14. Searching for Purpose


The family emergency event was taken care of and life settled into a routine. I went about my day, went to work, helped out at home, attended church, and spent time with friends. It was far from boring. But it felt so ordinary and bland. It wasn’t anything important. I wanted to make my days count for something significant. There was a desire to do something that made a difference. I longed for something more.


The extreme situations I’d experienced had somehow set a bar. The typical lifestyle that surrounded me just wasn’t enough. People I grew up around lived a predictable life. They didn’t seem passionate or highly motivated about anything. I was acutely aware how short life really was, and it felt like I was wasting it. Shouldn’t there be a purpose besides just getting through life?


Of course, living with family and helping them out was one of the purposes. I knew I couldn’t stay there forever; I would need another purpose. Church didn’t offer much, either. The youth attended church because that’s what was expected; yet nothing of significant value was taught or implemented. It appeared that life existed for chasing one enjoyable thing after another. Watch an entertaining movie. Order a special coffee drink when going for a walk. Explore a new trail. All that was fun, indeed, but it lacked anything meaningful. I longed for something unusual in my life. Whatever it may be.


And miraculously, I stumbled right into it. Aunt Nancy and Uncle Stephen, who resided a few hours away, had kids who were part of a youth group of extraordinary purpose. That group was planning a mission trip to a poor, remote part of Mexico. They had been preparing themselves for months by learning songs in Spanish, having regular prayer meetings, and holding fundraisers for the trip. This was exactly the inspiration I needed!


Very shortly after, I made the transition to live at my cousin’s house. It was too late for me to join the group going to Mexico, but it didn’t matter. I attended every meeting they had, helped out at the fundraisers, and began learning the songs.


It was such a refreshing feeling to be surrounded by young people who had a sense of purpose. A purpose greater than themselves. Their energy revitalized me. They were on a mission to help. They were going to make a difference. There was this incredible energy with this group of young people who were doing something for a greater good.


However, it consisted of a lot of work: purchasing food and household items in bulk to separate them into individual packages, arriving early to prepare meals and desserts to sell at the fundraiser, and remaining late to clean everything up. After that, all the money had to be counted and all the coins had to be rolled up into coin rolls to be taken to the bank. I had never seen such an enthusiastic, unique approach to life. Of course, this youth certainly spent time together trying various coffee drinks and exploring new trails, yet it was a completely different experience. Their daily routine had meaning.


Meanwhile, my job search began. I had enough money in my account to last me a few months, for things such as my phone bill, car payment, and extra spending money. But after filling out dozens of applications without any callbacks whatsoever, I began to get worried. This was not good. I never had trouble with getting jobs before.


One month went by. Nothing.


I expanded my search to temporary job agencies. Towards the end of the second month, I had an interview. Being quite desperate for the job, I arrived an hour early. It seemed more worthwhile to drive around and explore the area. I drove out of the parking lot in my white Honda Civic and thought about how fantastic this job would be. My car had been taken out on a loan, and it was my first major purchase, something I was proud of, but it surely wouldn’t get me anywhere if I couldn’t pay for it. My financial situation was not great. So lost in thought I became, that I also lost track of time. Tires squealing, I popped an illegal U-turn and raced back as quickly as I dared, eyes peeled for any signs of police cars.


I pulled in and parked abruptly. Sweating profusely, I used the deodorant stashed in my bag and avoided looking at the clock. Hopefully my car clock was a few minutes early. Or rather, many minutes early. It wasn’t.


I didn’t get the job.


My hands were bruised from smacking the steering wheel on the drive home. How could I? Argh! I decided to try one more week of regular job applications and then would begin applying at fast food places.


Praise the Lord, another interview was set up for me almost immediately, and I got hired on as a customer service representative in a household appliance shop. It certainly was not a glamorous job, as I had hoped for when originally filling out all my applications, but it sure beat working in a fast food joint. But, as ironic as life can be at times, another opportunity became available just one week later: somebody from the Mexico group had cancelled and that spot was available, if I was still interested.


Of course I was interested! Everything I had been helping out with would be even more significant if I went on the actual trip! People had booked their spot half a year in advance, and I stopped asking when I learned there were no spots available. The only minor little inconvenience with this opportunity was that the group was leaving in two days. What were my chances? It was a shot in a million but only one way to find out. My supervisor was most definitely not impressed with my inquiry.


She looked at me with obvious annoyance. “You do realize you just began working here a week ago, don’t you? Even though I’m extremely supportive of mission trips, the timing is just not going to work. I’m sorry.”


What did I expect? That she would let me go? I gave her a short nod and dragged my feet out of her office, while my brain scrambled frantically for another solution. I waited until my lunch break and called Uncle Stephen.


He sounded surprised, probably because I was calling during working hours, but most likely because I’ve never called him before. “Hello? Is everything OK?”


“Hi, Uncle Stephen, yes, it’s fine; I just have an enormous problem. I really don’t know what to do. I need some help. Do you have a minute?” Before he could say yes or no, I rambled on. “You know how I’ve been so excited about the church mission trip? I really wanted to go but couldn’t but now somebody cancelled and that spot is offered to me and I have just enough money left to pay for that spot. But I also needed a job for so long and finally I got one, but they aren’t letting me take a week off to go on this mission trip. What should I do?” My heart was thumping furiously as I paused for a breath.


There was a gap of a few seconds on the line. Then Uncle Stephen said, “Now, I can’t tell you what to do.”


What? That’s what I needed right now! I desperately needed somebody to tell me exactly what to do, because I didn’t know! That’s precisely why I had called him in the first place!


He went on. “You have to make this decision yourself; it’s your life.” He spoke thoughtfully, selecting each word carefully. “I have a question for you: how often does an opportunity such as a mission trip occur?”


I closed my eyes to focus on the question. My foot was tapping rapidly against the cement ground. I was sure that organizations supporting mission trips existed, not that I knew of any off the top of my head. “Well, I ‘ve never had that opportunity, but it finally presented itself. To me this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”


“Alright. Next question: how often do opportunities for employment occur?”


That was easy. “All the time, just depends what kind of a job.”


“Yes,” agreed Uncle Stephen. “Certain opportunities exist less often, and others more often. Make your decision based on that.” And that was the end of the conversation. It was the greatest advice I’d received in a long time.


I was too chicken to quit in person, so I called it in that evening. Then I began packing for Mexico.


This trip was a critical factor in helping me begin the journey of discovering who I was as a child of God and what exactly my purpose was on this earth.

13. Mission Accomplished


Please understand the need to be vague in this chapter. The intention is not to reveal all the specifics about everyone involved. Some descriptive details have been altered.


When I moved into my sister’s place, a few siblings had already arrived. They were enrolled in the local school district, and Linda was their official legal guardian. That type of paperwork was easier to get taken care of if one was married.


Being at my new job was my favorite part of the day. It was at a bank just down the street, walking distance even. I dressed up in formal outfits. I wore heels. I felt very professional. And to top it off, it felt fantastic to contribute to the family by shopping for groceries and preparing dinners.


These siblings began adjusting to a more normal life now, although it was evident how careful they were with each word they said.


The home they lived in prior had quite a few problems. Some of them included beatings and being yelled at, and perhaps worse of all, a manipulative environment.


If a host parent came home, my siblings were required to very politely greet the person entering and ask how their day went. The next day, if they followed the previous day’s instructions, they would get in trouble because it didn’t sound genuine. It was supposed to be a sincere question, not sounding like a script.

When dinnertime came, they were required to eat all the food options that were offered. A common question would be:


“Would you like seconds?”


And if they answered, “No, thank you,” the snap back would be, “What? Of course you do! You’re hungry! You’d better take these seconds!”


They were quick learners. When seconds were offered, they corrected their answers to “Yes, please.” To which the response was, “Oh you’re hungry huh? Well here you go. And here is some more. Here’s the whole pot, please eat it all.”


Besides dinnertime, they could not be socializing with the kids from the host family. It was school time during the day, and then come home to stay in the room. If it was a warm day, they were to be outside the entire time without bathroom breaks until it was bedtime. They were not allowed to help clean up or tidy up after themselves or after dinner, because that would imply they were somewhat part of the family, which they very clearly were not. The host family would have regular movie nights after they send my siblings to bed.


Once in a while they would receive phone calls. These calls were portrayed in a negative light: family called so rarely because “they don’t care about you” and “nobody loves you”. If a birthday gift or an envelope with some money arrived in the mail, it would be nightmare. What kind of stuff are they telling their siblings? That the host family isn’t providing enough for them? They don’t have enough toys? They don’t have enough money?


If the younger child had an accident at night, the consequence was a shame-filled day. Then a brilliant solution was thought up: put on diapers at night. If the diapers were wet in the morning, they would be placed on top of the head and the child had to sit in the living room for several hours. This way the entire host family would see it, which hopefully would cause enough embarrassment for the child that such accidents would no longer occur. Sometimes it was taken up a notch, and the child had to walk across to the neighbor’s house to say “hi” to the friend that lived there and explain that there had been an accident that night.


The older child came to the rescue and began waking up earlier. If there had been an accident, the dirty laundry would be quietly washed in the bathroom sink so nobody would find out what happened.


Another time the host family went out to visit some friends. They did this periodically, and would only take their biological children and leave my siblings behind. One time my siblings were aware of a new container of chocolate that arrived in the kitchen. Treats and snacks were very difficult to get. If my siblings wanted a treat, they would have to request formal permission. This would result in an interrogation: “Are you hungry? Are we not feeding you enough? Why don’t you eat more during dinnertime instead?” So my siblings chose to avoid getting snacks instead of dealing with the questions.


This time, though, the treats were right there. The temptation was too great to pass up. After everybody was out of the house, my siblings cautiously opened the door of their bedroom, listened carefully to ensure everybody indeed was gone, and made a mad dash for the kitchen. The lid was quickly unscrewed, one shiny wrapped truffle was taken out for each person, and the container was placed back in its exact spot. Unfortunately, each chocolate had been counted prior to the host family’s departure, and when, upon return, the number of chocolates was recounted and turned out to be less, my siblings got in trouble. A disciplinary action for behavior such as this could be a time-out for five hours.


They were carefully coached in the type of responses and behaviors they were to have when outside the home. The outward appearance was a beautifully put-together family unit. The reality was a dysfunctional, fighting family.


Some time passed after this new living arrangement. I received a phone call from another sibling living in Florida. It was brief phone call with a simple message. It was to relay something to me another sibling said. “It happened again.”


My stomach churned and I thought I would vomit. I had allowed myself to stop thinking of the news I learned at Linda’s wedding. The sibling who lived with the Smith family got molested again. I hoped that by ignoring it, the problem would go away. Apparently not. Well, enough is enough. “Tell them to pack their bags. I’ll fly in this week to pick them up.”


This time I wasn’t crying or upset. I was angry. Oh so angry. It was a squinty eyed, quiet, seething type of anger. My fists were clenched until they turned white. I thought about punching the wall in front of me. Two punches. Perhaps a kick for good measure. But then I thought how much it would cost to repair the damage and decided against hurting the wall.


I hopped into the chair in the den corner and turned on the computer. Typed in Expedia, found the ticket prices. Yikes! I compared the prices for the next several days and purchased the least expensive option. Then made a phone call to the original caller to inform of the flight details. It had to be a secret operation. If it were found out, it would get abolished. There would be so much drama. Well regardless, there would be lots of drama. But the less people knew, the quicker it happened, the better it would be. I instructed a backpack with belongings to be packed, and to be ready on Thursday. The sibling on the phone had to call the sibling being molested. But phone calls at the Smith family tended to get listened on, so the conversation had to be in code.


“Hello? Um, yeah, can you come to the mall on Thursday? You need to come to the mall on Thursday.”

“Yes. You need to be ready for the mall on Thursday, OK?”

The host family: “Who is it?”
“Oh, my friend is asking if I can go to the mall.”
“Are you crazy? Of course not!”

