It could have been anything, but on that day it was the earring that pushed me over the edge. The earring with the lime green flat oval stone, half of a pair that belonged to Beth. The only belonging of hers I wanted. The one thing that always brought her image to my mind as if she were still alive, still in Madison, still being the mom, the wife, the sister, the nurse, the fighter of a wretched fight that she should have been able to win but the odds were stacked too high against her from the start.
Her daughter Marie gave me the earrings when I finally managed to squeak out my request for them. She gave them freely and without a second thought. She gave them easily, telling me that not only was it all right but she wanted me to have them. She said “We want you to have them,” and I didn’t ask her if she meant her and her dad or her and her mom, choosing to believe it was her mom even though by then she was gone already.
Since having the earrings I rarely even wore them out of fear they’d get lost. The earrings never got packed when I traveled, and I always said good-bye to them while choosing other pairs to be tucked into a beaded pouch. Part of me was worried one of my sisters would see me wearing them and ask me how it was that I got those particular earrings. Because they would have to recognize them for what they were– Beth’s signature earrings—and surely they would envy me for getting that pair, a little piece of our sister.
For some reason the earrings found their way into my ears one morning as I grabbed a sweatshirt for a quick dog walk before meeting a friend for coffee. And even though this exceptional action should have stuck out in my mind I quickly forgot they were there. So upon climbing into the shower a little while later I still had them on. They were in my ears when I got into the shower even though you should never wear earrings in the shower and yet still I didn’t climb back out immediately like I should have to take Beth’s earrings off.
Then when toweling myself dry I looked in the mirror and saw only one earring in my left ear and none in my right but that couldn’t be true. This is not happening. I did not put those earrings in my ears this morning. I did not leave them on when I got in the shower and knew they were there. I absolutely did not lose one of Beth’s earrings. This is not happening.
I stared into the mirror, willing the earring to reappear. It did not. I held the damp towel up and searched the whole of it, knowing the earring was clinging to the terrycloth, waiting for me to rescue it. I stepped naked into the shower, kneeling on the floor and searching the slate tiles for that bright green bit of Beth waiting to be found and returned to its rightful place in my earring rack, safe from the drain that leered at me in that moment. I crawled around the bathroom floor, not caring about the dust balls in the corner and grit in the grout. Wrapped in a towel I dripped water across the house while searching for a flashlight. My fingernail broke on the drain cover when I tugged at it and I pulled it off, taking skin along with it while I shined the flashlight hopelessly into the drain. No earring, just murky water at the bottom.
Before that day, for months I had not cried. My heart had felt empty and numb as I responded to friends’ concerns about my life, my sister, the recent end of a 13 year long relationship. After so much loss it was as if there were no tears left. But in the moments after seeing my naked earlobe I sat on the shower floor and sucked at my bleeding fingertip and sobbed and tried to believe this wasn’t happening because it couldn’t be happening because I couldn’t lose one more thing.
The tears on my cheeks mixed with water running off my hair and the cold floor started to make itself felt so I left the scene of my crime and lay down on my bed and let the tears run into my ears as I stared at the ceiling. She was gone and the earring was gone and the partner I was supposed to be with forever was gone and what was the point of this whole life thing anyway?
I was getting colder by the second, still wrapped in a damp terrycloth cocoon but the question begged an answer. Finally I decided there was no point and if that was the case then I wasn’t getting up to go meet my friend and might as well quit the job too because why bother trying to keep a roof over my head since that was probably going to get taken away too since I couldn’t afford it as a single mom… which made me roll over to look at my bedside picture of my little boy. So I got no lightning bolt, no epiphany, no grand spiritual awakening. Just a little nudge from seeing the face of someone I loved, someone who counted on me.
Dragging myself up I trudged back to the bathroom to hang my towel on the hook next to the shower, taking one last look at the tile.
And there it was. Right in front of my eyes, right next to the lid of the drain I had tossed aside in my frenzy. The earring. Whole, unscathed, perfect, just lying there waiting to be found. Everything in my head stopped and I stared at it for a full minute. I couldn’t believe it was there any more than it had been gone in the first place. Stretching my arm out, I lifted it carefully and far from the gaping hole of the drain just in case my shaking fingers lost their grip. Then I practically leaped across the bathroom to my closet, thinking to return it to safety on the earring rack there.
Instead, I reached up and put it back in my ear and finished getting dressed for my coffee date.