On August 19, 2016 I was driving around aimlessly — something I never do. It was Friday, I hadn’t slept the night before, I was restless, so I cancelled my plans and meetings for the day, and waited. For a few red minutes I considered going to the bubble tea spot on Hawthorne in Portland to write, but instead opted for drifting. This decision had two results:
1.) I did not see Fallon Smart get struck and killed by a car.
2.) I was able to head directly to the scene when I was called.
One of my oldest friends is Fallon’s stepfather; I refuse to write ‘was’ when that role is still active. We’ve known each other for 20 years. I’m also close with his wife, and am godmother to their two youngest children. After my younger sister Rachael died, my presence in their household tripled, since it was a safe haven where I could fall into crying fits, and where I could remember that life is constantly renewed in the company of children. Grief has many unexpected spasms that can’t be anticipated till it pies you in the face, but can perhaps be summarized with, “It’s a beautiful day, I wish it were raining, I hate myself, fuck you.” Rachael’s death also brought my steady undercurrent of rage to the surface, because when someone dies at 34 and you are the older sibling and you were supposed to enter the ugly terrain of middle age together, and now you’re not, goddammit. I’m still angry, even as I type this, even 18 months later when I think of the fact that she never even knew the non-event of 35, let alone the sad trombone of 40.
When the phone rang on August 19th, I didn’t answer, because I don’t answer the phone, so if someone calls me then something is wrong. This time it was Fallon’s mother, screaming. Someone took the phone from her, and told me that Fallon died. My first thought was that I brought death through their doors with all my thick black grief; my second thought was that I wasn’t breathing.
Looking back, I was in shock. I gave the person who took the phone too much robotic information, the immediate to-do list generated by my brain to keep my body in motion: “I will go there now. I will take the back roads, since it will be quicker. I will avoid the main roads. I will be there in ten minutes or less. I’m on my way. Right now.”
There are so many scenes that follow this introduction, scenes of a life torn short by a reckless driver. If one day in the throws of dementia all these scenes are erased, I’m confident that two things will cling to me from 2016: 1.) Looking at Rachael’s blue, cold corpse, and asking for a lock of her hair. 2.) Running from my car to where Fallon’s mother was sitting in a chair with her two youngest children on her lap. Each one looked pulled from Pompeii, a portrait of a family frozen under ash. When I close my eyes, both of these scenes are vibrant in a way images only are when the chosen filter is death.
If you ask me about Fallon herself, the best I can offer is a handful of memories that illuminate me being an adult terrified of teenagers, not Fallon being a colossal young person who could cosplay and stitch story with the best of them. And Fallon was extra terrifying, because she had a sophistication and compassion that I didn’t have at 30 at 15, which always seemed to underscore that her time on earth would be short. She had ideas, dreams, ambitions, and the best an adult in her company could do is wait on baited breath for her to introduce them. I do not have the special misery of knowing her from her point of entry; I don’t have to wrestle down images from her toddler days, her first birthday, her first day of school, all of her firsts. This was my slow torture when Rachael died, choosing pictures for her memorial from every age, every first, that always included the three of us, the three of us, the three of us. There were four children in Fallon’s house, now three. How do you talk about your family when there’s one less? Does it ever feel like only one less?
This was a year ago. This was a year ago.
What am I doing? What am I working on? I’m working on grief. I’m working with grief. Grief is working me over.