To the sibling on the phone, “No, sorry I can’t.” And then in a quiet whisper, “OK, I got it!”


The next two days went by in the same seething, maddening anger. I couldn’t eat. I prayed furiously to God to help with the plan. I tried to use everything I could. Since I wasn’t eating anyways, I told God to use it is a fast, maybe it would help with making my prayer more effective. Maybe God would hear it and move it to the top of His to-do list.


It was time to fly out in the evening. I took the next day off work for “Family Emergency”. One of my siblings arranged somebody to pick me up at the airport and lend a car for the day. Since I arrived at night, it was spent hanging out with that sibling until the next day. The plan was to surprise the Smith family, tell them I came to extract my sibling from the abuse, and leave.


They were surprised all right. Then hysterical.

They got Grandma on the line, shoved the phone in my face, made me try to listen to “reason”.


“Are you out of your mind?!

What are you doing?!

Go back home immediately!

Why are you messing up this family?

They are a good family!

Great leaders in church!

And you’re trying to break this?!

Stop it!!”


At that moment I desperately hoped for some Jackie Chan skills. I imagined him storming into a room, knocking everybody out with a kick, or a punch, taking the prisoner, and escaping before anyone realized what had happened. I ran the scene through my mind again. But, alas, I had no such skills, not even close.


I racked my brain. The Smith parents were standing defiantly with their hands on their hips and saying something. It was an angry blur of the same sentences Grandma had been shouting from the phone. I looked at the phone lying on the ground. Had I dropped it?

I pulled the only string I could.


“Alright then, if you won’t allow me to take my sibling, I’m calling 9-1-1 and we can handle it that way.”


Boom. Instant results. Tone was changed, the conversation calmed down. A discussion took place of specifics. How? When? Would it be too crowded? What about another family? The details were a bit messy but in the end everything worked out. My sibling was pulled from that home. The Smith family later apologized to me personally, after they confronted and confirmed everything was true.


Mission accomplished.


An uncomfortable guilty feeling settled over me. After all, I was the one who had placed the siblings in the homes where they had so much trouble. I tried to ignore the feeling. Maybe it would go away. Focus on the positive. They’re not there anymore.


12. Wedding Bells


As you can tell, I’m here writing these chapters, and everything did not play out how I had planned.


With my choice made, I acted extra cheery to not raise any suspicions.


I had decided to finish my senior year of high school because of the important Senior Project. The whole school made a huge deal about it. Teachers, advisors, you name it. The project had to be presented to faculty, where each person graded the senior according to a rubric. It was an important speech for me, not just because all the seniors were nervous and frantic about it, but also because I wanted to leave a triumphant memory of me.


After my presentation I received the scored rubrics and glanced them over. As expected, all sections were highly marked except for the proper attire. Apparently shirt and jeans wasn’t considered professional. Great, now I’ll know. What caught me off guard was the comment section of each paper. Each faculty member wrote something. Some of the sentences were:


“Overcame adversity and language barrier and never gave up. This young lady will be able to accomplish anything!”

“Will be a good adult. Trust yourself to be able to do good things.”

“You can conquer anything you set your mind to.”


This was so much positivity all at once that I decided to entertain myself for a minute. What would I actually do? What dreams would I pursue? I thought of a class project that occurred a few years prior. Mrs. Wright was an elderly lady, always smiling, and made each student feel like they actually mattered. She gave an assignment to make a bucket list for our life. It took up a whole class period, so students had to think creatively and bounce ideas off each other. I thought of a few items from that list.


Go to the moon.

Learn to speak French.

Run a marathon.

Go camping.

Be a cartoonist.

Climb up Mt. Everest.

Go to college.

Ride a horse.



Maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to think about that. It was distracting. I came home and searched through my box of letters and photos until I found what I was looking for. The bucket list was titled “50 things I want to do B4 I die.” Hmm. Well, for sure graduation was coming up, so that would get checked off. I read the list through.


Get a job. Check.

Go snowboarding. Check.


It seemed appropriate to get a few more items taken care of. Some of my cousins were always up for spontaneous adventures so I called and asked if anybody wanted to go for a limo ride? Or go on a drive to California? A California road trip was planned for a weekend, there and back, switching drivers and driving all night. It was a fun trip: people were nice, it was warm, and the palm trees were beautiful. It turned out to be a brilliant way to get away from reality for the time being, so lots of these road trips took place.


Then Linda shocked us. She was engaged! Quiet and shy Linda. She was my best friend, who I could share my secrets with, and somehow, with me being preoccupied about my own life, I missed how her life was going. I knew she had a boyfriend. What I didn’t know was it had gotten serious and they wanted to get married!


I did not anticipate something like that happening so early. I felt betrayed. She was supposed to figure her life out after I was gone. With the tables turned it made everything more complicated.


They didn’t want to wait years to have a wedding. Plus, in our community if one got engaged, the wedding had better happen within a few months. So be it. The hustle and bustle of wedding preparations took over. Grandparents teamed up with Uncle John and urgently inquired of my wedding plans.


“Your younger sister is getting married before you! How sad. Why are you waiting?”


“Maybe go to California more often, perhaps you’ll find somebody there?”


“We can plan for a double wedding, it’ll be just like your parents!” My parents had a triple wedding, in fact. Three sisters had gotten married in one day. They all wore identical dresses and saved a lot of money by having one gigantic celebration instead of three separate ones.


It was getting a little bit frustrating. Why wouldn’t they leave me alone?


The big week came where family from all over the country arrived. It was a reunion of all the siblings. After sitting in class and working late, I came home to greet the aunts and uncles. Since I wasn’t sleeping much at night due to last minute wedding preparation details, I was tired. My contacts made my eyes dry, and it didn’t help that they were bloodshot. It was a perfect opportunity for some aunts and uncles to take one look at me and make it a subject of their juicy gossip.
“Poor Galina, she’s not doing well at all. Did you see her eyes? And how she acted? Poor girl, she must be on drugs.”


It felt so wonderful to see all my siblings. We hugged and laughed and smiled during the day as we tied the wedding ribbons onto chairs and placed favors by each plate setting. We discussed vague subjects such as school, or remembered memories of when we used to all live together. When I asked how each sibling was really doing, the answer was usually a quick, intense “Good!” with backward glances at the host parents. That’s exactly the answer I gave when they asked me, so it made me wonder. I would need to ask later.


After the adults had fallen asleep, the kids stayed awake late into the night and enjoyed the unlimited chance to talk without supervision. In hushed whispers, the brothers and sisters shared with each other what it was really like to live with another family.


Somebody was being treated like a princess. No chores, no hard work, just take it easy and have as much fun as possible. Lucky!


Somebody was being treated like Cinderella. Since they became the new member of the family, all the chores and cleaning the other kids used to do became her responsibility. How sad!


Somebody else had it made clear that they were not part of the family. No extra snacks, no playing with the kids’ of the host family, stay in your room if you’re at home. Accidentally asked a guest to pass a donut? “Well, that was just not polite, because now the guest thinks you’re not being fed and are going hungry. Fine then. Eat the whole box. Every single donut. We will sit and watch you eat every single donut in that box. Good, until you puke. There, lesson learned.”


That made me sick. And here I thought my life was so bad that the only way out was to end it. The next report made my blood boil.


Somebody was getting molested. To clarify: as in, sexually assaulted.


I couldn’t breathe. This was outrageous! As the oldest sibling, it was my responsibility to take action.


But first, the wedding.


The next morning I plastered a smile on my face, since after all, that’s the job of the maid of honor, and did my best to pretend to enjoy it. It was a long day. Then came the busyness of cleanup and everybody flying or driving to their homes and finally I had a chance to talk to Aunt Jenny.


She sat next to me on my bed and with a horrified face expression listened to what I told her. My shoulders shook as I wept. Aunt Jenny put her arm around me and we sat there crying in disbelief. After a few minutes I blew my nose and wiped my eyes on my already soaked sleeves and begged her to do something. She promised she would talk to Uncle John and grandparents.


The next day we met at the same place again and I eagerly waited to hear what the plan would be. Would somebody fly over there? Confront the perpetrator? Remove the victim?


But Aunt Jenny had a completely different answer. She said it was all a lie. Nothing like that could ever happen in that family. My sibling just missed me and wanted to be with me, so came up with this clever lie to try and get away from the family.


I caught my breath.


“No!” I shook my head furiously. “We’re supposed to do something!”


Aunt Jenny looked at me with pity.

“It’s hard to understand.” She put her hand on my hand. I jerked it away. “You want to believe your sibling. But remember how they were younger? Always goofing around and making stuff up. Why would they tell the truth now? Call them once in a while so they don’t feel like you’re forgetting them. It will be okay.”


And that was it. Aunt Jenny left. I was disgusted. Who in their right mind dismisses information like this?


If Aunt Jenny and Uncle John wouldn’t help, and Grandparents didn’t believe it, who would? What could I do? I couldn’t do anything here, because this wasn’t my house.


I would have to do the rescuing myself. I would have to move out and have my own place. I would need more money.


My will to live rebounded with gusto.


Much to my satisfaction, the temp agency I contacted had some night shifts available at a cereal factory. I picked up every shift I could during the weekends.


After a particularly unfair argument with Uncle John, I decided I’d had enough. It was time to move out. Tossing in my most important belongings into a huge black trash bag, I packed up and left to stay at a friend’s house. After some time, plans were made to move to the greater Seattle area, where we could split rent and have more options.


My bank job was transferred and everything was set. Except that on the day of the move, my friend backed out so I ended up going by myself.


And here I was. Going to work and coming back to this minimalistic style apartment. There was exactly one piece of furniture, the least expensive Ikea bed in the bedroom, and that was it. Oh and some granola bars on the kitchen counter. My whole paycheck was going for rent. There was no money left over for anything else. It was terrifying for me to consider a random roommate and I had no idea what to do.


I sat on the floor of my empty living room, with my back against the wall, and tightened the blanket around me. It was a good blanket. It did an excellent job of keeping me warm. The blank walls in the room stared at me, almost mockingly. Now what? I got this far for what? And for whom? Everything I had been planning was ruined.


My plans for moving out, saving money, helping my siblings, all swirled down the drain. I couldn’t even help myself. I felt like I was back at square one.


After a few difficult months, a critical phone conversation took place with Linda. She and her husband were going to move to a large apartment with several bedrooms. I would move in with them to help pay for bills. There would be an extra room for siblings. We would take the siblings that needed to be taken care of.


I submitted another job transfer request and went to the leasing office to terminate my lease. I had a sense of purpose. I would be the person who helped my siblings.

11. Light at the end of a Tunnel


Aunt Jenny peeked through the door of my room one day, sat me down, and said,

“We need to have a talk.” I tried to imagine what about. I attempted to be on her good side, but I kept messing up the way laundry needed to be done. Maybe I put some bright colors in with the towels again?

She sat next to me to on my bed and looked straight ahead.
“Um, I’m not sure how to do this because I’ve never done this conversation before.”

Okay. Probably not laundry-related.

She took a deep breath and just went for it: “Uncle John and I know that you’re at the age where you will be getting married soon, and boys will be paying attention to you, and they will want to, you know, hug you or hold your hand.” She let the air out and then quickly added, “We would appreciate it if you could tell us when that happens so we could see what kind of a person he is and if he’s from a good family.”

I studied the gray carpet pattern on the floor. Wow. We were so far off from each other. We were definitely not on the same page. We were in completely different chapters. I was in my second relationship at this point, and this one was worse than the first. I had no idea how to end it and who to talk to about it. And if my aunt was struggling bringing up this topic, there was no way I would talk to her about what was really going on.

I was following Uncle John’s lead, thinking that the next step for me was to get married and move on with life. What confused me was that as I was preparing myself for this, and taking steps forward in that direction, the eligible bachelors weren’t even remotely thinking about it! I was being played and I didn’t even know it.

