Remembering To Breathe
The cold air hit my insides, the way cold water hits your skin the first time you dive into a pool. The sensation left me stunned and breathless for a moment.
It started on an ariel view of a large never-ending field of lush green grass, dotted by patches of oranges, yellows, pinks, purples, and reds. A bright rainbow of colors seeping through the pores of the Earth. A fine mix of, dandelions, marigolds, tulips, hydrangeas, and daffodils, sprouting through various parts of the greenness. It was a beautiful sight from above. Through the vastness, I spotted her, an image of myself dressed in all white, a goddess standing out amongst nature. She was beautiful.
The view moved to eye level and I was running to her. “Mariah” I called out as I ran. She remained unmoving, smiling as if waiting for me. I was running with purpose, gasping for breath, but she remained at the same distance. I willed myself to run faster, lungs burning, heart pounding in my chest. Finally, she was only a few steps away and I could almost feel our skin connect.
Then suddenly I jerked awake out of breath and sweating as if I’d actually been running. The same dream again. It was the one that’s been haunting me five nights in a row, but it wasn't the worst one I’ve had. I rolled over and stared at the clock, 6:28 AM, and I knew I wasn’t going to fall back asleep. I got up slowly, bracing myself for the dull ache in my hip to start as I shifted my body. I’d gotten used to the soreness that came from not moving all night. It only lasted a few minutes. I looked at the calendar and was reminded that tomorrow would be my birthday. I knew that was why the dreams had been so intense lately.
This would be the first one without her and it seemed wrong to even consider celebrating another year of life without her. Losing anyone is hard of course but losing a twin feels like losing a piece of yourself. There was a consistent heaviness that sat on my chest, making it difficult to breathe, making it difficult to move at times. To everyone else, I seemed like I was breathing just fine, but I felt like I was always trying to catch my breath.
We were on our way home from celebrating our 21st birthday. Mariah and I were riding in the back of Roger’s beat-up old Honda, half asleep from the exhaustion of the evening. Jenna sat upfront, holding Roger's hand, thanking him for picking us up and drunkenly flirting with him. She was trying to be discreet, but her drunken sexual innuendos were pretty obvious.
Suddenly everything shifted. I was startled awake by a loud crashing noise followed immediately by the sensation of the car spinning. Another car had rammed right into the left passenger side door, thrusting my sister’s body onto mine. The car flipped onto its side and I vaguely remember being crushed between my sister and the door as my head slammed into the window. I don’t remember much else.
Four days later, I woke up from a dream. I’d been in the flower garden running and playing with my sister. We were children playing tag with our grandfather. It was the longest game of tag, I’d ever played, but we were all laughing, happy, and having fun. In the moments before I woke up, I watched my grandfather carry my sister away. I was running to catch up. I thought it was still part of the game but it wasn’t.
Suddenly it was black and I was cold and in pain. Every part of my body ached and I struggled to open my eyes. When I finally got them open, I saw my father asleep in a chair. The room was small with white walls and a light blue curtain to my left was cutting off my view of the rest of the room. In front of me, there was a whiteboard with my name and some other stuff scribbled on it. I heard the sound of unrecognizable beeps and struggled to turn my head to see where they were coming from. The room felt familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.
Flashes of memories started coming to me. Jenna, Mariah and I, all of us laughing, wearing cowboy hats to match the western theme of the bar. We clinked our glasses and downed our tequila shots before making our way to the center of the bar.
“Birthday girl or not if you don’t last at least twenty-one seconds next rounds on you!” Jenna proclaimed.
“I’ve got this!” I said with all the confidence of a champion bull rider. I climbed on with ease, held on tight with one hand, the other hand in the air, throwing my head back as the mechanical bull moved beneath me. It was a battle of man versus machine, and I willed my drunken body to stay connected to the machine. By the time I’d been tossed off twenty-two seconds had passed. Twenty-two seconds wasn’t record-breaking but I was excited about my win.
“I’d like a Tequilla Sunrise,” I told Jenna with a smirk and turned to Mariah “Your turn.”
“Nope I’m not even close to drunk enough yet.” She laughed.
