I was told that when he first found out he was going to be a big brother he was ecstatic. So ecstatic that he had already mapped out our lives to the point where he even knew what my name would be. I was supposed to be Lollipop, as sweet as my name and the best friend he could keep through, all of his ups and downs. I would play all of his crazy games when he was in his highs and comfort and love him in his lows even when he didn’t know why his heart hurt. And for the first period of our lives, that’s exactly what I did.
I’m four years old, twirling and twirling and I can feel the world and myself spinning in perfect tempo around the vast universe. The scent of Sunday morning omelets drifts into my nose and old-school rock-and-roll plays throughout the house like an intimate and familiar concert. I am teaching my brother how to dance like a prince, who reluctantly plays into my princess fantasy. We twist, turn, dip, and laugh until Dad announces breakfast is ready and I’m not in the Castle’s ballroom anymore but back to reality where luxury was blueberry pancakes and Hello Kitty pajamas.
We are playing in the backyard. My brother is “it” and he’s chasing after me. I can hear his boyish laughter tinkling in my ears like wind chimes as the air rushes around me. He’s four years older than me and he runs like hurricanes and lightning storms while I am just a slow drizzle on a Sunday morning. I can feel him gaining on me and I shriek with excitement and anticipation. Suddenly I am being thrown on the ground and all I feel is crushing pain. I start to cry. He sees what he has done and his face drops. My brother begins to cry, chanting over and over again, “I’m sorry.” He tells me I can hurt him in a voice that shows me he’s just a little boy trying to fix things the only way he knows how. An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth. In the background I can hear my mother rushing us inside, scolding my brother as she holds my hand.
“No more playing together, Jaiden. This is what happens every time.” said my mother.
Looking back I know now that this wasn’t the last time we played tag or wrestled in the backyard but it also wasn’t the last time I got hurt. I never understood at the time that it wasn’t his excitement that caused me a skinned knee or a bruised heart but his ADHD which blurred the right from the wrong in a way that made him different. There is nothing I am more grateful for then the fact that I never saw his faults when we would play back then. He was just my brother.
It’s the night before the first day of fourth grade and I am having a sleepover at my friend's house talking about childish things like what we’re going to wear to school tomorrow and if we “like, like” the same boy. I don’t really understand why I am staying at my friend's house and the rest of my family is gone. However, I do know that I am not supposed to talk about it with my classmates at school.
That week my parents pick me up so I can go see where my family has been disappearing to. My head resting against the window, staring through the sky as we zoom down the 101, I can feel my body vibrate from the top of my head to the tip of my toes.
Finally, we arrive and a slow burn of dread fills the pit of my stomach. Instead of a bright, pink castle or a magical tree house, I find myself in a hospital with stark white walls and a sterile smell. My parents and I are being led to a large door with a lock and code fit for a prison. As I wander through the halls holding my father’s hand I see a teenager distraught and crying hysterically rolled in a ball in the corner being comforted by a nurse. I hold my dad’s hand tighter with the naive belief that my father can protect me from the dark, ugly, and unknown truths of the world. My dad nudges me inside another room as white as the light you follow after death. I’m scared. I see my brother.
“This is where your brother has been staying. Aren’t you glad to see him? I know he’s happy to see you.” my mom says with a smile that doesn’t hide her sad and tired eyes.
My brother mirrors my mother’s smile and it makes me want to cry. He looks as pale as the walls closing in on me and has bags under his eyes fit for an old man, not a twelve-year-old boy. I hug him as tight and as long as I can. I ask if he wants to play a game but he declines. I’m terrified of how much the boy in front of me contrasts with the beautiful, full of life brother who I had grown up with. He want’s to be left alone, so slowly I am urged out.
“It’s not your fault, Jaiden. He just doesn’t feel well,” my dad assures me. However, this explanation does nothing for me.
A few days later he returns home and is welcomed with treats and “Welcome Home” signs. I am given a t-shirt that says UCLA on it and am instructed not to tell anyone where I got it. My stomach hurts.
My brother has started high school and I don’t see him anymore. When he’s not at school, he is in his room. He is always tired. I can tell he’s lonely at school, which leaves me heartbroken but I don’t know how to reach out to him. It terrifies me that I don’t know him anymore, that the depressed person in front of me has no trace of the boy who I played tag with and waltzed through the kitchen, the young adventurer with a light in his eyes like no other, who always had my back through broken vases, hurt feelings, and parent’s scoldings. So I leave him alone.
