Reading Time: ~8 minutes
"Second Person" originally appeared in Issue 19 of Tahoma Literary Review. I am always looking for smart, effective forms and structures in creative nonfiction. With this essay, Boyer uses second person point of view, structurally and ars poetically, to help her make sense of the grieving process. The work was listed in Notable Essays and Literary Nonfiction of 2020, as selected by Robert Atwan in Best American Essays 2021.
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There are things you know.
You know, for example, that when a family member calls you right before noon on a regular Friday in October, the news isn’t going to be good. No one calls you on a weekday afternoon aside from automated appointment reminders, so you know the family member on the other line is going to say “I’m so sorry” at least three times. You know your response to them (“wait, what?”), repeated over and over, is just your brain buying you time to catch up to what they are saying.
You know you need to pack quickly, so you throw every piece of black clothing you own into your suitcase. Your mother’s voice, always echoing in your head, disapproves: that dress is too short, that shirt shows too much cleavage. How can you be a thirty-two-year old woman with a mortgage and a master’s degree and still not own any sensible closed-toe shoes? You load your suitcase and your bewildered dog into your car, then speed the entire way across Ohio, across the thin arm of West Virginia that rests companionably along Pennsylvania. You arrive home.
You know you have a role to play. Supportive older sister. Eldest child. The no-nonsense one. In the days to come, people will tell you that they aren’t worried about you because you are strong. They do not see—how could they?—everything that lies ahead for you. The panic attacks in traffic after driving past a fender bender. The desperate see-sawing between insomnia and twelve-hour long naps. The sudden craving for Cap’n Crunch at two in the morning that leaves you bawling, because the grocery stores are closed and you aren’t really crying about cereal anyway.
You arrive home. The house is full of people, arranged in hushed clusters around the dining room and kitchen, and all you want to do is usher them out, slide the deadbolt behind them. They come and hug you: the aunts and uncles and second cousins and neighbors, these grief tourists and rubberneckers. You let them pull you close and whisper the usual, tired sentiments about being in a better place and God calling home an angel. You take note of the dandruff on the shoulders of their cheap acrylic sweaters, the lipstick on their teeth. You turn your head from their stale breath reeking of gas station coffee and Parliaments.
One by one, the neighbors and coworkers leave, and only family remains. You watch them huddle around the kitchen table, their voices low. A phrase floats up in your brain, keeping the deathwatch, and you wonder where it came from. They talk about themselves—this one’s thyroid cancer, that one’s shot transmission in their Ford. They slowly circle to the topic everyone has been avoiding.
“I saw the car,” says your aunt. She lives in the same town where the crash happened, and she had been sitting at a stop light when the wrecker came through. “I thought it looked just like Brenda’s car.”
And so, they are given the facts as you know them: at approximately 6:58 in the morning, on Friday, October 25, your mother was traveling north on Route 36 in Eldred Township, Jefferson County. She was traveling in her blue Hyundai Sonata when a nineteen-year-old coming the other way lost control of his silver Hyundai Elantra, crossed the center line, and hit her. Or rather, she hit him, head-on to his passenger side. He survived the crash; she did not. She was fifty-six years old, having celebrated her last birthday only eleven days prior.
These are the things you know.
When I was a freshman in college, I had an English professor who railed against second person narration. Nothing set her off more than the “you” point of view, and woe to the student who experimented with it.
Second person, she said, was cheap. Lazy. It was a shortcut to making the reader feel something when the writer wasn’t skilled enough to evoke feelings any other way.
Sure, it can be cheap and lazy. It can be tedious, especially when it carries through an entire piece or, heaven forbid, an entire novel.
But the second person can also be a sort of armor in memoir pieces—a way to put distance between the writer and the subject who are, after all, the same person. It can be a coping mechanism. It’s easier to say “you” went through this terrible thing instead of “me.” You are the daughter of a difficult mother who died suddenly, not me. Not me—you.
The second person is not a way to make you feel here. It’s a way to stop me from feeling. If it’s you and not me, then I can keep bumping along with my own life, mundane and unremarkable. A life filled with weeknight dinners in a slow cooker, walks with my rescue dogs, weekends lost to Law and Order: SVU marathons on cable. I don't need to obsess anymore with my mother about the minutiae of my life—or the larger questions—now that she isn't in it.
You feel these things. Not me.
There are things you learn, over time.
You learn, for example, that your mother was listening to Bob Seger at the time of her death. She had received a CD of his greatest hits for her birthday, and she had taken it with her that morning to listen to on her drive.
You learn about Bob Seger when you go to the junkyard where the ruined cars are waiting for release from the state police investigation. When you walk up to the crushed Sonata, you smell gasoline and something else—something floral. It takes you a moment to recognize her perfume (Wind Song) and you have to steady yourself against the car from the gut-punch it delivers.
On the floor of your mother’s car, among the broken glass and shards of plastic and one bloody latex glove, is the shattered CD case.
