Collage Essay Exercise

Prompt: Write five separate events in your life that feel somehow related. (It’s fine—even good—to select them from other work you’ve written.) But take them and start each section with “I am ____ years old.” Continue from there and stay in the present tense.  

I am ten years old. My grandfather’s diagnosis ripples through the family. Pancreatic Cancer. He’s been caring for my steadily declining grandmother for five years, helping her to the bathroom because she can no longer do it on her own, helping her walk, spending their afternoons at a card table dedicated specifically to 500 to 1000 piece puzzle sets. Her body doesn’t listen to her brain, and her hands shake shake shake shake all the time. The smokers are regulated to smoking outside—something they haughtily had never thought they’d be subjected to, despite the obvious risks of second-hand smoke—because Grandma is on oxygen. Grandpa stops using the bathroom and his stomach starts to swell. He looks like he’s pregnant. At first, the doctors say it’s related to the poor circulation in his legs, but even at ten, I know that’s a strange and stretched medical connection. It’s weeks before he’s told he has cancer, and he immediately declines chemotherapy. He spends a week sitting on the front porch with my mother, smoking weed; it’s the only way he can keep food down. He is admitted into the hospital for chemo because Grandma begs him to.

“Grandpa will be home soon,” I’m told.

“Yeah, in a pine box,” I reply, because no one wants to address the possibility of him not coming home. Grandpa never came home.


I am sixteen years old. I’m forced to tell the vet that I’m going to euthanize my dog. Ginger is my best friend and companion, has been since I was four, and after the loss of my grandparents, after being banished to Kissimmee to live with a father who didn’t really want me, Ginger is my last connection to the life I loved and lost when my grandparents died. Ginger was a gift from my grandfather, one of the single greatest gifts he had given me outside of his unconditional love, and again, I’m saying goodbye. Ginger’s decline is steady through hurricane Frances, her howls of pain mimicking the howling of the wind. And the moment the storm settles, my father and I load her into his car and take her to the emergency vet. There, I’m informed that her kidneys are failing, she’s dehydrated, she’s in pain. My father, unwilling to decide the fate of my beloved companion, leaves the decision to me. It’s my signature on the dotted line that allows them to sedate Ginger, that forces her to relax. She stares up at me with her big, brown eyes, always so full of love and trust, and I wonder if a dog’s memory is as full and detailed as a human’s. I wonder if Ginger remembers as many of our adventures when she looks at me as I do when I look at her. Her tail thumps weakly, and I pet her head, kiss along her snout, tell her it’s going to be okay. The staff attaches the IV, tell me that this second injection will make her go to sleep. But her eyes never close. They stay locked on mine, and I don’t look away. I can’t look away. My grandfather died away from me in a hospital bed. My grandmother the same. I didn’t get last goodbyes with them, and I would not be denied this with my dog. She stays awake, despite the medication, and I don’t know if it’s fear or strength that keeps her with me in those moments. A gentle nuzzle to my hand, her nose still wet and cold as it’s always been. The IV is filled with a pink fluid—this is the medication that will stop her heart. I put my hand on her chest, lower my face to hers so our foreheads are touching, and I pet her, tell her it’s okay, tell her that I love her. The way my hand rises and falls on her chest slows, and with my face so close to her nose, I can both hear and feel her breathing slow. I kiss her one last time, and watch as—quite literally—the light leaves her eyes. It seems such a cliché—I’d read it in books about death, physical or spiritual, about how ‘the light leaves the eyes.’ But one moment she’s there, looking back at me with all the love and compassion that only a dog can give, that only a life-long companion such as she could ever give, and the next she’s gone. Her eyes, once bright and a heralding of wagging tail and wet kisses, now vacant and empty, cold marbles in the sockets of her skull.


I am eight years old. Or about, anyway. My mother and I are returning home from some errand when we spot a dog running along the side of a busy road. It’s a German Shepard, as my mom mentions, and she pulls the car over. Stories of her childhood, images I conjure whenever I hear them, superimpose themselves over the real-time visual of my mom calling the dog, collecting the dog, and leading it into the back seat of the car. My mom had a German Shepard growing up, a beautiful dog named Princess of whom I’ve only ever seen old photographs. This German Shepard doesn’t look quite like Princess, but it’s been a while since I’ve looked at the photos. The dog is friendly, ears perked and tail wagging, as we take it back home. We attached to the chain wrapped around the big oak tree in the back yard, give it food and water, and my mom starts making phone calls. I split my time between the new dog outside that I’m reminded we definitely can’t keep, and the dog I’ve always had—Ginger—inside. Ginger hates the new dog, lays by the glass sliding door that leads to the backyard and growls, hackles raised. She’s even less pleased when I come in smelling like the other dog, having pet it during my time in the yard. Eventually, the novelty of the new dog wears off—it’s hot and there are bugs outside—so I occupy myself with something in my bedroom. That’s when the barking starts. I’m concerned, because it’s Ginger that’s barking—so clearly my dog that I’m actually scared. Had she gotten outside? The sound is certainly coming from outside. My mother is nonplussed, but I rush to the door where I last saw Ginger, the barks louder and clearer than before. When I find her, I watch in a mix of shock and horror as the same sound—the same exact bark, the same intonations, the same pitch—come out of both Ginger’s mouth, and the mouth of the dog outside, muted by the glass of the door.