“Well?” Aunt Jenny was speaking to me with an expectant look on her face. Oh. She was waiting for a response from me.

“Ah. Mm-hmm,” I forced my head to move up and down in a nod. “Of course, yeah, I’ll let you two know.”

A look of relief flooded her face and she jumped to her feet. It was almost as if she was expecting me to share something and was dreading it. “Good talk!” She smiled and left my room.

An unraveled piece from the carpet interrupted the pattern I was following. Nothing could last forever, not even heavy string meant to stay in its place. It wanted to get out from its confinement. It didn’t like being in carpet mode. I felt glad for the string. Good for it, it got out. I wanted to get out from my situation.

It seemed that more and more things were going wrong in my life. The more I tried to please people, the more I heard what was wrong with me. Wanted to make more friends and join the choir? Turns out I couldn’t sing, couldn’t carry a tune at all. Wanted to get married? Turns out the boyfriends want girlfriends but don’t want to get married. I wanted some validation for who I was, but I kept receiving what I was not. I was not skinny and fit, I was not eating correctly, I was not working at a neat clean job, I did not have beautiful hair, I did not have a pretty name. But, that’s who I was. So everything was wrong with me?

My regular diet of breadsticks began to include pizza. I discovered the ingredients we used at work for it were things I liked, and if the cheese was crispy enough after baking an extra minute or two, pizza was quite the delicious food! That, coupled with weekend binging on donuts with youth groups from church, began taking a toll on my body. I puffed up and expanded and had a handful to hear from my uncle. “Oh no, you have to lose weight! How are you going to get married? Guys don’t like fat girls! You need to go running!”

The regular pimples teens get wouldn’t be so bad if that’s all it was. My face got such an awful case of acne that I went to the doctor for treatment. It became embarrassing to go anywhere. I would stand in front of the mirror and sob as I plastered makeup all over in an attempt to even out the surface of my cheeks and forehead. The reflection I saw made me upset and angry. The anger came out through furious thoughts of “you’re so ugly” and “you’re so fat” and became a daily habit of negative self-talk.

The doctor’s visit was a sprinkling of salt to the wound. He prescribed a birth-control medication that was supposed to affect my hormone levels and stabilize the acne on my face.

“Here’s a prescription for you. Hopefully it starts working so you might have a chance to come back for the real reason of this medication,” he snickered. He probably thought he was being clever and funny, but that was not how a troubled teen saw it.

It confirmed everything I thought; even a doctor, who’s supposed to see all sorts of nauseating things and get used to it, thought I was too ugly to deserve anything normal.

I tried to focus on church. Maybe God would show me something and I’d feel better about myself. Some friends heard about a prayer service two hours away. It was led by an older gentleman, and was in fact called “Grandpa’s Prayer”. I had the privilege of attending a few times with my sister and some friends. It had a lot of young people who appeared to be on fire about God and life and it was so encouraging to see! But alas, since it was so far away, it wasn’t something I could frequent.

The church I attended had prayer services filled with some older people and with some more senior citizens. I was the odd young duck. It felt too awkward and unnatural. I couldn’t fit in. The youth services were there but I knew the people. They appeared one way in church, and acted another way outside of church. The more “churchy” they seemed to be, the further away from the truth that was. I hung out with them. I attended the parties they had. I was handed water bottles that were filled with vodka.

The attitude was: “How far could people go without getting caught?”

I felt sorry for the parents who naively allowed their home to be used for a “gathering” without being aware of the young people almost dying from alcohol poisoning within those walls. I saw trashed people on Saturday who would put on their Sunday best and sing in choir the following day. The most promiscuously behaved were the ones who could get Oscars for putting on such a show in church and be the best of them all. That was the life. It was a double standard or nothing at all.

I hated the double standard. What kind of a life was that, wasting it away on moments that nobody remembered but then tried to glorify? There was no purpose to it.

There was no purpose at all.

There was no purpose to life.

I sat up.

Linda was sleeping in the bed we shared, but she was a sound sleeper. Regardless, I climbed out from under the blanket and made myself comfortable on the floor to continue my thought process.

I was a terrible burden to Uncle John. He stressed out constantly about my whereabouts. He would call me at random times throughout the day to verify where I was, and if he stopped by the college and couldn’t find my car I would need to draw a diagram of the parking lot to show where I had parked, in order to confirm that I wasn’t out doing stupid things that “youth did these days”. He would have this stress eliminated.

Linda would miss me, but it’s not like she would have a shortage of other sisters to choose from if she needed to talk to somebody.

My numbness turned to something cold. Chilling cold. Goosebumps covered my skin. The problems that I had would go away. The problems I created for others would go away, since I was the main problem.

Several tears slowly rolled down my cheeks. I couldn’t believe it came to this. My thoughts tormented me. It would have been so much better for everybody if I had never been born, but since I was, there was only one option left. I would leave life. How did I not realize this earlier? I should have driven faster on my racing days. Should have been more reckless. Well, at least this way I can make a plan, I can have all the details figured out. I can compare different methods and decide which one to choose. Plus, I can say goodbye.

After turning on the light I took out a spiral bound notebook from my drawer and opened to a blank page. I found a pencil in my bag, decided against it and fished for a pen. With trembling hands I scribbled a goodbye letter to Linda, apologizing for not being the good example of a big sister that I should have been. I looked over the letter and couldn’t even read it because the writing was so sloppy. I steadied my hand and rewrote the letter.

Quietly, I tore it out, folded it neatly, and set it aside. Next was a simple apology letter to Uncle John and Aunt Jenny, for messing up their lives with my unpredictability and for being such a burden. I felt each sibling deserved his or her own individual letter, so I wrote that bunch. They probably had great lives with their new families, and wouldn’t even miss me at all.

Each page was soaking up tears that dripped from my eyes. The ones that fell on ink got smudged. I imagined how dramatic it would have been if the tear splats looked more artistic, like watercolor splashes. It would be such a glamorous declaration of my farewell. Geez, how can I even manage to think of that?

A few more letters addressed to friends made it into the pile. I carefully placed the letters inside the notebook and covered it with a few books. It wouldn’t be beneficial if somebody discovered those letters earlier than necessary.

After that I climbed back into bed.

I didn’t feel rushed.

I felt in control.

10. 140 mph


Obtaining my driver’s license had certain freedoms, such as being able to drive myself from one place to another without being chaperoned. I was under strict guidelines to be home after work or school within the amount of minutes it took for the commute. If my shift ended at 9, I had to be home by 9:10. If it was a busy evening and I would have to stay extra, a phone call home was mandatory, with an accurate estimate of how many extra minutes I would be delayed. If I wasn’t on time, I’d have to sit through a lecture about night safety and being a young girl out alone on the road and wouldn’t be able to drive, and would need a ride the next day.


I began timing my drives meticulously. If I hurried and sped the whole way, I cut a minute of my commute. The added risk of getting a speeding ticket kept me on my toes. In fact, it was so thrilling for me that I kept pushing the limit. How quickly can I make that turn? If the recommended speed was 25 mph, could I do 30?

Too easy.

How about 35?

Piece of cake.




That was close. Especially with the car driving in the opposite lane; almost veered into it.


Wow! What a rush! I could feel my heart thumping furiously as a huge grin spread over my face. And thus my drives continued with me attempting to break the records I set for myself.


When I moved in to Uncle John and Aunt Jenny’s house, I had a vague set of expectations. I fantasized about them fitting the roles of my parents. I wanted a father figure who would be interested in my opinion and thoughts, who would tell me I was pretty, who would go driving with me, who would ask me what I learned in school and how I was challenged by it.


I knew he liked donuts. One Saturday morning, before everybody woke up, I whipped up a batch of batter to make deep-fried homemade donuts. Uncle John wasn’t a morning person and being woken up from the greasy smell of oil seeping into the bedroom was not the ideal way to start the day. In fact, he was furious. Well, fine then. I won’t make any more goodies for the household. Why am I even trying? It seemed to me that he cared more about his life and not the stuff I wanted him to care about.


I remembered the quirky couple. Mr. Tee’s words sprung to life as confirmation. He and Mrs. Tee had showed up for another visit and checked up on my sisters and I, and reassured us that the bank account was still open and we should feel free to take anything from it should the need arise. Thanks, but no thanks. I had my own job and didn’t need handouts from a stranger. Who were they to sashay into our life full of advice when we didn’t even know them? They even dared to show up with a single bachelor that was trying to get married. So were they truly interested in helping out or trying to marry somebody off? Linda and I acted indifferent and tried to remain as silent as it was possible in a dinner setting. The mostly one-sided conversation was a hint for them to stop visiting us. They stopped.


Uncle John became excessively busy with his job. If I ever saw him it was on weekends or late at night after work. He said that he cared for us, and wants the best for us, which is why he has to put in so many hours at his work. Every so often we had the luxury of receiving a quick pep talk that sounded something like this:

“You girls are at the age where you need to think about your future. Guys are looking at potential wife material, you hear? Make sure you help your aunt cook and clean, so you can be top-notch housewives. Make your hair, behave well in church, ok?”


The following school year I signed up for a Running Start program at the local community college. It allowed me to take courses that counted for college credits and satisfied the high school requirements at the same time. The students were older. It was a surprising relief to be surrounded by adults. They seemed more aware of the reality of life. They also didn’t care, didn’t ask too many questions. I could get lost in the midst of them, in the packed classrooms, in the large libraries, like a shadow.


I got to drive for longer periods of time. Accelerating quickly, my Honda Civic handled whatever I made it do. It wasn’t enough to go 10 miles over the speed limit. I tried to go twice the speed limit. The adrenaline rush from flying past cars was incredible. It gave me something to feel. It made me feel alive.

I smiled.

And drove faster.

The best roads consisted of hilly curves and the harder I pressed the pedal the faster my heart beat. My little green racecar raced forward. At the top of the hill, my heart would skip a beat as the car almost caught air and continued tearing downhill.


As we all know, actions have consequences. My driving adventures resulted in speeding tickets. One may think that with each ticket a lesson would be learned, but no. I kept the tickets a secret from my aunt and uncle. Some friends from college advised me to get a lawyer to get some tickets off my record but in my naïve mind, it was cheaper to just pay the ticket than pay the lawyer fees.


I tried to drive smarter. Avoiding the familiar cop corners, I saved my speeding for the most dangerous roads. The tickets were getting frustrating. I tried making up excuses and tried crying, but my sob stories didn’t let me off the hook. From all the traffic infractions, I’m not sure which particular example stood out the most, either the time I got two tickets in one day, or the one where an undercover Dodge Charger caught me racing onto the carpool lane illegally without a turn signal to pass a slowpoke. “Slowpoke” according to me, as the car was actually following the rules of the road and I was the reckless one. Regardless, driving fast in my car was becoming old and I needed a boost.


I got acquainted with some dangerous boys who rode fast motorcycles that were called crotch rockets. I discovered that special gear and training was needed to ride safely and successfully. It was also expensive. But, somebody could take me for a ride. That was good enough. The best rider was a skinny guy who knew how to go ridiculously fast and how to pop a wheelie. Let’s call him Bob. I was impressed.


“Hey Bob, will you take me for a ride?”


“I want to go super fast. Can you do that?”

He nodded.

“Can you pop a wheelie with a passenger too?”
Now Bob hesitated. “I haven’t really done them with passengers, but if conditions are good I might try one.”

I got decked out in a heavy motorcycle jacket and fitted the helmet over my head.


Bob didn’t disappoint. The lightweight, aerodynamically styled bike peeled off. After we got onto the highway, that’s when the real experience began. I listened to the wind whooshing by. The gears being switched built up the excitement. All of a sudden it felt like I was falling so my fingers tightened their grip on Bob. It was a wheelie! Whoo-hoo! To be honest, it was scary to see the pavement from a different perspective.


