“My sweet Annie,” starts the letter. Already, a tear rolls down her cheek and plops onto the neatly folded paper.
Theo, Annie’s overweight orange tabby cat, snuggles a little closer to her as Annie sinks into the couch in her childhood living room. She keeps reading. Her hand and shoulders begin to shake until she can’t hold onto the letter anymore. She disappears further into the couch.
She finishes reading and, with a big sigh, tucks the letter back into the envelope that reads, “your first week without me.” She adds it to the top of a thick pile of letters that sit in a box before her, waiting to be opened. Two letters, “your first Christmas without me” and, “your first Mother’s Day without me” fall out of the pile. Annie gives them a tired glance and picks up the phone.
“Mother’s Day without a mom,” she tells her friend, half chuckling. It’s the first time she has laughed in weeks. “I can’t believe it.”
The friends sit in silence over the phone, letting the weight of reality sink in.
“But hey, how are you? How is sophomore year going?” asks Annie, with an artificial happiness in her voice.
Her friend tells Annie they don’t have to talk about that right now. Annie nods and silently gives her thanks.
Your first birthday without me
Twenty-one candles illuminate Annie’s face as she stands over her birthday cake taking in her loved ones with a bright smile. Her smile and the reflection of the fire in her eyes are a reminder of how she used to look all the time.
The candles reflect off of her gold ring on her right ring finger. She hasn’t taken off that ring once since her mom slid it on her finger from her hospital bed five months ago.
Her friends finish singing happy birthday, and, amidst the applause and cheers, Annie pauses for a moment, in thought, before softly blowing out her candles to the sound of more applause. The party ends. Annie eyes the letter and sinks into her couch.
She plucks the letter that reads, “your first birthday without me,” from the pile. Her twin brother, Ellis, walks into the room, and Annie wipes her tears away before he can see and puts on a smile.
She doesn’t want his special day to be about her.
Your first Christmas without me
Even at 21, Annie gets excited about Christmas. Each year, she spends weeks hand-making paintings, vegan cookies, and pottery for her loved ones. Her friends and family have shelves upon shelves in their houses devoted to their Annie originals.
This Christmas, she wakes up with butterflies, wondering if her body is telling her she’s excited or fearful. Maybe both.
She follows the smell of cinnamon rolls to the kitchen. She greets her dad – who is busy kneading, rolling, and icing – with a long hug.
Annie watches as he keeps working in the kitchen. She’s worried about her dad. For the rest of the day, she makes sure that her dad and brother are ok.
At 1 am, she goes to her bedroom and cries herself to sleep.
“But it’s ok, I’m really ok,” she tells her friend over the phone. “Well, yeah. I don’t know. I started seeing the same therapist my mom saw during her last weeks. Yesterday she told me I have the same smile as my mom had,” she says proudly.