It’s getting later in the year; that time when the air is chilled by the thought of endings. The sun sets at seven now, and the sky is already pinking as I close the door of my mom’s dented green van. I tilt my head up towards the sunset. I love everything about this moment; there’s nothing like late September.
My jazz shoes are thin, and I might as well be going barefoot on the parking lot. My sister, Iris, with her unfairly pretty, messy blonde hair and big smile, bounds after me. It’s a good day.
Not like what comes after.
We hurry into our dance studio. It’s crowded and stuffy, the air conditioning faulty, but it feels like home.
I’ve been here since first grade. In these six years, our studio’s been wracked with tragedy after tragedy. Death follows us everywhere, from a teacher’s brother to another’s small stepdaughter. Each time, we grieve deeply, but emerge stronger for it. It’s part of what makes this place feel like family.
By the way – I’m no dancer. I figured that out after a disastrous attempt at ballroom class. Now I take Glee, a combination of singing and acting. The class passes by in a blur.
By Tuesday, I find myself at my kitchen table, head in hands, wishing I had paid more attention.
Because I don’t remember much about that day. I know we sang, as strong as ever. At the end of class, our instructor, Ms. J, called out – in her endlessly cheerful way – “Selfie!” A laughing gaggle of eager girls (and one boy) surrounded her cell phone. I craned my neck to make it in the picture. A few people away from me was one grinning fifth-grader. A girl named Addisen.
When Addisen joined the class, I was amused because we had the same name. That’ll make this year confusing, I remember thinking. She was the youngest kid in our class. I admired her because she had confidence. It made me smile the way she got up on our very first day of class and sang the Star Spangled Banner. She was the first person to volunteer; Addi was bold.
Change. Did you know that the whole world changes when one person dies? It’s true. Without that individual, the earth’s balance is shaken. Maybe somebody across the planet won’t notice their absence, but I believe everything still changes. Heaven and the entire universe all stand at attention for each newly departed soul. My town is no different. Tragedy struck our sorta-small town, Liberty, Missouri, and life changed.
The day after that Thursday class, Addisen went on a bike ride. She did everything right. And then someone was speeding, and then she was gone.
Well, she wasn’t gone right away. For three days, she fought. Her brain was bleeding, though, and it’s hard to recover from something like that. On Tuesday, she died. Too young, too fast, altogether too unexpected.
I only knew Addisen for a few weeks, but I felt her loss like she was a sister. You see, I had barely spoken to her, but I watched her sing. She had watched me sing, too. To sing is to strip down all your defenses, exposing the rawness of your soul for the world to see. When you watch someone sing, you know them completely.
I don’t know if this is true, or just God’s way of lifting my aching heart, but when I learned she was gone, I heard His voice. She thought you sang beautifully. Those words echoed in my heart and I broke down in tears. Addi, I thought you sang beautifully, too.
I believe tragedy, no matter how awful it may be, comes hand-in-hand with hope. The hope may be small, and it may be outnumbered, but it’s there. Hope comes when you are strong, you are bold, you are here and unafraid to say it. Hope comes when you are vulnerable, you are scared, you let yourself be loved. Hope comes to any place where there is impenetrable darkness, and it penetrates it anyway. Hope says, “No. I will not be shaken.” When you allow yourself to hope, you illuminate the night.
Seven days after I last saw Addisen, our Glee class meets again. My jazz shoes are still thin on the pavement, the sky pink as I hurry from the car. The difference is, this time, with solemn expressions, our class circles up in the center of the room. The owner of our studio, Ms. Kim, breaks the news to those who haven’t heard. It’s an emotional night for everyone. None of us can stop crying; at least we have each other’s shoulders to cry on. Ms. Kim passes out tiny pins with red and blue ribbons on them. There’s a gold star in the middle of the ribbon. It’s a Wonder Woman pin…Addi loved Wonder Woman. I clip the pin onto my shirt, thinking about how people keep telling me it’s okay.
It’s not okay, but we’ll get through it. If I knew one week ago what I know now, maybe I would have been just a little bit kinder, a little bit more loving, a little bit more grateful for what I had.
Life echoes and life changes and life is a strange symphony. I know now what I know, and I will be a little bit kinder, a little bit more loving, a little bit more grateful for who I have. You never know what might happen, but that doesn’t mean you can live in fear. In fact, I think it means we need to live braver. I will live braver, for the Wonder Woman.
Our town has a festival every September. It’s called Fall Festival, and everybody goes. It’s Saturday, one week after Addisen’s accident. The sky is smoky with the taste of autumn. Vendors hawk everything from soda to corn dogs to vintage American flags. Kettle corn is strewn on the sidewalks of our town’s historic district. Face-painted people clog the streets. In the middle of it all is our Glee class, ribbons proud on our chests, singing.
“This is brave, this is bruised, this is who I’m meant to be…”
It’s Addi’s favorite song. I can hear her by our sides, singing with us…
“This is me.”