"C'mon what fun will it be if Jenna doesn't have to buy two drinks?" I said with my arm interlocking hers, moving her closer to the thick patted matting that seperated the bull-riding area from the rest of the bar.
Of course, she resisted a little more but I kept insisting. It was our way. She knew I wouldn't let up until she finally agreed. Mariah got on the mechanical bull, one hand in the air, eyes closed, and was promptly flung off within the first five seconds.
Immediately I remembered her body crashing into mine. “Where’s Mariah?” The words came out in a gurgle and I realized something was blocking my throat. I tried again but I just made more gurgling noises. The sound woke my father, who upon seeing my eyes open began tearing up.
“Alexis, you’re back with us honey.”
I just stared unable to speak, while my father silently said a prayer of thanks. He was quiet for a while trying to compose himself. He finally told me I was in the hospital, and I’d been in an accident. I had some broken bones but it looked like I was going to be okay. By some broken bones, he meant a few cracked ribs, a broken leg, a swollen eye socket, and a bunch of other bumps and bruises.
After a lengthy examination, they finally removed the thing from my throat. An uncomfortable process that left me coughing and gagging. The cold air hit my insides, the way cold water hits your skin the first time you dive into a pool. The sensation left me stunned and breathless for a moment.
When I recovered and it was just me and Dad again, I asked “Where’s Mariah?” The words came out in a scratchy whisper.
My father who had been on the phone telling my mother I was awake, got quiet at first. He then proceeded to tell me she was okay and recovering in another room. But I heard the hesitation in his voice. He sounded off and I called him out on it. “Where’s Mariah?” I repeated, this time with a little more strength in my tone.
My father let out a deep sigh and tears started to fall again. I knew this time it wasn’t tears of relief but tears of pure sadness.
“She’s gone sweetie. She died two days ago.”
A numbness passed over me as I processed his words. I felt his eyes on me, waiting for the tears, but they didn’t come. My mind erased his words and went back to the idea that she was recovering in her own room. I’d wanted to know the truth but then I couldn’t handle it.
My grieving happened unexpectedly. On the second day in the hospital, I overheard Lisa the older woman on the other side of the curtain who had also been in a car accident, reading Love You Forever to her four-year-old son. Hearing the story triggered something in me and suddenly I couldn’t breathe and my tears felt uncontrollable. My sobs were so loud, I heard Lisa ask from behind the curtain, “Alexis are you okay?” I didn’t have the words to respond, my body kept pouring tears. It felt like someone was holding me down and choking me. There was no air. I was dying all over again, except the first time I couldn’t remember, but that moment would be etched in my memory forever. Eventually, a nurse came in and tried to soothe me but she was blurry and I couldn’t hear her words.
I think they gave me a sedative. When I woke up my mother was in my bed cradling me like a baby. My physical pain blended with my emotional hurt and so her touch didn't register as pain. I could hear the softness of her heartbeat and smell her lavender perfume. They let me know I was still alive. I nestled my head deeper into her chest and let out silent tears.
Later I learned that Jenna and Roger were both recovering from similar injuries. I was grateful to hear that but wondered why my sister was the only one that had to be taken. Even the man that recklessly got behind the wheel drunk and ruined my life was still alive, currently rotting in a prison cell, but most definitely still alive. In a few years time, he'd be free, but my sister will never come back. His letter of apology sits unopened in my junk draw. I know that letter was more for him than it was for me and I had no interest in easing his guilt. I'm told I'm supposed to forgive him, not for him, but for me. But I'm not ready yet and I don't know if I'll ever be.
Lately, I’d been looking for ways to honor her. Between the two of us, she was the one that preferred to stay in, while I was the one that sought out adventure. She kept me grounded, while I forced her to go out and experience new things. The Ying to my Yang.
It seems I’ve started to take on her homebody persona. At first, I stayed in because I couldn't get around. My healing was a slow process. My right leg had been broken in two places and my hip was severely bruised. It took months for my leg to heal and more months before I was finally able to walk without a cane. A slight limp remains and so I venture outside once a week for my physical therapy sessions.
