The Great American School Experience: Hide In The Closet, Stay Quiet and Hope Not To Die

They were still bagging up bodies at Stoneman Douglas High School when my 9 year old daughter told me her plan.

“We would hide in the closet.”

“Really? That’s all?”

“Yes, teacher told us that if there is an intruder we are to hide in the closet and stay quiet.”

I didn’t tell her that that plan wouldn’t work. I didn’t tell her if an intruder powered into her school, the first place they would look would be in the closets. No matter how quiet she was.

I also didn’t tell her that, intruder, is too advanced of a word for a 4th grader.

Intruder is a 7th grade word saved for learning about Cesar, the Roman Empire and barbarian migration.

As a parent and a teacher myself, I go to work scared now.

Today, in America, students and teachers pack their lunches, zip their school bags, go to school and die. They’re shot stepping off the bus, eating their Peanut Butter & Jelly, twirling their locker dial, and hiding quietly in closets like they were told.

In April of 1999, when I was 19, I sat in my Pennsylvania living room, watching students sprint out the double-doors of Columbine High School, across the green Colorado grass as police officers stood behind trees with leveled shotguns.

I, like most of America, was naive then. We believed that the massacre at Columbine High School was an isolated incident. An aberration. Two angry boys who slipped through the metaphorical cracks and found an armory of guns.

We said prayers, held hands and vigils and went back to school shaken but confident a tragedy like Columbine would never happen again.

It couldn’t. This was America.

Original artwork by Haley Armstrong

On Tuesday morning a student entered my classroom and announced there was another school shooting–the 17th school shooting in the first 11 weeks of 2018.

“Mr. Armstrong, did you know America now averages 1.5 school shooting a week?”

The closet in my daughter’s classroom is a long, narrow closet in the back of the room where the students hang their coats on little hooks and place their lunch bags on wooden shelves.

The closet has two doorways framed in white yet both are without doors. There’s no furniture inside the closets to hide behind. No bulletproof vests hanging from those little hooks. No trapdoors that drop the fourth graders into an underground tunnel system that mazes through the earth and branches into lite hallways that leads each child safely back to their bedrooms, leaving the booted intruder locked and loaded in an empty closet.

“Can you believe that Mr. Armstrong? Another school shooting.”

My daughter’s name is Haley. Cindy and I picked out the name months before she was born.  There was no debating. No coin flips. Our daughter would be forever Haley. And that was that.

Cindy was in labor with Haley for 16 hours. At one point the doctor peeked over Cindy’s knees and remarked how she refuses come out, “as if she’s hiding.”

As if, even before she was born, she was preparing for life in the American school system.

I cleared my throat, “Do you know where the shooting happened?”

“Somewhere in Maryland I think.”

“You think?”

“I’m sure. It was in Maryland.”

These are hard moments. Every time I learn about another school shooting I recoil and shake my head as if to say this is sad. This is so fucking sad.

What happened to the great American school experience that so many of us knew and enjoyed?

The one where you went to school and lived. The one where you pledge allegiance to a flag that you believed would protect you.

With all these dead children in the news, sometimes I feel guilty thinking about my daughter sitting at her desk, alive.

Right now she’s in math class–her favorite class. The teacher calls attention and spins and writes a multiplication problem on the board and challenges the class to solve it in under 30 seconds.

Haley flashes a smile. A smile that’s missing teeth but is unmistakably hers.

She tucks her blonde hair behind her ears and lets her pencil work the problem in her notebook.

The sun slants through the classroom windows on a fine American morning.

It’s spring outside. And a pair of eager yellow daffodils have pushed through the mulch outside her classroom and sway in the cool breeze.

And inside the classroom it’s warm and encouraging and my daughter is smiling. My daughter is alive and learning.

The way the great American school experience should be–always and forever.

Be well,


How to Cross a Threshold

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.–Marcus Aurelius

I saw my neurologist today.

After reviewing a recent MRI of my brain, he informed me that the deterioration that plagued my cerebellum appears to have stopped.

“That can happen?”

“Yes. In some cases, brain atrophy can stop.”

“Well, I guess that’s good news.”

He flashed a smile, leaned back in his chair and said, “That’s great news. Four years later…your brain is showing signs of stability.”

Like every previous visit, my neurologist put me thorough a series of tests.

Follow his finger with my eyes. Touch my nose, touch his finger. Open my mouth, stick out my tongue, cluck my tongue. Snap my fingers. Clack my heels on the floor. Stand up, sit down.

