It Only Takes a Second
Kimberlee EsselstromGoing? Maybe? Can’t Go? Facebook gave me three choices.
My mind slid back to my seventeenth year, landing in painful high school memories, particularly graduation night.
I had raced home on the last day of school. “Mom!” The screen door slammed behind me.
“Laundry room.” Her voice sang the words, or maybe that’s how I want to remember her—forever cheerful.
I flung my wrinkled gown on the ironing board while flashing a pretty-please grin.
Ten minutes later, my mother caressed a wrinkle-free graduation gown as though the cheap nylon fabric was fine silk. “Let’s take a picture.”
“I’m already late. Commencement practice, remember?”
She grabbed her camera. “It only takes a second.”
It only takes a second.
Years before, my father repeated his favorite phrase in front of my elementary school. “A kiss goodbye only takes a second.” To prove it, he pecked my cheek and tapped his watch. Sure enough, only one second!
I quickly pulled the gown over my dress. No jeans allowed at graduation. School and its suffocating rules would soon be just a memory.
My mother prodded me into the brilliant sunlight. “Better make it good,” she warned. “Last shot on this roll of film.”
I struck a sassy ‘ta-da’ pose.
After the camera’s click, my mother headed toward her garden. I hung my gown on a hanger then tossed my cap into its box. Arms full, I whisked past my mother planting perennials. “Bye.”
On that calm day, an imagined gust of wind pushed me back home. The phrase, ‘it only takes a second’ swirled in my head. Even though I might be late, I retraced my steps. My gown swept the grass as I kissed my mother’s cheek. Her one dirt-free hand patted mine. We were not an overly affectionate family. A light kiss goodbye was all that was expected. But I also blurted three unaccustomed words. “I love you.” Slightly embarrassed, I raced back to school.
That was the last time I kissed my mother.
That was the last time I told her I loved her.
The gymnasium was packed with teenagers half listening to speeches they prayed would end. I located my parents in the audience. They waved after fishing me out of a sea of tasseled caps.
After the ceremony, I ditched my gown and joined my parents and boyfriend at our station wagon. We drove to an expensive restaurant in the next town; a family tradition and a graduating senior’s rite of passage.
The neon sign advertised an adult dining experience—cloth napkins and candlelight. My younger siblings were with a babysitter, unable to monopolize my parents´ attention. How long had I dreamed of this night?
A childhood friend and her parents stood in the entrance. I turned to see my father slide his arms into coat sleeves. He rolled up car windows and locked doors. My mom, my boyfriend, and I made our way to the narrow median. I waved to my friend as we waited for a break in traffic.
A whoosh of air snaked up the back of my legs. I smoothed my dress while a speeding vehicle plucked my mother from my side and tossed her through the air like a rag doll. Her limp body landed on the ground with a dull thud. Her long leather coat blanketed her battered motionless limbs.
Hazy memories of that night include: my friends in a shell-shocked huddle, the restaurant’s buzzing neon sign, sirens and flashing lights.
I later learned that the driver was drunk. He never braked or slowed. It was a miracle my mother was the only pedestrian struck. She had sprained her ankle the day before and took one fateful step back, shifting weight off her injured foot.
At home, news of the accident crackled like an electrical storm across telephone wires. An endless parade of people marched through our house.
Throughout that night, we opened doors and fielded calls while my father sat in his favorite chair looking small and sad. His dearest friends hovered nearby but not too close, in case his misfortune was contagious.
I meandered amongst mourners. Many tried to comfort, whispering strange and unhelpful things. A group of men chuckled about a game of golf. Women fussed over tired children. At five in the morning the house fell quiet, everyone pretending to sleep.
When I awoke, I answered a never-ending doorbell. Condolences came in crystal bowls and Tupperware containing lime Jell-O or tuna coated in mayonnaise. I felt protective towards the original contents of the refrigerator. What had Mom touched last—the orange juice or her favorite Colby cheese? I arranged the growing pile of potluck dishes. We picked at Condolence Casserole, Pity Pot Roast, and Sympathy Salad sprinkled with colored marshmallows.
Later that day, in order to shield the children from further trauma, my father decided no one under the age of eighteen would view my dead mother. Still seventeen, this included me.
At the funeral, the high school faculty delivered a large flowered wreath. Several floral arrangements stood sentinel over my mother’s closed casket. Classmates who never spoke to me at school offered compassionate head nods or one-word comments. “Sorry.”
Weeks and months later, I played the if game: if we had gone to another restaurant, if I had stood in her place in the median, if I hadn’t graduated.
Years later, although naive and unfair, I relied on my mother-in-law to be a mother substitute. Then I leaned hard on my older sister only to discover that she too needed someone to help her make sense of our mother’s sudden death.
When my oldest daughter neared graduation, I dreaded sitting in the audience. Everything associated with graduation seemed tainted, connected with death and loss.
“I can’t believe those wrinkles are gone!” My daughter smoothed the nylon fabric of her gown that I had draped over the ironing board.
I kissed her (It only took a second!) before she rushed to join her friends.
A lively brass band kicked off the event. I clapped away feelings of melancholy.
The processional music began to play. The audience stood. My breathing grew shallow and my knees buckled, like the time I climbed hundreds of steps to the Statue of Liberty’s crown. Just then, I caught sight of my daughter. I fastened my gaze on her throughout speeches and acknowledgements, drawing strength from her joy-filled smile.
Her proud swagger across the stage marked a beginning. She smiled in our direction. In that second, that very second, I learned graduations were events to celebrate, not mourn.
I patted my yellowed diploma. Reunion, here I come.
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