My parents insisted that I join a bunch of groups. Groups for people who had lost a loved one, groups for people who’d lost a sibling, groups for people who experienced death at the hands of a drunk driver. I used to go to all of them. I participated, connected with others, it was good at first. But now it just feels redundant, I'm tired of talking about it, tired of listening to others talk about it, just tired. Nowadays I skip those meetings and just sit in the park people watching. It was the type of stuff Mariah used to love that I could never understand. I had never been good at being still. I get it now. It was peaceful.
On Saturdays, I volunteered to read stories to children at the local library. Mariah had wanted to be a teacher so that was something that felt like honoring her, but it didn’t feel like I was doing much of anything.
Once upon a time, I was obsessed with the art of photography. I didn't know how to be still unless I had a camera in my hand. I loved capturing rare, beautiful, interesting fleeting moments in life that we'd never get back but could remember forever. It started as a hobby. I had borrowed my dad's old Nikon for an assignment. That assignment sparked an interest that developed into a passion. I was even enrolled in a photography program in the city, focusing on photojournalism and was loving it. But it's been a year since I touched my camera. That part of me seemed to have died with her.
On the morning of my birthday, I woke up exactly how I’d woken up the night before, suddenly, out of breath and in a cold sweat. This time it was close to 8 AM, which meant I could enjoy the peace of having the house to myself.
Happy Birthday, I whispered to myself.
Nobody had tried to pressure me to celebrate or do anything fun, but Jenna asked if we could simply spend the day at the beach. I agreed because it felt like such a regular thing to do.
When I got out to the kitchen, I saw a pink envelope leaning against the coffee maker so I’d notice it. No doubt it was a birthday card from my parents. I read the card, filled with beautiful lines of poetic birthday wishes, and pocketed the cash that was inside.
My parents had been really understanding about allowing me to have this year off, but I knew they were going to expect me to go back to school in the fall. I just didn’t know what I wanted to study anymore.
Jenna and I made it out to the beach around noon. The air was warm and a few fluffy clouds decorated the bright blue sky. It was perfect beach weather but there was hardly anyone there, most likely because it was a random Thursday and everyone had work obligations. We found a spot close to the water. Jenna was on her phone, but I simply laid back and watched the waves crashing in the distance, dozens of seagulls flying around. It was beautiful.
A few feet away a father with his two daughters were laughing and playing. The two little girls weren’t quite identical, but I knew they were twins. They looked to be around six, both in pigtails, one wearing a pink bathing suit the other wearing a purple bathing suit. I smiled as I watched them laugh and tease each other. They were a beautiful family. They didn’t know me, and I didn’t know them, but I felt a strange connection to them. I knew it was because of the twin girls.
It was the first time in over a year, I missed my camera. I could see myself taking photos of families like them. That old spark was coming back. I let out silent tears as I watched them. They reminded me so much of me and Mariah when we were kids. The connection I felt was not to the family, it was to her. I took a deep breath for the first time in a year. That heaviness got lighter and I could feel the air filling my lungs. I could feel her with me. The connection was so overwhelming strong, I couldn't ignore the message she was sending me.
I got up and walked over to them, “Excuse me.”
“Yes, may I help you?” The father asked.
“My name is Alexis Campbell. I’m a photographer. You have such a beautiful family, and I was wondering if you’d be interested in a free photoshoot some time?”
He looked at me stunned and I had no idea what to make of it. "I'm sorry to have bothered you."
As I turned to walk away he said, "It's just that we haven't taken any family photos since my wife died last year. The girls' birthday is coming up next month and I'd been considering it. It just doesn't feel right to do it without her."
Now I was stunned. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. I get it now Mariah, I get it now. I took a deep breath to push the emotion out of my voice. "What if we found a way to include her?"
"Could we do that?"
"I know what it's like to lose someone important. We can do it for her, to keep the memory of her alive for you and your girls. I'd love to help you do that."
He wiped away a lone tear and gave a tentaive smile, "Okay, I'd like that."
After we exchanged information, I went back to where Jenna and I were sitting.
"Hey what was that about," she asked with a confused look on her face.
I just smiled and said, "That was a message from Mariah."
About the author
I love a good story, whether it's a book, a movie, a play. I love reading/ watching interesting characters develop & drama unfold. As a writer I create that world. I create that drama. IG: @positivelyhealthyvibes Twitter: NATHALIE_CLAIR1