He opened the examination room door, turned, “you know the drill,” and I stood up and followed him out into the hallway.

I walked to the end of the hall, arms by my side, made a controlled turn–as if vying for my driver’s permit– and walked back to him.

“Your gait looks good. You’re walking more confidently then you have in years.”


We moved back into his office and sat down. He picked up a microphone that was corded to his computer and began dictating the results of my tests. Despite extensive cerebellum damage, the patient’s gait has shown improvement… . 

I commented how when I first meet him, four years ago, he had to scribble down test results and appointment notes by hand.

He smiled, “Yes, this will definitely stave off carpal tunnel for a few more years. But to be honest, I miss the old-fashion thrill of physical note-taking.  But…things change. Do you have any other questions?”

“I do. This may sound weird…I get a little uneasy around thresholds and doorways. You know, like I’m afraid to transition or something.  Is it normal for people with cerebellar damage to have trouble crossing thresholds?”

He leaned back into his seat and crossed his legs, “The brain is wonderful mystery. Even a healthy brain can find thresholds problematic. It’s something primitive. Like the fear the primitive man must have felt while standing barefoot on some rocky ledge, looking for someplace to go.  Crossing from room to room, from one plane to next has always troubled people. Evolution has ingrained it in our psyche. We’re simply afraid of transitions.”

Of course it wasn’t intentional, but he just conducted an unauthorized, in-office autopsy on my life.

“Do you have any advice on how to cross a threshold?”

“Crossing a threshold is often mental. The initial fear of just transitioning from one place to the next often prevents us from progression. But when you find the nerve to finally cross, you realize there was nothing to fear at all. ”

I stood up, shook his hand, said I was looking forward to seeing him in six months. He smiled, spun away, opened the door and disappeared.

I slipped on my coat and strode through the threshold, from the examination room into the hall and back into life.

A life born of thresholds, waiting patiently for us to simply brave up and cross.

Be well,


Nobody Cares and Other Truths I Learned During My Two Years of Writing

This week marks two years of showing up, sitting down and writing–everyday.

Some days I pumped out thousands of words. On others, I farted a few foul sentences and went about my day.

But such is the writing life.

When I first committed to writing, I held a secret position that green writers often hold– I wanted everyone to care about my writing as much as I did.

Whether it’s writing a book or losing 20 pounds we want people to acknowledge our efforts with a smile, a hug and the coveted big blue Facebook thumb.

When I launched my website I wanted people to stop what they were doing and care. I wanted people to read and be inspired. I wanted invitations to  guest speak at conferences and wanted strangers to approach me with a nervous smile, offer a compliment and ask for a picture.

Vanity? Absolutely.

But the novice is almost always too vain for their own good.

The novice falls in love with their own fiction. A love affair that, if it doesn’t end in divorce, will certainly pin them to a barstool or a therapist’s couch or sometimes both for quite a while.

Here’s What I’ve Learned

I’ve learned writers are architects.

We want people to slow down, take pictures, tell their friends and admire what we’ve built, brick by brick, word by word.

We want recognition for our ability to craft stories and mortar ideas that stretch into the sky and, if the timing is right, throw some cool shade across the world.

I’ve learned that every subject has already been written about by writers much more talented than myself.

I’ve learned that the novice would rather dream than work. The novice wants achieve maximum results for minimum effort.

Original artwork by Haley Armstrong

There are three phases of the writer: novice, intermediate and professional.

I’m not a professional. Stephen King and Annie Lamont are professionals. They can offer insight on how to gain access to the heavily guarded compound where the professionals work.

However, I’ve graduated from novice to intermediate. My finely matted diploma marred with failures, doubt, fear and marginal successes proves I’m now qualified to reflect on my education.

If you’re thinking of pursuing a writer’s life or striding into the gym later today,  here’s the hard truth– nobody cares.

This is not to demean or passively-aggressively guilt you into caring.

The novice writer thinks everybody cares. The intermediate writer writes as if nobody cares.

The novice writes for attention. The intermediate writes for herself.

The novice writer writes when she’s inspired. The intermediate writes until she’s inspired.

Though she does appreciate them, the intermediate doesn’t write for blue thumbs. She likes praise but knows how dangerous it is to weave definitions from the threads of praise.

The intermediate enjoys the strain of the workout. A gym rat. A library mouse.

The intermediate pumps out 3,000 crappy words just to find 500 good words.

The intermediate is busy learning about truth and doesn’t realize that by learning her own truths she’s helping others discover their own.

