The only thing left is a photograph. Lilian holds it carefully, taking pains not to wrinkle or smudge. She studies the image, trying to imagine what the girl pictured of 28 years ago might possibly be thinking. Ten years old, she stands, smiling into the camera where her mother and father are watching her and she is still believing that life is fair and orderly and kind. That good things happen to good people. That there is meaning and purpose to everything. She is standing roadside in the desert. The front end of the family station wagon peaking to the left. This is quick stop lunch break on a family vacation. The sun is bright and happy. The family is happy and smiling. They are going somewhere. Together. They are laughing. Life is still good.
The girl is ten and Lilian desperately wants to tell the girl to be careful, not to let herself feel too happy. That feeling of easy contentment, of thoughtless confidence and ease. That feeling soon leaves and there is a crushing pain in the vacuum it has left behind.
This picture from that afternoon 28 years ago. She threw all the other photographs away. Let them go to rot. This was the only picture that mattered. This one was the only truth. Ten year old smiling into the unseen future self, that unseen future self staring back. And the emptiness that 38 year old Lillian feels, the gulf that separates them. One is a child who still has parents. The other is 28 years orphaned, which is a way of saying 28 years lost, 28 years bewildered.
The picture girl stands beside the car like she has all the time in the world. She doesn’t realize that all of the time has run out. That life is about to skid and careen, brakeless, into a deep ravine. The body of the car split by guardrail. The bodies of her parents pushed to paste. That girl doesn’t realize how fleeting these moments really are, even the good one, especially the good ones fixed on paper for the future self to see, to remember. She doesn’t yet realize how fearfully long, how interminable the days that pass from them to now. Life is short. Life is long.
And yet, as Lilian studies the photograph taken on the last day of her parents’ lives, she realizes that the girl has something to tell her. Something urgent. What is it? Lilian leans in, watching and listening. As if the girl can speak. As if the scene itself can escape the neat, well-ordered frame.
The girl is holding a half-eaten sandwich. A thing made for her no doubt by her mother. Some quick-made tasteless potted meat on white. What she wouldn’t do to enjoy that sandwich right now. A sandwich made by a mother for long summer car ride between somewhere and somewhere. Enjoy. Chew slowly.
I love you, too.