Then we went faster. I felt like I was watching a racing movie, or a video game. No, I felt like I was inside the video game. The lanes of the highway and lines of the curbs were whizzing by in a colorful blur. I glanced at the steadily climbing line on the speedometer. The cars on the highway seemed to be standing. The line approached 120 and I turned away from it.


My sense of awareness was heightened. I could very much feel every breath I took. My heart rate was thumping dangerously. My stomach had an intense sick feeling. I felt slightly dizzy. It felt glorious.


It was the ultimate rush.


When we returned, Bob hastily jumped off the sports bike and helped me down. His short brown hair was messy as he removed his helmet. My hair would probably be even more tangled because there was more of it.

“How fast did we go?” I was still trying to catch my breath.

“140,” Bob muttered.

I was confused. He seemed upset or disappointed about something. “Wow! That’s awesome! What’s wrong? We didn’t go fast enough?”

He glanced at me with a pained expression on his face. Then he turned his head and squinted into the distance.

“That was really dumb of me. I shouldn’t have gone that fast with you or done any wheelies.” His voice trailed off.

“But everything was fine!” This was the most adrenaline I’ve experienced yet. It was totally worth it!

“Yeah. Thank God. But if something didn’t? I endangered your life. That wasn’t smart. There’s safe, and there’s reckless. This was plain dumb. Never gonna do that again.” And with that distraught attitude he walked away.


I drove home thoughtfully. The reality of the risks didn’t seem too terrifying. I pondered on that some more. I arrived home and carried in my load of textbooks.


“How was the study group?” asked Aunt Jenny.

Oh, that’s right, I was supposed to be studying. I forced a yawn. “Got some stuff done. That’s why I’m a little late; it’s a huge project plus, uh, we have a test coming up.”

“Oh ok. Well, good night!”

9. Pizza! Pizza!


After looking left and right, and right and left, I pressed on the gas pedal and slowly inched forward onto the road. The streetlights offered a decent amount of brightness. My hands tightly gripped the steering wheel and I gave myself a mental high-five for remembering to check each rearview mirror. Aunt Jenny came to pick me up after work and let me drive home since I needed the practice. The backseat was filled with some of her kids so I put in extra effort to drive carefully.


Up ahead a cop car turned onto the road, driving towards me. He blinked his headlights. I straightened in my seat. There were no other cars behind me. Was he signaling at me? A few seconds passed as the distance between our cars closed. He flashed the headlights again. I looked at Aunt Jenny.


“Why is that cop flashing his headlights?” I asked nervously.


She leaned over to verify my speed limit. “Hmm, everything seems fine. We’re buckled up, you’re driving 25, are your headlights turned on?” I fumbled with the knobs until I found the correct one and switched on the lights. Oops!


The cop was flashing his lights for the third time right as my headlights came on. Suspicious at the delay of such a simple task, he turned on the red and blue lights and did a U-turn right behind my car to pull me over. Oh no! I slammed on the brakes and abruptly pulled over to the side. My heart began to race. I watched through the rearview mirror as his door opened and a tall man in a dark police uniform stepped out to walk over to my car.

“Good evening,” the officer greeted me after I finally managed to roll down the window. He had brown hair and appeared friendly. “I noticed some trouble with your headlights so wanted to check everything out. May I see your license and registration please,” he requested.


Aunt Jenny quickly gave me the paperwork. With my hand trembling, I handed it over to the officer. He waited. “And your driver’s license?”


“I… I’m not 16 yet. I…I don’t have one,” I stammered.


“Excuse me? Then why are you driving?” The officer peered into the backseat of the car. “Who’s all this?”


“These are my cousins. This is my aunt.” I motioned towards the passenger seat.


He looked at me with an exasperated expression. “So. You don’t have your driver’s license. You’re driving with somebody who is not your parent. You have a full car of people, who are kids! Wow. Well, at least show me your learner’s permit.”


I gulped. “I’ll have it in a few days. I just started Driver’s Ed and applied for the permit. It’s supposed to arrive in the mail any day now.” I wondered what would happen to me. Can a person get arrested for driving without a license?


The officer sighed loudly and looked around as if trying to remember what to do in this type of a situation. I bet he didn’t have a lot of experience with minors driving cars illegally.


“What is your name?” he finally asked, after pulling out a tiny notebook from his pocket. “Spell that, please. And your last name? How about the address? What is your aunt’s name? Her address please. You live with your aunt? Where are your parents?”


I told him that Dad died a few years ago and that Mom just died a few months ago, so I live with my aunt and uncle. The officer inquired about previous addresses where my family lived.


“Oh hold on a moment. Was it the yellow house by the Post Office?” he asked.


I nodded. Yikes. Was this guy psychic?


He took a deep breath. “I was one of the officers who responded several times to the emergency calls when your dad was being taken to the hospital.” He paused. “What a rough time you had to go through. No. I don’t want to add more problems to your life. Here’s what you’ll do. Get out of the driver’s seat, switch seats with your aunt, and have her drive you home. Don’t drive anymore without a driver’s license. OK? Good luck in life.”


And just like that, he shoved the notebook into his pocket and quickly walked away. A shaky sigh of relief escaped from Aunt Jenny’s mouth. We switched seats and drove home.


I didn’t enjoy school anymore. I doodled in my notebooks and skipped classes. It wasn’t as glamorous as I had imagined it to be. Sometimes I would skip a class and end up spending time in the library reading or chatting with friends. One time my friend and I had a chance to skip for a whole day, where we got a ride to the mall half an hour away. Now that was exciting. Instead of sitting in class we walked around the stores trying on clothes and eating junk food. After we walked out of one of the stores, my friend did a little victory dance. She showed me the contents of her purse and I saw a cute pink skirt that she had been trying on moments earlier. I stared at her.

“When did you have a chance to go to the register?” This didn’t make sense at all. She grinned. “I didn’t!”

No, this can’t be right. “How is it in your purse?”

She kept smiling.

“Did you steal it?”

She closed her purse and started walking. I caught up to her. “What is wrong with you? Why? Your family is rich! You have enough money!” This was followed by a string of colorful words that are not appropriate to write down.

Our friendship was never the same after that incident, and since she had been my best friend at the time, school became more of a dreary chore.


When I was at home, I felt weird. It didn’t feel like the home I had grown up in. It was way too quiet. Most of the siblings were gone. There were no more braiding hair competitions. There were no more chocolate and tea parties. The collective sound of voices of all my siblings was gone. I missed the rambunctious toddlers who ran up and down the stairs and always got in the way. I missed the games of tag we played in our downstairs living room. I closed my eyes and replayed the game in my mind. My heart pounding from running, I’m racing to the laundry or kitchen “safe zone” where I could rest for a minute from the person who was “It”. Catch my breath, and keep going. It was our entertainment. We had fun. The lively squeals and thunderous bumps against the walls from all our games sometimes got us in trouble. Then at other times I was the one annoyed; I needed to do homework and it was too loud.


Now at this house, it was a lot quieter; I could do as much homework as I wanted to. I didn’t have to constantly cook or babysit or clean, just keep my room tidy. I didn’t need to help anybody with his or her homework or projects, or sign the take-home sheets from school. Everything that I had done didn’t need to be done by me anymore. Aunt Jenny managed her kids and her kitchen and the rest of the household. I felt utterly useless.


My thoughts would drift back to my best memories of Mom. They usually involved something in the kitchen. We sat around the kitchen table and she showed me how to roll up cabbage rolls. I questioned why pieces of butter needed to go between each layer of the cabbage rolls and her answer was “Well, because butter makes everything taste better!” We had dumpling evenings too. For several hours we mixed, cut, and rolled pieces of dough into round flat disks. Then we filled them up with meat and pinched them together into perfect little dumplings. She taught me how to pound chicken with a tenderizer “just-so”, and didn’t get upset when I kept mixing up the order of dipping those chicken pieces into flour and then an egg wash before dropping them onto the skillet.


All these memories brought tears and I couldn’t make them stop. I hated it. It made me angry. Why did God allow this to happen? Why couldn’t He take somebody else? Lots of families had two parents; why not take one of them? Why take both my parents? I didn’t like being home because those thoughts usually visited me.


Working made me busy enough to not dwell on the sad part of my life. I enjoyed working at the pizza shop. There was an option to have more hours, as long as a legal guardian signed the paper, and my grades at school were acceptable. Sometimes Aunt Jenny gave me a ride, sometimes my grandpa did.

I didn’t like pizza but I learned how to make it like an expert. The challenge was to sauce the pizza, sprinkle the mozzarella cheese, apply the toppings in appropriate measurements, sprinkle more cheese on top, and slide it into the oven at record speed with minimal waste. I became familiar with the regular customers who ordered extra cheese pizzas, and with the odd ones who ordered pizza with no cheese at all. There were pizzas with artichokes and pizzas with anchovies.


I looked forward to my break when I could get a bag of custom-ordered breadsticks: crunchy, warm, with light garlic butter and heavy sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. Since my shift tended to be until closing, the breadsticks dipped into marinara sauce became my regular dinner. If Grandpa picked me up, I would drive home. Exhausted from the long days, I fell asleep quickly at night.


This school and work schedule became a stable routine. That is, until I got my driver’s license…







[image above taken from Little Caesar’s website]

8. The Quirky Couple


Uncle John and Aunt Jenny knew how to have fun. On most weekends, they drove to the local grocery store to stock up on meat, vegetables, drinks, and watermelon. A short drive later the whole family arrived at a park next to the beach. There was a lively debate about which picnic table was best. A colorful plastic table cover was placed on top, the food items arranged, and the grill started. Then relaxing time.


This was new to my sisters Linda, Lisa and I, who were now part of their family. We could sit on the grass or bench. We could walk around. We could cross the street and dip our feet in the water. Our mom had almost drowned as a child, so as a result we were kept far away from anything deeper than a bathtub. Here we played volleyball and tossed Frisbees. Eventually the aroma from the grill would call us back to the picnic table, and we enjoyed a delicious, mouth-watering meal.


Other days the family went to an aquatic center. It was several hours of good plain fun. The warm pool, the slides, the different depths of water, all of it was fascinating. However, it was a confusing time. Although I enjoyed it, I couldn’t help feeling guilty for having fun. Am I even allowed to enjoy things like this? Is it bad that I’m not thinking of my mom or my dad or my siblings while I’m at the park or at the pool? Does it make me a bad person that I forget about what’s going on in life and just enjoy the thrill of the long slide and the enormous splash? What if my other siblings weren’t having as good experiences as we were in this family? Thoughts such as this dominated my mind.


A family friend, Mr. Es, came to visit. It was somebody who grew up with Mom’s family in her village. Mr. Es was a jolly-looking fellow with neatly combed brown hair and kind eyes. He opened his arms and clasped my sister Linda and I in a great big bear hug. He talked quickly, as if he was in a hurry and had to be somewhere else.


“Girls, I am so sorry for what you’re going through. I grew up with your mom, and her sisters, and her brothers. We belonged to the same group of friends when we were young!”


I didn’t know how to respond appropriately.

“Ah. Interesting!” I really didn’t know this person. Was I supposed to ask some questions about him? Perhaps about the village?

“So, small world, and here you are, right?” Making conversation wasn’t a strong skill for me.


Mr. Es didn’t seem to mind. He got to the point quickly.

“Girls, I know nothing will bring your mom back, or make anything better. But I want to try. Can I buy you something? What’s something you always wanted but don’t have?”


“Oh, we have everything,” I responded politely.


“No, no, no, that’s not what I meant. I know you have everything. I know Uncle John and Aunt Jenny got that covered. I mean something special. A toy? A cool trinket?” He motioned his hands around as if waiting for ideas to come to him. “Is there something your friends have but you don’t?”
We had everything we needed, and being asked on the spot was slightly nerve-wracking.