The intermediate knows that even though writing is a vanity project– meaningful, enduring writing is always about the reader and always laced humility, sincerity and vulnerability.

She knows that other writers are scratching out posts, articles and books faster than she can and she doesn’t care. When she was a novice she stewed with jealousy. She’s now genuinely happy for other people’s accomplishments, but remains focused on her own goals.

And the intermediate knows there are miles of untraveled truths that need visiting before she can even pull into the parking lot where the professionals work.

This post marks two years of writing everyday and publishing a piece at least once a week.

Tonight, I’ll celebrate with a cold beer and some Charles Dickens. And then, when the 14.9 ounces of self-adoration ends, I will quietly return to my computer write again–as if nobody cares.

Be well,


PS–Thank you to everyone who has made the journey with me over the years. Thank you to anyone who has shared my work, offered a line of support or gifted me a big blue Facebook thumb. Thank you for welcoming my writing into your life.

How to Save a Marriage

The following post is the final entry of the The February Project: Love and Marriage, a self-imposed month long writing project on love and marriage.

“After all the romance and celestial promises of the initial courtship, love becomes a lifetime of small moments that add up to make something enormous.” from Taking Notes: A Love Story

It was romantic as hell.

We were finally alone on a beach house front porch.

The sun was rolling away from us and the sky made grand commitments to the pinks and oranges that stroke only finest of summer evenings.

My wife sat across from me. I took her hand.

The kids were somewhere inside, doing God knows what.

It was quiet, just the two of us and the distant break of the Atlantic Ocean along the soft New Jersey sands.

I admitted I don’t say “I love you” enough. I told her she deserves to hear it more. Eight years of marriage, three children later and I promised that I would tell her I love her everyday, for the rest of our lives.

We held a look long enough to vaguely remember what life was like before children until one of them threw open the screen door and complained about something someone was doing  inside.

We both said we would be right there and the child waited, then stomped, turned, and disappeared. This was our vacation. Our moment. The rolling sea, the tender sky. There was no need to rush. It was a scene that unfurled on the silver screen of our imaginations when we 16 years old and first began to conjure up a life together.

Like any new resolution, I was all in– with energy and verve and boyish enthusiasm. I planned out how I would do it, slip it casually into a conversation or let her believe I had forgotten about my promise only to surprise her with an “I love you” as she was falling asleep.

And for a few weeks I was true to my promise.

But, at some point I missed a day. Not that I didn’t love my wife anymore, I just failed to think of someone other than myself.

And as promises go–failing to keep them one day, made it easier to forget about them the next.

Until one day my wife confronted me half joking, half serious, ” Why did I stop saying, I love you? Do you not love me anymore?”

I stuttered and stumbled.

I said I was sorry and promised, from here on out I would say, “I love you” everyday for the rest of our lives.

And so as I did for a more few days. And then, as promises go…

Original artwork by Haley Armstrong

My parents are cruising into their 40th year of marriage.

I say cruising because they make marriage look effortless. Like a joyride. A Sunday afternoon cruise with the top down and the radio up.

The key to their marriage is a little ritual they’ve engaged in every evening, when one of them returns home from work.

After a long day, when they’re finally reunited, no matter the condition of the household, now matter the company sitting at the kitchen table– the first thing they do is kiss.

A moment to recognize each other. A moment that is just theirs. A moment to honor their relationship

It’s such an amazing moment, especially considering the anarchy of weekday nights when the kids squeal about the house, when dinner boils on the stove and the phone is ringing and work is emailing and there’s a mouse loose in the pantry and the bills spew across the kitchen table.

Life, and all of its obligations, demands so much attention that sometimes you forget you’re married.

Days pile on to days.

The chores and responsibilities mount.

There’s only enough time to breath and react and the thought of thinking about someone else is simply too much.

So marriage makes strangers out of us.

Our spouse becomes a coworker, one who we occasionally bump into at the copy machine or the coffee pot. Things get awkward. There’s a head nod, then a slight smile before you retreat to your own business.

How do we avoid such fate? Like you’re always commuting from one draining job to the next.

My parents proved it starts with simple, sincere acknowledgement. They did it, and continue to do it, with a kiss.

They proved that marriage only works when you’re willing to connect and invest your attention in the smallest of moments.

I tried saying, “I love you” to my wife everyday and failed. Failed to create a daily moment each was just ours.


