ANNIE — A SHORT STORY

It’s a quirky thing about people that when they know your name, they think they know you. Mrs. Biggs, for example. Every church has a Mrs. Biggs, middle-aged, nosy as all get out and entirely without shame. You know her; we all do. But when you belong to a family like mine, notorious throughout the churchgoing populace of a small town, there’s no keeping her nose out of the latest dirt.

She cornered me on the Sunday after it made the Saturday morning headlines. “You’re the Montgomery’s girl,” she said, her eyes zeroing in on me like a pair of headlights. All I could see was how much sharper her nose appeared when she stared like that. “I know all about your sister, dear. You poor thing. You must be traumatized. I must give you the name of my therapist. She’s wonderful and has the cheapest rates of anyone in town. It would be good for you, dear. Being the sister of someone who was murdered, well, it’ll leave you scarred for life, I just know it. Oh my, how tragic.” She dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief and I truly couldn’t distinguish if she was a brilliant actress or just oblivious. I stared at her with one of my expressions of unfiltered disdain that always earned me an elbow to the ribs from my mother. But I couldn’t respond even if I wanted to—which I didn’t. She knew nothing, not even my name. I walked away, comforting myself with thinking about how unattractive she looked in her too tight dress that revealed every lump and roll (of which there were plenty, I must add).

“For real,” my mother huffed on the drive home, “why can’t you believe in people more? They have good intentions. Why not let them get to know you?”

But that’s just it, I wanted to scream. They aren’t trying to know me. They’re like the Eeyore cross-stitch I did when I was five; the front, a perfect facade of grays and good intentions but on the back, the mess of knots and threads reveal the true motives that create it. I always felt like I saw life inside out with the tangles facing outward, obscuring my view.

Mrs. Biggs died of an aneurysm on Christmas Eve. At the service that night, she had put a hand on my shoulder, going on and on about what a difficult Christmas this must be and that she’d pray for the peace of God to be on me and my family as we grieve our loss. I didn’t look at her, just shimmied out from beneath her grasp and grabbed a slice of coffee cake off the dessert table. I got an elbow in the ribs but I didn’t care. It wouldn’t change my mind or put Mrs. Biggs’ nose back on her face and out of my life.

During the eulogy, I was on my phone, changing my name on all my social media accounts. Girl with the Murdered Sister, Just Another Traumatized Teenager, Blank. If my name didn’t matter, then I’d go without. By the time the punch was served, I was a nameless blob with a story that everyone knew about but no one cared to know.

My parents soon gave up calling me by my name. In fact, everyone seemed to talk to me less and less as time passed, I suppose, because they didn’t know how to relate to me anymore. I was like a book with a missing title page; it confused people who picked me up off the shelf and rendered me beyond comprehension. They didn’t realize though, that my story was still intact, with characters, plot and a good twist that readers never see coming.

Without a name, I was like the label on my bottle of antidepressants. I was only what happened to me, not who I was on the inside. To Mrs. Biggs, I was the sister of the murdered girl. To my parents, I was the headstrong teenager. And when I went searching for love and found a night with the high school quarterback, I became the teen mom.

The only thing I was asked more than if I was going to marry the father—which was an emphatic no since he blocked my number after I texted him a photo of the positive pregnancy test—was what I was going to name the baby. I got everything from Allison to Abcde. I just rolled my eyes and spouted my automatic reply: “I won’t know until she’s born.”

“You have to think about it before she arrives,” my mother said, flipping through a name book as fat as my expanding belly. “It won’t just come to you, not when you’re sweating and exhausted from a 24-hour labour.” She handed me the book, waving her hand across the highlighted page. “I think these would be just gorgeous.” I snapped it shut without even glancing at my mother and got up to waddle off toward the kitchen.

Talk about being exhausted. Was no one else thinking about how a sixteen-year-old was planning to pay for diapers and childcare while she tried to finish high school? Whether my daughter had a three or a ten-digit identity tag meant nothing if I couldn’t provide for her. Yet, it was the name that mattered most. I groaned. I would never be known as anything other than a name, and neither would my baby.

I was due on the first anniversary of my sister’s murder. My contractions were coming twenty minutes apart but I figured I still had time to visit her grave before getting dragged to the hospital. I walked down the path, reading the names and dates on the headstones I passed. I paused by the headstone of Aldis McCain, born 1941, died 1959. He was the same age as my sister. And all that was left of him was a name. I knelt down and felt the cool stone beneath my palm.

“You’re more than a name,” I said. “You have a story, and I hope you had someone who cared to read it.”

Next to Aldis was a grave with a blank headstone. There was just a date of death written: November 27, 1919. I wondered who lay interred there; maybe a World War I veteran, or maybe it was a boy who died of pneumonia in his mother’s arms. Whoever it was, they had a story, even if we didn’t know it.

Why was I the only one who understood that? I touched the nameless headstone, and let the first tear slide down my cheek since she died. I prayed—maybe to God, maybe to something else, I didn’t know—that no matter if everyone else only remembered her name, I would remember her story and be brave enough to tell it as long as I lived. She would never be forgotten.

