ponder possible topics. I know what I’ll write. Everything I can remember about my mom fills the pages. I hardly need to think to write this story.
Years have passed, and now I attend college at Truman State University. All who have known me my whole life continually tell me that my mom would be so proud. As for myself, I remember her having once declared that she only wished to live to see me graduate. Her story has been written time and time again—I have probably told her story so often and in so many forms that I could fill a novel.
My faith has grown over the years, and I have spent many hours pouring my heart out in prayer: spoken words, scribbled verse, drawings, and song. Being an artist of many mediums, I convey my grief and joy with many brushes and pens. Music soothes my passions, writing helps me remember, and the canvas fuses the three together.
My junior year of college, and I am taking Old English Literature. When I sit down, a very cheerful girl introduces herself. “Hi! I’m Andrea.” I smile back, and before long, we are best friends. We share crush stories, daydream about the future, have deep philosophical discussions, have less deep and less philosophical giggle-fests, and even brainstorm about writing projects. One day, over the summer, I read her blog to catch up on her life—after all, summers have always been a strain on my friendships, since I am a rotten correspondent, and I’ve found my dearest friends here at Truman—I don’t want to risk losing those friendships out of my own foolishness. Laughing over one particularly witty entry about men and their exasperating denseness, I spy three words in her webpage banner: beauty for ashes. The phrase sounds vaguely familiar, and I recognize it as a Biblical reference. Eventually, I look up the reference, and I come across a verse from Isaiah:
To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness (Isaiah 61:3).
After years of pouring my heart out on paper, canvas, and willing ears with reckless abandon, I finally recognize why I devote myself so fully to these arts: they have been my gift of healing. With each stroke or note, I apply a healing balm to my deepest wounds. With each word I write, I remember the path I have trodden.
He has given me these gifts to remind me that He will not leave me to hurt alone, and one day, I will receive beauty for my ashes of mourning.