Because it’s hard. Because it takes real endurance, real commitment to honor your marriage everyday. Because sometimes I take marriage for granted.

In the throes of life, when life is not romantic as hell, the health of a marriage hinges on those little, private moments that you create for one another. It’s in those moments where you reconnect, rediscover each other all over again.

40 years of marriage proves so.

Be well.


The Love Story That Almost Never Happened

The following post is the final entry of the The February Project: Love and Marriage, a self-imposed month long writing project on love and marriage.

“After all the romance and celestial promises of the initial courtship, love becomes a lifetime of small moments that add up to make something enormous.” from Taking Notes: A Love Story

I’m proud of myself.

Proud that last week I finally mustard the courage to write about love. A  subject I have skirted for years.

Like I told you, I always knew I would marry Cindy. Just one look and I knew with bone-certainty it was love. Soul mates. Kindred spirits. Whatever you want to call us, I always knew we were fated to be together, build a life together.

However, there’s been a problem swirling in human DNA since the reign of the ancient Greeks. When Oedipus challenged fate, lost, and naturally, carved his eyes out.

It’s an inherited belief that with a certain mix of age and experience we think we’re strong enough, smart enough, and tough enough to best fate.

During my senior year of college, I read Kerouac’s “On the Road” for the first time. His images of the unfurling freedom waiting for him out on the glinting asphalt of the open road were intoxicating.

At the same time I also realized I wanted to be a writer.

Drinking beer, listening to Pink Floyd, I fancied images of heading west, attending grad school in some big university, rubbing elbows with famous writers, moving to a big city, leasing an overpriced one-bedroom loft and scoring a job as a sports journalist.

I knew I wanted a writing life. But I thought I wanted a writing life on the road. A life to offer me the excitement that my current life lacked.

I felt confined. Trapped by my small private college, my hometown and everyone in it. Including Cindy.

I thought I wanted more.

I’m not proud of myself.

I remember, as I entertained a sports journalism life, how much of an asshole I was to Cindy. How reckless I was with our relationship.

As she sat on her bed in her dorm room, white Christmas lights snaking across the joint of wall and ceiling, I told her she was holding me back.

Young men, like the gods we dress ourselves up to be, often believe we are the sole creators of our success and happiness. So we distance ourselves from others. We forge fantasies. We mask our unhappiness and insecurity with false bravado and empty dreams. We puff out our chest, turn our hat backwards and pretend we’re in control of our life and that fate is just a motif found in ancient Greek theater.

I yelled at Cindy.

I told her after graduation I was heading west. I was going to be a sports journalist. I wanted a life on the road, going to games, sleeping in hotels and writing stories. So I invented a life that a 22 year old man would likely invent for himself. Exciting, mobile, and bursting with possibilities.

When I told her to let me go she sat on the edge of the bed and cried.

When I told her it was over she protested and I grew angry and stormed out of her room and marched down to my dorm and got drunk with Pink Floyd.

When you get a chance, I highly recommend reading “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho.

It’s by far the most soul-cleansing book I have ever read.

Early in the novel the alchemist explains to a young shepard, Santiago, that all people are born with a Personal Legend.

That your Personal Legend is your destiny. It’s the person you were born to be.

According to Coelho, children are very much aware of their Personal Legend. Whether it’s writing, painting, fixing, building, singing or rodeo clowning children know, even if they lack the ability to explain it, that by pursuing their Personal Legend they will reach spiritual enlightenment and earthy happiness.

But we grow up.

And not in a good way.

We question our Personal Legend. Our passions turns bitter.  We start to value opinions over the intrinsic truths that were once as tangible as flesh.

We adopt shiny, plastic notions of happiness because they are easy to assemble and sell at cocktail parties.

We distance ourselves from our Personal Legend, leave it behind like a broken Chevy on the side of the open road and sink into a life we will soon come to despise.

Many years ago I was reckless with my relationship with Cindy. Too scared to accept my Personal Legend.  Too self-adsorbed to recognize that Cindy and I share the same Personal Legend.

Thankfully, she was not.

Sometimes she’ll read my work and laugh. Sometimes she’ll cry. Sometimes she’ll, as Springsteen once wrote, “laugh and cry in a single sound.”

Sometimes she’s quiet. Sometime she hugs me and smiles. A smile that reminds me of what I have and what I almost lost.

It’s evening and I’m writing this at our kitchen table. The table is strewn with the kid’s homework and half-filled cups and credit card bills and it’s marked with a splatter of forgotten spaghetti sauce that is beginning to harden.

