July 5, 2009— My feet shift swiftly across the airport floors, as I’m moved along by a sea of people. The towering figures loom over me, and I try to wiggle myself through the crowd, desperate to reach the finish line. The sea finally parts, and I’m there, at the arrival gate. I scan the masses of people in search of her. The first tinges of nervousness strum the pit of my stomach. I spot her sitting quietly on the airport terminal benches. Her eyes land on me, and her face lights up. I feel the nervousness slip out from under me, and instead I’m taken by the overwhelming excitement of seeing her, my godmother, Tori.

Her tightly-wound ebony curls bounce up and down as she giddily runs towards me. I’m thirteen years old, and it’s my first trip alone. I open my arms wide, ready for her embrace. She picks me up, hugging me tightly. It’s been almost a year since we last saw one another and we both squeal with excitement. She puts me down, and we take in one another. Her pale green eyes are full of life. “How are you, my dear?” The familiar voice soothes me.

“I’m good,” I respond chirpily, beaming with admiration.

“Good.” She smiles and her perfectly straight teeth shine back at me, appearing divine in comparison to my dense metal braces. Taking my bag in one hand and my hand in the other, she leads me through the sea.

August 24, 2010—I’m in my first year of middle school and I’m walking to ballet recital with my friend, Rachel. It’s August and the heat is palpable. The weight of my backpack digs sharply into my shoulders, but our conversation keeps me distracted. We’re gossiping about a girl in our ballet class, who we believe has unjustly gotten cast as Sugar Plum for our annual showcase of The Nutcracker. The muffled sound of my pink Razor flip phone pulls me out of our conversation, and I take my backpack off, beginning to sift through the overpacked zipper compartment. Finally, I pull out my phone. It’s my dad. “Hey,” I answer.

“Amber?” His voice sounds frail.

“Hey, what’s wrong?” I ask him. “It’s Tori.”

July 6, 2009— We eat fish tacos messily outside a food truck. I’m wearing the bright yellow bikini Tori bought for me at Old Navy earlier that day. “Do you have a boyfriend?” I ask her.

“Yes, in fact, you’re going to get to meet him.”

I ask what he’s like. She tells me Rusty is a musician she met on match.com, and he might take us to the movies tomorrow. She asks me if I have any crushes. I tell her about a boy named Griffin, who has beach-blonde hair, and likes to surf. She says it sounds like we’d be cute together. We drive through the rolling of hills of Coronado; the suburban houses whisk past me. The wind is warm and sifts through my salty, wet hair. We listen to The Beach Boys and Tori sings along. Her house looks like all the others, a light beige concrete, with a perfectly manicured lawn. It doesn’t fit her really, I tell her, and she agrees.

August 24, 2010— I wait outside the ballet studio for my Dad. I hear the sound of the loud diesel engine before I see his car, seconds later the black beetle appears in front of me, and I walk around and climb in. “Dad, what’s happening?” We had known Tori had cancer for a year now, and she seemed to only be getting worse.

“Tori’s here, she wants to see us.”

July 7, 2009— That night, we go to see Mamma Mia with Tori’s boyfriend, Rusty. We both get Cherry Cola’s and a large bag of popcorn to share. We gleefully sing along, and Rusty laughs at us, embarrassed. Tori knows every word to every song, and I mentally make a note to myself to memorize the lyrics when I get home. We walk through the streets of Downtown San Diego. She tells me stories of growing up in Montana, riding horses. Rusty tells me about their first date. I tell them about writing a love letter to a boy in my grade, and how everyone found out. Tori laughs, and it’s contagious, full of joy. Although we are years apart, I feel as though she is my friend, and I, a friend to her.

July 8, 2009— Our bodies sway in the calm, cool ocean water. I can see the beginning of a wave rising in the distance. I saddle myself on the stiff boogie board we bought from CVS. The wave begins to curl and I look at Tori for confirmation. “Go, go!” she yells. The sunshine gleams off her silky wet hair, and her skin is glowing. I start to paddle my arms against the thick ocean current. We’re both riding the wave now, and as I look over at Tori our eyes lock. The San Diego beach scenery passes behind her in slow motion. We’re both smiling from ear to ear, the wind brushes against my face as we ride the last of the wave, until our bodies are washed up on the wet sand.

August 24, 2010— We pull into the Samuel P. Taylor campgrounds, where Tori and Rusty are waiting for us. The two are taking a road trip all the way to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. We park next to my mom’s car in front, a small RV that says Cruise America in big green letters along the sides of it. I can feel the heaviness of the room the moment I step in. There, around a small folding kitchen table, my mom and my younger brother sit across from Tori. My mom and Tori hold hands across the table. I haven’t seen her since that summer in San Diego. She appears weak and drained of energy, although she manages to get up to hug me. I can feel her bones, and the memory of her picking my small body up in the San Diego Airport seems, now, almost impossible. Her curly brown hair is nowhere to be seen. Instead she wears a burgundy beanie in its place. “How are you, sweetie?”

I force a smile, although I’m slightly frightened by how different she looks. I feel bad for her, and she can tell. She brings me back towards her, holding me closely. She doesn’t seem scared, but instead, there’s a sadness I can see in her eyes. I feel it too. She asks the others if we can talk alone for a little. We walk outside. I look up at the redwood trees towering above us. Light beams through them, casting a heavenly glow upon the campground. She takes my hand in hers and we sit down. I can hear the sound of children playing, their voices echoing through the forest. Water rushes down the nearby creek, a dog barks. I feel a sense of calm coming over me as we both take in our surroundings. I look towards her, and I see tears trickling down her cheeks. I want to comfort her, but at the same time, I don’t feel she needs me to. She knows she’s going to die, I can tell. She takes my hand in hers, and looks back at me. “I’m going to miss you so much.” The words feel as if they physically touch me, and warm tears fall down my cheeks.

Twelve days later, Tori died. My dad tells me and my family. I don’t cry, but instead I go outside. Walking through the neighborhood, I make my way towards the forest. I walk up the mountain, the wind blowing gently through my hair. Sunlight kisses my face, basking me in warmth. Rocks crackle underneath my sneakers. I feel her there with me, and instead of feeling sad, I feel happy. Inexplicably happy. I stop walking and close my eyes, taking in the aliveness of the moment. It feels like yesterday that I was in San Diego and I realize how fragile it is, how my life didn’t really seem to belong to me, or anyone, for that matter. I feel a deep desire to understand this, and at the same time, an uncertainty as to if I ever will. Thoughts and feelings all seem to be swirling inside me, each one pining for the other’s attention. For a second, I’m able to simply watch it all take place within me and I can feel, for a second, as life becomes tangible, and for the first time, real. I open my eyes.

Amber Suzor’s personal essay “Impressions” won first prize in the Sixth Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest. Amber is a freshman majoring in Film at SVA. Originally from the Bay Area in California, Amber now lives in Bushwick.  

Judges Jeff Beardsley & Timothy Leonido had this to say about Amber’s prize-winning entry:  “‘Impressions’ isn’t only a story of loss; it’s also about what its teenage narrator gains through her relationship with her godmother. As her admiration and emulation turn to friendship, the narrator gains confidence in herself and a sense of possibility. She becomes alert to the world and its fragility. We admired the piece’s structure, which flashes back and forth between two summers. Only one year passes, but the narrator emerges from a world of ‘dense metal braces,’ stiff boogie boards from CVS, and a backpack’s ‘overpacked zipper compartment,’ into a world in which she must describe the woman she looks up to like this: ‘I can feel her bones, and the memory of her picking up my small body in the San Diego Airport seems, now, almost impossible.'”