A Letter To The Girl Who Died

Portrait of Ana at age 15 — posted with permission by artist Emily Dooley (Ana’s sister)

Dear Ana,

Today should’ve been your 19th birthday, except it isn’t because you are the girl who died.

This year, on the fourth birthday that should’ve been, words aren’t coming easily. Maybe that’s because I finally understand that you don’t need my words anymore.

I wish that you did. I have so much to tell you and so much to ask you.

I can’t stop thinking about the day you were born. It was a Wednesday in May, bright, warm, and filled with sunshine. What a gift you were.

I don’t know what to tell you about how the world looks today, but I think you’d understand this pandemic better than most people — the forced isolation, the uncertainty, the frustration about not being able to move forward and plan your life.

Planning is a luxury that many of us took for granted, but never you. I remember how much you tried to plan. I remember when you finally gave up.

I wonder what 19 looks like from where you are. Can you see us down here wearing masks and trying to find the way forward? I don’t see signs of you anymore and I’m afraid that means you’ve become unreachable to me. Now, I can only wait and wonder if I’ll see you again when my life is finally over.

I’ve been worried about forgetting you ever since you died, but maybe that’s not how this works. Maybe it’s not the living who forget the dead, but the other way around. Maybe we’re the ones who are left behind.

I’m rewatching the movies you used to love when you were little — Horton Hears a Who, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Harry Potter — all of them. As I relive the familiar plots without you, I’m struck by something Hagrid said to Harry in that first movie, the one where Harry turned 11 (the same age as you, when you were diagnosed).

“You’re the boy that lived,” says Hagrid as the camera zooms in on Harry’s wide, wondrous eyes. Harry’s super power is that he lived, but why did he live?

Because his mother’s love was powerful enough to save him. That’s the way a well-meaning J. K. Rowling wrote it. That’s why we loved Harry. That’s why everybody still loves him.

You are the girl that died. Does that mean my love wasn’t enough?

We all still love you, Ana, even though you died.

I’m not interested in telling you what’s happening in the world. Instead, I’ll tell you about all the ways I think of you.

The Blue Jay’s feathers remind me of your eyes. The tiny perfection of a ruby-throated hummingbird reminds me of how you cherished little things, how you loved to build miniature worlds and place the people you loved inside of them.

Every frog that crosses my path reminds me of how your face lit up in springtime as you searched for peepers at the edge of every river, lake, and pond. You were the one who saw them. You were the one who caught them. You were the one who gently let them go.

I listen to Wish You Were Here and think about the time you wrote “Shine on You Crazy Diamond" on Emily’s lime green wall before we covered it with white paint.

I watch the birds and imagine how impressed you’d be that I know their names. I wish I could show you what I’ve learned. I wish we could sit and watch the birds together.

I keep looking for you as if I don’t know that you’re gone forever. Finding you is a riddle I can’t solve. It’s my existential obsession.

Sometimes I think that if I look hard enough, I will see you standing there, waiting, relieved that I finally figured out how to see you. I’m convinced that you can see me struggling to find you, that you keep trying to show me how, but I keep disappointing you. Maybe that’s why I don’t see signs anymore.

Don’t give up on me, Ana.

Remember, I’m learning how to reimagine time. Before you died, I didn’t understand the permanence of saying goodbye. I think that’s why I’m so confused, wondering how long I have to wait until this sadness lifts and trying not to look forward to death, because death is the only thing that offers the tiniest slice of hope that I’ll see you again.

Don’t give up on me, Ana. I’ll keep lighting candles, watching hummingbirds, and listening to Wish You Were Here. You may be the girl that died, but you are as loved as Harry Potter and even more magical.

Happy 19th should-be birthday.


Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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