By Maria Ostrowski
I dreaded the sight of my locker — a grayish-green metal rectangle with slats and a black combination lock. My best friend, “Ely,” and I used to meet there a couple times a day and pass notes. But she wasn’t there this morning. I knew she wouldn’t be; knew she would never meet me at the locker again. She had been killed in a car accident the week before. Still, on my first back to school, an irrational part of me expected to see her — wearing an oversized punk-rock t-shirt, wide-leg jeans, and a ladylike smile; her blonde hair, loose and long. How could she expect me to finish senior year without her?
Since her death, I had been out of school for a week, but I lost all sense of time. It could have been minutes or months, it didn’t matter — nothing felt real. Though all around me, I probably heard bodies muscling to lockers, fumbling with jackets and backpacks. Legs moving with the shuffling sound of denim, sneakers squeaking on the hall floor and fluorescent light shining from open classroom doors. But none of that would have registered, blurring like a time-lapse video. On that first day back, I imagine there was nothing but the locker and me.
Ely and I had shared this locker. We weren’t supposed to — it was against school policy — but we shared everything, and we thought it was a stupid rule. My locker was on the main floor near all the classrooms and hers had been in a remote hallway downstairs. She didn’t want to be late for class and risk detention. So, we broke the rules.
We had so much stuff in it. I don’t remember what exactly — nothing out of the ordinary. Perhaps books, papers, items of clothing; an apple. On the inside door, we likely displayed bumper stickers, bearing the names of punk bands, like certificates that stated: we survived shows in the mosh-pit, crowd-surfing days of the 1990s.
Someone had cleaned out our locker. School officials, maybe. Her mom? How they found out that we shared one, I don’t remember. Maybe I told someone. At any rate, I knew it was done. I had journaled about going to the school over the weekend when it was quiet and the halls were empty. Why I was there, I didn’t say. Maybe I didn’t even know. But I knew this —
“I am afraid of school on Monday. I am truly afraid.” I wrote in my journal.
Returning to school meant facing the reality that she died. No more notes or laughs to get through the day, no more hunkering in the English department’s book closet to talk during silent study hall; meeting places — abandoned. And I would have to face this on my own every day. No one could save me from grief, and I was terrified. What if I broke down? What if everyone looked at me like my grief was a disease? No one could stop any of this. No one could save me.
Ely’s death crushed everything I thought I knew about security and love; God and life. Suddenly, nothing was guaranteed, not even tomorrow. I was terrified and angry and heartbroken that she died and left me in this new world where everything looked the same on the surface, but it wasn’t — it was darker with grief and the knowledge that life ends.
Looking back at my 17-year-old-self, I was not a girl anymore, but a young woman standing at a precipice and considering the dive back into everyday life. I realized I had no idea what courage meant. I thought I did, but until I was forced to stand on my own without my best friend’s support — I hadn’t a clue.
Before Ely’s death, I never felt the need to hide; never worried about what anyone thought of me. Friends since childhood, we always had each other’s back. I felt confident and happy to be my authentic self because I always knew there was someone in my corner who believed in me. And I believed in her.
Yet, on that first day back to class I don’t think I believed in much of anything as I stared at our locker. I can see myself standing there as if it were a scene in a movie. In the panicked seconds before the bell, I imagine I heard the slam of neighboring lockers, zippers and the pound of books falling into bags. The day was beginning — but if I opened the locker, I had to face that first shock of having to go on with things like school without her. That I was not dead, too.
Then, with a rush, I just did it. I spun the lock, opened the rattling door and braved the gaping, empty hole. Me without her.
The first time I ever drove a car, Ely was with me. We were 14 or 15 years old and up in Vermont at my great-uncle’s lake house on North Hero Island. My dad thought it would be a good idea if I took “The Tank” out for a spin. That’s what we nicknamed his old, white Audi — solid and loud. He was in the passenger seat. Ely sat in the back. She was calm; I was not. That’s how it was with us.
