A Collection of Losses (Laura Gill)

On Miami Beach, people look for lost items—they walk with metal detectors searching for rings, bracelets, and buckles. They move the device from one side to the next, down and back along the shore, skimming the edges of the sand. Rarely do they find anything worth very much; and yet, they have all kinds of equipment attached to their bodies to pursue what others have lost.

A friend of mine lost his wedding ring so many times he bought himself one worth no more than fifteen dollars. He didn’t know how anyone didn’t lose their ring, so easy for it to go while washing dishes or taking out the trash. 

When I got engaged, I was worried about losing my ring. Some people said to keep it on—to never take it off—and others said to take it off when I swam or showered. The rule seemed to be: if I was going to be in water, near water, or around water, I should protect it at all costs. 

Even though I am no longer married, I am worried about where my ring is. Given that I moved it from my house where I was married to an apartment where I was not and then into another house with another partner, it seems logical that I’d lose it. Or misplace it. The ring is still where it was when I took it off: in the red jewelry box where my wedding ring and a bracelet from my great grandmother lives. The bracelet is the one my ex-husband used to pull diamonds from when he created my engagement ring; now, they are in there together: the bracelet, the engagement ring, and my wedding ring.   

During the initial lockdown, I heard a story about a hairdresser who paid house calls to her clients, particularly those with grey hair.  She said many of them panicked when they were told they couldn’t go to the salon because she was the only one who knew they had grey hair. No one in their families knew they’d lost their color, that the strands had gone from one shade to the next.

There’s a person I keep referring to as lost because she lashes out, and when people lash out, they seem lost to me. Perhaps this is the stereotype of being lost, perhaps some people are more calm in their being lost—they sit with it and don’t look for the next exercise class, acupuncture treatment, colonic or exfoliant. I am not sure if looking for any of those things means you are lost; if it does, then we are all lost. 

Growing up, I was known as the messy kid—the one whose clothes were always on the floor, the one who always lost her stuff. If I was only more organized, I heard people say, I wouldn’t lose things. My messiness was a deficit. It was not OK to be messy, to not know where items were. It was not good to lose things. 

I live with a seven-year-old who is messier than I think I ever was. I never had many toys or dolls, and all of my make-believe places were those that my sister created for me. I never built lands and worlds and fantastical locations where all of my stuffed animals could be friends. I never even understood what a stuffed animal was for, but I knew that it was important to have a favorite one, and to prize it above all else. I decided on a big fluffy rabbit, and made a big deal about how he was my most precious stuffed animal, but I never actually had an emotional attachment to him, even though I made everyone believe I did. 

The seven-year-old knows where every animal, toy, doll, scrap of paper, marker, and hair tie is. She will locate them out of nowhere, and start to panic when she sees that they are missing. Her mess sometimes delights me, but most of the time, I see it as a problem. I have voices in my head telling me it is important to put everything away, keep things clean, never leave anything out lest you lose it, and I sometimes feel myself wanting to get angry or yell at her for her mess. 

A part of me is also envious. Neither of her parents force her to part with her items, nor do they make a huge deal out of keeping those items in tidy places. She’s asked to put some things away, but she’s never told that she is wrong for making the mess she made. I am both jealous of this and jealous of the mess itself. Her mess is crafted—it is her imagination laid bare—and I wonder if my mess had been that way—less clothes, more toys, less tossing, more placing—mine might have been respected too.

Because I had it ingrained in me from an early age that I was someone who lost things, I was always anxious about losing things. One time, driving home from Boston, I convinced myself I’d left my backpack at the house I was staying in. I didn’t see it in the back seat, and about half an hour into the drive, I decided I had to go back to get it. Instead of pulling over to look in the trunk or search for it, I was convinced I’d left it behind. When I arrived at the house, I discovered the backpack in the trunk. Just where I’d put it.  

I thought I lost all of my earrings during the two years I was leaving my home in D.C., my husband, and our life together. I kept them in a bag from my grandmother which was given to me after my grandmother died. The bag is needle pointed and covered in cats, and when my aunt gave it to me, I did not ask questions. I put all my favorite earrings inside. I used that bag to carry the earrings with me across the country. I also took it on a trip to Ireland and to Rome. I was on those trips because I’d lost something at home, and could not recapture it. Months later, I lost the bag, and I had no idea where it was. A year later, my sister said she found it. It was in her house in Dublin, tucked into her bookshelf. 

During the years I lost my ability to be home, I was corresponding with a poet about an essay. With each letter, she’d send a treasure: a collage, a cut out of a newspaper, a paint swatch. One of them was a postcard, and over top of it, she taped a thin piece of paper that said “write. write. write.” I wish I’d framed it the minute she sent it to me, but instead, I lost it in a book I left on an airplane while traveling somewhere I don’t remember. She and I met a few times that year. Once, we met at a lake near the school where I’d met the person who’d made it impossible for me to return home, and when she discovered what I was going through— separating from my husband, joining the person I loved and his children—she said, “now is not the time to talk about sentences.” 

Everything the seven-year-old touches moves somewhere else in the house. She builds worlds of tiny toys on window ledges and the floor. For a long while, she was creating little sleeping nooks for all the stuffed animals wherever she could find a “blanket.” The animals ended up inside masks and socks and pillow cases and dish towels. 

The other night, she thought she lost her blanket. We were making the bed for a sleepover party, and we pulled all the blankets off of it. As we were remaking the bed, she wanted her blanket to go on first. But she didn’t see it, and she started throwing all the blankets around, whipping them through the room. When she nearly knocked over a water glass and her dollhouse, I told her to calm down. “It has to be here,” I said, “it has to be,” and it was. When we found it, she became calm, nearly quiet, and resumed making the bed as if nothing had happened at all. 

When I fell in love with the man whose daughter threw the blanket, I was married. When it happened, I felt like I’d lost a part of myself that I understood. I often described this part of me as a ghost. It was gone, but still there, always haunting me with its presence, saying:  “remember, remember, remember.” 

During the end of my marriage, I wanted to get a tattoo of a button falling off a shoe. After college, a friend sent me a sketch. In the sketch, there are two legs and a skirt. On one of the shoes, the button is flying off. I wanted the tattoo of the string and the button flying. I never got the tattoo. The only tattoo I have is a house that a child might draw, on my right shoulder. 

It took me over two years after falling in love with someone else to finally take off my engagement and wedding rings, the ones I never lost, never lose. The red box is kept in the drawer with my socks and underwear. 

“Laura, how do you spell the word lost?” the seven-year-old asked me the other day. L. O. S. T. She was making “missing” signs for her lost stuffed animals to put around the house even though she knew exactly where they were. 

“I’ve already lost all the way up to third grade,” a friend said, “do I have to remove fourth grade too, to let these new memories in?” I was visiting her just weeks after her sister died. People would say she lost her sister, or they would say how sorry they were for the loss of her sister. I’m not sure those words suffice. She didn’t lose her; her sister didn’t wander off. She died.

If I search my photos for “lost,” nothing pops up. The phone can call up an image for the words “winter,” “grass,” “fog,” and “trees,” but it cannot find images of “loss.”

The other night at dinner, my partner looked out the window and saw the dog who always walks by our house. He pointed it out to the seven-year-old, and she looked at the dog, and said he must be a stray. He didn’t have a collar.. She said maybe he walks by here on his way home. “Strays always make a home,” she said. 

The seven-year-old recently brought out a foam football for a different dog to play with. The dog was her aunt’s dog, and she was feisty and slightly aggressive. But the seven-year-old was convinced the dog might like the football, or be at least willing to play catch. Instead, the dog ripped it into pieces and they went all over the lawn. We then decided to take a walk with the dog down the path. The seven-year-old started to collect wildflowers. As we made our way back, she said we needed to have a memorial service for the football. She pulled off the petals, one by one, and then covered the dirt road with the small white pieces. She thanked the ball for the joy it brought us; the ball was still strewn across the lawn, yards away. We didn’t bury the object—we buried its memory. 