I’m a writer, and I write about the contents of my heart that I don’t feel comfortable owning audibly. Very few people come to know me through conversation, where I’m mostly analyzing the environment and trying to decode what people want from me and each other. In most contexts, people are hunting for a listener who can witness their experience, an observer willing to see their truth even when they only talk around it. I can’t bring this same vulnerability; the room would get too crowded and the windows would fog. People learn about me through email, public posts, text messages, short stories, novels, because that’s where I’m comfortable gutting myself. So, in the middle of all this grief and support of others’ grief, in my wading through scenes and violent dreams and the changing faces of mothers and fathers and children, I wrote this about Fallon:
“Today’s dead includes a beautiful teenage girl with eyes that never settled on a single color. I know this girl; I don’t know this girl. So many of the living demand another round, many other rounds, the full exhausting route of nearly 100 years of life, to circle the drain of existence before a black hole exodus leaves them scrambling for a description more inspired than wow. She didn’t need that. She was lavender and grounded in an ancient way, her feet sunk so deep that they tickled the core fires, and now she has no choice but to climb skyward to spare herself the burn. Fallon is a redwood ascender, an upper canopy organism that can only be understood by those dedicated to climbing. An earth mother without the anchors. She was a girl who said I love you first, who answered the door without knowing who knocks, who got the haircut that startled her face bolder. I am 70% certain that I am alive and she is dead, but I’m adjusting percentages even as I write this. And I know that if I were an alien on a ship I’d lower my ladders for the likes of her, and let the orb spin right by the rest.
I didn’t know her, I know her, I didn’t know her; this is the record, this record is words and number and dates and names and photos and needs to be forever, even if it isn’t. The record says she was intelligent and science-minded, says she loved to draw and read and write, that she was part of a choir that is now collecting donations in her name. Her voice trails through a description that flails at flesh and blood; this is a resume that leaves out the mistakes and bandaged humanity that churns a person loved. I can see her laughing through braces, debating the most efficient organization of a dishwasher with her stepfather, working language around her mouth to filter out offense. I can see her wondering who amongst her friends might help her field the halls of high school, wondering if it will ever feel less like a lonely maze of bodies and smells and books that won’t matter in ten years time. I can see her standing in a church with her girlfriend singing the opening verse of a Tegan and Sara song that begs, “I want you close, I want you,” adding fist-bopping dance moves that barely escape the bulk of a leather jacket worn over a dress, an elven warrior ready for a sci fi future of bleeps and clicks. I can see her gaze chewing me as I try to carve out a complimentary sentence that translates to teenagers, when in my core I know that my hodgepodge of experience can only help with scholarships and taxes and 90s era music and bail money.
And now, in the mirror is the self that saw her as dying, simply because some people don’t get stuck here, because they don’t need to be, they don’t need to circle the drain when it’s perfectly possible to jump right down the center and skip the hairball, the grease trap, the cap.
Still, I never wanted to see her lying beneath a sheet in the street.
And now, I can see the Buddhist monks blessing the crosswalk with flowing chants and graceful gongs, promising to pray for her for days upon days, suggesting that a short lifetime means good karma, without considering that this suggestion means nothing.
And now, when I close my eyes I see a purple orb balanced between her hands, the faces of her family aglow, the sad siblings and lost parents she left behind. There’s no fear, no demand for one final slide. What did it taste like to arrive? I say goodbye, hello, goodbye, and I ask her ghost to speak, but it doesn’t, because she has something so many other dead don’t, and that is closure. Her final look was into her mother’s eyes, where she saw her beginning all over again, the first face, the last face, her first hello, her last goodbye. And that goodbye will circle and strike, circle and strike, until her mother’s face is bruised and bloody yet incapable of turning away from the next violent blow.
Still: I want her to be alive and choosing electives. I want her to be fretting over whether college is right for her, and deciding whether or not the arts are as intriguing as science. I want to hear more stories about how every teacher is her favorite teacher. I want to monitor the rise and fall of her face in and out of awkward until it settles into something adult at 25, and simply accommodates new sags and wrinkles. I want to follow her electric current to another end, one with a little more kindness, one a little less lavender and a lot more green, tucked into a cabin in the woods with two doors and great windows and a giant skylight she can’t reach with extended fingers. I want to see her partner emerge from the muddied place behind her, and wrap a warm arm around her to hold this rustic space in beauty, at once, forever.”
I want all of this for her, but what I want doesn’t matter.
Wander freely, Fallon Smart, and know that you are loved and beloved.