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I’ve been crying since I was eight years old. Blame Lurlene McDaniel. I do.

In the summer of 1987, I found death on a shelf at the Lee County Library in Sanford, North Carolina. I had been looking for those pre-teen romance novels, the ones where boys didn’t have naughty intentions and girls said no to drugs even in the midst of the popular kids. I had devoured these sorts of books all summer and had finally exhausted the library’s moderate selection. So, as any other little girl would do, I began perusing books for the coolest, hippest teenage girls on the cover, the girls I wanted to be.

It was time to go and I was desperate to find something to read. By chance (or was it?), I saw a really pretty blond girl, whose hair was crimped and massive, sitting with her mother. I hastily picked up the book and ran to the check out.

Later, I examined the book more closely. The book was called Mother, Please Don’t Die. Which, of course, meant Mother was, in fact, going to die (but I wasn’t a savvy reader back then so I held out hope things would end well). The book followed a girl’s journey through her mother’s dying and her own grief as well as the difficult transition from being a little girl to being a teenager. Megan made sense of her mom’s worsening symptoms as best she could as a young girl; she told me about the terrible pressure and the anger bubbled to the surface at baseball practice, resulting in her consequent suspension. After her sister’s wedding, Megan sat with her mother and they had the first truly frank conversation about death that I had ever read; Mother was not going to be there for Megan’s wedding. She was dying.

And when she did die, my heart was shattered and I sobbed out loud. I’ve been reading and sobbing ever since. I developed a voracious appetite for the dying genre. Through my middle and high school years, I learned about living with diabetes, juvenile arthritis, kidney failure, and AIDs. I felt enlightened with each page. I groped for all the empathetic artifacts in the words that were written. I began to live with all of these hardships. I felt I knew what it was like.

The year before, 1986, had been a bad year. In January, my grandfather died of lung cancer. It was the first death I’d experienced. It was scary flying from North Carolina to Arkansas, only to see a dead body, dressed in blue and not breathing in a wooden bed. Two weeks later, I sat forward with the rest of my class, eyes glued to the television as the Challenger exploded and everyone on board was killed. They sent school counselors around to speak to us about dying and grief. I felt terrible for the teacher on the Challenger, but I cried terrible, painful tears for my grandfather.

Weeks later, I randomly asked my mother if she had had any other children before my brother and me one night before our bath. She hesitated and told us she had given birth to a little girl when she had been previously married, but the girl had died when she was a toddler from cancer. I nodded and soon forgot about it, as children will. It wasn’t long before my subconscious mind kicked in and I began to wonder if I had cancer, too, and asked my mother if I was going to die. Months I asked her and for months I must have drove a stake in her heart.

Little girls don’t understand these sorts of things. I didn’t. By the time I held a copy of Mother, Please Don’t Die in my hands, I needed to read about grief. The only problem is I never stopped grieving. The reading and the grieving is a question of insignificance; no matter if the chicken came before the egg, the chicken and the egg exist.

When I was eighteen, a very receptive former teacher gave me Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt as a graduation gift. Since then, it’s the real stories of laughter and pain that have touched me the most. Into Thin Air. Devil’s Knot. Young Men and Fire. Books about the Holocaust, 9/11, surviving freak accidents, OCD, alcoholism, depression. The stories are compelling but they are most important to me as conduits for processing my own life (and grief).

In a nutshell, I read books that are too sad for other people. A book is deemed good if I cry. It is deemed brilliant if I can still sob thinking about it a year later. There are many brilliant writers out there.

Right now, The Dark Tower: the Gunslinger is impatiently waiting on my bedside stand for me to finish it. The sojourn will be short and I will soon return to form. Stacked in the corner are my standard fair, books about the Taliban, mental illness, murder, the Mormon lifestyle…all await me. I can only think greedily of the sobs I am soon to cry.

I can’t help but think I’ve made Lurlene proud.

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     April 1981. My brother and I are running around the backyard, searching for Easter eggs. It’s cold. Our movements are static, slightly-delayed in my mind—as though this is not a memory but an old slide-show film from the 70s. 
     He’s being nice to me for once, my brother.  I remember that. Just yesterday, he stole my Miss Piggy doll and wouldn’t give it back until I burst into tears.  Today, though, he’s a gem for all to see. I’ve got on his hand-me-down clothes, a red shirt that barely covers my round belly and elastic blue jeans.  He pulls me this way and that, a little roughly, but I understand that this is “nice” for my brother.  
     For all the effort, I haven’t found any eggs.  My brother has beaten me to all of them.  But Mother, who is sweet and has a pretty, soft voice, tells him to “help” his sister find one.  So he drags me over to a large rock in the yard and lo and behold, there is an egg tucked right beside it.  I am happy.
 
     Later.  In Kindergarten, I find only one egg at our class Easter egg hunt.  I am given a mercy award for having found the least amount in the class.  I tried to find more, kind of.  It’s exhausting running around for silly eggs.  I get to the predictable hiding spots too late.
     I learn a lesson about running after the other kids and doing what they are doing that day: if you run after what others have, you’ll end up panting–with nothing to show for it.  I try to follow the kids who seem lucky in egg-hunting, but it gets me nowhere.  For one thing, these kids are lucky; they find all the eggs.  Everyone else has lots of eggs, and I am the only one who doesn’t.  If only I could do it again, I think to myself 21 years later, I would be more intuitive, finding eggs—and my way—for myself.
     Of course, lessons are easily forgotten. By the time I’m in 5th grade, the new girl at a new school, I try desperately to find a different face in the mirror, one more like popular girls in my class.  I try to be like the other girls, thinking they are sure to help me find the light that seems to glow around them.  But other girls are quicker than me, and I don’t become part of the entourage of snippy white girls in a poor town. I am reduced to slinking back to my unhappy existence, having clearly not found any eggs. 
    

     These days. The only time I ever eat eggs is if my father scrambles them. I watch my father work, smiling, laughing easily. He cracks and breaks the eggs. This is no big deal for him. Eggs are eggs to him. For me, they symbolize everything I have ever wanted but have been unable reach: popularity, maturity, understanding, friendship, and love. All the woes of childhood and adulthood found in the most common of breakfast foods.
     Sitting at the table, listening to my father carry on, I hear my dad in another place and time telling me to let it go.  I <em>should</em> let all the old go. I’ve spent too long pondering the past.  I should enjoy my own life. Resolved for the moment, I can table this struggle for another day. I smile at my father.
     With a little salt, I think, those eggs will be awfully tasty.

SOB with me

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