The Way Death Changed Me

I ran into my car to escape the brutal winter winds, quickly shutting my door behind me. I reached into my bag, struggling to pick up my keys since my fingers were numb. I finally got them and turned them into the ignition. I turned the heat up high and held my hands under my armpits to warm them up. I started to reverse out of the driveway and when noticed that my street was almost completely covered in ice.

Driving to school, I noticed the sun fighting to shine through the clouds just like the inside of a giant blanket fort, like the ones my brother and I used to build. I couldn’t remember the last time that I talked to him, and that made me think of the last conversation we had.

I locked myself in my room, furious with my mother and brother. I heard Curt’s footsteps approaching the door. “Nat? Come on, let me in.”

“Go away!”

I heard him sigh as he tapped the door, “You know she didn’t mean to say that, she supports your art, she just doesn’t get it.”

“Well that’s because you’ve always been the perfect child for her, she doesn’t get why I’m not like you!” I cried shakily.

“Nat...please open the door.”

I reached for my headphones and plugged them into my phone, blasting music to drain out my own sobs.

He kept knocking at my door until I eventually fell asleep, and the next morning he left for his new job in Texas.

I parked my car in the back lot, and I was walking to class when I nearly slipped.

That was close.

After lunch, I went to study hall and met up with Bri to talk about our plans for the break.

“Nat attack! What’s up?” she giggled.

I rolled my eyes and smiled, “Please stop calling me that, we aren’t in the fourth grade anymore.” We sat down at a round table towards the window and searched up ideas for all-nighter sleepovers.

“How does this sound, we’ll binge-watch Grey’s Anatomy and every time someone dies, we take a shot,” she suggested playfully.

“Aha, no thanks. I don’t want to die,” I laughed. Brianna had always been more experienced than me when it came to drinking games, and I had no problem with that.

“Okay fine, then you have to come up with something if you’re going to shoot down every idea I have.”

We spent the rest of the period talking about spring break and how we would spend it at her parent’s lake house, but it was really just a pipe dream we had since we were 16.

I was walking to my car when I felt my phone buzzing viciously in my pocket. I swiped my screen to open the call. “Hello?”

“Natalie, are you coming home today?” my mom asked.

“Yeah, I’m heading to my car right now, I’ll be home in 10.”

“Okay, see you then.”

I was confused to say the least, my mom didn’t usually call to ask, she would just track my phone and find out that way. So I got into my car and headed home, watching snow fall gently as I drove.

I opened the door to see my mom waiting in the hall for me.

She had an envelope in her hand, and her face was as red as the roses she’d bought yesterday for the kitchen table.

“Natalie, we need to talk.”

I dropped my bag and walked closer to her, “About what?”

She opened the envelope to show me a cut slip for math. “Four times? Why did you cut four days in a row? This is ridiculous, Natalie. I expect a lot more from you if you want me to send you to that art school. If you can’t take math class seriously, how can I trust you’ll do it with any of your classes when I’m not there to tell you to?”

I started walking into the den to sit down, “ I don’t want to talk about it.”

She scoffed at me, “Well, I don’t think you have much of a choice now.” She stood across from me in the doorway and crossed her arms, “What’s the deal?”

I shrugged and mumbled, “Nothing.”

“If ‘nothing’ is causing you to skip class, I’d love to see what something really important will do,” she spat at me. “Spill it.”

“I didn’t want to go.”

She grew angrier at the second I spoke. “Listen, I don’t know if your friend Brianna had anything to do with this, but you need to start taking this more seriously.”

“I am, I just wasn’t feeling good.”

She leaned over to the table next to her and picked up something and put it behind her back. “I know you don’t like when I read these, but I was really worried and I wanted to know what was going on with you.” She pulled my red leather journal to her chest.

My heart fell into my stomach and I jumped up, “Give it back!”

“Not until you tell me the truth!”

“What truth?”

“Are you taking pills again?”

I was shocked to hear her say that, because I was clean for almost a year now. I got up and grabbed my book from her. “I can’t believe you.”

“I’m asking because I care Natalie.”

“Yeah well maybe if you’d read deep enough you’d know that I haven’t thought about those pills in a very long time.”

“How am I supposed to know that if you never tell me anything?”

“Let me try,” I stood straight, “Hey mom, I really hate going to school since half of the people there only see me as that girl that passed out in gym because she was high out of her mind. They only see me as the girl who got wheeled out of school on a stretcher, the girl who went to rehab for 8 weeks and came back wearing the same sweatshirt every day.”

She stood in silence, frowning at me.

“You have no idea what I’m going through. You only care if I’m going to math class.” I grabbed my bag and headed out the door, “I’m going out.”

Wiping away the tears from my cheeks, I soaked my sleeve, almost freezing it to my arm. I got into my car and drove away with no destination in mind. I had a really hard time focusing since I was crying so hard. My phone, sitting in the middle console cup holder, started to buzz. I looked down and back up, it was my mom calling. I was scared to answer, because I knew she was furious with me. I reached over to go into my glove box and grab a tissue, but it was too far back. I looked up, and then tried again. I finally grabbed a tissue and sat up straight and wiped my eyes. As I pulled my hand away, suddenly a flash of light blinded me, and I was gone.

I woke up and immediately felt every inch of my body in agony. Fighting the urge to scream, I heard a voice, muffled.

“We aren’t sure how she’ll recover. Natalie suffered serious spinal injuries and we won’t be able to confirm paralysis until she wakes up,” the doctor said.

My mother started crying, and I was confused. I’d never heard her cry so loudly. After maybe twenty minutes, I heard the door open. Footsteps approached my bed. I could smell my mom’s perfume, and I knew it was her.

