Creative Nonfiction: How to Say Goodbye by Natalie Marino

Wake up to a phone call. Listen to the words of your father, thousands of miles away. She is gone. Hang up the phone and hear the soundlessness of early morning. Imagine yourself still as a cloud. Make love to your boyfriend minutes later so you can feel something, even if all you can feel is guilt. Fly a plane home late at night with strangers. Turn your head towards the window. See the flickering rainbow of lights on the ground as you cry into your coat. Listen to the scratching of metal on metal as your old key turns the lock of the front door. Know how quiet your childhood home is now. Lay awake in your childhood bedroom staring at a light-song of stars coming through your window. While wearing the plaid pajamas your mother got you for Christmas the year before you left for college—before the accident, before the morphine—call her name like you now wish you had those last days when she was weak with cancer. Say to yourself that now you can, even though no one else is there to hear you. Regret that you never cried with her and told her you didn’t want her to go. Spend an afternoon writing a eulogy and manage to get out less than one hundred words. Find you want to but don’t know what to say to your twin sister about loss. Try to talk about death but only to the bunches of funeral flowers.  Hear nothing right come out.  

Finish your medical residency like you told her you would. Work so hard so you can forget what it is to hold your heart in your hand. Work so hard you can empty yourself of sadness. Work hard enough you can empty all of the world’s sadness. Stand behind a sleeping patient with hair the same color as hers when you are making midnight rounds. Say to her silently I love you. Say yes when your boyfriend asks you to marry him, even though you don’t know what you have to give. Find out you are pregnant. Sit with the terror and the excitement.  

Think of this as a gift from the universe. Buy a white dress on sale the day before the wedding.  Spend the night in your old room and inhale the scent of the cedar wood closet, the scent of childhood. Discover you can’t sleep there anymore. Hold your bouquet of roses in front of the photographer like you know what you are doing. Look into your new husband’s eyes and drink in the calm of seawater, and know that yes is the right answer. Dance like you are alone with him on the reception hall floor. Hear yourself laugh like you did before your mother told you it was Stage Four. Fall into a deep sleep in your husband’s arms on your wedding night. Get on a  plane to Hawaii and let yourself feel excited to look out the window. Leave the bathroom door open when you vomit in the mornings during your honeymoon because you know he will stay. 

Give birth to your first daughter after three pushes. Sit up to catch her because the midwife has stepped away. Hold your daughter while she cries and cries until she finally falls asleep on your naked chest that first night. Try and fail at nursing and wonder how your mother did it with you and your sister at the same time for a whole year. Think about calling your sister but decide against it because you remember you are fighting again about something small, and anyway you still don’t know how to talk about everything that has happened. Graduate from residency and move to a brand new city in northern California; maybe life will be easier somewhere else.  

Sit on a balcony painted blue with a view of the ocean and watch your husband and daughter play catch with a tiny ball. Show your daughter how to open presents on her first birthday. Plant a garden of cacti in the backyard, knowing they will survive without much water. Have your second daughter. Realize that some babies are naturals at nursing. Move back down to southern  California because you want your daughters to know their grandfather. 

Watch your children play. See them embrace in a hug when they don’t know you are watching while you make dinner. See the next day that siblings fight. Clean up the play area while your husband takes your daughters to the park. See a notebook on your new dining room table and say to yourself you’d like to write a poem. Allow yourself to feel everything when you write one hundred more. Talk to a therapist about the estrangement from your sister. Remember how she cared for your mother the last year of her life. Tell the therapist how much you still love your sister. Tell your sister you don’t understand either but that you forgive her and you hope she can forgive you too. 

Natalie Marino (she/her) is a writer and physician. Her work appears in Atlas and Alice, Gigantic Sequins, Isele Magazine, Plainsongs, Pleiades, Reservoir Road Literary Review, Rust + Moth, West Trestle Review, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, Under Memories of Stars, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press (June 2023). You can find her on Instagram @natalie_marino and on Twitter @nataliegmarino.  She lives in California.

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