He’s in college now and I haven’t spoken to him for weeks. This is mostly because I am ashamed of what our relationship has become. What I have let it become. When we do talk, it is superficial, asking benign questions about our classes or whether his roommates clean their dishes. Some days, I know he’s in a bad place, but I can’t bring myself to ask him if he’s okay. Partly because I really hate the answer, but mostly because when I hear his voice or look into his eyes it all comes back. I am back in the hospital surrounded by a bright white light, a fragile little girl who doesn’t understand what’s happening, who doesn’t understand that it is not her fault. But it’s also not his fault or anyone else’s for that matter. At that moment I am a little girl who can’t understand why bad things happen to good people for no apparent reason.
I’d like to say that I will be able to call him today and show him what I am feeling or to see how he is really doing. But I might not. Maybe I’ll get swept up with my friends or will just have too much homework. And in the back of my head, I know that these will just be excuses coming from a scared kid who still haunts my thoughts. I am not perfect. I am only human. The only thing I can hold onto is knowing that one day when I look into the whites of my brother’s eyes, all I will see is a passionate, caring, funny, depressed, strong, anxious, loving and complex human.
We were the last condo on the corner. An ugly brown box with a tiny porch and a square of grass littered with boogie boards, bubble machines, and an over sized inflatable swan. There were plastic chairs out front where we sat after dusk, watching the moonlight glinting on the bay and listening to the Sea World fireworks booming in the distance. The condo was by no means glamorous, especially compared to the neighboring quaint cottages and towering summer homes. But for one week of the summer, every summer that I can remember, it was ours.
As I stepped out of the minivan, the familiar aura of Mission Bay washed over me. The slight breeze in my hair, the subtle sunlight warming my back, the jingle of bike bells and steady chatter of passersby and squawking seagulls. I looked toward the condo, where my six-year-old cousin stood. Stringy blonde hair fell to just below her shoulders. She had Auntie Tiff’s hair and Guma’s hair, too. She had round hazel eyes that would widen at every comment and little pink lips that were always forming questions (or complaints) or laughing at Uncle Teddy’s jokes. The adults were constantly calling after her, “Brittany!” (Auntie Tiff) or “Brit-ta-ny” as Guma would croon.
She was wearing her little pink flip-flops and Elsa pajama dress when we paraded over, her hand on her hip and head cocked to the side at the sight of our odd ensemble - PD (my younger brother), my mom, and I were using a shopping cart we’d found in the parking lot to tote our suitcases and boogie boards. As I set my things down on the porch, Brittany scampered over and I swooped her up in a hug. I could see Brandon farther down the bike path, swerving and skidding on his red child’s bike. Inside, Uncle Ted was peeling off his wetsuit, already back from his morning surfing, and Guma was just rolling over in bed. Auntie Tiff turned and waved from the kitchen as we called “Hello” and lugged our suitcases to the back bedroom. At last, after a 4am departure and drowsy car ride, we had arrived.
From there the day unfolded as every vacation day did every year. Running down to the bay, feeling the algae squishing between our toes. Gliding across the water on the monstrous inflatable swan with Brittany and Brandon in tow on the boogie boards. Little waves rippled behind us as we paddled. Sometimes, the swan tipped and we had to kick and grapple to climb back on top. At last, with aching limbs, PD and I managed to reach the dock across the bay. After slipping into the water, we scratched and clawed to hoist ourselves up onto the splintering wood. Then, we lay on our stomachs and stretched our arms out to the water to pull a shivering Brittany and Brandon up and over the side of the dock. Holding their small hands tightly in ours, we tugged and they shrieked and we all launched off of the dock and hit the water with a splash.
Later, we suited up to skip across the street to the beach, where we hunted for sand crabs and flew kites and skimmed across the water on our boogie boards for hours. Guma observed from her perch in the lawn chair, laughing so hard at Brittany’s latest fit that tears streamed from her eyes. I waited eagerly until Brittany’s pouting sufficed and then Auntie Tiff and I charged into the water. We splashed over sea foam like we were hurdlers at a track meet and paddled, hungrily, out to where the larger waves were breaking. Once we swam far enough, we floated contentedly, letting ourselves be swept up and over the crests of the waves, until we spotted the one we knew we had to ride. Then we kicked and paddled furiously until it came, rushing over us and propelling us all the way to shore. Exhilarated, we popped up, spit the salt out of our mouths, yanked our swimsuits back into place, and raced out again to meet the ocean. Again and again and again. Sometimes, we rode the waves forever. Other times, we were dumped by a deceptive swell or thrashed by the relentless whitewash.