She sat in a chair next to me. “Why did this have to happen to you,” she pet my hair slowly, “my poor baby.” She cried, holding my hand until she fell asleep.

She was woken up to the various machines surrounding me beeping loudly, causing a crowd to form around my bed. “What’s going on?” she asked worried.

“Ma’am, we’re going to need you to leave the room.”

“No! I can’t leave her!”

“Ma’am, please,” the nurse said as he held my mom by her arms.

I suffered a fracture to the C2 vertebrae in the accident, and I was sure that I was paralyzed, but I couldn’t tell anyone. The doctors continued to try to resuscitate me for 15 minutes, but after I had been down for too long, the damage to my brain was irreversible.

I felt myself flow out of my body and watch everything happen around the bed, the doctors sweating and arguing whether to let me fight or not. I saw my mom fall to the floor, gasping for air.

She was greeted by my father, who flew in as soon as my mom called that I’d been hospitalized 2 hours ago. He lived in Texas with my step-mom and my brother. Ever since my parents’ divorce, they remained close and promised to not let anything get messy in terms of custody, so they let us decide where we wanted to stay. I wanted to stay on Long Island because my whole life was there, and because I didn’t want to face remaking my whole life. My dad wasn’t hurt by that, but he missed me a lot and asked me to visit frequently.

He ran to the door and saw Mom on the floor, and he knelt down and hugged her. I hadn’t seen them hug since I was little, and it was nice. It reminded me of simpler times when I would go with my parents to the park to play with Curt every Wednesday. I was happier then.

“Rachel,” he whimpered, “i-is she…”

Mom hugged him tighter and cried as she said, “My baby’s dead!”

They sat on the floor for five minutes more, crying and holding each other.

I could see my body, bruised and bloodied from the accident. My neck was in a white brace to keep my spine aligned, and I looked very uncomfortable.

My mom and dad walked in and Curt was behind them, hiding.

Mom walked next to me and pet my hair and kissed my cheek. She whispered, “You’ll always be my angel.”

Dad grabbed my hand and kissed it softly, leaving a tear on my finger. “I love you Nat.”

He turned to Curt and put his arm around him.

“Curt, we have to say goodbye,” Dad said.

Curt walked forward, but he kept his eyes at his feet. When he looked at me, he started to hyperventilate, saying, “Oh my god, no... not Nat. NO. NO!”

My mom covered her face and sat down quickly.

“SHE CAN’T BE GONE. NO.”

“Curt, please.”

Curt dropped to his knees and met my hands at the side of the bed. He lifted them and kissed them, “Please... don’t go.”

My dad squeezed his shoulder and kissed him on the head, then holding his arm. “She’s gone.”

Curt held onto my hand, almost crushing it. He kissed my head and hugged Dad.

Four days later, my parents held a funeral for me and invited family and friends from the Island, but also some of my friends from school.

My parents kept the casket closed because of how bruised my skin still was, and also because of my swollen face. I didn’t look like me.

Brianna came in halfway through the wake with her Dad and she sat in the back row. I could hear her silly nickname for me ring in my ears, Nat attack. She came up to the casket alone and knelt next to me.

“Hey Nat,” she sniffled. “I miss you. And I love you,” she choked. “You’ve always been more than the girl who OD’d. You were the caring, rebellious, adventurous person who never let me go a day without feeling loved.” She took a deep breath, “I don’t know what school will be like, but they held a vigil for you last night. I went, and it was great.” She smirked, “You wouldn’t believe who showed up. Bobby Schneider! Crazy, right?” She paused for a moment to think of her last words to me. “You don’t have to worry about me, I’ll be okay. I promise. I’ll be good, for you.” She was scared to touch me, but I felt her wanting to hug me.

The next day, my parents decided to bury me next to Grandma June. They drove to the cemetery with Curt and my cousins, hauling me to our family lot in a hearse up front.

Before my casket was lowered down into the dirt, my mom asked if she could say goodbye to me.

“Hey,” she whispered. “Natalie, I wanted to tell you that I’ve always been proud of you. I’m sorry I was so hard on you, but it’s only because I care and because I don’t want you to give up on your dreams. You’ve always been a good kid, you just fell into the wrong path. I should’ve listened more. I could’ve saved you.” She kissed a rose and laid it on top, “Tell Grandma June I said hi. I love you most.”

I woke up in a bed, hearing ringing in my ears. I couldn’t see anything because the lights were too bright, so I moved my hand over my eyes to shield them.

“Mom?” I asked, hoping she’d hear me. I sat up a bit, and I looked around to find her. “Mom?” I called again. “Hello?”

I saw a nurse peek in, and she gasped. “She’s awake!”

Suddenly, Mom, Dad, and Curt all came in, greeting me with red teary eyes and wide smiles.

“Natalie!” Mom wept. She sat on my bed and hugged me, crying. “Why are you crying? Why is Dad here? Wh-...what’s going on?”

Dad walked over and held my hand, “You were driving and you swerved out of the way of an eighteen wheeler and you hit a telephone pole.” He smiled, “Thank god you’re okay.”

“Mom?” I asked.

“Yes baby?”

“I’m so sorry,” I cried. “I didn’t cut math because I don’t care, I was really depressed and worried about not getting into a good college. I didn’t mean to be so reckless and stupi-”

She held me closer and pet my hair. “Don’t be sorry. It’s okay.”

I made a full recovery with weeks of physical therapy to strengthen my muscles, but I was fine. Bri came to the hospital after I woke up and yelled at me because I “almost died on her.”

For the next few months, I painted with all of the free time I had, and I was accepted into my top school, Parsons School of Design at The New School. My mom and I jumped when we opened the letter, and she told me that if I didn’t go to my math classes then she’d give up. It was my dream come true, but it was also the dream that wasn’t true that set me free.

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