“You have your Mom’s old civic once you get a driver’s license. What about a bike? Or new shoes? How about roller blades? Do you have those?” He was watching our face expressions closely and was able to tell where our reactions gave us away. He got some more practical information and a few days later we received our gifts. I got a brand new pair of roller blades with the rubber wheels, not the cheap plastic ones.


On Sundays we piled into the family van and drove to church. This was a different church than where we went with our mom. Girls and women weren’t required to wear the traditional head covers. There were a lot more people. It was exciting. There were lots of guys and girls who made up the youth group.


After church the members of the youth group would go eat and hang out. Uncle John was flexible to the point where he allowed me to go with them, as long as Linda was with me. We had to make sure somebody from our neighborhood was also going, because he or she would be our ride back home. Uncle John would verify with the guy or girl, usually guy, to find out where the youth was planning to go, and to make sure we would arrive home by a certain time in the evening. Uncle John was generous, too. He would flash his pearly whites and with a grand gesture he would whip out his wallet. After thumbing through it, he’d pull out a twenty-dollar bill and hand it to me saying, “Here’s money for you and Linda to buy some fancy lunch with your friends. Don’t spend it all in one place!”


For some reason it felt so awkward to take money from him. I felt like I owed him the money back. Linda and I would try to make that money last as many Sundays as we could so we wouldn’t have to admit we didn’t have any and then have him give us another twenty. On lucky occasions, some guy from the youth group would pay for our meal. I never could tell whether it was because a guy was trying to impress us, or because he just got a paycheck, or if he was simply being nice. Other times we would eat at the mall where we could get cheap food like McDonalds fries and ice-cream cones, or if we were very hungry, a teriyaki bowl. I didn’t look forward to restaurants, because those were on the pricey side, but when youth went there, Linda and I would split an appetizer. The popular evening place was a donut shop. We could easily spend an entire evening there, eating fresh donut holes or apple fritters.


Shortly after this new living arrangement, an interesting pair came to visit us. The duo was tall and thin, and very animated, as if they drank energy drinks instead of water. The blonde woman, Mrs. Tee, was dressed elegantly while Mr. Tee was a dark-haired man who wore a bright polo and shorts. They clarified that this visit was not to become friends with Uncle John or Aunt Jenny, but just to have a chat with Linda and I. In fact, a chat was not enough. How about they take us out to a fancy sit-down restaurant? It took a bit of convincing Uncle John, who finally relented because this couple explained they were just trying to do something nice to some kids who lost their parents.


The car ride consisted of small talk and directions to a restaurant. Linda and I kept exchanging glances. We were certainly aware that there were different types of people who had unique ways of responding to others’ problems. Lots of donations had accumulated as a result of mom’s passing. It ended up being distributed in some form or another, mostly going to the family who was building their own house. But what were these people up to? It’s not like we never had a meal outside of the home.


As soon as we got seated, the waiter brought the water glasses, and left us with the menus. Mr. Tee was practically bouncing in his seat. He was surely addicted to coffee or something.

“Alright, here we go! Now we can talk. Wait, first decide what you want to order. OK, done?”

Mrs. Tee was evidently less caffeinated, she told Mr. Tee to calm down, to give everybody a minute.


I was growing more curious and didn’t want to waste time studying the menu options. I selected the first soup and salad listed while Linda chose an appetizer.

“Wait, girls, that’s it?” Mr. Tee’s eyes widened. “No, that is not enough. Get something more, get a main dish!”


I glanced at the prices in that category. No way.


“Don’t even worry about the cost! This is our treat to you, get whatever you want!” He must have read my mind. The waiter showed up to take our orders, and as we didn’t add anything to our original choices, Mr. Tee took it upon himself to order the most popular dish for us as well.


“Back to our talk. When we heard about what happened to your family, we cleared out our schedule to drive all the way up here.” He looked at me. “Since you’re the oldest, we specifically wanted to talk to you. This affects your sister too, but mostly you.” He directed a glance of acknowledgment towards Linda. “Now, your uncle, does he treat you well?”


“Of course!” I nodded, wondering where this was headed.


“Yes. Naturally. They just took you in, lots of attention is still focused on them, of course they’ll be doing their best. For now. But listen to me. I need to say some things that nobody will probably ever tell you, but somebody has to.” He leaned forward. Mrs. Tee placed her hand on his arm as if to offer support.


What in the world was he going to say? A slight shiver ran down my spine. I leaned back.


“Your uncle has his own family. He has a wife and a few kids. All of a sudden, boom, he got a few more kids. They are not his own. He never asked for them. But here you are. Now right now he’s treating you as well as his own kids because everything is fresh. All eyes are on him in this community, in your church. But some time will pass and you will notice he won’t be treating you like this anymore.” He paused for air. “You will notice he’ll be treating his kids better than you. You won’t be able to talk to him like to a dad. You’ll have conflicts. But he won’t be doing this intentionally. He will just default to the natural state of how he was used to doing life, before you all came into his family.”


Our waiter arrived with the food. I sat frozen in my position as the plates were being passed around. What was I supposed to do with this information? The feeling of being a burden was a thought that flickered in my mind periodically, which I would push into a corner and forget about. Now it sprang up from the corner and was glaring at me. Great.


Mr. Tee took a whiff of his food. “Mmm, absolutely delicious!” he exclaimed. The way he ate his meal was every bit as energetic as his words were.


“Now, here’s what you have to do.” I let out a burst of air that I didn’t know I was holding. So there was a solution. “You’ll need to become financially independent. Does your uncle give you money?” I explained about the twenty-dollar bills on Sundays. He tapped his fingers on the table. “And do you feel guilty when you take that money?” I nodded.

“Ah-ha!” Mr. Tee slapped his hand against the table. “There you have it, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. It starts like that, and then you’ll feel how much of a burden you are that you’re living in his house, and that he’s providing all the necessities for you, and the list goes on and on. So, you’ll need to get a job. Get a job, and you’ll have money! This way you won’t have to rely on your uncle to give you money for a snack, you can get it yourself. You can buy clothes, your own cell phone, whatever you want! You can start making your own decisions. Work hard, work as hard as you can, work your way up as far as you can. Become independent!”


I nodded. That made sense. I saw Linda finishing her appetizer. I should probably eat some of my soup. It had cooled down, and there wasn’t much taste. I tried the salad. It wasn’t any better. But Mr. and Mrs. Tee were paying for this meal, and it would be rude to leave everything untouched. I managed a few bites. There was some kind of lump in my throat that made it hard for the food to go down. Where was I going to get a job? I couldn’t even drive. Driver’s Education classes were offered at my school, I had just signed up. The only jobs I could think of were the summer jobs at the berry fields at that moment. I tuned back into the conversation. Mr. Tee was chattering about something funny his mother-in-law had done.


He managed to finish the story, his meal, and whatever Mrs. Tee left on her plate all at once. He jumped up. “We have one more stop to make before we take you home. In case you ever need money or help, we will always be available, alright?”


We stopped by the bank where he opened an account and added my name to it. There was $100 in the account.


“If you ever need money, take it. Here’s the little card with all the information on it: the account number, my name, my phone number.” He handed me a small white card with the information written on the back. “When this money runs out, call us, we can deposit some more, you hear?” I nodded. I suspected Uncle John would not be very happy about this bank stop. Mr. Tee again seemed to read my mind. “Don’t you dare tell your aunt or uncle about the bank!” He received a strict glance from his wife. It must have been about his tone, because he continued in a softer manner. “They don’t need to know about this, it won’t hurt them. This is merely something for you and your sister, as a way of us helping you. OK?” I nodded again.


They arrived at our house, came in for tea, and Mr. Tee entertained everyone with his peculiar stories until it was time for them to leave.


A few days later I was taking care of errands with Grandpa when the words “Accepting Applications” caught my eye. I noticed they belonged to a poster on the window of new construction next to our grocery store. The poster showed a Little Caesar’s Pizza logo and “COMING SOON” in bigger font. I asked Grandpa to stop the car and ventured inside. A worker wearing a white construction cap looked up. I asked how to apply and he pointed to a cardboard box with a stack of empty applications inside. I took it, filled it out, and turned it back in. A few weeks later I got called in for a group interview, and so began my first official job.

7. Goodbyes

FullSizeRender-4During one of the visits in the quarantine room, the doctor turned to me and asked,


“You’re the oldest daughter in this family?”

I nodded.

He cleared his throat.

“Ahem. Ah, well, now would be a time to say something to your mother. Last words. A final ‘I love you’. She won’t respond but she might hear you and receive your message.”


I choked on the sob that burst out of me. I knelt by Mom’s hospital bed as thoughts flashed through my head. My last ‘I love you’? We had never said “I love you”. Ever. This would be my first time.


My breathing quickened to rapid bursts, my cheeks were flushed, I couldn’t wipe the tears off fast enough, and the room felt like it was closing in.

Oh. My. God.

I looked at Mom’s face. Her eyes were closed, and she looked quite peaceful. Her dark brown hair was in a messy bun, and a few strands escaped to make swirls across the pillow. “Mama, I, uh, um, I don’t know if you can hear me,” I whispered. This felt so unnatural. “I want you to know that I think you were the best mom out there. I, um, I love you. Very much. I don’t want you to die! Who will take care of us? I’m so sorry for being a brat so many times! Please forgive me.”


I didn’t think I could cry any harder, but a new wave of uncontrollable sobs erupted.


The doctor said, “OK, times up.”


I whispered a last desperate “I love you!” and stepped out of the room.


An overwhelming feeling of remorse filled me. Mom probably thought I didn’t even like her. I’d been so self-centered so often. Always thinking of myself, whatever is best for me, not being aware of how other people are feeling. My dad had been right; I was selfish. And here was Mom, dying, and it was too late for me to show my appreciation of all she did for the family. It was too late to say that I loved her. What good was it saying to somebody who was barely alive?


Two days later I got off the school bus and saw my aunt, who I’ll call Aunt Jenny, standing by the driveway. She motioned for me to come closer. I had a sneaky suspicion I knew what it was about.


I came closer and waited for her to say something. Her eyes were darting all over the place and finally landed on mine.


“I have to tell you something,” she paused, then took a shaky breath. “Your mom. She’s gone.”


Then she opened her arms and caught me as I fell on her and wept.


A blurry filter took over. Everything went hazy.


Life shifted out-of-focus.


The next thing I was aware of was having a conversation with my grandma. It didn’t seem real, because her voice seemed far away, as if in a tunnel. It felt like I was watching the scene, like I wasn’t even there. It was a discussion about where each sibling was going to live. For some reason, Dad’s relatives were out of the question. Some relatives could take one sibling; some two or three. Some families who had cousins close to my age wanted me to live with them. I had to think of which sibling got along best with whom. Where would each sibling go? Did that family have similar aged kids? Which family could handle a particular brother or sister? The ten of us were split up amongst six families, from the west coast all the way to the east coast.


I was terrified of moving somewhere unfamiliar. Plus, the coolest aunt and uncle were the ones who lived locally, Aunt Jenny and her husband, who I’ll call Uncle John. Uncle John played in a band once, and still performed with a group at certain events. I convinced Grandma that the best fit for me would be to live locally, because of school and the complications of moving and making friends at the high school age level. Tickets were purchased. Everybody would pack a bag of belongings and head out the day after the funeral.


We sat on the front row during the memorial service. Story after story was told about what a nice lady Mom was. Wow. She helped out when a metal flagpole fell on somebody’s head, assisted folks with meals, helped out financially, gave good advice, and prayed for needs. I wasn’t familiar with all the stories. My perspective had been one-sided, a negative one at that, because I disliked my role at home and because Mom never let me go to sleepovers.


