11. Light at the end of a Tunnel

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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

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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.

40?

Woah.

42?

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

45?

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?”

“Sure!”

“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.”
Perfect.

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!

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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

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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.

1. Ambulance Ride

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I clasped my hands tighter and tried to keep myself from trembling as I sat between the two paramedics.

“Do you want to go really fast?” asked the driver. I nodded, not sure why he was asking me. “How about the sirens? Should we make them loud?” I nodded again. Why was he asking me that? He was the driver, those were his decisions to make, not mine.

The other paramedic asked me how old I was. “Twelve,” I answered.

“And you speak Russian?” I nodded.

“Your English is great! How long have you lived in America?” I shrugged. Why do they keep talking to me?

“That’s really neat! I wish I knew two languages! You know that you can be a professional interpreter? They make really good money! You’re the youngest interpreter I’ve ever met!” He sounded impressed, but I couldn’t tell for sure.

 

Out of the corner of my eye I could see cars flashing by as the ambulance raced to the hospital.

“Is…is my dad gonna be OK?” I asked quietly. My knuckles clenched harder than I thought possible.

“That’s why we’re taking him to the hospital. There are some very good doctors who will take a few tests to find out what’s going on.”

 

The emergency room was ready for my dad. A nurse was talking through each step that she took. I wasn’t paying too much attention because my dad had regained his consciousness and there was no need to interpret anything. He looked helpless and kept offering me a weak smile each time I looked at his face. I jerked with a start when the nurse mentioned drawing blood. That I could not handle, even if someone else was getting the procedure done. The ominous-looking needle, the outstretched arm, and the strong sanitized smell of the hospital was almost too much. Shifting my seat loudly, I turned my head and closed my eyes.

 

Earlier that evening, the whole family had been gathered in the living room for the daily devotional time. We usually sang a song or two and prayed. My favorite part was when each person got to choose a random number and my dad would read that verse if that number was available from the page of the Bible that he’d selected. The goal among the siblings was to choose a verse that wasn’t on the page so that another choice could be made. Most choices = winner.  It didn’t take much to entertain us. All of a sudden my dad yelped and grabbed his leg. “Help! My leg! Something’s happening!” and he fell with his back to the floor and stopped moving.

 

My mom lifted her third-trimester belly and shuffled over, calling his name, shaking him, trying to get him to wake up. All the kids froze, just momentarily, then chaos took over. Some began to wildly jump around, others cry, and since we were in prayer position, still others began praying really loudly. In absolute panic I sprinted to my parents’ room and grabbed the phone. It took several attempts before my fingers landed on the 3 digits correctly and the line began to ring.

 

“9-1-1, what is your emergency?”
One of the most dreadful feelings is when you need help, but you can’t request it. The words weren’t coming out of my mouth. It was like a bad dream.

 

“Hello? Hello? Is anybody there?”

 

“Ah! Ah! Help!” I croaked. It wasn’t easy trying to force words out and breath at the same time. “My dad. Help! Ah…Dying? Please help!”

 

God bless her heart; the operator told me to take a few deep breaths and began asking questions that I could answer with one or two words and the next thing I knew, she told me to go unlock the door because an ambulance had arrived and they needed to come inside. It wasn’t just an ambulance, there were police cars and fire trucks too. The commotion brought out all the curious neighbors. The medics tried to figure out what happened. I heard the word “seizure” a few times.

 

Since my mom’s English speaking skills were limited, I was the person to accompany my dad to the hospital.

 

I heard my dad call my name. I turned my head. His smile wasn’t fooling me for one second. “They’re done with the blood draw. Everything will be fine, you’ll see,” he said.