you stood in the cul-de-sac and smacked tennis balls into the air, calling out Metro-Astro-Carrier-King-Super as you sent the balls sequentially higher, a difficult progression I had to catch in perfect order; if I closed my glove too early the ball slipped off my fingers and I was sent back to the beginning; I didn’t want to leave until I got them all correct, until the mission was complete; when am I going to lose           

you loved This Old House and always asked me if I could play the theme song yet, but of course I couldn’t because I only learned what I was taught; I schemed for years about the day I’d make my wedding DJ download the obscure mp3, but as we came together for the father/daughter dance and those wooden clarinet notes tumbled out of the speakers, you just spoke to assure me you’d gone to the ATM in case guests needed cash for the dollar dance; I had to tell you we weren’t doing one; we had both prepared, as always, for outcomes that never came to pass; if I only do what I am instructed, when am I going to lose

you were a sprinter and so was I; we sat side by side on the sofa, still comparing thigh bones the way we did when I was a teen; you told me about your track coach’s funeral; one of your old teammates had gained forty pounds, another one hundred, but you cinched the same belt you’d worn for forty years; I surreptitiously hoisted my jeans to hide my long-past-postpartum stomach; I used to burst off the starting blocks but always burned out after the first fifty yards; no race is only fifty yards; no woman’s body naturally remains slender; after I’d birthed every one of your granddaughters, your gaze fell to my waist like when am I going to lose

you said something, once, about a temptation you almost gave into, but you went to a Bible study that night and the verse was exactly what you needed to hear; I have run every snare through my Rolodex of a brain, knowing there is something that nearly made you lose your restraint; I continue to lector at Mass, the gift I gave you to honor your birthday, internalizing each verse about control and dreading when am I going to lose          

you told me I couldn’t imagine how little you knew your own father, but he died when you were fifteen; I’ve known you for more than twice that lifespan; you told me you were more like your mother but how could you be sure; when you got rheumatoid arthritis I watched for Heberden’s nodes to swell on my finger-joints; I have seen my future; you have outlived your own father’s death-age, so when am I going to lose

you had a postcard of your hometown, a dusky night-view of your city perched on those hills that pushed everyone into the lake; I found the postcard while thrifting and when you unwrapped it on Christmas morning you cried; I’d never seen you cry; Mom told me the methotrexate made you more emotional than usual but I knew I’d been able to remind you of something you worked to forget; a couple years later I saw the postcard in my brother’s dorm room; he said he had fished it out of the trash; I took the postcard from my brother, silently framed and hung it on my dining room wall because there was a time I didn’t ask when am I going to lose


Kristine Langley Mahler is a memoirist experimenting with the truth on the suburban prairie outside Omaha, Nebraska. Her work was named Notable in Best American Essays 2019, received the Rafael Torch Award from Crab Orchard Review, won the 2019 Sundog Lit Collaboration Contest, and has been published in DIAGRAM, Ninth Letter, The Normal School, and The Rumpus, among others. She is the Publisher/Editor-in-Chief at Split/Lip Press. Find more about her projects at or @suburbanprairie.

Photo by Christina Brobby