by Kristi DiLallo
Writing matters because it’s the only thing I have in common with my parents. “Dear Mom,” I write, sitting on my bedroom floor where no one can ask me why I don’t just email her. I try not to imagine how it looks when she writes me; when I do, I pretend her cell is nicer than it probably is. I pretend it’s an apartment in a nice neighborhood where the guards are not watching her, making sure her pen does not become a weapon with which they fear she might take another life.
Writing matters to the guards, because they open every envelope I’ve sealed and sent to her, and vice versa. I imagine them checking for nail files or blueprints for an escape, their fingers tearing the fold on the back of each envelope and intercepting the closest thing to a kiss on the cheek between mother and daughter. This has been their routine for five years, and it will go on for another ten while I struggle to remember the touch of her hand or the smell of her hair.
Writing matters because it’s the only thing we do together anymore. “I miss you past the world,” she writes, and I try to hear it through the paper, but I can hardly remember how her voice sounded before we had to miss each other. Writing matters because it keeps her alive. The collection of letters and cards and photos beneath her bunk are the only things keeping her connected to my world.
Writing matters because it’s how I got to know my dad, who went away before my mother did. “Dear daddy,” I wrote, on the bus ride home from first, second, and third grade, and many years after that. Writing matters because at recess I could say, “I practice cursive with my daddy, too,” but Sally and Rachel would never know what that really meant, no more than they could imagine the “I love you so much” in almost illegible script on yellow construction paper hanging inside of his cell.
Writing matters because of the shoe boxes in the bottom drawer of my dresser: one marked Dad’s Letters, and the other, Mom’s. Writing matters because it helped me survive the first box, whose contents accumulated over seven painful years. Writing matters because it’s getting me through the second one, as the letters pile up alongside the stolen years they represent.
Writing matters because of the world that fiction allowed me to create: one where my dad taught me how to ride a bike and my mother watched me graduate high school. As much as writing matters, still, I know what it cannot do. I cannot write and rewrite the past until it looks the way I want it to. I cannot create characters to take the place of my mother and father. No matter how many times I revise, I cannot use writing to erase the miles or years or events that have separated me from the people who made me a writer.