When I met the poet at the lake, she’d just had Lasik eye surgery. She was debating whether to go into the lake without her goggles, just to see what it was like. Ultimately, she decided against it. The new sight did not take away the memory of the sight she’d never quite had. 

The hardest part about leaving a marriage is the idea that you are choosing loss. Loss is always terrible, but when it is an accident, it feels less harmful somehow, or perhaps it’s easier to let go? I’d lived my whole life never having to break up with anyone or anything. Or, perhaps it’s better to say: never having chosen to do so. I had always been loyal, committed, and reliable, which is not to say selfless. In a way, staying attached seemed easier, almost more powerful than letting things go. People had left me, but I’d never chosen to leave a person, and I used that as a badge of honor, a way to counteract the reality of loss, or at least make somebody else’s fault. I now realize it was futile, and in some ways, hurtful. The art of leaving is a muscle one must build, and if you don’t, the ability to move forward, to leave, to choose to lose, will atrophy. 

An aunt of mine always has new adages, and often, they are about letting go. One summer, she repeated “let go and let god.” This summer, she is saying, “snip, snip” as a way to cut off what is upsetting or distressing. “Snip snip,” she told me as she was taking down decorations after my brother’s wedding. “Snip snip,” she said, as she took down the tule, the flowers, and the wallpaper. “Snip snip” the unwanted thought, the gossip, the presumptions about other people, she said. “Hear something about you that someone else said? Snip snip!” 

The same week we buried the pieces of the football without burying the pieces of the football, I heard a story about loss that made me laugh. I was with my partner’s mother, who was telling me about biking with a couple. The man in the couple had been married to one of her best friends, Carol, and she’d died recently and unexpectedly. He moved on quickly, and reconnected with an old girlfriend, who they went biking with. The girlfriend was not used to biking, and she kept falling. At one point, she fell badly enough that the two men had to go back and get the car. As the two women sat on the bench, the one recovering, the other trying to comfort, my partner’s mom said, “it must have been Carol.”

Deer leave their babies for the first day of their lives. After the baby is born, the mother deer leaves the newborn in a field. The babies are protected because they have no scent. The mother can go off and recover, gathering food and nutrients, knowing that no predators will find the tiny fawn. 

I learned this about deer because a friend found a fawn on the edge of the golf course. She thought the baby was abandoned. She assumed it was lost. She called around, only to find out that this leaving was part of the plan. 

When I learned this about deer and their babies, I thought it was a beautiful metaphor. What an act of faith to leave your baby while you care for yourself: what an act of love, I thought. Then I learned from my brother that while the baby deer are protected from most predators, they are not protected from human errors: sometimes, farmers will kill them while cutting their fields. This fact does not mean that the metaphor has no power, has no weight, but I can’t deny that it loses something: it is hard to think of the beauty act without thinking about the ways in which it can be so instantly, so quickly destroyed. 

Some animals mourn their losses. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say most do, but we are aware of the movements of elephants, giraffes, ducks, apes, and cats, and the ways in which they grieve. It isn’t simply that they mourn the lost animal, but they also care for one another. There is documentation of fifteen dolphins slowing down to travel alongside a mother carrying her dead calf. Twenty-seven giraffes were captured holding a vigil for one dead baby. Elephants are known to gather around the bones of their dead. 

I grew up in a family where death is discussed and acknowledged long after the fact. In most cases, when a family member dies, we do not gather immediately following. We make calls, and when we cry, we cry mostly on our own. Then, months later, there is a memorial service we often call a celebration of life. It is a performance, as much as it is a coming together, with the focus on life rather than death. 

When I was starting the process of separating from my ex-husband and joining in a new life with my partner, the photographs of my ex-husband were still up in my mother’s house. It didn’t bother me because in a way, it mirrored my own experience and the ways in which moving on was happening slowly. One of my aunts pulled me aside and asked me how I felt about the photographs and said that it must be hard for me to see them. She’d been divorced. In that conversation, I was uncomfortable, but afterwards, I realized that she was one of the only people who talked to me directly about what was happening in my life. This same aunt recently wrote me a note saying, “please put all you know into words. Take your time.” 