And other times, we just floated. Past the surfers, past the waves, past where our toes could touch the sand. We flipped over on our backs like sea otters and hugged the boards for buoyancy. We loved the thrill of the water rinsing through our hair and the lull of it rolling into waves beneath us. All that lay before us was the glossy ocean and streaky orange sky. The expansiveness was liberating. As we bobbed there, listening to the water gently lapping against our boards and the breaking waves crash behind us, we talked and laughed with one another about anything - high school, friends, future decisions. Those were the most precious moments - the ones when I had my aunt and the whole ocean, it seemed, all to myself.
Eventually, we sensed that it was time to leave, either by the long shadows on the beach or our purplish lips and the prickly goosebumps on our skin. With bright eyes, full hearts, and weary bodies, we rode in, packed up, and trekked back to the condo (usually forgetting a flip-flop or two in the sand). We knew crispy tacos and dry pajamas awaited us inside.
That was what summer was to me - those long days, hot nights, swatting flies in the condo kitchen, and spraying passing roller skaters with the bubble gun. It was the joy of reconnecting with the friend within each of my family members and the freedom of disconnecting from the world beyond. It was one week, one blissful week, when my family and I celebrated all things silly and spontaneous because all we needed was each other. We lived each day splash by splash. Wave by wave. Moment by moment. And it was glorious.
Mi nombre habla, explora el mundo, y más que todo, lucha en las batallas. Con no sólo los que lo dudan pero con sí mismo. Esas seis letras, haciéndome entero, formándome como un pastel, de piel cafe, ojos oscuros, y una boca esperando ansiosamente para hablar. Los ingredientes necesarios para construirlo. Al niño. Sin nombre será solo organismo, sin sentimientos. Sin su mismo. Un monstruo sin hogar, sin vida en que vivir, el monstruo llora en cuanto se hace conocido. La luna lo respetaba por las aventuras en su rostro y por las pláticas en que se encuentran frecuentemente. Algo en su alma que resalta, una luz demasiada fuerte para ser unida con algo tan mínimo. Esa minimalidad destruye las habitaciones de duda, encontradas en los otros que estaban dirigidos a él.
Un amor que no deja de amar. Aunque seguido los que ama, pisan sobre el. Pisan con intención de quebrar su corazón de vidrio. Una clase sin fin de ser ese hijo perfecto. De ser la persona que mis papás desean . De aplicarse a una historia, Sobre una odisea, y un hombre llamado Ulises. Su nombre cae sobre mí como gotas de lluvia, desesperadamente trato de esquivar la ideología de masculinidad. Ser fuerte, sin emoción, sin llorar, sin ser humano. Ser Hombre. En mi mamá, yo nací. De su boca y su corazón. Un Nombre que aunque cae pesado, me hace único y al final del día, eso hace toda la diferencia.
Una cara con una sonrisa, con el único propósito de ayudar a construir una nueva vida, llena de cambio y de amor. Esta cara fue heredada por mí. Esas Cejas oscuras, su piel morena, nariz gigante, y más que todo su sonrisa. Una personalidad única, distinta, y diferente. Los cambios de humor frecuentan, los pensamientos oscuros siguen. Y cuando no se encuentran, felicidad y amor resaltan. Una cara diferente, en que no herede nada. Ni personalidad, ni pensamientos. La nube de mal humor llegó finalmente, tardecito pero seguro, lloviendo en mi desfile con la características faciales de mi papá, pronto un grito me calla. Este mal humor atribuido de amor, y de su pasado. Y aun esto su corazón es más puro y más poderoso que el de cualquiera. No quisiera heredar el mal humor que viene con su amor; Sin embargo, debería nada más quedarme con su forma de ser tan puro y humilde. Su amor brilla sobre las nubes, que él mismo creó, como si finalmente salió el sol.
Mi nombre con la tendencia de siempre ser mal escrito y mal dicho, como un chile demasiado picante, los gueritos lo ven con confusión, y sus lenguas se queman con las palabras liberadas. El chile habanero, un sabor distinto.
Aunque el significado de mi nombre es algo un poco diferente a lo que realmente me identifico, yo amo mi nombre. Por ser como el chile, que quema. Por luchar todas las batallas con palabras y con un amor distinto. Y por mi piel, que es morena y que sobresale entre la pieles de origin blanca. Que aunque es condenada a vivir una vida diferente que las demás, las mismas diferencias hacen y forman mis pensamientos y maneras de vivir. Mi nombre, mi cara, y más que todo, mi cultura me hace humano, y me da alientos para seguir viviendo mi vida. Mi nombre no es sólo seis palabras, ni un chile, es mi piel y mi sangre. Y nadie me puede quitar eso.
