“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: It goes on.”
— Robert Frost quote that begins 18-year-old Grace Collins’ book, “So It Goes”
By Jennifer Berry Hawes
At 18, Grace Collins has dedicated her first book to others who, like herself, are struggling with loss while trying to move forward.
But hers is not a saccharine lament to what is gone.
One of the collection’s stories, about the suicide death of her mother, opens with the unadorned honesty of what follows:
“There was no funeral for you.”
Throughout the short story “To Elizabeth,” recently named one of the most outstanding student works in the nation, Grace explores the complex relationship she shared with her mother after Elizabeth moved out when Grace was just 5.
And in the end, the story reflects on her mother’s final day with a mature realization that, for many who contemplate suicide, death appears the only respite from a life of suffering.
“You must have been happy to get away from this cruel world that made you sad for so long,” Grace writes.
From there, the West Ashley student explores the convoluted knots of grief and anger and sympathy she feels for a mother who hurt so much that she saw death as the only ending.
It wasn’t easy to write. At first, Grace wrote “To Elizabeth” in third person, that most detached and impersonal of narrators.
She wrote it during her senior year at the Charleston County School of the Arts, where creative writing students like her complete a book at least 100 pages long.
Her teacher, novelist and poet F. Rutledge Hammes, challenged her.
“You need to write this from your heart,” he said.
The last time Grace saw her mother was at the pizza place, Your Pie.
A month had passed since Grace last saw Elizabeth. They’d had an argument during which Grace had released some of her long-harbored resentments, things about her mother not always being there for her, about Elizabeth not always being a good mom.
Meeting at Your Pie was a time for reconciling.
Elizabeth called Grace a stag for not having a prom date and teased her for eating pizza with ranch dressing like her oldest sister, Angela.
Elizabeth also proudly revealed that she’d quit smoking. When they hugged good-bye, Elizabeth asked her baby girl, “Doesn’t it feel good to hug me and me not smell like smoke?”
These days, Grace still goes to Your Pie, sometimes to write, and always to sit at the big table in the same seat where her mother sat last.
The last time Grace talked to her mom was by text the night before Elizabeth died.
Her mom texted: I love you very much.
Grace answered: I love you, too.
The next morning, Grace thought little of it. A junior, she was too worried about a chemistry quiz she hadn’t studied for.
In class, the intercom came on. Grace needed to report to the office to check out.
Confused, she headed there, sifting through the possibilities.
Did her dad forget to tell her about an appointment? Did her sister, Heather, need a last-minute ride?
Had her father gotten into a terrible car wreck?
The office staff told Grace to call her dad, Michael Collins. When she reached him, he explained that Elizabeth, who had several health problems, had suffered a heart attack.
She was at Roper Hospital. And she wanted to see Grace.
Grace picked up her older sister, Heather, and hurried to MUSC, where their father is an assistant electrical supervisor.
But he wasn’t there.
Instead, his colleague drove the girls over to Roper’s ER in a golf cart.
Her older siblings, Michael and Angela, already were there. So was everyone else in their family, it seemed.
Elizabeth was in a coma.
Their stepfather urged Grace to talk to Elizabeth, certain she could hear her baby girl’s voice.
Yet, nothing prepared Grace for the woman she saw.
Elizabeth lay in a hospital bed, bloated and gray, looking naked without her jewelry. Her blood pressure sank deathly low. When Grace took her mom’s hand, it felt cold and smooth like rubber.
Still, Grace told Elizabeth about her prom date. She offered to bring Your Pie pizza. She promised to color Elizabeth’s hair when she got home.
Tears puddled at the edges of her mother’s eyelids.
The next morning, her family told her the truth.
You know your mother has not been a happy person for a very long time ...
Elizabeth had committed suicide. She’d overdosed on her blood pressure medication.
Her organs had failed.
They would remove her from life support that day.
There were times, writing and talking with Mr. Hammes in class, that Grace broke down. They’d step into the hallway and talk.
He always urged her to be honest about what had happened and how she felt.
Whether she shared her words with the world was her choice.
But the writing process offers catharsis. It can clarify and sort confusion, as many of her close-knit School of the Arts writing peers knew from sharing their own journeys during intensive workshops.
“It takes bravery to be a writer,” Hammes told her. “You have to be honest here. Not only will it be a better story but it also will be good for you. Writing can benefit the reader, but also the writer.”
After a good four or five full revisions during her senior year, Grace wrote “To Elizabeth” as a long letter to her mother, one that she would share publicly in her book, if not ever with Elizabeth herself.
In it, Grace writes about watching her mother move out of their home.
She writes about her dad becoming the single parent of two middle schoolers, a special needs child and 5-year-old Grace.
And she writes words she wishes she could say today, ones of thanks. And of pieces missing.
She writes about wishing her mother could do her makeup for the prom, like she had promised.
A faithful Catholic, Grace also writes about praying the rosary over Elizabeth before they removed life support on April 5, 2012. It was Holy Thursday, the day Christians commemorate Christ’s last supper.
Hail Mary, full of grace…
Grace was having a bad senioritis day when she found out Mr. Hammes was looking for her.
“To Elizabeth” had won the top prize, a gold medal, in the prestigious national Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.
Oh, and Grace also won its New York Life Foundation scholarship of $1,000. The prize goes to students dealing with grief and loss.
Oh, and she would be going to New York, Carnegie Hall in particular, to receive her prizes. First lady Michelle Obama would send video well wishes. Usher and Sarah Jessica Parker would be on hand.
“I was just so amazed and so proud of Grace,” her father, Michael, says.
Several weeks ago, Grace and her dad went to New York with hundreds of other top student artists and writers, including 13 of her School of the Arts peers.
“It was surreal,” Grace recalls. “I couldn’t stop smiling the whole time. I just couldn’t believe I was there.”
“So It Goes” is a collection of fiction and nonfiction short stories dealing with loss.
Many are composites drawn from Grace’s experiences, including the near-death of her cousin, musician Nick Collins III, who was hit by a tractor trailer in 2012 several months after Elizabeth died.
“I was just losing all hope,” Grace recalls.
So, she wrote about it.
She wrote about grappling with God and prayer and why Nick, and would he live?
And she wrote about Nick living and how God really did hear her prayers.
Now, with “So It Goes”self-published, and with Grace a new high school graduate, she will attend Charleston Cosmetology Institute with a goal of joining her uncle’s salon in Mount Pleasant.
She also plans to continue writing about life on the side.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.