Time is both the problem and the solution. It’s the problem when you want to remember something you cannot; it’s the solution when you want to lose the memories you thought you wanted. 

Last year, I spent the summer in a barn I’ve spent weeks in before. The barn was built by my grandfather on my father’s side, and it sits behind the house I grew up in. When my parents were divorced, my mother kept the house, and then she bought the barn. She did some renovations to it, but kept it mostly the same. In one room, there is tiling that was started and never finished. 

When I moved most of my belongings out from my house in D.C., I brought them all into the barn. I moved the items in the winter, dropped them in the main room, and left them there. When my partner, his children, and I arrived, all the items were stacked in the main room, and I panicked and cried. I was not expecting to feel anything for these things; in a way, I’d nearly forgotten they were there. But when I encountered them—the photographs and mementos and postcards and letters from my relationship, from my marriage—I had to remember. Instead of getting rid of it all, I stuffed it into a closet upstairs. I asked my friends for guidance.

One of my friends told me to watch the Chris Marker film, Sans Soleil. I tried, but my internet was spotty. The film kept stopping and pausing, but this part played all the way through—

The woman he loved died last year and he drowned himself in work…like a madman. It seems he even made an important discovery in electronics. And then in the month of May he killed himself. They say he could not stand hearing the word ‘Spring.’

In the barn, next to my desk, I found a copy of a wedding invitation for my aunt’s wedding, the one who had been divorced, the one who had asked me about mine. It was covered in dirt, and I took photograph after photograph of it, for reasons I don’t totally know or understand. 

When I moved to Miami, I moved to an apartment five blocks from the ocean. I’ve never been much of an ocean person—either too scared of the sea or too frustrated with the sand to really embrace both, but when I lived by the sea, I liked to walk there and take photographs of it. One night, I walked down and took as many photographs as I could. In the span of an hour, I lost my glasses and my keys. The glasses went first, and I wandered, looking for them. In that time, I continued to take photographs, getting close to the sand and bending down to capture the details. My keys must have fallen out then—while I was hunting for the other item I’d lost. 

“You always lose things,” a friend said to me, and she was right. I forget where I put my glasses daily; I rarely know exactly where my wallet is. When she said it, I had just lost my Metro card. It was in my wallet, but I couldn’t find it. I frantically went through each pocket, as she went through the turnstile. After I found it, stuck to the back of the ATM card, she said, “I couldn’t live like that. It would make me so anxious.” 

No one means to lose anything. One doesn’t leave one’s wallet at the restaurant on purpose or forget their friend’s keys at the grocery store because they want to. Perhaps someone will lie that they lost something they never wanted to keep—an ugly painting, a useless vase—but no one claims agency over what is lost. In fact, it’s hard to even pinpoint how the loss happened: I was distracted, I wasn’t thinking, I was rushing. Even then, you might be able to articulate why it happened, but you can’t fully express how.

Whenever I tell people in the northeast that I live in Miami, I am looked at with dismay. Do you think you’ll stay? People ask, and when I say yes, they are even more confused. Climate change, they say, the rising water. They are not wrong that the water is rising in Miami, but what bothers me is the way in which they see themselves as protected from all the loss we’ve all endured, and will endure. 

I am often lost in my dreams. I am often meant to be somewhere at a certain time, but can’t find my keys. Or I am in a performance where I don’t know the lines. Or I am about to get on a train and then feel so nauseous that I cannot. I am always inching towards something and then finding myself doubled back and retreating from the thing itself. 

What I long for are the dreams where I am lost but content. It’s only happened a few times, but there have been a few moments where I’ve been in places so beautiful, and in those places alone, journeying by myself. In one, I was in a huge river between mountains and the water was bright and clear. I was swimming by myself, and could swim for as long as I wanted, and I did not feel afraid. I so rarely have those dreams.


Laura Gill is a writer, teacher, photographer, and editor, living in Miami, Florida. Her essays have appeared in Agni, The Los Angeles Review, Electric Literature, The Carolina Quarterly, and Entropy, amongst others. She is also a contributing nonfiction editor at Hobart.


image: MM Kaufman