by Savannah Todd
Our faces are wet with tears as we stand together on the beach, staring up at the yellow balloons. We must look crazy, standing here on the damp sand, huddled together to fight the cold rolling across the empty coastline, our fingers clutched around the bright colored ribbons that tether the yellow balloons to us. The balloons shift back and forth above us in the wind. They bounce off of each other and make a sort of hollow sound that is too familiar to us, maybe because it sounds like the hollow place that we all feel in our chests.
I glance at the framed photo that is propped up in the sand next to a glass vase that protects a flickering candle from the wind. It’s one of her senior pictures and she’s wearing her blue and white letterman’s jacket as she smiles out at me with such joy. She loved that jacket, loved the school she represented when she wore it. She was so proud the day she got the jacket and ironed her varsity letters onto it. I remember her smile perfectly; she wore the same proud and joyful smile in the picture I am staring at now. Her golden hair is shining in the sunlight and all I can think is that she looks so much like an angel.
I feel a shiver run through me that the candle can’t warm and the unfairness of it all hits me for what feels like the millionth time. How can we go on without her joyful laugh or her mischievous smile? Why does the Earth keep turning even though our angel, our beautiful Ellen Grace, is gone?
That was her name: Ellen Grace. It’s written in silver sharpie on each of the five balloons floating above us. Five yellow balloons, one for each of the holes in our hearts, the five of us left behind, each one trying to find a way to let her go.
It had been a few weeks since graduation when I stood with Ellen in the driveway. She had a box of disposable hand warmers clutched in her hands. She never went anywhere without a few of them, always had some stashed away in her glove compartment, just in case she met someone who could use one. That was the beautiful thing about Ellen; she always had the needs of others in mind. I can’t even begin to count the number of nights she spent downtown handing out blankets and those hand warmers to the homeless.
“Sometimes something as simple as having a hand to hold can change a person’s world,” she would say. “That’s what these are: a warm hand to hold on a cold night.”
That was the kind of heart Ellen had: a beautiful, thoughtful, and loving heart. It was a heart that the world would never be ready to lose.
Whenever I think back on that moment on the driveway, I remember the sun beaming down, brighter and warmer than is typical for June in Washington. It might be because everything was always brighter and warmer when Ellen was around. She was so happy that morning, smiling and laughing. After all, who wouldn’t be excited for a senior trip to California? It was a celebration that bid goodbye to high school and hello to college. Not a crazy trip. Just an easy, eight hour drive. So simple, so perfect.
Only eight hours.
What could go wrong?
I remember the confusion, the disbelief when it happened. I remember the words that were spoken: accident, spinal injury, head trauma, life flight. So many heavy words, with heavy meanings. My head spun and I couldn’t think, couldn’t process it all. They didn’t make sense. How could those words be related to a simple eight hour drive? How could those words have anything to do with Ellen Grace?
I remember stepping into that room in the hospital and seeing her there. My heart caught in my chest and for a moment I couldn’t breathe. She looked so different, so fragile with her body hooked up to all of those machines. All of those tubes coming out of her arms, her veins, and her nose. Her face was swollen and bruised. If I hadn’t have been told that this was her room, if I hadn’t read her name on the clipboard at the end of her bed, then I wouldn’t have known that the girl lying there in the bed was my Ellen.
Her eyes were closed and there was a bandage across her forehead. A piece of medical tape held an oxygen tube in place that was steadily pumping air into her lungs. Her blonde hair laid behind her on the pillow, splayed out around her head like a golden halo. It was the only part of her that was recognizable. Everything else, the intelligent glint in her eyes, her coy little smirk, and all of the things that were so uniquely Ellen were gone.
That’s what the doctors were saying. The part of Ellen that made her so special was gone. The swelling in her brain had done irreversible damage, they said, too much damage for her to ever be the same. They told us that even in the best case scenario, even if she did wake up she wouldn’t be the girl she was before the accident. Even in the best case scenario, our beautiful Ellen Grace was gone.
I didn’t believe it at first, couldn’t believe it, wouldn’t believe it. There was no way for me to comprehend a life without Ellen. I sat there in the teal colored hospital chair and just stared at her. I had to blink back tears as I watched the oxygen rise and fall. I listened to the steady beep, beep, beep, beep of her heart monitor. Her heart was still alive. The most beautiful thing about Ellen was still there, still beating. If the most perfect thing about her lived on, then how could she be gone?
I remember the night she wiggled her fingers when we talked to her and my heart leapt. The doctors said it was just reflexes in her muscles, a kind of twitch that was common with her type of brain injury. All I could think was that it was Ellen telling us that she was still with us, still fighting, that she was not ready to leave us just yet. Looking back on it now, I think that maybe she was trying to wave goodbye.
The next morning Ellen’s heart failed and we knew, no matter how much we didn’t want to, we had to let her go.
There was a vigil for her in the park and I’ve heard that it was beautiful. I was there, of course, but I can’t recall what it was like or who else was with me. I only remember the green smell of the grass and the damp spots on my knees from where I sank to the ground, sobbing.
“She can’t be gone,” I said, wrapping my arms around myself. “She just can’t be gone.”
Others clung to me and I clung to them. We clung to each other, holding each other together while we individually fell apart. My mind kept replaying the scene of that room with Ellen in the hospital bed. The heart monitor beeped, but within each tone I heard the same word repeated over and over: gone, gone, gone, gone.
Soon after there was a service to celebrate the most amazing soul any of us had ever encountered and probably ever would. There were songs played, stories told, and innumerable tears shed. It was a more elegant display of grief than the night at the park, but it still didn’t fix what was broken. Nothing could bring back her beautiful smile; no one would ever make her laugh that wonderful laugh again. Not even the hand warmers that we all left the service with could touch the cold, empty hole that she left in our hearts.
Now we stand here on an empty beach, the cold wind whipping around us as we cling to each other once again. I see the yellow balloons above us; yellow for hope, for happiness, for Ellen’s favorite color. I see the silver scrawl on each of the balloons but I don’t try to read their messages. There are five of them, one for each of us left behind. One for a mother, a brother, a lover, and two friends. Five people missing the same piece of their hearts.
I catch a glimpse of my handwriting on one of the balloons and think of the words I wrote, the words I have memorized, seared into my heart:
I will miss you often, love you always,
and never let your memory fade.
You will always be my Ellen Grace,
and as long as I have you in my heart,
you will never truly be gone.
Rest in paradise, my angel.
I turn my gaze from the balloons and glance at the people around me, tears still falling from my eyes. As other sad eyes meet mine, we all try for a smile, but don’t succeed.
“Ready?” I ask, taking a moment to wipe the back of my hand across my cheek.
Everyone nods. We each take a deep breath and then let our ribbons go. The yellow balloons go soaring up into the gray sky. They fly higher and higher, twisting around each other, dancing in the wind. We watch them rise, climbing and climbing, until they are just barely visible, little
yellow specks in the sea of gray. They finally disappear into the clouds, but none of us lowers our gaze for another minute or so.
I feel a drop of water land on my already wet cheek as it starts to rain. The drop quickly turns to hundreds and we are caught in a downpour. I feel the rain wash over me, wiping away the tears that had so recently been coursing down my cheeks. The drops soak through my clothes and my hair, drenching me. As we all run for the car I reach into my pocket and find the hand warmer from Ellen’s service. I activate it and feel the warmth spread from my palm and to my fingers. A warm hand to hold on a cold night. I smile, because something in the heat of the hand warmer and the way the rain is washing down my face tells me that Ellen got my message.
Category: Featured, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing