Coming-of-age stories are beloved by teenagers and adults alike because they give us a way to look backward and forward at once. In our teen years, we discover a newfound self-awareness that allows us to see where we’ve been as we move toward our futures. But the hard work of growing up continues past high school and past college. Having just turned thirty, I am finding that it continues even past the prolonged youth of your twenties. (I have yet to experience this, but I imagine it continues even as you care for kids of your own.) For those of us who are past adolescence, the memory of that time lingers; we return to it, in memory and stories, in films and literature, because that threshold between what we have been and what we will become is one that we are faced with for all our lives.
I was twenty-three when I lost my mother to a sudden death. I had just graduated from college. I was on a new precipice, out of school for the first time, trying to figure out how I’d make a living, pay for grown-up things like insurance, and most important, who I’d be now that I was meant to be fully adult. After receiving my diploma and packing up my apartment in Chicago, I’d retreated to the safety of my childhood home in Albuquerque, spending my days sitting at the desk I’d had since middle school and working on PhD applications. That’s where I was one afternoon in early August when the doorbell rang. I thought the man in uniform who asked for my father must be a policeman coming to warn us about a break-in in the neighborhood. When he asked us to sit down, my dad said words that are still impossible to my mind: “Are you going to tell me my wife is dead?”
The man was not, in fact, a policeman, but a chaplain. My mom had kissed me good night the evening before, gone to work that day, and never come back. I remember that as the chaplain spoke, I was staring at the little plums that had fallen from the tree in the front yard, broken and staining the cement a deep purple. When we went inside, my father lay down and sobbed on the long runner of the carpet, the same one where we once dangled a string of shell beads, teaching my little sister to crawl. I don’t remember much after that.
There was a funeral. There were visitors. There were rainbows in the wide-open New Mexico sky. There were mashed potatoes that the visitors made, which were the only thing I could eat for days. And then there was a new precipice. A life I had to figure out how to go on living without my mom, who was my best friend and favorite person. I abandoned my PhD applications and turned to writing, struggling to find words for what still felt impossible. A few months later, I moved to Los Angeles and got a job. The next year, I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I moved forward, all the while caught in the undertow of grief.
It took many years to cross the threshold between being my mother’s daughter—the daughter of a mother who’d been lost—and becoming my own person. It took writing my first novel: Love Letters to the Dead. The title came to me first, along with the idea of writing letters to iconic dead people in the wake of personal grief. And when I sat down to start, Laurel appeared to tell her story. Laurel lost her sister, and her letters become a way of processing her complex feelings about May’s death, as she learns to live her own life. Though writing the book was never easy, it came more naturally to me than anything I’d written before. As I wrote about Laurel finding her voice, I was finding my own. I was learning how to transform grief into something else. A story. A kind of beauty. A life. I was learning that I would be okay. That doesn’t mean that there’s not a new precipice every day. I am always “coming of age.” Because that gesture, first born in our teenage years, is one that will stay with us for all our adult lives. We are always looking backward, and we are always looking forward. We are always turning into who we will become.