I bucked and braked over the dirt roads, radio off. I remember it being a slow, bumpy ride. Nobody said much but for me — probably melodramatic teenage exclamations about how we were all going to die with me at the steering wheel. When I declared we were done and stopped the car, my dad got out wearing a patient smile. He didn’t say much.
Ely had smiled, too, and said —
“It’s ok. But I thought you would have blasted the radio and gone a lot faster.”
I never admitted this, but all melodramatic joking aside, I was afraid of crashing.
When we got our licenses, Ely and I drove around our rural New England town, down hilly, wooded roads with no houses or street lights. On these rides, I’m sure we talked about our dreams as we were seniors with our lives ahead of us. I couldn’t wait to get out of town, do the college thing and move to New York. I dreamed of working for a magazine and writing poetry at night. Sometimes, I talked about becoming an actress. She listened. She thought all my dreams were cool. Told me she’d come visit all the time. Because she didn’t want to leave town. Ely wanted to stay and be a nail technician. I can still see her bending over her hands with a tiny brush, painting her nails black.
It was on one of these rides that we argued for the first and last time.
I had no idea where we were, but Ely was driving, and she knew where we were going. Looking straight ahead at the pale headlights in the darkness, she told me that she had decided to get back together with her boyfriend — the boyfriend she would be driving with on the night she died. Her choice troubled me as I didn’t feel that he treated her well.
“I want you to be ok with this.”
“I’m never going to be ok with him. I will always be your friend, but you have to know that I’m never going to like him.”
We were quiet. It was dark. She was calm. I was not.
In the end, I gave her my support. I wanted her to be happy even if I couldn’t understand, and I didn’t, but there was nothing I could do. She knew where I stood. Now, I had to trust her.
I want you to be ok with this.
Shortly after that night, she crashed into a tree.
News of her death hit me like a shock wave. I remember every second from the moment Ely’s mom called to the scream of horror that tore through me and obliterated my innocence.
And then — nothing. A blank. I lost the rest of the day and days after that. It was probably a mercy.
I wrote a poem for her, and I read it at her funeral service. Standing before a crowd in an airless room, I felt heat from bodies, but I saw no faces. The room and everything in it looked November yellow — the color of decay — and I was sweating. But I did it.
My mother was there, her presence like a cornerstone as I read my parting words to a girl who had been like a sister to me. A girl who had made angel ornaments for my mother for Christmas, still treasured. A girl who had gone on our family vacations, been kind to my younger brothers, knew my grandparents and cousins, and broke bread at our family table since childhood.
When I read the poem aloud, I felt like a ghost, watching myself — a small, young woman in gray-black corduroy whose voice seemed to echo from a cave. And at her graveside, I felt like a void.
There was no returning to life as it was after that. I had to start over. To begin again.
But I was afraid of crashing.
Blasting the radio, I drove past the lake. In the November dark, the water looked like a black hole and gnarled tree branches reached overhead. Everything looked menacing, and I could barely see the deserted road through my tears. I pulled over, chest heaving with sobs.
Why didn’t I crash? I wondered. Surely, there had been wet leaves on the road. So, why didn’t I slip and crash?
It was the night before my first day back to school, and I needed to get out, so I had taken a drive. I didn’t feel brave getting behind the steering wheel. I was trying to run from feelings that now attacked me full force. I couldn’t bear the thought of Ely’s death or returning to school.
Back then, it was impossible for me to see that this first day back to school was an important day in my life — a beginning that took courage. All I saw was rubble. At 17, I associated courage with images of glory and heroic acts — the stuff you’d see in a Sylvester Stallone film — certainly not my tiny, teenage self, walking into her high school building.
“Do you want me to go in with you? I’ll even sit with you in class if you need,” my mom had said as I sat in the passenger seat of her car, hesitating.
But I knew this was something I had to do on my own. So, I got out of the car and walked in the building on my own, trembling inside like a freshman all over again. I wondered who I was without Ely. Would people still like me; would I still like myself? Where was she? Would she ever come back? Please come back. I wished…and I looked for her at the locker.