“Why do they sound the same?” I ask my mom; she’d come to see what all the commotion was when the barking hadn’t quieted.

“Ginger’s part German Shepard,” she tells me. “So she sounds like a German Shepard when she barks.”

I realize then that dog voices are not like people voices: unique to the individual. They are unique to the breed. And my dog, the mutt, the Shepard mix, sounds like a German Shepard in all of its police dog, guard dog, I’m-going-to-rip-your-face-off ferocity. At least it explains why delivery guys shy away when Ginger barks at the sound of the doorbell.


I am twenty-five years old. My new husband of just about six months is a newly commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Air Force. He’s stationed at Naval Air Station Pensacola (N.A.S. Pensacola), and it’s my first time visiting him since he’s settled into the apartment we’ll share on the base. Supporting two house-holds has left us strapped for cash, but like the early days of our relationship, when we were broke college students and I was freshly kicked out of my father’s house, we spend our time exploring the area and taking advantage of free activities. One day, we decide to visit the National Naval Aviation Museum—a free museum located on the base and just minutes from our apartment—because, well, airplanes are cool, and we both love to learn, regardless of the subject. The museum is a pair of hangers filled to the brim with to-scale models of various planes, and some small, quartered off sections dedicated to specific exhibits. My husband fills my ears with history lessons he’s learned during his Officer Training School, what he’s researched on his own, and the legacy he’s pledged his life to be a part of: The U.S. Air Force.

“So the Marines have always worked with the Navy?” I ask as we pass a set of jets, each with shark’s faces painted on the front. Anything that carries a pilot is huge when you stand beside it, and I feel very very small.

“Yeah,” he answers. He knows why I ask, because we’ve been together for nearly a decade and he knows me. My grandfather served in the Marines. It’s a point of pride for me, and always has been. “Much the same way the Air Force became its own branch from the Army, the Marines became their own branch from the Navy, though the Marines still work on and within naval operations. The Air Force kinda does its own thing.”

When we come across a set of fighter jets, I read the plaque and learn that these planes served and were used during the Korean War. My grandfather served in the Korean War. In the Marines. As an airplane mechanic. Suddenly, my eyes are brimming with tears and I’m crying in the middle of a giant hanger filled with planes that my grandfather may or may not have worked on, touching replicated metal he may or may not have had to repair when he served—I’ll never know for sure, because his stories and histories are jealously horded by his children, none of whom I speak with. I wipe my face and keep my hand on the plane—because it’s a museum where I’m allowed to touch the displays. It’s the closest I’ve been to my grandfather in over fifteen years.


I am twenty-five years old. My German Shepard puppy, Casey, is only about five months old, and she’s already as big as my four-year-old Shiba Inu, Rory. They spend their days on the patio, both hardly able to see over the metal siding that supports the screens, but both excited to watch the birds, the squirrels, and the ducks in the pond. Casey is a sable German Shepard, the shades of brown, tan and black in her coat bleed together like a tortoise shell cat. As a puppy, she’s mostly fluff and undercoat, so she’s more gray, like a baby hyena, than majestic Rin Tin Tin lookalike. When I leash her up to walk her, she pulls, and I can feel the vibrations of a growl I can’t hear as they shake the collar around her neck and, in turn, the leash in my hand. She’s spotted something near the edge of the pond—a wounded ibis with a broken leg, from what I can tell—and she doesn’t like it. She’s tentative as I lead her to the grass near the pond, assuring her that it’s okay, that it’s just a bird, that’s she’s fine. I don’t think Casey believes me, because her hackles raise, and she braces herself in the grass, small paws digging into the soft earth. Her silent growl grows, and the leash in my hand trembles. Then, from the depths of her very German Shepard soul, Casey unleashes a bark several octaves lower than the puppy yips I’ve grown accustomed to. It’s a Big Dog Bark, as I call it. And it sends the wounded ibis fluttering across the expanse of the pond, fleeing for its life. For good measure, Casey releases a few more booming barks, sounds more appropriate for a dog two to three times her current size. I laugh. I praise her. I pick her up and hold her. Dog voices are specific to the breed, not the individual, and I haven’t heard Ginger’s voice in years.