You come to me in the early morning hours. When darkness and quiet gather over my sleeping children and the only sound in this stilled house is the door as it clicks gently closed behind Brian on his way to work, you come. I sigh, stretching my sleep-warmed feet out from under my quilt into the new September air pouring through the open window. The skies are dark. The neighbor's sprinklers start. I take a deep breath. I let you in.
You come to me in dreams, in music, in memories, but it is your smell that always comes first; a red currant candle in the winter and pine soap on your bathroom sink. Flashes of rosemary and mint as you distractedly twist your long, dark hair into a neat bun. Buttery pie crusts, apple cider, pastry cream with a splash of orange extract, and black flecks of vanilla bean stirred into soft-white peaks of whipping cream. Olive oil, as you spread your hands across my growing belly, searching for that tiny, quick heartbeat. Clean sheets, sweet smelling pillowcases, and Mrs. Meyers dish soap in your light filled kitchen.
You come to me in the places we loved together. Saturday morning farmer's markets and the homes of new, proud mothers. Countless bakeries and small cafes and bookshops. Downtown Salt Lake City on summer nights. Your pretty little office with the Anthropologie drawer-pulls and glass jars filled with raspberry tea. You perched on that tiny stool and me with my legs tucked under my skirt talking late into the afternoon and early evening. I see you in Southern California for Tess' wedding. When I step out of the car your eyes narrow as you look at my swollen feet, "Pregnant feet. How much water did you drink, Rachel? No, tell me how many ounces, I need to know. Did you pack salty snacks like I told you to? How often did you stop to pee and walk around? How many times did you pee today, Rachel?" And finally, your front yard, warm with a new spring, and you surrounded by the women and mothers who love you for honoring them and celebrating the important work that they and their bodies do. I kiss you on the cheek and hug you tight, my hands full of plates of food for Brian and the kids and Eloise books for Sela. I tell you I'll call you soon to plan our birthday lunch, "Only a few more weeks!" you remind me. Your dark eyes find mine again, so solemn this time. I hug you again, thanking you for the beautiful party and sweet gifts. I cross the street to my car, looking back to see you tenderly folding a new baby into your arms with laughter on your face. As I start the car, I glance across the street once more and say to my friend, "That felt so much like good-bye."
You come to me in hundreds of different ways during those quiet moments. So many memories waiting to be unpacked, unfolded, and carefully brought to the light. But a few mornings ago, one sweet memory came to me so clearly: It was wintertime and we are both curled up on your big blue sofa with a six-month-old baby Graham sleeping between us, his belly softly rising and falling with contented breath. As I watch you trace your finger over his fuzzy, round head, I ask, "Bri, what is your favorite part of your job?" You are quiet as you stoke Graham's cheek, and when your finger brushes close to his mouth and he starts to quietly suckle we both smile. "I think my favorite part is watching the journey and transformation of the woman," you carefully and thoughtfully answer, your fingers wrapping around Graham's chubby fist. "No matter how a woman feels at the beginning of her pregnancy, whether she is excited, overwhelmed, anxious, or devastated, if she is willing to surrender to the processes of pregnancy, labor, and birth, she will become the kind of mother her baby needs her to be and the kind of woman that she needs to be to feel confident and comfortable in her new role. Being able to watch that journey, that process unfold is the very best part of my job."
So here I am, Bri, a few months into my own difficult, unexpected journey. A journey that began with me throwing a positive pregnancy test against my bathroom wall and spending an entire day in my bed cursing God for the vulnerability of woman's body and the quiet, never-ending, ever-changing cycles of our bodies and our lives. "Is there ever a point where a woman's body is her own?" I screamed into my pillow until my throat was raw. I curled my knees into my chest and pulled the blanket over my head and for the very first time realized what losing you really, truly meant.
When I think back to those early weeks and months, I can't help but revisit a conversation we had a few weeks before your accident. We had just finished up lunch and you were anxious to show me your new laptop, "A pretty little distraction," you said with a sad smile, pulling it carefully from its purple, woolen case and placing it on my kitchen table. As you clicked through pictures of a recent birth, we talked about the grief, heartbreak, and disappointment that you had been carrying and sorting through for the past few months, your upcoming move, and your shaky plans for the future. "How am I supposed to move forward and build a life that doesn't include the one person who was always part of my future? How can I actively make decisions that force me to admit that any possibility of our shared life is over, is dead. I don't know how to start over. I don't want to start over."
What wise, inadequate words did I offer you that day, Bri? Because I need them now. I have never done this without you: pregnancy, labor, birth, motherhood. I don't know how to move forward in a life that doesn't include you, and the decisions that force me to admit that you're no longer here and that you're never coming back are the hardest decisions I've ever made. I don't know how to hold onto you in a way that honors your life, your friendship, and your work, but I also don't know how to let go enough to trust someone else, even someone I love and you love, into the space that only you and I once shared.
How do I do this without you?
As much as I cling to the abstract things your death has left behind, the smells and seasons, the light and dreams; the things I need most are solid, tangible things. Things that have weight and substance and purpose. Things that require touch, awareness, and most of all, life. I need gross alfalfa tea in a brown paper sack and four dozen frozen buttermilk biscuits balanced on top of a carefully packed birth kit. I need your tender, skilled hands untangling sweaty hair from my face and smoothing it into a ponytail. I need you quietly sitting beside my bathtub, your calm eyes moving from me to the second hand on your watch, holding the space. I need your laughter as you watch my children run and jump all around you, eager for your attention and love. I need excited messages on my phone about the most delicious pain au chocolate you've ever tasted and long, full conversations about growing, changing, and life.
I need you here, Bri.
Your morning visits have changed of late. The words that come most clearly in those early hours seem to have something to do with surrender, transformation, and the long, soul-stretching journey to becoming the kind of mother and woman I need to be come Spring. There are new words too, words that sound and feel a lot like healing, even if it is a long way off. And I guess that's how I know that you're still here, somewhere, reminding me of the things you've already taught me and of the truths I carry in my own heart.
You still exist. You are still here.
The beautiful, treasured photos are by Alisha Stamper. You can find her blog here.