Signs of Life: A Memoir of Resilience

My sis-in-law Natalie Taylor's Signs of Life is out in paperback now! Here is my essay originally published in CultureMap for the release of the hardcover.

Signs of Life: Widowed with a newborn at 25, my sis-in-law survived through strong family ties.  

04.17.11Click to Order

By Ellie Knaus

I joke that I married my husband for his family. They’re remarkable characters as illustrated in my sister-in-law Natalie Taylor's new memoir Signs of Life. Natalie was a 24-year-old high school English teacher and expecting her first child when her husband passed away. Her memoir is an inspiring, honest, and laugh out loud funny account of her nearly simultaneous crash-courses in widowhood and motherhood. 

It takes a village to raise a child. Natalie assembles a stellar cast. Her parents, siblings, in-laws, and friends help her cope and raise her son. This is how I was inducted into that village before Natalie knew she'd need one:

I met a boy in a bar in L.A. in May. He took me to meet his family in Michigan in June. Dad/Vito is a burly man with a thick mustache (to hide hockey scars) and punishing bear hugs. Mom/Lynn is a natural beauty with enthusiasm to spare, who keeps her figure by mowing the lawn while rocking out to her iPod.They were college sweethearts, and after raising four kids, they're still crazy for each other.

The moment I first stepped into their home, I thought: So, this is what Dorothy was prattling on about! Fridge photos were proof of all the happy moments: Homecoming dances, college graduations, his sister Natalie and brother-in-law Josh dancing at their wedding the December before. It was clear this was a magic family. I wanted to be adopted immediately. A month later, we were engaged.

Over the next year, we planned our wedding. I asked my husband's three sisters to be my bridesmaids. We chose baby-bump friendly empire-waist bridesmaid dresses as Natalie, the middle sister, was expecting her first child. Adam asked his sisters' husbands to be his co-best men. The ceremony would be a family affair on top of Aspen Mountain.

And then, our lives came to a halt. Josh fell and hit his head while carveboarding (a modified skateboard used to practice snowboarding and surfing). He was pronounced dead at age 27 on Father’s Day with a baby boy on the way. With six weeks until our wedding, my new family was broken. 

Natalie addressed over a thousand people at Josh's memorial. She stood in a black maternity dress and read the following:

…My older brother Adam is getting married this July. A few months ago Adam and his fiancée Ellie created a website featuring all of the wedding party with small, concise biographies. Josh’s biography reads as follows:

QUESTION: If Superman and the Flash raced to the end of the Universe, who would win? ANSWER: Josh Taylor. Yes, the groom’s Brother from Another Mother is a superhero. If Lance Armstrong, Indiana Jones, Jack Bauer, Emeril, and the cast of Jackass had a baby—a blond barrel-chested baby who was addicted to Moomer’s ice cream—it would be Josh or Diz (or “Dizzle” if you’re addressing him formally).

Anytime our wedding came up, all I could think was who wants to toast to love and eat cake? Happily ever after? What a joke.

I thought maybe we should postpone the wedding. I didn’t have cold feet. I felt the opposite of cold feet. Natalie mentioned building a family compound. That wasn't radical enough for me. I wanted to build a commune where we would not only live together, but where I could monitor where everyone was at all times. The Sztykiel's basement would do. Walls could be padded. All risk would be averted. Not even driving would be allowed.

But then, one evening, I logged onto our wedding website for the first time since the accident. There was one single new comment on the guest page. From Josh... He had posted it just days before he passed. For the first time, I read about how he couldn't wait for our wedding. He wrote how he planned to rent a bike to screech down the mountain after the ceremony. He signed the post “Dizzle.” Josh believed in love and family and living big. He did not believe in padded walls and safety nets. 

The note was his blessing. It was a sign. 

Six weeks later, I married the Sztykiels on top of a mountain. I was just beginning my marriage and Natalie was seven months pregnant and a widow. She wore her plum chiffon bridesmaid dress, gripped a bouquet of poppies, and forced herself to smile in the wedding portraits. She did it for us. You could feel our family's raw love for one another. I took a vow that I would cherish these people as dearly as Josh had. 

Over the next year, Natalie kept a journal as a means of dealing with her grief. Her memoir Signs of Life emerged from these entries. It overflows with wonderful characters from literature, pop culture, and the suburbs of Detroit. It’s a window into the world of my magic family and a testament to their resilience. You will laugh and cry with them and wish they were your family too.

It's true: I totally married my husband for his family.

[Signs of Life is available at Target, bookstores, and on Amazon ($10.20).