If the sky contained a bleariness fit for the occasion, then the raindrops were tears, expressing the emotions I couldn’t seem to externalize, no matter the amount of effort I put into doing so. The trip south had become tiring, and although my mother and her sisters were nostalgically sharing stories of their childhoods, my lack of knowledge on the subject made me grow disinterested. The raindrops slid down the car window, providing a pastime for myself as I chose two and followed their paths in a race, though, despite which drop had rightfully won, both pooled at the bottom of the glass in the same fate. My mind was also occupied with other, less light-hearted thoughts I repeated like a mantra, seemingly the only ones that crossed my mind at the moment: her name was Susan, I was related to her, and she was dead.
By the time we reached the Mount Sinai Cemetery, every thought was silenced and replaced with the anxiety of meeting strangers who knew me. Wind tangled with rain, and a sharp, consistent, whistle became the service’s background music. Rolling down the window to pay at the parking booth was a struggle for my aunt, and emerging from the bulky car as relatives of all ages greeted me was likewise a struggle for me. Their eagerness to talk made it seem as though the funeral wasn’t a funeral at all, but merely a way to catch up on lost time. When spoken to, I would smile, nod, and act accordingly as though I knew exactly who they were so as not to offend them. I now wonder if I was tricked, fed false information as I lied through my grin, and all they had to do was see right through my easily manipulated young mind. Any thought of the sort would be quickly dismissed, however, as such a thing would only seem characteristic of my father’s side of the family.
As I stood face-to-face with the white mausoleum walls, my mother told a story - this time of a family friend from her childhood who had abandoned her for other friends in 7th grade - to a cluster of relatives. I stared for a long time at those sheltered walls, underneath a white roof, and pondered my own fate. I quickly dismissed this thought with a popular reassurance of mine at the time: “Why am I worried? I’m never going to die!” Of course, the 11-year-old mind is a mecca of inexperience, and mine would soon change.
The casket was carried with great difficulty up the grassy slope by six relatives in black suits. We followed closely behind, my blistered feet from ill-fitting flats filling with rainwater and mud. I wondered if we were being disrespectful, stepping over the grave markers to reach the only one we cared about. “Did I really care?” I asked myself. As El Malei Rachamim was recited, my only focus was on the way she may have looked behind the casket. The alive and laughing face I couldn’t picture to begin with was, to my imagination, now frightening and cold.
At one point during the service, a man in front stepped outwards and yelled to the sky in a language I could not place, his voice dripping with desperation as he threw his arms up in despair. Relatives in attendance choked on sobs, and I felt a shiver roll up my spine and sit in my chest, where it lingered for a few long minutes before tapering off, like a wave. It was a feeling, though it was only human nature that had brought it forth, as it makes one sad to see another suffer.
After the funeral, we met at another relative’s cramped, colonial style home. Chairs lined up the wall and stopped at the kitchen. My great-grandmother was a center of gravity, sitting on the living room couch, surrounded by orange candles and attentive relatives. The smell of lamb permeated the house, and we ate without a table, standing or sitting at the chairs and socializing, the main dish interrupted with couscous, olives, and dates. Red wine sloshed as people made their way from the kitchen to the living room. It was still raining when we left, and the autumn wind whipped my face as I made the transition from the warm house to the front door.
It wasn’t until later, during the lengthy return home, that I began to ponder myself and my family. I found it, in my apathy, unfair that Susan had evidently cared about me, considering the doll she had given me when I was a baby. I found it unfair how, although I had a window of two hours to feel something during the service, the only thing that moved me had not made me think of her, but of the person who had addressed her so emotionally. I found it unfair how this family knew me, but I didn’t know them. It took a few years for the subject to pique my interest again, but when it finally did, my mother told me, over the course of a twice-a-year affair, the missing pieces to the story. I now know Susan’s hospitality, her joy, her cross-continental residences. I know the language of the man who cursed the sky. I know the owner of the small, inviting house. Most importantly, however, I now know that knowledge of family is important. It is a compass, a tool to use when I become lost. Their stories instill wonder and cause me to ponder my own, unfinished narrative. My seemingly disinterested nature came not from an inherent part of my personality, but from my inexperienced 11-year-old mind, the same one that once believed she would cheat death.
