Amelia & Me
Later—after we’d run out of energy—we’d walk through the graveyard and try to piece together stories. We’d start at the largest, most prominent tombstone (usually a mayor or a town founder) and work our way out, piecing together the lives and deaths of the people who’d once made the town come alive, and from there we’d embellish.
For example: Samuels was a town founder who’d gone through three wives in his long life, but in the end, he was buried next to his first wife, Georgina, whom he’d been married to only a few short years before she died at 22. Her tombstone was larger than those of the other women, with a weeping angel standing watch, and a spot at the top was dark, as if charred.
“Or,” my mom said knowingly, “as if a man had laid his hand there many times over his past 60 years.” “Or,” my father added, “as if hobos used it as an ashtray.”
We walked on to the Smith family plot, about which we made up long and complicated stories filled with imagined scandal and laughter and heartache. In our minds, the oldest son had been an incurable dreamer who died young while attempting to create an early (and painfully unsuccessful) jetpack. The Smith plots were overgrown, though, and it seemed as if the family line had died out—and the only stories still told about them were the ones told by people like us: poor amateur detectives with strong imaginations and no access to cable.
Inevitably, we always ended up with at least one tombstone that didn’t quite fit with the rest. Set off from the others, it bore a last name that didn’t seem to match anyone else’s. There were no special engravings, no “beloved child” or “She is not dead. She only rests.” Instead, there was just a name and, possibly, a date. Those markers always made me the saddest, probably because I identified most with them.
Even at age 10, I already knew that I was different from most people. My anxiety disorder was still years from being diagnosed, but it affected me quite deeply. I was too afraid to speak out in class, too nervous to make real friends. It was always the single, lonely grave that I’d stop at to pull out the weeds and leave wildflowers. In a way, I suppose, I was mourning for myself, for the outgoing, friend-to-all person I would never be. At that young age, I already felt as if I’d always fade into the background. I was terrified of slumber parties, let alone leaving the house. I couldn’t give a book report and, instead, would stand in front of the class laughing nervously without ever uttering a word.
It was during one of our long walks through a cemetery that I found the grave of a girl named Amelia. Her tombstone stood at the edge of the cemetery, apart from any of the others, as if purposely hanging back. She had died in her 30s, and the lettering of her tenure here on earth was worn by 70 years of rain. “Perhaps,” I whispered to myself, “she does have a story. Maybe one so incredible that no one would ever be able to capture it on a simple tombstone. Perhaps she stands out of the way because no one ever came near enough to understanding her. “Perhaps” I said a little louder, “she was a traveling tightrope artist with tattoos that told stories and a throat that spit fire. Perhaps she retired after she fell from the high wire, only to retire here and live quietly. Perhaps she died from a lonely heart, her name on the lips of a dozen men who never had the courage to speak to her. Perhaps she was attacked by vampire cougar who still roams these parts after being improperly beheaded.”
Lisa came to stand behind me. “More likely she was just some girl who died of dysentery,” she said. My sister had played too much Oregon Trail as a child.
“Possibly,” I replied. “But I prefer my story.”
And then I took a deep breath and walked purposefully into the story of my own life—finishing school, growing up, having my daughter. Even though—more than 20 years later—I still struggle with anxiety. I still deal with the fear, and it still limits me. But when I feel like I can’t possibly survive one more day in the real world, I think back to Amelia. I think of all the things that Amelia might never have had the chance to do, and of all of the amazing, ridiculous things she accomplished in my imagination. I think of the fact that I still haven’t seen the view from the top of the tightrope and that I never will if I don’t push myself to fight my anxiety and confront the terrifying task of living.
Then I grit my teeth and make myself do the very things that scare me so much. I force myself to talk to the bafflingly perfect-looking moms at my daughter’s school (almost all implausibly named Heather or Tiffany) whose shoes cost more than my car. When I walk past tattoo parlors, I no longer say, “Oh, hell no!” Now I say, “Maybe.” Or “Soon.”
Some people think it’s strange to have a hero who is just a gravestone in a cemetery, but even today, believe it or not, Amelia is more responsible for getting me out of the house than my husband. She taught me that we all have stories in our lives worth passing down, stories that may or may not involve surviving brutal vampire-cougar attacks but that can make a lonely child—or adult—feel so much less alone.