I didn’t know what the week would bring when I drove the highways through the mountains of western North Carolina and parked, hours away from home, in the hotel parking lot in Charlotte. It was afternoon still, and the light was falling but not fallen.
The first thing I did was find Laurie, my MFA “twin,” as someone referred to us because apparently where one of us is, the other is surely not far. Seeing her and her wonderful blond curls again reminded me I was not alone. We drove to campus together and eventually ended up standing in the chaos of the opening reception, which included a room full of writers, cold drinks, hot appetizers, and piles of white manuscripts we had to exchange properly before the night ended. I found my fiction group by trailing after my professor for the semester, a petite, smart, and sassy red-haired woman who inspired such confidence that I knew she would not only locate my group but she would teach me enough about story and motivation to make it worth leaving nonfiction for the semester to study fiction with her. I wasn’t about to lose her in the chaos.
I stood with my group and plunked my manuscripts down, and it felt like the beginning. We introduced ourselves, and my professor asked us all what our middle names were and why we had them, and some names were plain and some odd but all had meaning and reasons for being chosen, and it seemed then like the start of something good.
When the first official classes ticked along the next day, I sat in lectures and with my group and learned more about story, motivation, desire. I felt happy for the learning.
Most mornings, before breakfast, I went to the hotel pool to stretch my legs in short laps in warm water. Every time I went, I spent the quiet—no kids, no other adults, just a distant stream of music on some speakers—listing off the things for which I was grateful: my family, my health, my education, among many other things, even the luck of that pool and the safety of the hotel itself. One morning mid-week, before I waded into the water, I glanced at my phone and saw the text: my cousin had died a few hours earlier. His death should not have surprised me, as he had been in poor health for over a year, but still, the final knowing is somehow different and shocking, cold where you expect warm, a closing where you lulled yourself into believing there would always be an opening.
I faced the wall and shut my eyes. I stood so very still.
It was different, that morning, swimming, I remembered my handsome cousin’s dark skin and silver hair, his laugh, his Kentucky accent, his deep love for his children. The sun swelled red in the floor-to-ceiling windows, and I pushed the water from my body, and still it flowed back and around me. I said a silent farewell just in case he was listening.
I thought of beginnings and endings, how you can always find one in the other. I thought of the people I loved, and I went to school, and I walked with Laurie after lunch, before the last day’s classes. She looked for her hawk in the trees, and I scanned the sky for sunlight, and this is how we made our way through the day’s long and cloudy lessons, and I was never, not once, alone.