Reading has always been a pleasure of mine. My favorite books for a long time were the Laura Ingalls Wilder series as I enjoyed the wild adventures the young girls in the stories had whilst living in either a forest or a prairie, their experiences when pioneering to their final destination, and the warmth and comfort the inside of the little homes would bring to the family. However, in the seventh grade, while perusing the shelves of Chaucer’s Bookstore, my eyes came upon a familiar title-Pride and Prejudice. I pulled the book out by its spine. The warm cedar background on the cover displayed a softly painted woman with ivory skin, pinned back hair, and an elongated neck. I held the Oxford’s Classic paperback in my hand and flipped to the back side to read the description. It seemed compelling enough. I flipped the book over again and glanced at the fine black ink within the white rectangle and read the name Jane Austen. Of course this book sounded familiar; my mother had read it before. Excited to be interested in a book my mother had read, I skipped past the rows of wooden bookshelves and dodged the piles of books on the carpeted floor. I spotted my mother and told her that this was the book I wanted and a nostalgic smile came upon her face.
At home, I began reading the story. However, much to my surprise, the book was difficult to follow as the prose was written in the antiquated English of the nineteenth century of which Austen was a contemporary. I was unable to comprehend the first, second, or third pages. The sentences were just too long, taking up a full paragraph at times, filled with words I had never heard of before. Some of the sentences just didn’t seem to make any sense, thus forcing me to reread them over and over again. I set the book down.
But, I did not give up entirely. Determined to impress my mother by reading a classic, I went to the library in my home. A beige wooden frame with simple carvings and a glass screen sheltered our fair collection of books. From Bronte to Bradbury, paperback to hardcover, worn to pristine, many books reside in this armoire. My eyes skimmed across the spines--leather, canvas, paper. I was searching for a familiar title. At last, I discovered Gone with the Wind. This book I knew my mother had read at my age. I pulled the large, slightly disintegrating, book from its tight quarters. The yellow dust jacket desperately hung on to the canvas hardcover. I carried the book back into my sunlit bedroom and sat on the forest green leather chair and rested my elbows on its mahogany arm rests. I opened the book to the first page of the first chapter and was pleased to understand the simple prose. However, another problem surfaced; the story did not hold my interests. I set it down and resumed my search. This time I went to my mother’s bedside where many books lay piled with bookmarks sticking out of them in different spots. I pulled out Moby Dick. Why I thought this book would be better than the last two I attempted, I will never know. I returned to my bedroom, which was darkened by grey from the passing clouds outside my windows, clouds that mirrored my mood of frustration. I opened the first page. This time the book surpassed the first two I chose in that it wasn’t only difficult but also uninteresting. Why weren't the adult classics appealing to me? I felt unintelligent, dull-witted, and ignorant.
Both embarrassed and sorrowful, I lamented to my mother; however, despite my expectations, she was not disappointed. Instead, my pragmatic mother was able to alleviate this new found stress by explaining to me to take things one step at a time, to choose books that interest me, and that the only way advanced books will become easier is by starting small. Having assuaged my anxiety, I asked my mother what I should start with and much to my surprise, and after she made me assure her that I found the book interesting, she recommended Pride and Prejudice. I explained to her again that the book was difficult for me to comprehend because of its language. However, she told me to persevere and that I would get into the flow of the book’s language after a chapter or so. Still interested in the novel, I went back to my bedroom and began reading. I flipped through the lightweight pages until I reached the first page of chapter one. The first, second, and third pages remained difficult; however, I persisted. By the second chapter I was truly beginning to understand the story; it flowed as steadily as the misconceptions of Mr. Darcy’s disposition.
Not long after entering Longbourn and leaving Pemberley did I make a list of adult classics to read. There are approximately 100 books on the list, ranging from old to modern classics, Shakespeare to Salinger. So far I have made lots of progress with this list!
However, there are still some books that I find to be too demanding of my patience. Recently, for example, I tried to read Virgil’s Aeneid for my AP Latin course. I found the book to be extremely arduous and I could not get through it without the aid of a book on mythology, a dictionary, and a summary book to fully comprehend what I was reading. More recently, I began reading The Castle by Franz Kafka and much to my regret, I found the story to be painfully slow tempoed. I ended up putting it down. Usually when I find myself reading a book that is boring or overly complex, I get very frustrated. It makes me feel ignorant and thus disappointed in myself as I want to be a well read person. However, my mother introduced to me her theory that when a book doesn’t hold one’s attention, set it down as it means that it is not the right time to read that particular book. Essential to this is perseverance, as it is important to return to the book that was at one point difficult and eventually complete it. She reinforced this with her experience in reading the book Middlemarch by George Eliot. She had tried to read the former book quite a few times before she finally completed it, and it currently stands as one of her favorites. Lately I've come to trust that if a book disagrees with me in the moment, I should not despair, but set it down and I will read it at the appropriate time. Who knows, maybe it will even become a favorite…….