When she wasn’t there before lunch, I grieved. Startled and confused, it was disorienting looking for someone with your heart that your head knew was gone.
During class, I wondered — why bother? If Ely could die without warning, then I could, too. Any of us could. So, what was the point? I couldn’t see that the point was simply to survive the day — to get back up and join the world; to walk with grief instead of running from it. If I did that — strength would come.
Still, in those early days, I felt the need to hide. I ate lunch a couple of times in the auditorium. Sitting on the stage among the heavy curtains, I found comfort in the wide quiet, the rows of empty seats and the long, dark aisles.
It was like a pause in the teenage chaos, the crowds of kids in the halls that she should have been among. I wasn’t ready to accept her death or my new life. It wasn’t fair. So, I often lost the present, reliving the last time I saw her — Friday after the final bell.
Standing at the locker, we had discussed our weekend plans. On Saturday, I was taking the SATs; Ely had a big date with her boyfriend that night, but we’d catch up later. We smiled.
Then — we closed the locker door and walked down the hall, giggling about some inside joke. The end. The end of a chapter in my life.
I want you to be ok with this.
But I wasn’t. I kept thinking if I could just figure out my own link in the chain of events that led up to the accident, I could imagine the outcome would be different. So, I went over everything in my mind repeatedly, imagining — if only I had begged her to stay over that night, if only I’d said this or done that — Ely would still be alive, and I would not be walking in what felt like a strange, parallel universe.
After writing her letters in my journal, I would leave it open at night so she could read what I wrote. Truth be told, a part of me believed she could. Why not? If something as inconceivable as her unexpected death could happen, why couldn’t she read my letters? This strange hope buoyed my spirit even though the rational side of me knew Ely was dead. Yet, in my imagination, she was still very alive and I pictured her often, remembering her laugh. And therein lay my strength to get through the day and whatever else lay ahead. Hope and imagination were my well of courage, and I would need them through the years as I discovered that grief was a lifelong companion.
For a long time, I often burst into sobs when alone, or I’d think of something I had to tell her and would dial her number only to hang up frantically with a lump in my throat. On walks or in school, I’d suddenly and irrationally expect to see Ely, only to feel my heart sink with the realization that she wasn’t there. In disbelief, I went to the cemetery impulsively one winter evening. It was after a performance rehearsal, and I was still in costume. Others were in the car with me, but I just drove there, rather distraught. It was strange, but my friends were patient and kind. No one ever brought it up afterward, and I never spoke about it.
Much has been written on grief and its stages, and relatives offered self-help books to read, but I didn’t want to understand or rationalize grief. There seemed nothing logical about Ely’s death, so why shouldn’t grief feel like a supernatural force; like a monster eating me alive? And while I secretly feared my own grief at times, I felt that the pain was mine — a journey I had to bear and not something I could share very easily.
My mother was my rock. Whether I talked about my feelings or not, Ely had been like a part of our family and she just seemed to understand. I needed space and time to sort through this, and writing became my method of coping.
The strange thing was, though my heart was broken, it wasn’t smashed to pieces like I feared. Looking through my journal from those days, in every entry, I remarked on the kindness of my fellow classmates, friends, and teachers. Beginning with that first day back after Ely’s death, someone at school was kind to me. Those moments were like blinks of light — the quiet smiles of acknowledgment from kids I barely knew, the unwavering support and loyalty from my other friends, and the teachers that encouraged and mentored me in ways to express myself.
That I could find goodness even during dark days should have told me that I had the courage to get through this, but I didn’t yet believe in the strength of my own heart.
A year after Ely’s death, when I was a freshman in college, I had a dream in which Ely sat beside me in The Tank as the car floated down steep, twining roads lined by night-trees. Headlights glowed in the dark like halos, and Ely was warm light with her wavy gold hair and calm smile. But I was terrified, white-knuckling the steering wheel during each turn as the car headed toward a massive tree trunk. At the last second, the car made the turn and floated safely around the tree. And every time, Ely smiled and said, “See, you won’t crash.”