I thought of the pleasant things she’d done. She took me shopping for a zip-up sweatshirt. She bought a real camera for me. She even allowed me to order a refurbished laptop from an ad that we got in the mail. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the laptop to work, but it was still the most expensive purchase she’d ever made for me. I wondered if all those items she bought for me had anything to do with my annoying remarks about her spending so much time working. Quite often I reminded Mom that I could be doing so many other things besides taking care of the house and kids. This was her way of calming me down, by buying me gifts. But now, seeing her lifeless body in front of me, I could care less about those things. I wished for more time with her. I wished I didn’t complain during the thrift store shopping trips. I wished I cherished the time I worked at the Dollar Store with her. I wished I smiled during the photos with her, where she found similar looking outfits and wanted pictures of us together. I had disliked all things that bonded us together. I regretted that with all my might. Oh what I would give to go back and relive those years. The uncomfortable knot in my stomach became painful. What a lousy daughter I had been.


During the funeral service, I alternated between sobbing and cracking jokes. My friends joined me in the nervous giggling after hearing the punch lines but then would look at me with wide eyes and ask,

“What’s wrong with you?”

I had no idea. The jokes were coming out by themselves. Something probably was wrong with me.


There were countless hugs going around, especially between my brothers and sisters. We clutched each other tightly until we couldn’t breathe and apologized for all the sibling rivalry we’d ever had. I apologized to each sibling who wasn’t allowed into my room because he or she was considered too young. I apologized to my brother who was tricked into getting paid by a fake five-dollar bill after tidying up the living room.


Out on the burial site, things got even more exciting. A tall, old man, one of the highest-ranking elders in fact, dared say something unspeakable, loud enough for everybody to hear:


“Crying won’t help any of you. Calm down. It’s not going to bring your mother back. I didn’t cry when my wife passed away.”


There was an audible gasp from the crowd. How dare he say something like that? An awkward pause followed. What now? Nobody talks back to an elder. Then, to my great astonishment, a friend who was a few years older than me, raised her voice and challenged him:


“Are you out of your mind? That is not nice! These kids just lost the most important person in the world to them!”


She instantly earned a hero status in my mind.


After several commotion-filled days, we began to settle in. I shared a room and a bed with my sister who came right after me in sibling order. We whispered late into the nights about what the future held for us. How can we go to school and act normal and happy? Now that everything was completely different, was there anything good that we could look forward to?


I sat up abruptly. “Yes! I’ve got it!”

My sister looked at me with puffy eyes. “Oh really? What?”

“We can wear pants! Even jeans!”
“No way. Parents never let us, why would Aunt and Uncle allow it?” Why was my sister being so sensible?

“Because they’re the awesome relatives! Aunt Jenny is really pretty, she can wear pants, and they have a fancy house…” my voice trailed off.


I asked both Uncle and Aunt about it. Aunt Jenny was hesitant, “Well, I don’t know. Your mother was pretty firm about the no pants policy. I’m not sure how she’d feel if we began to allow you something that was against her principles.”


I grimaced. It was mostly Dad who had cared about the pants, with Deuteronomy 22:5 being the driving force. Gym class was the only exception. Once in a while some of us sisters would sneak pants under the traditional skirt or dress outfit, and change while hiding cleverly between the seats of the school bus. Of course we’d have to switch back before arriving at home.


Uncle John came to the rescue. “Who cares if they wear pants? What difference does it make now?”




Aunt Jenny took us clothes shopping at the mall. Nobody had ever purchased so many things all in one go for us. We got sweatshirts, shirts, leather jackets, and last but not least, actual blue jeans. What a gift!


Right away I wore the jeans to school. I felt slightly more normal than when I wore my bright old-fashioned skirts with white sneakers. A popular sophomore girl came up immediately and exclaimed, “Galina! You’re wearing jeans? Wow! I’ve never seen you wear pants before!”


My excellent social skills came in handy. “Um, yeah well, you see, my mom never let me wear pants and she died last week so I guess I can wear pants now.”


She looked visibly shocked. She quickly mumbled an “I’m so sorry!” then rushed to talk to somebody else.


At that moment I realized that even though I was now wearing jeans, I wasn’t going to ever fit in.


6. Apple Pie


The relatives who were involved in Mom’s well-being and hospital visit were absolutely shocked at this suggestion.


“No way!” was their response, Mom’s response, and my translated response. There had to be another test or another doctor who would take a look and determine how to fix the problem without introducing cancer.


Mom’s tailbone pain was so extreme she couldn’t walk because the fall threw her hips off balance. A home-based homeopathic doctor corrected and adjusted her hips and promised it was on its way to fully heal. The bruise and pain on her chest wasn’t getting any better and breathing was becoming very difficult. Another appointment was scheduled. This doctor didn’t receive the full story either, so he contacted the first doctor and had the same “cancer” suggestion. One of the uncles flew off his handle.

“How dare you keep saying it’s cancer? Get some doctor in here who knows how to be a doctor and make my sister better!”


After more yelling and threatening, security was called and my uncle had to calm down and be escorted out or else he’d get arrested.


This experience prompted us to drive a few hours to take mom to an emergency room in a Seattle hospital. Here her case had a team of students who followed the main assigned doctor around and took notes. One set of the aunts and uncles who regularly stayed with us were outraged and had a huge complaint about “student” doctors who didn’t know anything. They demanded professional doctors, not students. As the translator, I reworded the sentences to make them sound slightly more pleasant. Last thing anybody needed was another security officer adventure.


To deal with the sterile, antiseptic smell of the hospital room, I wandered around the building until a different scent reached my nostrils. I’d reached the cafeteria. From the limited food options, the apple pie looked most appealing. I ordered a large slice and breathed in the aroma. The taste was absolutely perfect: a delicious combination of a warm, flaky crust, and soft, sweet apples, with just a hint of cinnamon. I enjoyed it immensely and had a few pieces during that stay. That is where I learned what emotional eating was all about.


During the night Mom had a terrible breathing attack and a doctor on duty came to help. Since he wasn’t familiar with the case, he decided to check what was causing this shortage of breathing. He inserted a little tube with a light at the end of it, inspected the area, and said that some veins burst. Mom would need a surgery to repair those veins to get the blood flowing normally and to restore the circulation. The surgery couldn’t be done immediately because first, the assigned doctor needed to go through all the paperwork, and next, Mom needed antibiotics for several weeks before she could be ready for the surgery.


Mom requested to go home for the antibiotic treatment. We continued to have people visit us who prayed for Mom in hopes of obtaining supernatural healing. Mom read Psalm 121 aloud on a regular basis. The uncle who had the shouting match received a letter from the hospital stating that Mom’s condition was in fact not cancer.


For the first time in my life I was allowed to have a party to celebrate my 15th birthday. The planning didn’t take long; I just wanted a cake and some friends over. The night before the party Mom had a breathing attack and was running out of breath. The closest driver was Grandpa, so he took us to the hospital. Mom was given an oxygen mask and we were placed into a room overnight.


Instead of feeling bad for Mom, I was feeling sorry for myself. The birthday party was supposed to be my highlight of the year. I collected some tabloid magazines and sat in the sitting area hating my life. In the morning I dialed a few numbers and briskly stated the party was cancelled due to the fact that I was in the hospital with my mother again. I made friends with the apple pies in this cafeteria too. Well, that wouldn’t be correct. If I made friends with them I wouldn’t be eating them, but I did, so technically I just enjoyed how they made me feel. At least I could count on apple pie. The apple pie paired quite nicely with a can of Root Beer. Unfortunately Root Beer was the enemy because it had the word “beer” in its title, and it caused an unnecessarily long fight with an uncle who couldn’t believe I stooped low enough to drink beer.


We were released home again. Mom’s immune system kept getting weaker. She was now barely walking holding on to a familiar steel walker, the kind that Dad used to have. A ten second walk from her bedroom to the bathroom began to take several minutes long with assistance from a person or two. Grandma’s cheeks were streaked with tears as she helped mom with a bath. After she was done and Mom was back in her bed, Grandma would let the tears flow freely and say how unfair it is for a mom to watch her child go through this. That it should be the other way around. I agreed with her. But a child watching a mom go through it was unfair even more! I would think, but keep my mouth shut so I wouldn’t get in trouble.


Mom’s voice completely disappeared. Her breathing was raspy and she had horrible hacking coughs to a point where she would cough stuff up. I had to make a phone call to the bank about Mom’s account and had problems when it came to the verification problem.


“Am I speaking to the account holder?” asked the bank representative.


“No, this is her daughter, but she’s right here. She doesn’t speak English very well, plus her voice is broken so I’m calling for her.”


“I’m sorry Miss, but I cannot give you the information you’re requesting until I speak to the account holder.”


“She’s right here! Let me turn on the speaker.” I moved as close as I could to Mom.


Mom was propped up on her bed and tried to speak. “This is Yelena,” she whispered. The bank rep couldn’t hear anything. Mom strained her neck, applied as much effort as she could, and a croak came out. I tried to use that.


“You hear that? That was her voice. Can you help me now?”


It was useless.


Another time Grandma made a thin soup for Mom. It had some rice, potatoes and grated carrots. Grandma left me with the bowl and said to feed Mom.


Mom tried to eat a bite, but it was difficult for her throat to swallow anything. She gave up after several attempts.


“I can’t do it; I don’t want any,” she whispered in a barely audible tone.


“But you have to! Grandma will be mad at me if you don’t eat any!” I tried to persuade Mom to eat a few bites.


Mom’s eyes were filled with tears. “I can’t,” she said.


Grandma came in to check on us. She didn’t approve the current status.
“What is this? No excuses. Eat,” her disapproving tone demanded obedience. When she needed to be strict, she could manage it in such a way that anybody in her way would drop what they’re doing and follow her orders.


Mom looked at me desperately.
“Please eat a few bites for me, honey. Please do it. I cannot. Please,” she begged. I haven’t seen Mom act like that before and it frightened me. I forced a few spoonfuls down, just in time as Grandma came in again. The bowl was wordlessly handed over, and we received a satisfied “Hmph!” in return.


Those months were a blur of hospital visits, faith healers, elders, and more scrutiny of our lifestyle than ever. God definitely must be punishing us for something. Obviously Mom must have some hidden sin in her life. Perhaps a mistake must have been in our decision to switch churches. Mom was required to agree going back to the previous church if she got healed. Perhaps a curse was on our family. Was Dad’s mother a witch? Some of these conversations took place inside hospitals, not just at our home. Mom would be so drugged up with morphine that her speech was babble that didn’t make any sense. In between doses when her speech was more coherent, a helpful individual would shower her with these suggestions and questions.


The doctors had some bad news for us after some more tests. The surgery couldn’t be done because the antibiotics were administered too late. They should have been done right away when Mom had her accident. Her situation became worse: either the blood was clotting, or something was happening to the veins and they were affecting the lungs, or the lungs themselves were collapsing. To top it all off, she caught the MRSA bug at the hospital and had to be placed into quarantine. One person at a time could come in, only if dressed up in protective clothing and mask. That day she slipped into a coma.


The next day, September 11, in my first period class, something strange was happening. The TV was turned on, the students were panicked, the teachers frantically scurried from one classroom to the next. The World Trade Center twin towers had just been attacked. The dreadful anxiety I was feeling because of Mom’s coma didn’t have to be hidden. It was a relief to let it out and cry with the rest of the students.

5. The Dollar Store


It was a time of many firsts.


The first time we went to the beach as a family: one picnic table, one loaf of sliced rye bread, two round containers of salami, and a carton of Capri Sun juices.


The first time we got Christmas presents: each child wrote a wish list and Salvation Army delivered.


The first time we got a camera: Mom always wanted to take photos, and without Dad there to stop her, she took lots and lots of pictures. We had discovered one-time use disposable cameras, and due to their convenience, Mom purchased many of those.


I wanted to participate in school sports, particularly track, tennis, or cheerleading. I brought up the topic several times, and pointed out the benefits, such as developing friendships and getting exercise. Mom’s answer:


“Absolutely not! Who would stay home to take care of the kids and house?”

I had a disrespectful thought: I’m not the one who made all those kids. “Um… the other sisters?”