You can guess which song she was listening to. How many hours of your childhood did you listen to the same song, over and over and over, because she never let a cassette play through? How many times did she rewind “Born in the USA” to play “Cover Me” a million times in a row? How many times did you hear “Crocodile Rock” or “Message in a Bottle” or the live-from-Hawaii version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love”?
You’d bet your life that she was listening to “Night Moves” when she was crushed to death on a Friday morning.
There are things you’ll never know. They are things that sit with you like the hard sliver of a popcorn kernel that slides between the gum and the molar. You tongue at them, at the swollen gum line, trying to pry them free. You are a person that likes knowing things for the sake of knowing them. Questions without answers rankle you. Those little pieces of popcorn kernels, for example? Those are called the pericarp. You looked it up because not knowing it irritated you.
You’ll never know where the cold rage springs from inside you. It bounded out of you, a wellspring of anger, when the parents of the nineteen-year-old responsible for the crash came to your mother’s viewing. The funeral home was emptied out, and the funeral director ushered them in: the father in a tan Carhartt jacket, the mother in a sweatshirt emblazoned with the local high school’s mascot. You hate that one of your high school teachers, a latecomer to the viewing, was there to witness the whole sorry scene, muttering “oh my, oh my” over and over. You hate that your sister walked the nineteen-year-old’s mother over to your mother, laid out in her casket. You hate that the woman called your mother beautiful. You wanted to yank back the crocheted afghan that covers your mother from the chest down, you wanted to make the woman bear witness. Massive trauma to the chest and lower extremities, as the police report said. Not so beautiful now, right?
You’ll never know why your relationship with your mother was so complicated. You’ll go to grief counseling, art therapy, talk therapy. You’ll spend so much time in talk therapy, so much money. The amount of money you’ll spend will shame you, especially since you came from a family that views medical doctors with suspicion, let alone mental health professionals.
You’ll learn about inherited trauma. Together, you and your therapist will chart out a genetic legacy of pain and mental illness: a motherless great-grandmother, punted across the Atlantic between her father in America and her aunts in Italy. A grandmother given up for adoption, who ran from the county official when she saw him waiting for her on her front porch. A grandfather who went to Korea as a baby-faced boy and came back with PTSD before the term even existed. A mother with clinical depression, an eating disorder, maybe narcissistic personality disorder. A straight line across a hundred years, pointing straight to you: a girl who eats her feelings who turned into a woman so anxious that the muscles in her neck are on perma-lock.
“If I have kids, will they have issues too?” you’ll ask your therapist. She will give you that enigmatic half-smile they must teach psychologists in college. She doesn’t answer.
It is another thing you’ll never know. You’ll never have children, and that decision sits so lightly on your mind that you never reconsider it once your mind is made up.
Grief has split me into two people: the first me, and the second me. The first me kept her mother at arm’s length to avoid being hurt. The first me always assumed there’d be time to fix things. There would be a death bed reconciliation, I had figured, just like in books and movies.
The second me knows that even if that nineteen-year-old hadn’t lost control of his car, things wouldn’t have changed. There would always be the push/pull relationship of a depressed mother and an anxious daughter, too much alike in some ways and too different in others. What I needed from her was mothering, to be comforted and assured it would all be okay. It was the one thing she couldn’t give me. How can you give comfort when you yourself need to be comforted? How can you be a mother when you need to be mothered yourself? There was too much accumulated trauma in our DNA, too much suffering to untangle in a single lifetime.
There will be a moment, years after your mother’s death. You’ll be at the emergency room, nursing a migraine so painful that you will sign off on anything—a spinal tap, a medically-induced coma, a hole drilled in the skull—for relief. You’ll spend the first two hours in the waiting room, swathed in giant sunglasses to avoid the glare of the TV blaring Cops. You’ll spend the next two hours trying to convince the triage nurse that you are not looking to score opiates.
When you finally get a bed, when the nurse finally finds a vein and starts the liquid ibuprofen and sedative, there will be a moment. You’ll close your eyes, alone, and you’ll feel it—a hand on your forehead, for the briefest second. A flood of scent, florals with a bit of amber and musk, the perfume from your childhood. And a thought, unbidden, that rises to the top of the mind above the throbbing pain of the migraine: It’s all okay.
You’ll feel these things. Not me.
Boyer had this to say about her piece:
I wrote “Second Person” when I was grieving the sudden death of my mother. The origins of the essay came from the grief therapy group I attended at the time. There was an interesting phenomenon where people would switch to the second person pronouns—you, yours—when speaking of their own grief. I did it too, and I hadn’t realized until I noticed everyone else doing it. Despite the fact that we were all ostensibly there to do the hard work of healing, we still kept distancing ourselves from our grief, which created a sort of limbo.
Christine Boyer’s work has been published in So It Goes: the Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, The Little Patuxent Review, and others. Find her at christine-boyer.com.