There’s nothing exciting about scene. It’s painfully pedestrian. Epically suburban. It’s the complete opposite of where I wanted to be when I was 22.

But I’m happy now. I’m home.

I’m right where I need to be.

Be well,


Taking Notes: A Love Story

The following post is the first entry of the The February Project: Love and Marriage, a self-imposed month long writing project on love and marriage.

“After all the romance and celestial promises of the initial courtship, love becomes a lifetime of small moments that add up to make something enormous.” from Taking Notes: A Love Story

In a world of Nicholas Sparks it’s hard to write something original about love.

Love is a well-traveled topic. One, I’m sure, you’ve taken plenty of notes on.

Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is engraved your heart and scrolled among the stars.

Love is in air. Love is an open door. And, if you find the right station, love is a battlefield.

Anytime you write about love you ink a fine line between cliche’ and Nicholas Sparks. So, in my attempt to avoid such fate, the only thing I can offer is a secret love story about love. So secret that when my wife reads this, she will know it for the first time.

I’ve written about my health issues and personal shame and failure but writing about love is something I’ve avoided. For me, writing about love is a little embarrassing. A little too revealing.

And plus, how do I write about love in such an authentic yet impenetrable way that it’s not the subject of dissection, comparison and judgment?

Truth is– you can’t.

It’s simple emotional physics (which should’ve totally been a 90’s emo band name).

To love is to want. And to want is to have weakness. Therefore, you can’t open yourself to love without subjecting yourself to dissection, comparison and judgment.

I fell in love with a girl when I was 16.

The first time I saw her standing in the blue painted threshold of the doorway to her biology class I just knew, with an absolute bone-certainty that I would marry her one day.

And 10 years later I did.

Even though that story is absolutely true, I understand you’re skepticism. And I don’t blame you.  It seems too easy and yet, at the same time, too impossible. Too Nicholas Sparks.

So I’ll tell you another story that’s more believable. Yet, in some ways, just as fantastical.

Cindy and I are sitting at large round table, the kind guests sit around at weddings. We’re in the back of a Las Vegas hotel ballroom, the kind couples rent for weddings.

Except instead of a DJ, there’s a UCLA professor at the far end of the ballroom. He’s standing on a stage, behind a podium. To his right is a movie screen holding an MRI of a human brain. A brain whose cerebellum is damaged. A cerebellum that looks a lot like mine.

The room is filled with people of all ages. Some people in wheelchairs. Some people clutching canes and walking sticks. The same haunted glow in everyone’s eyes.

We’re in Las Vegas attending the National Ataxia Federation’s annual conference for patients with neurological disease because seven months earlier I was diagnosed with cerebellar atrophy.

Cindy and I are surrounded by people of all ages stricken with rare neurological diseases. ALS. MS. Huntington’s Disease. Brain tumors.

Some people sit with their spouse. Some sit their parents. Some sit alone.

The UCLA professor is discussing advancements in stem cell research as a way of improving and repairing brain growth.

Cindy is beside me taking notes.

Her hand moves in small yet amazing ways. She is writing down what the professor is saying as fast as he is saying it.

Her penmanship is catholic school perfect. Her notes are well-spaced and organized and her margins are aligned.

It was a secret moment in my history. One I’ve never told Cindy about.

A moment of enormous fear yet as my eyes trace the ink-curls of her words, a small moment of enormous comfort and safety.  A moment where love was learned. A moment when I finally realized I was lucky enough to find a woman who cared more for me than I could possibly care for myself.

A moment that gifted me the eventual courage to roll my shoulders and write these sentences–

Let my cerebellum soften to oatmeal. Let my brain cells explode. Let my eyes go blind. Because there’s girl with green eyes standing in the blue doorway and she’s not moving. And she never will.

And that is what love becomes. After all the romance and celestial promises of the initial courtship, love becomes a lifetime of small moments that add up to make something enormous.

But even that seems Sparksian.

A chronically sick man whose hands are shaking, whose body aches, whose teetering on the edge of self-destruction is sitting beside his wife in a Las Vegas ballroom. They’re high school sweethearts. They have three children together. But seven months ago things suddenly got harder.

And yet she still takes notes.

As the professor speaks and the damaged brain that holds the screen looms like a thundercloud over the room with her free hand, she reaches across the table to hold his hand, to ease him, to feel his pain.

Be well,



Candy Land – Student Voices (Guest Post)

Once you’re alive, can you ever really be dead? 