“No, they’re too young. Your sisters are your friends and cleaning the house is more than enough exercise.”


The school cheer quad happened to have a carwash by our grocery store. When I saw them, I pointed them out to Mom.


“Mom, see? Those are cheerleaders. That’s one of the sports I really want to do.”

“Those half-naked girls? No way! Good thing I didn’t let you.”


“But Mom! It’s like gymnastics, so much exercise! And that’s just their uniform! All the parents let their kids do sports. It’s not fair.” I tried to pout. “At least go to their carwash and give them money for support, since you won’t let me participate in any sports.”


Mom obliged, and I persuaded her to give the cheerleaders a whopping $20 for the carwash.


Then Mom found one more job.


It was during the day at a Dollar Store. Now we barely saw her. We come home from school, yet she’s working there. After that she might come home for dinner and then go to the laundry job. Some days she wouldn’t be home until late at night when most of the kids were in bed. A friend or an aunt stayed with the kids who weren’t yet of school age.


I wasn’t happy with her having that Dollar Store job. I felt like she went to that job to escape dealing with the family. I had to do her motherly duties for her: cook meals, clean, make sure everybody’s homework was done. On the plus side, she would give me money if there was a good dinner and the house was clean.


One of the reasons I didn’t approve of that job was because the boss didn’t pay fairly. Oftentimes, after a full day of working there, the boss would say:


“Okay, Yelena, thank you very much. You can choose 30 items from the store today.”


Mom would come home hauling cheap plastic bags stuffed with food items, fake flowers, toys, hair accessories, and shampoo. When I confronted her about it, she said the boss paid her in cash too sometimes, so it was fine. This job was unofficial, and Mom was nervous to report this job to the Department of Social and Health Services because she feared they would take away all the benefits and throw her in jail.


On Saturdays she took me with her to help at the Dollar Store. Usually I operated the register, helped unload the new supplies, and restocked items. The boss would say at the end of the workday:


“Wow, thank you for helping. Please choose one item for yourself.”


I didn’t know how much the minimum wage was, but I sure knew it was a lot more than one measly Dollar Store item for hours of work. My silent form of protest was to not smile at the customers and hope that somebody could somehow sense the unfairness of me slaving away my Saturdaysimg_1683.jpg. Mom would try to make me feel better by giving me a ten-dollar bill for my labor.


One day Mom, in her high heels as always, was carrying an extremely heavy box from the Dollar Store to the car. She somehow misplaced her foot and crash-landed backwards into a concrete parking lot curb. Her tailbone met the edge of the curb, and her chest met the edge of the box.


She didn’t want to go to the hospital; for fear of going to jail if Department of Social and Health Services found out she had an unreported Dollar Store job. She called her sisters and parents to see what her options were, and was advised to go to a chiropractor. When the pain didn’t let up within a few days, I made an appointment for her. It was unnerving watching the chiropractor make his adjustments and hearing Mom cry out in pain. It didn’t help the fractured tailbone much.


One of Mom’s sisters decided to take her to the hospital. Mom was not being a very cooperative patient and simply said something hurts on her tailbone and something hurts very much on her chest area between her lungs. She refused to let me tell the doctors that she fell and had a heavy box fall on top of her. She got an X-ray done. It showed a large mass in the middle of her chest.


“Well, we don’t know what it is, but it sure looks like cancer. We need to perform a biopsy to be sure.”


4. Mr. W


For the sake of clarity, let’s call the man with white hair Mr. W. It didn’t take many visits before I figured out that Mr. W had an agenda: he was trying to get married to mom! I confronted Mom at her earliest convenience:


“Mom. Why does Mr. W come over?”


My mom was gathering her keys and getting ready to drive off to work.


“Oh him? I’m not sure.” She tried to brush past me to get to the door. No way.


“I’m serious, Mom. Why is he trying to get married to you?”


“Oh don’t be silly, he simply comes to talk. I suppose he’s just lonely, he doesn’t have a wife.”


And off to work she went. I gathered an emergency family meeting and explained the urgency of the matter.


“We need to stop Mr. W! If we don’t stop him now, Mom might start liking him and might get married to him! Do you want him to be our new dad? He looks really strict! He might spank us more than Dad did!”


We brainstormed a list. Any idea was welcome and validated, no matter how silly or ridiculous. We won’t talk to him, won’t smile, younger siblings can stick their tongues out and make faces, and anything else that would be fitting to make him feel unwelcome in our home. The next time Mr. W came over, mom wasn’t home, so he gave us a bag of something and said, “This is for your mom.”


We looked inside and saw a few bags of ripe green grapes. As soon as Mr. W drove off, we hid the grapes under the porch steps as far back as they would go. The next time he drove up, we searched for the largest pebbles and propped them behind each tire. A few sharp ones made it in too, in hopes of possibly popping a tire. We were delighted to see his frustration when he attempted to drive off and had a rough time backing up. Mom asked us about grapes. Apparently Mr. W asked her how she liked the treat he brought last time. Oops. Not.


Our home was a giant duplex-style house where technically two families could reside in, but since we had 11 individuals, we had the whole house. All the kids were sent downstairs when Mr. W was over. We took turns holding a broom and hitting it up against the ceiling, to create an annoying thumping sound for the upstairs. Since there was only one broom, any long object worked, as well as toys that could be hurled up, as long as they didn’t leave any marks or dents in the ceiling. The youngest siblings were encouraged to run up the stairs and distract Mom as much as possible, pretending to be hurt, requesting Band-Aids, being particularly loud when taking a snack from the kitchen, and if they wanted bonus points, directing insulting sounds at Mr. W. If they would be talking outside on the porch, somebody would take out the trash and place it right next to them. Of course the bag would be slightly opened to help add an interesting aroma to their setting. Mr. W didn’t stand a chance against our motivated team.


Mom went shopping for clothes one day. She usually took me along to speed up the process. The stores of choice were Value Village or Goodwill, and sometimes they had days where certain colored tags were 50% off. We would purchase only those items. Some days we would get clothes with only yellow-colored tags, another day it would be only blue-tagged items. I began to loathe the musky smell of second-hand clothes. I wanted to own something brand new, and would request to go to Wal-mart or K-Mart, but the price tags there were too high.


After we were done shopping, Mom took a detour and pulled into somebody’s driveway. It was Mr. W’s house! I was mortified. He had a giant smile on his face when he sauntered up to our car window. They had a little chat, Mom handed him something, and we drove off. She had a goofy grin on her face. I couldn’t think straight. I felt like I would explode. Was she that desperate? I mean, she could probably use some help with managing all of us kids, but she could do way better than this!


“Mom, what are you doing? Why are you bringing him food? He is an old man! He’s ugly! He’s mean! It’s only been a year!”


Needless to say, the drive home was anything but pleasant.


By far the most extreme challenge Mr. W had was when he came over and some of the kids would dare to tell him “Go away!” and “Don’t come back again!” One of the evenings I recruited a sister to walk up to Mom and boldly state,


“Mom, you need to go to work now. Do you want to be late?”


Apparently it was the final straw. Mom stormed upstairs, marched directly at me, and smacked my face. I reeled back. My cheek stung and felt hot. This I wasn’t expecting.


“What is wrong with you? You’re the oldest child here! I expect decent behavior from you! Is that so difficult?” Mom whisper-shouted.


“But, uh, I didn’t do anything, I’m just sitting here,” I tried to defend myself.


“Oh, you!” Mom shot me a menacing glare and hurried back to resume her conversation with Mr. W.


Whether it was a single incident or the combination of our childish pranks, but Mr. W wasn’t ready to handle the whole package that came with Mom. Whatever they had attempted to build eventually fizzled out and he stopped showing up at our door.


We tried to make Mom look more modern. Her funky hairstyle was usually piled up very high on her head, and coupled with the brightly colored head covers she wore, it made for a disastrous fashion look. We thought if she would change her hairstyle, she would look more put-together. The heels and skirts paired nicely but that wasn’t enough. Mom didn’t like any of our attempts at making her look more contemporary. I think she realized she needed to do something different to distract herself from her loneliness or to potentially find a partner. She began to sing.


My sister and I had to sing with her. We would practice a hymn or two, and then on Sunday we did that number at church. It was so embarrassing. We had no music, just a hymnal, and it was just us singing in front of everybody. I had a huge problem with it and made it known.


How did Mom resolve it? The one song I learned how to play on the violin came in handy: we learned that song and sang that while I played. Great. I tried to have hoarse throat excuses and those worked every once in a while.


Other than the singing presentations, Mom began to loosen up a bit. She gave in to exploring stores like Ross and Wal-mart for our clothes. My first brand-new piece of clothing that I chose myself was from K-mart. It was a gorgeous red short-sleeved shirt that had DIVA spelled out in silver glitter. I wore it every other day until the glitter rubbed off.


There was a farmer’s market we frequented. Mom noticed one of the teenage helpers glancing over and with a knowing smile she mentioned to me:


“Well, would you look at that! He’s totally staring at you!” I pretended I had no idea what she was talking about, but inside I was excited. Apparently I can talk to Mom about topics like boys? That was pretty cool for a mom.


The eighth grade graduation was coming up. Our family couldn’t be bothered with school events so I had to make arrangements for my grandpa to drop me off in the evening and to pick me up when it was over. I wore a long black skirt and a quarter-sleeve periwinkle blue shirt with the same colored designs embroidered all over. As I was walking into the building, the most popular girl in the entire grade was walking by as well, and she said,


“Hi Galina, that’s a pretty shirt.”


I froze, and racked my brain desperately for how I was supposed to reply. This sounded like a compliment, and in the sixth grade we had a lesson about compliments and putdowns and how one was to respond.
“Oh, hi! Um, yes. Uh, thank you! It is just a…” I remembered that a response to a compliment was supposed to be simple. “Um, thank you!” Wow. That was so nice of her.


Students and families mingled after the graduation ceremony. There were appetizers and project displays set up all around. Somebody asked me where my family was.


“Oh, nobody was able to make it.”


“Oh, that’s so sad!”


“Eh.” I shrugged. I looked at the art display. There was my acrylic painting that won Judge’s Favorite award in the county fair. I wondered if Dad would be proud of me. He had found a great deal at a garage sale for my first set of drawing pencils and tracing paper. Art class was my favorite class. The teacher would do a little bit of talking and the rest of the time we could create. Once a girl began talking about how her life is so sad because her mom died and how she misses her mom very much. I felt her pain and thought that maybe I could be her friend. Several people began making comments about how they felt sorry for her and began to ask questions. She talked for a little and then cracked up.


“Hahaha ha-ha! I’m just messing with you all! I have both parents. This was so funny! All of your responses! Ah-ha ha ha ha!” I wanted to punch her. I couldn’t believe how immature that was. I couldn’t wait until high school. That’s when real life would begin.


I couldn’t have been more right.

3. Food Stamp Rewards


I don’t remember much about the funeral except sitting in the front row of the memorial service and staring straight at the open casket. As absurd as it may seem, a tiny, almost fearful, glimmer of hope remained: what if dad will wake up? It happened in the Bible, why not now? Maybe the miracle was waiting to happen? Yet it was terrifying to imagine a dead body moving or sitting up. I tried to make my siblings feel better.


“There’s a book that’s called ‘Ten Kids, No Pets’. Maybe we should all write a book, and call it ‘Ten Kids, No Dad’?”


Nobody thought it was funny.


After the body was buried, I realized all chances for a supernatural miracle were buried as well. I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt that I didn’t pray hard enough or demonstrate enough faith to save dad.


