I remember seeing her lying at the edge of my parents’ bed, still and white, with a dress that billowed off the turned edge of a comforter. My father says that never happened, that I dreamed it. He says she was never laid there in a dress, on a well-made bed, with mother, father, sister looking down. Either way, she is dead.

My sister died as a baby when I was a big girl of five – a real-life angel. Perhaps if she had lived longer – had made it to three candles – maybe then my mother would have been whole. She didn’t. She isn’t.

My mother calls me “angel girl.” It’s more threat than praise, I think. It’s made me dislike angels, for one, although I still pray for them to watch my husband and my dog, in case angels really are the worker bees of Heaven. I like to have my bases covered.

I’ll tell you something about dead family members. When your mother loses a child, it is the leftover’s duty to take the dead kid’s potential upon herself. That is to say, whatever happiness my sister would have been destined to heap upon us had she not stopped breathing in the night in April, it had to come from somewhere. I understood that I must generate enough love for two daughters. I don’t know at what point the goodness inside little-girl me turned from “a blessing” to “you’d better.” I can’t tell this part of the story. Suffice it to say that something happened that made goodness – a child’s love to her mother – something happened that made it not big enough. You may fill in the blanks with your own imagination. Let’s jump forward.

At some point along the way, I found myself in a quiet contract. I gave hugs and kisses and brought flowers from the backyard when mother was ill and prayed and prayed and prayed and made surprise breakfasts in bed. When something was difficult at home or at school, I was reminded that I was smarter, kinder, lovelier than my friends
were, and although it was permitted that they struggle, it was not alright for me.

Together we built a stratum of expectation out of eggshells and loose change – a tall tower – for me to live in. Sometimes mother would climb up to whisper things. When I was ten, I learned that under no circumstance should I ever touch myself: “you will stretch it out and the doctor will see and think your daddy molested you. You don’t want to be responsible for your daddy going to jail.”

At 12 I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Under my pretty hair was worry worry worry – too much for a sound mind to hear – so my father, a gentle voice with impatient eyes, proposed that I should have a video camera in my bedroom to tell my worries to. I was punished when he found me in the bathroom, repeating
curated curses under my breath which ended in “Christian” – a prayer to purify my round thoughts. We were supposed to go gardening that day. I planted my first garden this year.

There were other things. Suggestions that I was not “street smart” like my brother. Forced phone calls when I arrived to my dormitory each night in college and calls to my friends when I didn’t answer. I’ve been “terribly selfish” over the years; once because I planned an autumn wedding when my mother wanted spring. There were
also emails from my father. The first time I moved out of the house, the email said this:

“Your mother and I have already made it through the death of one child. Do not think we can’t handle having an insolent one like you.”

I’m not telling you this to bring you to my side. I don’t want to be unfair. The real story is that two people lost a daughter and needed a success. There were drugs, too, which hunted my mother, making her a wounded monster in the home and a manic one outside of it. Her muscle relaxers fueled panic attacks in me that, once dissipated, left me poisoned with guilt. Please know that I tried to love her. I tried not to retreat to my room, afraid of my own racing heart and her voice, gargled and loud.

I want to have a mother. Everybody wants to have parents. My mother has laughed with me; she’s held me when my mind would not rip itself from orbit. My father and I danced to “White Christmas” at my wedding because he hummed it to me in the night when I was small. I don’t know what I did to grow undeserving of hums.

I’m trying to show you everything because I don’t know if I have earned the word “abused”. I don’t know if you will forgive me when I tell you I left them.

Five months ago I said to my mother – a woman screaming on the phone that she did not know me, that I had gone bad – five months ago I said “You are no longer welcome in my life.” Her voice has become my voice. I hate my successes, my body, my mind, my heart. I can’t climb down from this tower we made, my mama and I. So I’ve killed their second daughter.

If you read this to my mother she will tell you I lie. She may say she never knew me. She may say she never gave birth and you may believe her. Like any grand mythos – as with the birth of a star or of a river – there may be many truths.

Mine is this: I choose each hour to be an orphan. I select grief as lost boys and girls grieve because to repair a whole person requires blood. Some nights I worry that I have destroyed the only love that is owed to me and that one day no one will mind what I feel. But I’m acting on a hope that there is something on the other side of grief – a small, residual layer of whatever is at our cores – that can still be saved. It feels like this: like waking from a dream.

Liz lives in Kentucky with her partner, Justin, and her human-sized dog, Daphne. She owns sixteen cardigans. She loves rainy days and that thing when her FitBit vibrates and makes little sparkles because she needs constant praise to be happy.