Nearly five years ago, on a warm May morning, I sat in my bedroom without a goal, without inspiration, without even an inkling of an idea of where to start. I had only a longing — a desperate need — to find the spark that might ignite the passion for a craft I’d been missing so much. As the wind from the open windows breathed past the sheer curtains, lifting them up in a dance of fabric and air before falling again, something in my mind began to stir and an image began to form.
What I didn’t realize on that nondescript May morning was just how much I needed Annie to whisper her story into my imagination in order to finally allow myself to heal from my own. Writers always offer the advice to “write what you know,” and I knew Annie. I knew her family, I knew her friends, I knew her house and street and town because they were my own. Or, at least, my own story provided the basic foundation upon which Annie’s fictional life grew.
But get rid of the details of Annie’s life — strip the paper off the walls, pull the flowers from their beds, and unravel the features of these characters — and what is left is the blueprint, the bones of the story. What’s left are the questions and the emotions that are universal. What’s left is the simple experience of a twelve-year old girl beginning to mourn the loss of childhood when she doesn’t even know what it is she’s leaving behind.
People have often asked if Annie is me at 12 years old — just replace 1979 Annie with 1994 Susan and you have the confusion, the uncertainty, the fear of life changing too fast. Only, I couldn’t articulate all of that then. All I knew was that everything was changing so quickly and all at once and the worst part was there was nothing I could do to stop it.
But that’s how it feels when you’re growing up…Overwhelming and scary and nothing is ever as you imagined. And only now, as an adult, can I look back and see what I didn’t know then, ask the questions I’ve always wondered but couldn’t verbalize.
Did she remember us at all?
What she scared, was she confused, was she lonely?
Did she know that we loved her?
Did she know?
And I wonder: what could it possibly be like to have your entire life fade away?
What’s left of you when it does.
When I started writing Annie’s story years later, I didn’t realize how much I still needed to mourn from this loss — not only the loss of life itself, but of watching my grandma fade away from Alzheimer’s. For the first time, as an adult and through Annie, I was able to express what 12 year old Susan couldn’t: the fears of growing up and watching everything change around you, the realization that your parents are only human like you — with a before and an after and a now — and how you want to reverse the roles and protect them from heartache instead…
For the first time, I was able to ask the questions that I know will never have an answer.