That year I was a seventh grader, and it was my first year at a private school. Some friends sent their kids there, so my family had decided to try it out too, just me though. During the months my dad was sick, I attended irregularly and one of my teachers would bring me some of the homework so I wouldn’t fall too far behind. When I resumed attendance, there was a small yellow card on my desk from my teacher, and in absolutely beautiful handwriting was a message about missing me and how nice it was to have me back. It was one of the sweetest things anybody had ever done for me. During the school morning assembly, there was a gift waiting for me. It was a bike. It was very nice bike, much nicer than the garage sale bikes we had at home, but it wasn’t my dad. It didn’t replace my dad. My teacher asked if there is anything at all that could be done to make me feel better. To my delight, she was willing to give me piano lessons during lunch break. She took it up a notch and taught me a song on the violin, and even let me hold a flute. The music experience was a fitting distraction from reality.


A short time after, we moved into another house. It was too unsettling to continue living in the current house and imagining dad everywhere. I went back to the local public school. Life was obviously different. We switched churches. There were no more Saturday morning garage sale shopping. Mom didn’t smile anymore. I felt sorry for her because she now had to play the role of two parents caring for so many kids, and especially with the baby being a few months old. The baby was my biggest responsibility: diapers, formula bottles, naps and bedtime. There were nights the baby just wanted to be held, and I would pace the room while the whole family was sleeping to keep the baby quiet.


I had to ensure all the household chores were completed by the assigned kids: all the dishes, kitchen tables, laundry, vacuuming. Mom used money to reward us. I would get the most since I was the oldest and had to manage the chores. This served to my advantage because I had extra money that I could use to pay one of my siblings to do my chore for me. Now the disadvantage was that most of this money was in the form of food stamps. The booklet allowed $1 food stamps to be torn out, which is what mom used. Then when she went grocery shopping she would take up to three kids with her and the prizes would get purchased, usually Little Debbie snack packs. Star Crunch was my favorite. Once in a while the green dollars were used, which held a higher bargaining power. When that didn’t work, I would offer to do homework or projects in exchange for cleaning a particularly messy kitchen or room. Once I did a drawing project for a much younger sibling, and it accidentally won a prize and got in the town newspaper. I became more careful with which homework I helped after that.


Mom began having some weird dreams. Dad had a brother who never married, and you guessed it, that’s who the dreams were about. She began fantasizing about him marrying her and making her life a little easier. He came over several times for some practical purposes. Mom casually mentioned the idea, scared him off for good, and he never came to visit us again.


We slowly adjusted to the way things were. With ten kids around it was difficult to be bored. Somebody gave us kittens. We dug out an enormous dirt pit for the boys. It had fantastic roads and tunnels where they would drive their Hot Wheels cars around for hours. We had a huge yard to play in. It was so huge that we would run laps and imagine we were training for the Olympics. The next-door neighbor was an avid gardener who spent most of her time digging around in her plants. We imagined her face expression when we would win the Olympic medals and she would say “Wow! I lived next door to them and saw them training! Too bad I wasn’t very nice to them. Too bad I never got their autograph!” The remainder of our free time was spent playing tag downstairs.


One of the more challenging adjustments was waking up on time. Our mornings were ridiculously hectic. We had a few alarm clocks always set. Somebody would finally wake up and realize it’s five minutes before the school bus arrives, so a mad dash around the house got the rest of the kids up and out the door. Good luck trying to eat breakfast. Of course there was the person who liked to snooze. As we would run up the long driveway to the road where the bus was waiting, I’d do a quick headcount and realize we’re short one, so I’d have to rush back into the house to see who’s missing and why. It was often a sibling who fell asleep while doing homework, which meant a quick “Get up and go!” especially if yesterday’s outfit was already on. If not, it might be too late to make it to school. Garbage Day was the worst day of the week. As we raced up the driveway to get on the school bus we would remember about it:


“Oh no!”




“We forgot the take the garbage bins!”


“Ok, go, go, go!”


“No! I did it last week!”


“Who cares? Let’s go, I’ll help you!”


“No, my backpack is heavy!”


“I’ll give you a dollar!”




“Oh no!”




“We need to do recycling containers too!”


The bus driver would patiently wait for us, every single school day. God bless her heart.


It wasn’t enough for our family to live off of the government assistance, so mom began looking for jobs. She found a laundry position in the evening in the same nursing home where dad had been. One of the grandmas, aunts, or a friend would stay over to help with the kids. We went to church on Sundays in our white and blue Dodge Ram van. It was fancy because it had a TV inside. The first TV we’d ever owned. As soon as service was over, mom would stay and chat with people, and we would hurry into the van and watch Sabrina the Teenage Witch. It was the only available option; all the other channels had static.


Then one evening something unusual took place. There was a knock on the door. We opened the door to see a man with white hair and a bouquet of flowers standing there. He looked at us awkwardly and said,


“I’m here to see your mom, is she available?”

2. Valerian Root


My dad didn’t take his test results well. He came home, stretched out on our blue couch in the living room, covered himself with a thin blanket, folded his arms, and waited to die. He had the latest stage of cancer so thoroughly spread out, that even the doctor was surprised how dad was still alive at this point. The prognosis – one month of life left.


Two years prior to this, my dad got a job, which required a health checkup. On that exam, a few little spots were discovered on his lungs, and a biopsy had been recommended. It was of concern because we had lived in Ukraine, where a few years prior the Chernobyl disaster had occurred. But my dad, he was a man. Macho man. Superhero. He wasn’t feeling pain anywhere, so why in the world should he get a biopsy done? If it were truly something serious, he would be feeling pain, and that would justify getting the biopsy. Well now it was too late. The cancer had spread; there was zero hope of any kind of treatment helping. In fact, it had spread to a part of his brain, which was causing the seizures.


The second time he had a seizure was no less scary than the first. He fell to the floor, and half of his body was jerking and trembling uncontrollably. Again, I made a familiar phone call, the ambulance arrived, and off we went to the hospital. We were informed that as the cancer grows, more seizures would take place. And they did. I began to dread waking up, not knowing if that would be a day where another seizure would happen.


My dad was a very disciplined, brilliant man. Immigrating into the United States of America at the age of 34, he immersed himself in all the English language programs and books he could possibly find. Within a year he was the designated translator/interpreter in our social circle. That year I went into first grade and learned the language there. We would have a competition of who knew more English words.


“Dad, I have a new one today!”


“What is it? I learned many words today too, I bet I already know it.”


“Nope! What’s hotdog?”


That was the one word that stumped him, because literally hot and dog are two words, which made no sense combined, and hotdog was a food item that I saw in the cafeteria that day. It felt so good to outsmart my dad.


Each morning before the school bus picked me up, dad would give me a Russian language book, from which I needed to read, and if I was done quickly, to spend the remainder of the time practicing Russian handwriting. He always ordered books from a book company, and sometimes he would let me browse through the catalog to choose a children’s book too. These were days before we had the computer or Internet or iPhones, so our free time was spent playing tag, riding bikes, or reading books.


One day somebody recommended a natural cancer treatment book to my dad. This did wonders for my dad’s attitude; it was as if he got another shot at life. The next day a juicing machine appeared in our kitchen, followed by bags of vegetables. I remember chopping up beets, celery, other greens, and carrots. My siblings and I took turns making juices; we would sneak a few sips, especially carrot juice. My dad began juicing furiously, hoping to cure the cancer. He ordered a giant box of special herbs from another country.


I baked some rolls for him, his favorite, ones that were labeled “Daddy’s Buns” in the recipe book. Each buttered bun had one raisin at the top for decoration. This was a recipe I had perfected because dad encouraged me. He supported most of my little projects. Sometimes I felt that since I was the oldest, I was his favorite. Once I wanted to bake bread, so I called my aunt, got the recipe, and had the ingredients purchased. I had no idea what dough was supposed to look like, and my mom was busy tending to the young babies, so it was completely up to me. The first water/yeast batch didn’t rise, so I just mixed it in with the remaining ingredients and got a lumpy sticky batter. The “dough” needed to rise, so I poured the batter into five bread loaf pans and stuck them in the oven while I went to school. Hopeful that the batter would rise since it had more hours in the oven, I was disappointed to find the same lumpy batter at the same level in each loaf pan. They baked for hours. Finally they seemed to be fully cooked. The final result was a brick bread that looked identical to an actual brick. I tried it; it was disgusting.


My dad sawed off a corner, tasted it, and said, “Delicious!” and ate a few more bites. I was very sad the bread didn’t turn out and was ready to toss the loaves into the trash.


“Nonsense! Bring me some foil, I’ll wrap up the remaining loaves to put in the freezer and I’ll eat them later while I eat this one up!” His encouragement kept me going, and I eventually learned there were cooking books in the school library that I could check out and keep experimenting. Yet these Daddy’s Buns he wouldn’t touch because of the strict juicing requirements.


People began visiting us, praying for us. The seizures continued. I stopped going to school. My mom had to deliver the baby, who was the 10th child into our family, so one of the relatives drove her to the hospital. My dad’s mother came to stay with us. She was a fantastic baker, yet a terrible cook. Her bland combination of water, noodles, potatoes and carrots, which she called soup, was appalling. It challenged me to do a cook-off, so the next pot had a flavorful soup like the one I’ve seen mom make. Grandma baked delicious kolach, yet she couldn’t tell me the recipe because everything was made “na glaz”, or by the eyeball method. Since I had more time, I followed her around and recorded how much of each ingredient went into the recipe.


By this point my dad received a hospital bed, which was situated in our living room. He had a steel walker and managed to hobble around that way. Then one day, a worker from Hospice Care arrived. She said she needed to talk to us about what we are doing, what are our plans after dad passes away, does he have a will, and so forth. I’m not sure why it was a shocker to me, probably because most of the people who visited us kept saying “we will pray for you” and “your dad will get healed”, and here was this woman saying these very morbid sentences. I got angry with her.


“No thank you! Our dad will get well! We are praying very hard, we believe in God, we believe he will get healed! So there!”


Not sure how effective my outburst was, because the woman kept talking, and saying phrases like “it’s hard” and “being in denial” and “comfort care” and eventually left a packet for us.


As my dad’s health deteriorated, he was moved to a nursing home where he could receive 24/7 care.


Some elders from churches came and urged us to pray more intensely. They had several suggestions and questions.


“Perhaps this is God punishing you? Were you very disobedient to your parents? Or you’re not praying enough? You don’t have enough faith?”


In horror I recalled all the times I disobeyed my parents. For some reason I was the troublemaker; I would talk back, I would tell jokes and make my siblings laugh in church, or I didn’t pay attention during a sermon. But I thought I was fine, since I’d already served my punishment by either getting the “switch” (tree branch whipping) or standing an hour or two in a paper-bag in my time-out corner. I must’ve been born naughty. When I was even younger, I got the stinging nettle punishment. When I disobeyed, dad would get a stinging nettle plant and glide it over my leg until it was completely covered in a most unpleasant burning, itching sensation. And here I was, disobedient and naughty to such a degree that God was punishing me by making my dad have cancer.


“Or perhaps there are some hidden sins he needs to confess?”


I listened to the uncomfortable dialogue of people attempting to find all the faults in my dad’s life. He read a lot of books, too many books. Perhaps he was swayed by weird teachings? He ordered many books from a catalog, who took the orders? It was a woman? Did he spend too much time talking to her? Was something else going on? These concerns were brought to him. Anything remotely suspicious or less than ideal living was a factor he had to deal with: he made phone calls, apologized to anybody who might have ever gotten offended by him.


We took turns visiting dad in the nursing home. These visits were more tolerable because they didn’t include the sterile, antiseptic smell of hospitals that made me nauseated.


One such evening I opened the back door to welcome my mom from the nursing home. She had grandma with her.


“Um, mom? Why is grandma with you? She usually stays with dad.”

She didn’t meet my eyes.


“Um, mom?”


She looked at me. Then in a barely audible voice, she whispered, “They let dad go tonight.”


What kind of an answer was that? Did he get healed miraculously?


Mom! What do you mean?”


She opened the medicine cabinet, which was located right next to the door, and took out a round container of valerian root. She shook out a few capsules and handed them to me and put a few more in her mouth.


“Take these, they will calm the nerves.”


And then I knew what she meant.