The graveyard is calm as I make my way through the headstones. There are no dark winged ravens watching me, no eerie silence haunting me as I walk. Just the sounds of car horns in the distance, the world carrying on as I make my way through the winding paths. My father died when I was 16. I do not know what he would have thought of my prom gown, or if he would have handed me his handkerchief on my wedding day. I do not know if my mother would have approved of my college major or how I handled the stressors of my first job. She died too, exactly four months and a week after my father took his last breath. I had just turned 17.
Loss is what I know. It seems a part of my very make up, imbedded into the core of my life. I never got to say goodbye to either of them. There were no parting words of forgiveness, no final acknowledgement of their pride in me. Only emptiness, silence, the loss of everything I had ever known. Pain like that can drown you, make you question everything. At 16, that kind of loss, that kind of confusion and pain, scours your life like a burning fire. It takes everything in it's path.
Sometimes, I'm not sure I remember the sound of his voice. After nine years, there are days where it feels like the death of my father was a part of a story, that my life was a lost tale read from a book. I see their funerals play out like a movie in my head, watching as a viewer from a distance. It scares me that there are moments when it doesn't feel real. I try to remember details, little things like what happened to my father's vacuum cleaner. There is nothing. A hole in my memory. What else have I forgotten? What memories were driven to nothingness by the crushing weight of grief? Other days I feel like I am drowning in the reality of my life. Alone. Forgotten. Unacknowledged. As I sit looking to my future, tears stream down my face as I face the reality that my mother will never watch me try on wedding gowns, nor be there to offer me solace when I am scared. She did not see me grow up to look just like her. She was not there to hold me when heartbreak tore sobs from me for days.
In these personal moments, I am covered in the knowledge that I am the last of my line. I am all that is left of their name. That knowledge is a heavy burden to bear. Sometimes it feels like a stone around my neck, weighing me down. I am the summary of everything my parents taught me, every bit of wisdom and guidance. I carry their failures too, their insecurities and their tempers. I am heir to a throne of emptiness. A legacy of loss. Child of divorce. Daughter of poverty. Transient. Orphan.
It could define me, this overwhelming and painful past. I could stand under the shadow of those words, let them speak for me and never raise my eyes. The world would pass by, pass over me, move on. It would not stop to acknowledge my grief, my brokenness. But this is not the legacy I was born to leave. Grief changes us, those who have lost so young. The pain and confusion sculpted me, molded me into someone who craves connection, feels more deeply than I ever thought possible. My past makes me acutely aware of sorrow, so that I may better cherish the moments of joy in life. I have learned to appreciate more quickly, richly value those who chose me with open arms. I cry more easily, recognize loss in others through their mask of a smile. Grief taught me to hope at all costs, to love more openly because life can be extinguished far too soon without our permission.
My path was paved by the scourging fire of loss at so young an age. My soul was laid bare, stripped of that which I held dear. It is my choice to decide whether I remain a victim of grief, or use the flames of loss as a beacon of light. I could not and cannot escape the deaths, from my past riddled with memories of funeral homes and tear-soaked sleepless nights. But the legacy I leave will be one I choose, not one that was forced upon me. I will blaze a new trail, forged in grief and illuminated by loss. My legacy is full of pain, but it is also filled with hope. I will carry forward my name, the line left only to me, the only way I know how. I will cry, I will dance and I will laugh. I will remember the lessons taught to me, the joy they shared with me and do my best to avoid the mistakes of my parents' pasts. I share my story openly -- my triumphs and my failures. I am broken and yet whole, fragile yet strong. I struggle but I move forward. This is the honor I give to my parents. I will not shirk from my duties, I will not pretend that I am weaker nor stronger than I am. I will push forward -- cry some days and celebrate others, and live in between.
This is my legacy. A legacy of loss.
Read more about Michelle and her work via her personal blog here.
Photographer: Justin James Photography
Dress: Aidan Mattox
Hair & Makeup: Self