By Emily Erickson
I have a story, perhaps my most vulnerable yet. It’s a story I’ve held close, nestled against my heart, shared only with a few friends and family members. But as the air threatens to crisp and the smoke clears off the lake, it’s signaling a change that I can’t help but imitate. It’s the story of my very first memory.
I was four years old and playing in the grass of my front yard, likely shirtless because it was the nineties, and because nobody would assume the knobby-kneed, Buddha-bellied, stringy-blonde-haired child popping dandelion heads off their stems was a girl. The air was thick with Wisconsin humidity, and the sun was baking the mud under my fingernails into hard, crusted dirt.
The door to our house was cracked open, casually capturing the late afternoon breeze, and my mom flitted in and out of sight as she prepared dinner in the kitchen. She was still in her work clothes; a fitted pencil skirt, low heels and a bright, flowy blouse. She looked beautiful, as always.
As I thought about the impending meal, my stomach grumbled, it’s deep roar moving from the base of my gut, all the way up into the back of my throat. To my surprise, the sky rumbled in return. As I tipped back my head to investigate the sounds, I noticed heavy clouds pushing like bulldozers toward the sun. The humidity shifted to mist, and each drop glistened against the streaks of light that refused to be covered.
Suddenly, the sky opened, and rain began pelting my head. Drops of water saturated the pile of decrepit dandelion tops at my feet and beams of color shone in the surrounding air, with purples, yellows, greens and oranges emerging in even layers above me.
“A rainbow!” I exclaimed.
I pounded up the stairs to my door, turning over my legs as quickly as my little body would allow.
“Mom! We have to go! We have to chase the end of the rainbow!” I cheered.
She looked at me with a smile I’ll never forget, one with mischief hiding in the corners of her mouth. Turning the knob on the kitchen stove to “off,” she removed her shoes and grabbed my hand.
“Okay, let’s go!” She chuckled.
And with interlaced fingers, we ran down the sidewalk, rain soaking our clothes and mud squishing against our bare feet. We ran as fast as I could, chasing each color of the rainbow with unique vigor. We ran until my lungs screamed for respite, and I collapsed in a puddle of water, of exhaustion, and of pure elation.
Chasing the rainbow with my mom is not only my earliest memory, but the memory of which I am the most fond, even to this day.
In the spring of my senior year of high school, my mom was diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer. She was given two months to live. That summer, as I watched the strong, silly, spontaneous, beautiful woman I knew and loved being stripped of her zest for life, I reflected on the greater message she instilled in me when she took my hand that day.
I deconstructed the intricacies of us running in the rain. She had recently gotten home from a long day at work, likely clocking over 10 hours, as was her usual. She had been preparing dinner and hadn’t even gotten the chance to change into more comfortable clothes.
When I approached her in a blur of grass blades and excitement, she had every reason to tell me no; to explain she was tired, that dinner couldn’t wait or that there wasn’t an end to the rainbow, so it really wasn’t worth chasing, after all.
But my mom didn’t make excuses and she didn’t say no. Instead, she grabbed my hand, proving to me that the best things in life are worth making time for. When we took off running, she was silently explaining that imagination and a playful outlook on life is the recipe for joy, and that one of the surest ways to feel alive is to shed our inhibitions.
As the fall breeze blew through the hospital window in October of that year, my mom took her last breath. My family was strewn on couches and makeshift beds around her, and we all stirred upon her death.
We huddled together, wiping the tears from our eyes, and turned to the small window at the end of the room. Rain began pattering the sill, with the sun glinting against the glass’ pane. As the nurses wheeled my mom’s body out of the room, the drops of water broke into a kaleidoscope of colors, reminding us that, although our lives would never be the same, we would be OK, because she had taught us all how to truly live.
In loving memory of my mom, Susan Erickson.
Emily Erickson is a freelance writer and bartender originally from Wisconsin, with a degree in sociology and an affinity for playing in the mountains.