I almost delivered my baby in the cemetery that day. That sure would have made the headlines, I thought, and I smiled thinking of how Mrs. Biggs would have been all over that. But I managed to waddle back to the parking lot where my frantic mother drove way too fast toward the emergency entrance of the general hospital. And there I was, sprawled out on a bed, pushing and panting. But as she came out, I came into something, something that I hadn’t expected. This new world of being a mother was a bewildering mess and it would only get messier. But I promised myself that my baby would not be only a name, but a tapestry of everything she loved—everything she hated, dreamed about, failed at, and all that comes with living a beautiful, messed up life. Her name was only a small piece. She would grow to be much more than just a name. And I knew exactly what it would be.

When the nurse asked me for a name for the birth certificate, I said, “Annie.” She smiled and I felt my mother sigh with relief from across the room. Life was normal again.

But joke’s on them. Annie is short for Anonymous.

LOOK UP! — FINDING GOD WHEN I FEEL BLIND

Starlight Serenade

Sing, oh ye stars above!
Sing upon this earth with love.
Sing thy song with beauty inlaid
Sing your starlight serenade.

Sing to those who lie awake
Sing for the brokenhearted’s sake.
Sing a lullaby for those afraid
Sing your starlight serenade.

Sing to shine thy Father’s light
Sing to give His strength and might.
You’re fearfully and wonderfully made
So sing your starlight serenade.

© Rhianna McGregor

It was a seventeen-year-old Rhianna that wrote Starlight Serenade, sitting in the window of the spare bedroom at midnight. The cul-de-sac was silent except for the lone cricket singing his own serenade into the night. A neighbour’s fountain was trickling and if I settled my thoughts and stilled my heart, I could almost believe that I could hear the ocean. But what I heard above all this was the night itself speaking to me.

It was my escape and my safe place. In high school, when my life was shaken up like a snow globe and didn’t know how to settle, I turned to the night as a means to cope. The spare bedroom beside mine, which once belonged to my brother before he left for college, offered me a window ledge wherein I would sit, wrapped in a blanket with the window open all the way and only a screen separating me from the outside world. The breeze was gentle, constant, and I always wondered what the wind had seen; had it come from the sea, or had it visited someone else who was up late, crying over a broken heart? No matter what I was going through, the night was always there.

Most nights found me in the window, praying, crying, writing poetry, or a mix of all three. It was here that, all at once, I felt whole and distinctly broken, lost but safe at home, abandoned yet I was wanted.

It was where I met God.

But there was a catch. As with all things beautiful, they are never without heartache.

Here, my heart ached because in the silent beauty of night, I was acutely aware that I couldn’t see it. Here, I was blind and there was no escaping the truth. I couldn’t lift my eyes to the sky and get lost in the sea of stars, too numerous to count. I couldn’t make friends with the man in the moon, nor wish upon a shooting star like I had as a child.

I was blind. And my body knew it. This article discusses phantom eye syndrome, a condition classified by the presence of phantom vision, phantom pain or phantom sensations that individuals who have had one or both eyes enucleated can experience. In the years since my eyes were removed, I have often felt like I fit into the category of phantom sensations. But whether I am clinically accepted as experiencing phantom eye syndrome or not, I do not know, but what I do know is how it feels to want to see and not be able to.

I describe this sense of “feeling blind” to my friends and family as reaching for something but you come up short every time. Your fingers graze the edge, you strain and stretch to grasp the thing you so desperately want, but you can’t. It’s just a little too far, and no matter what you do, you won’t be able to reach it.
This is how my eyes feel. They want to see, and it’s almost as if they believe that in trying hard enough, they will. But they can’t. No matter how much they strain to encompass the visual world, they can’t.

But don’t think that I move through every moment of my life feeling this yearning to see that will never be satisfied. There are a handful of circumstances that I’m aware trigger these phantom feelings. And when they arise, I get myself into wide, open spaces. These phantom feelings aren’t dissimilar to claustrophobia in that I feel trapped in small spaces, so fields, beaches, even empty streets can help to alleviate the anxiety.

Here is a brief list of those circumstances:

  • The night sky
  • The sea
  • Looking through photo albums

Feeling blind doesn’t stop me from going stargazing or reminiscing over old photos. But I do keep mindful of its weight which at times, can be very heavy.
It reminds me that I am different
It reminds me that I am missing out on an entire sense and world of experiences that many people take for granted.
It reminds me that the visual memories I rely on to build new ones are quickly fading with time, and I’m working with limited resources that cannot be replenished.

But it reminds me too, that it won’t always be like this. CS Lewis said that “if I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

Being outdoors in the middle of the night is when I always feel closest to God. And I often wonder if that something that I’m reaching for but cannot grasp yet is God himself. I am a fallible human, incapable of grasping the truth of who God is and what His plans are for my life. I cannot grasp the ways of God or understand His thoughts in the midst of my humanity. Isaiah 55:8-9 says that “for my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. / For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

And when I look up into an endless sea of stars, I am reminded that the world is so much bigger than I am. And so is my God.


Is feeling blind frustrating? Absolutely, it can be. I believe that it is a physiological response to the trauma my little body endured at five years old. But can it point me to the one who is bigger than my blindness, more powerful than my problems, and in control of whatever happens in my life?

Yes. And that’s what I try to remember when the blindness overwhelms me and I cannot reach what I’m so desperately searching for. I take a breath, tell myself that it’s okay to feel it, and channel the overwhelm into my heart’s yearning for eternity with God. There, I will see Him and that’s the truth that keeps me going for my time here on Earth.