Over time, I waded slowly into acceptance and learned to walk with grief. There was no cure, only a relationship to mold so that grief became less a monster and more — a companion. For there was no escape in any form, or anything that could be said or done to take it away, to make it stop, or even to lessen it. I found grief beyond common sense. It was a mystery, like death itself…and love. And as the years passed with the joys and sorrows of life, I would recall my dream of Ely with her message that I wouldn’t crash, which I interpreted to mean that I should have faith in myself, and through whatever challenge I faced, so long as I lived, I should hope.
When would I learn that I had the courage to do this?
Two years ago, my parents offered me and my husband the opportunity to live as caretakers in the house where I grew up until we decided on a permanent residence. They had since moved and did not want the house to be vacant. It was good timing as, with the birth of my son, we were outgrowing our small house in the city where we lived. So, we sold our home and moved back to the neighborhood where Ely and I spent our girlhood. The town hadn’t changed much and neither had the house. And I feared crashing into the past.
I wondered if I was strong enough to live in this town again; in the house where I experienced all the growing pains of childhood and adolescence. Could I live alongside the past and walk with who I used to be?
On our first day back, after everyone had gone, I looked out the window of my old bedroom. A thunderstorm rolled through the hills. I felt anxious about the change and living here, but the view was stunning. I had forgotten how beautiful the town was.
In the morning, I heard church bells tolling and the train echoing through the borough as it whistled through downtown. As spring progressed, I took my little one on walks to the park nearly every day. Joy filled me as I watched him playing and the beauty of the present captured my attention — the Victorian houses we passed and the flowers blooming everywhere.
Pushing the stroller along certain streets or playing with my son in the backyard, bittersweet childhood memories rose of Ely. Singing and giggling down hills, jumping Skip-its on the patio… These memories came up as a soft wave that walked with us, bringing always a smile and a pang. Then, they would fade, and I was here with my son, feeling a fullness I never expected.
Today, nearly twenty years after Ely’s death, I Googled the definition of courage and read — “strength in the face of pain or grief.” With a Sharpie, I scribbled that phrase on the back of an envelope strewn on my desk — the accompanying Get Well Soon card hovering over the words.
I have just returned home after spending four days in the hospital due to a difficult hysterectomy. My uterus had been full of massive fibroid tumors that were causing pain, fatigue, hemorrhaging and anemia that adversely affected my quality of life. The fibroids caused grief — problems getting pregnant, miscarriages, and the complicated C section birth of my son that kept me in the hospital for a week. Truth be told, I feared for my life.
I had been anxious about the hysterectomy, too. And sad. It was the end — the closing of a chapter in my life — the ability to have more children. At every appointment before the surgery, the doctors quickly asked — are you ok with no more children? I knew they had to ask, even though my options were not promising. A hysterectomy was the best choice for my health and well-being.
“Yes,” I said. “I am ok with no more children.” And I was. I loved my son and was content with my family. Still, I felt a loss and I wondered, will I still feel like myself? Like a woman? Will intimacy with my husband change?
Now at home and trying to reconnect with my body — I recognized that this is another first day back. And though it took me twenty years to learn this, I found that’s what courage is — a first day back. A lifting of one’s head and putting one foot in front of the other. It has nothing to do with fearlessness and everything to do with heart and choosing life.
“Strength in the face of pain or grief.”
Glancing at the scribbled note to myself, I thought — I got this.
About Maria Ostrowski
Maria Ostrowski’s recently completed novel, YET FROM THOSE FLAMES NO LIGHT, is a 2019 finalist for The Daphne Du Maurier award for excellence in suspense and mystery. Her essay, Lionheart — a piece that explores grief and fear, and her brother’s battle with schizophrenia — was published in Letting Go: An Anthology of Attempts. Currently, she is writing TRUST FALL, a coming-of-age novel, focusing on mental health. A toddler mom who enjoys finger-painting almost as much as her son, Maria lives in Connecticut with a husband who patiently accepts the chaos of a household run by a writer. Follow her writing life on Instagram: @the_roughdraft and on her website: mariaostrowski.com