Application Essay: Anna's Absinthe
Anna's essay responds to the Common App instruction, "Evaluate a significant experience and its impact on you." If you're not hooked by the first sentence, you're a dirty liar.
“It’s Absinthe-should we try it?” my mother replied in her theatrical voice. My throat tensed, unsure if it should start choking or emitting hysterical laughter. Pensively, she twisted off the top of the crystalline vial and poured small drops of the emerald venom into two small glasses. We cheered; I stared at the liquid in my hand, put it just to my lips so it barely brushed my tongue, and quickly set the glass down. I watched my mother take a real sip and look at me with dazzling eyes and a grin to match, as if that was all it took to say, “That’s right Cancer: to hell with you.”
My mother was a dancer in her former life, a pirouetting silhouette of energy and spunk, qualities that eventually faded during my childhood. I cannot remember the exact moment when I began losing her; perhaps it was when she stopped wanting to wake up. I would put my whole weight into heaving her to an upright position, but I could see she would give anything to return to her slumber. She found another way to escape reality with a time-share in Greece that led to several extended vacations with ambiguous starts and ends. “I want to spend Christmas with people that care about me,” I still remember her saying when I was 12. “None of your business,” she retorted, a few months later, when I inquired where she would be the following weekend. It was the morning after (I still have the scratch-a-day calendar May 4th, 2006 slip in my drawer) that I decided to abandon her like she abandoned me. I stopped pretending that this was normal behavior for a mother; I stopped pretending that I could endure another description of how blue the Aegean is. So I woke up in stealth, at 6 am, and creaked her door open to take one last look at my mother, a ghost of the woman I used to know, a troubled grimace forever installed in her lips, and departed, leaving behind my home and my childhood.
The second Sunday of every May, known to the masses as Mother’s Day, became my second most dreaded day after May 4th. It was the day after Mother’s Day, just a week past two years of living solely with my father, when I received the first email from my mother that ended a nine-month drought. Time seemed to stop as I read. My fingers numbed, and I found myself unable to inhale; I crippled to the ground as if my feet had fallen through the floor. I lay choking in a ball for what seemed like hours but was only several minutes. I looked up at the only two words I read from the email: Breast Cancer.
“Save her,” I begged to my father; save the woman who threw our lives into an eternal hurricane. If it were not for my words, my father admits he would have sat back in satisfaction of karma, but it was me- so he made a call to a friend with connections at Sloan Kettering Hospital in Manhattan. My mother, with severe stage four cancer, would have her surgery in a record six weeks.
We started our relationship over, my mother and I. She looked different: thinner, dyed hair, trendy clothing. She moved into an apartment in my neighborhood, the Upper East Side, and we saw each other nearly every day. Every ounce of resentment I had evaporated from my mind and I poured all my positive energy into my mother’s wellbeing. I held her hand as we walked into the hospital at 4 am for her first surgery that June. Afterwards, I was the only person to sit by her bed, a helpless mound of skin and anesthesia. Months later, as the demon progressed, I helped her draw on eyeliner and paste on fake eyelashes, and told her how beautiful she looked in her various wigs. I held her hand again after her first chemo session in January, suppressing my anxious tears -maybe all this won’t work- as I stared at the zombie before me.
I have been living with my mother three months now, an unexpected twist in the saga that is my life- and it has been the most stable three months I can remember. Like I had done for her two years ago, she was the only one to step up to the plate when I found myself in a hole. I don’t know if I’ve fully exonerated my mother for all that she’s done; that may take my whole life. I will confront the issues at some point, but for now, I am enjoying this rare period of peace, and the sight of my mother dancing once again.
Brava, Anna. This is an accomplished piece of writing. You know how to tell a story, and you choose details like a novelist. The absinthe, the scratch-a-day calendar, the cutting remarks that still stick with you—these make your essay spring to life. I'm also very impressed with your structure, which I consider unimprovable.
A few suggestions to consider as you revise:
Excise melodrama. Your calm observations are so good, so original ("a helpless mound of skin and anesthesia") that they make your occasional lapses into melodrama ("unsure if it should start choking or emitting hysterical laughter") or cliche ("time seemed to stop") all the more noticeable. Simplifying your language will go a long way towards scrubbing out the purple. Instead of "I could see she would give anything to return to her slumber," make it "I could see she would give anything to go back to sleep." Instead of "a troubled grimace forever installed on her lips," go with "a permanent grimace on her lips."
Perfect the language. You probably mean "crumble" (not "cripple") to the ground. I know what you're getting at when you say "he would have sat back in satisfaction of karma," but the language is imprecise. "Exonerated" isn't used correctly. A few other phrases need work, too—I'll leave them for Sparklers to point out. Your grammatical triumphs far outweigh your missteps; smooth out the bumpy patches, and you'll really have something special here.
Tell. I get the feeling you've internalized the old creative writing order, "Show, don't tell." You show beautifully, and that's something to be proud of. But I would do a little more telling, perhaps at the end of the essay. You've drawn a vivid picture of the significant experience. Now explain how the experience impacted you. You say you're not sure you've forgiven your mother—great. Expand on that, and tell us more.
What's your advice for Anna?