Candy Land is a personal narrative written by one of my students, Kayla Paterson. This story, Kayla intertwines the past and the present to explore the power of life, death memories, and board games. 

Meet the Writer

Kayla Patterson is a 12th grade student at Robbinsville High School (New Jersey). She plans on attending Hampton University and majoring in Computer Science.

Dedication: To my cousin, Aliya, who will be forever missed and who will live forever in my heart, in the Candy Land Castle.

Over a sea of black dresses and suits the Pastor took a deep breath, “You may proceed to the casket.”

Rising from the red velvet church benches, tissue in hand, I managed to take a few steps to the casket. Listening to the hymns in the background, I remembered playing Candy Land with her.

Ten years ago, I was seven and all I ever wanted to do was play Candy Land.

I was meeting my cousin Aliya for the first time too, so in my mind all I could think about was having a play buddy and hoping she like Candy Land as much as I did.

Ding dong.

I ran to the door and reached for the knob. My face turned with confusion when the door didn’t open. My mom came running down the hallway with one hand covered with an oven mitt. She unlocked the door and I smiled and pulled, wondering what I would see on the other side.

Standing was a tall girl with a round face. Her big brown eyes took the frame of her dark glasses. Her braids swayed right above her hips, the smell of strawberry perfumed lingering in the doorway.

“Hey Kayla,”Aliya said while scooping down to my level. “So what are we going to do?”

Being seven and meeting people for the first time always scared, but Aliya was different.

I took her hand with a smile and led her to the family room. I told her how to play the game Candy Land and she was eager to start the game, we both sat right across from each other with the board in between us.

I took Princess Frostine – the blue princess and Aliya choose King Kandy.

I took the die and rolled it with all of my force. Five spaces. I moved my Princess Frostine closer to the Candy Castle.

Five spaces to the casket.

I could see the outline of her body. Silky black curls fallen on her ruby red dress. Her eyes shut, as if dreaming about her plans after college. Just 23. Just a girl with a dream.

Aliya, took the next card from the deck and eyed me down. My serious, seven year old eyes told her that I was not playing around.

“Ha, it looks like you need to move your Princess Frostine four spaces back, and you thought you were close to winning this game,” she said with a smile.

I took my Princess Frostine and moved it back four spaces, staring down my cousin while I did it.

Four spaces away from the casket.

I see her face. Silver eyeshadow, red lipstick, some blush here and there. She was beautiful to be dead.

“You think you can beat the master at this game?” I questioned my cousin.

I yanked the card from the deck and smiled realizing I just gained three forward spaces. Taking my Princess Frostine and moving it through Candy Cane Forest, I was almost to the Candy Castle. Aliya stared at me and she knew I was about to win this game.

Three spaces away from the casket.

I started to cry. I was close to reaching her. So close of touching her hand. Touching the hands she helped me deal cards with at a young age, trying to explain gambling to me. Touching the hands that were sticky from the lemonade we tried to make in the kitchen.

“Ha, I’m two spaces away Kayla,” Aliya said. Her big brown eyes followed the smooth movement of King Kandy jumping spaces between my Princess Frostine.

Two spaces between me and the casket.

The flowers she held were edged in gold. She was so similar to me. She was an only child, she wore glasses and she just wanted a good life.

“Not so fast cousin!” I only needed one more space to win the Candy Land Game.

I grabbed the die, shook it and released it with all my might. Our eyes lunged at the twirl of the die.

The die slowly spun to a halt.

My face slowly lit up when I saw one dot. I grabbed my Princess Frostine piece and did a small victory lap before I made it into the Candy Land Castle.

“And the victory goes to me! Take that cousin!”

Aliya laughed, “Nice game.”

One more space between me and the casket.

I step forward.

I touched her hand and I closed my eyes imagining her with me, imagining her breathing, alive, and well. She still smelled like strawberries.

“I’ll meet you again Aliya. One day, at the Gumdrop Castle.” 

We cleaned up the board game and as she left, she smiled, “Don’t worry you’ll see me again. You owe me a rematch.”

My uncle looked down at his daughter for one last time and kissed her forehead. The casket closed and I watched it rolled down the aisle, out the church and into the morning light.

My big 7 years old eyes stared at her and said, “Next time we’ll have that rematch. But until next time”

Until next time.


I stared at my uncle. Though I ached with absolute sadness, I felt Aliya alive my heart. I knew that as long as I stoke the memories of her she will always be alive.

On that day I learned no one is ever really dead.