“Verb Tenses” by Meli Ewing

The letter I wrote Lilly first thing after I found out talks to her in the present tense, like she still exists, because she does still exist for me, or she did then. It didn’t feel real at all, then. But now every sentence with her as the subject has to be in the past tense. Or almost every.

The first thing Lucy said when I answered the phone: “Lilly’s dead!” Said, or sobbed. Present tense. Lilly is dead. Lilly is in heaven, or is everywhere, or is a voice in Lucy’s head, or is driving endlessly through the desert, never afraid, always intrigued, potentially, depending on who you ask. Lilly is ash in plastic containers divided among loved ones. Lilly is in one particular container somewhere never far from Lucy, being shaken like a Magic 8-Ball when Lucy wishes she could talk to her sister. These are the only things Lilly can ever be again in the present tense.

Lilly was adventurous, friendly, a liar, a pot stirrer, a goat getter, a drunk dialer, a drunk driver, maybe, a natural talent, the center of attention. Vain. Beautiful. Ridiculous. Gullible. Thought she was fat. Always starting a new life. She was the only person I knew besides my dad who could broil things without burning them. She roasted vegetables wrapped in tinfoil over the campfire. She toasted marshmallows to golden brown perfection, but she didn’t like to eat them. Wasn’t good at hiding her alcohol. Was good at finding other people’s hiding places: geocaches, and before that, Lucy’s piggy banks. I thought she was prettiest when she didn’t have any makeup on. She dyed her hair so many times I could never remember what color it was. Lilly made me feel included. Lilly loved chainsaws, Kenneth, a good time, the desert life. The sound of her own voice. I loved it too.
 We have to translate the stories we tell about her into the past tense, now, and it takes a conscious effort, and when other people do it, it gives me this lurch in my stomach, like, oh, that is grammatically correct, isn’t it. But it’s wrong in the grammar of my heart.

I think about how I told my mom: “Lilly got killed in a car accident.” I remember in the moment panicking, thinking of the words I’d use to tell her. My letter had been in the present tense, and before that, the words I’d told Ryan with: “Lucy says Lilly’s dead!” Double present tense, double denial. Room left for the chance that it might turn out not to be true. When I told my mom, I think I used the past tense to make it feel real. Got killed. Twice the past tense. Twice as real. I said it instead of “died” or the absurd “passed away” because I wanted to hear the story how I imagined it must have happened: not gentle, not gradual. Full of violence.

Here’s the thing about telling someone that someone died: you kill that person for them. For the first blissful second of her name being said, before the verb comes out and pulls everything crashing down, your brain expects news in the present tense. It’s jarring. Obviously. You just found out someone you care about—or someone who you care about cares about—was deleted from the world. But it’s jarring on a literal, syntactical level. It’s not what your brain expected to hear. It’s wrong.


Meli Ewing is a writer, reader, tea drinker, and adventure-haver in Eugene, Oregon.

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