Prom (by Troy Todd)

Prom.  Those four letters that get every teenager’s heart racing.  Just imagine: you and your best friend, maybe even your girlfriend going to the fanciest gala of your entire life.  Taking those priceless photos in the backyard with all of your friends dressed to the nines, and your dates in the most beautiful gowns they could find whilst carrying a bouquet of flowers that we bought just for them.  The limousine ride over: the holy grail of suburban transportation; and the anticipation just rising to burst through the doors at the hall and see all of your lifelong friends.   The people, the lights, and the music all just coming together to put the cherry on top of the four years of high school you have grown so fond of and nostalgic over.  The dancing.  The intimacy of a man and a woman moving together to the beat; feeling the innermost connection and sparking lifelong memories.  Yes, this is prom.  Well, for most people that is.  This was my fantasy, my expectation that I held for so many years.  However, I learned very quickly that the universe had other plans for me, and this one spring day changed all of that.  It changed much more than I could have ever planned.

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I kissed her. I kissed her goodbye; it was pretty standard, being another end of another school day. I probably kissed her goodbye after school hundreds of times, and this one seemed no different.  We parted ways, she drove home in her blue Acura, and I drove off in my red ford, only I was not heading home. In only 24 hours I would ask my girlfriend of nearly two and a half years to prom, to what I thought would be the best night of my life.  Instead of my home, I pulled into the flower shop and bought a bouquet of red roses to give her after I pop the question. She loved roses. I headed home bouncing with excitement.  I started gathering the other materials I would need to adequately surprise her, maybe even enchant her.  I was pleased with everything I threw together, and thought it was about time I start my homework.  It was around this moment that I read a text that would change things forever. “Hey, we need to talk.”

So, that’s probably the worst phrase in human history when talking to your significant other. We talked; we talked about how we’d been growing apart the last few months.  I had become a very involved member of the drama club, while she focused on sports and partying, something I scrutinized at the time. “We’ll maybe we have, but I still love you” I reassured her. “No” she said, “this is different.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. We had only fought a handful of times in what felt like a lifetime together, but I could tell that something was wrong. I still don’t know today whether it was fate, if the universe was off-balance that day, or if my duties as a boyfriend had simply not been fulfilled, but eventually, my phone rang. It was her, crying. I had never heard her cry. My eyes welled up, and my English paper I was working on soon became soaked with tears as our relationship came to a dreary, depressing end. “I won’t give up, I love you too much to just throw this away” I pleaded. “Well, I feel like we’re just beating a dead horse here.” She sputtered between wails of sadness. “Do you hate me?” She asked. “Of course not, how could I ever hate you.  You’re my everything, no matter what happens I’ll be by your side.  You just watch.”  Soon, we hung up. I looked at the flowers I had bought several hours before and I just lost it.  The thing is, I didn’t feel terribly sad or angry or anything at this point. I was just empty, completely void of feeling; I could barely move. What do I possibly do now? Everything I’d known had just gone out the window; how do I even go about a single day on my own, I simply didn’t know how. I looked again at the flowers, and I had a moment of realization. I couldn’t let this bridge burn down. If I couldn’t go to prom with the girl I love, whether she still loves me or not, why go to prom at all? I went to bed that night cold and alone, but I could feel a small fire burning inside of me.
It was a “B” day at Marple Newtown High School the next day, and that means I had study hall the last period of the day, so I was allowed to leave an hour early. I walked out to the parking lot and put a post-it note on her car. “Come to your house for a nice surprise!” I got into my car and drove only about a mile down to her house. I turned off the car and taking a deep breath I opened my trunk.  Inside were a suit jacket, a ton of chalk, and the roses from the day before. I looked over at her driveway and noticed that her parents must not be home, which made things much easier. Having to see them would just restart the flurry of emotion I experienced the night before. I looked out across the street pavement in front of her house, and planned out how exactly I would write “PROM?” in the most prominent way possible. I knelt down and began writing my masterpiece, but as it so happens, her next door neighbor had been watching me for quite some time now. Shortly after I hit chalk to pavement she asked me “I’ve got to ask you, what exactly are you doing?” I looked up, “Oh, I’m just asking my girlfriend to prom.” And that’s when it truly hit me, the hollow feeling came back, but I wasn’t about to let my guard down. But the sentence I had badly wanted to say for years finally came out, only it wasn’t true. The woman smiled and walked back into her house. It only took about 20 minutes, but it felt like a lifetime in front of her house, the house I spent so much time in my high school years, laughing, loving, and learning so much about myself. I finally finished my presentation writing out “PROM?” with “prom” written in smaller font all around it. It was beautiful, but I had no idea what she’d think, considering the roller coaster of emotions we experienced in the past 12 hours. I sat on the curb as I waited for her to return home, trying to hold back all my emotions and memories of before, but to no avail. I had sat in this same spot with her in months past, looking at the stars, and talking about love and the rest of our lives together. Before I could have a proper flashback, she pulled in to her driveway.

She got out of her car, and looked over at me.  She smiled, but all I could see was sadness in her eyes.  I looked at her; with my hands shaking uncontrollably all I could muster was a meek “Hi, Christina.” She ran over to me and gave me a hug.  This hug was something unlike I had ever felt before.  I hadn’t seen her in probably 24 hours, but it felt like long-lost friends reuniting after several years.  It was a short, but we held each other tight; filling up the hollowness within me.  We released.  She looked over at the road in front of her house with my bold proposal written all over it.  After a few moments she looked up and said “Yes” with a trembling lip and holding back tears.  I was absolutely delighted.  She could have easily said no, but she chose to be courted to senior prom by her newly acquired “best friend.” We sat on the curb shortly after that, and spoke about all of the changes that have already happened.  There was no usual visiting her at her locker.  There was no more sitting together at lunch.  There was no poking my head into her econ class just to embarrass her.  “All of my friends kept on asking me if I was okay, and I wasn’t really sure what to say” she said.  We sat there and reflected on the night before.  “In the middle of the night, I woke up crying, and I regretted everything.  I wanted to take it all back.” I took this in. “No, maybe, this will all be for the better.  You were right, things have changed, and I’ll always love you, but right now, we need to heal.” A tear rolled down her face.  I had never seen her cry before.  I had been dating her longer than I had known so many of my friends, and this was the first time she became that emotional right in front of me.  I put my arm around her.  “If we’re meant to be together, we’ll come back for each other, and we’ll be happy again.” “You’re right,” she said “we’ll just have to see what happens.” I wanted to tell her that this didn’t have to be the end.  If I could just convince her to not leave me, she wouldn’t, and we would go back to normal; perhaps stronger than before.  For some reason, I didn’t.  I let her go because something deep inside me told me that this had to happen.  We silently sat there and held each other for about fifteen minutes.  The last time I would ever hold her.  She eventually got up and told me she needed to go inside and get ready to start dinner.  I told her it was okay.  She picked up the flowers I got her, and told me “You done good kid,” and walked into her house.  I stood on her sidewalk silently tearing up for a couple minutes before finally driving away.

In the months after that day we grew apart.  We grew apart disturbingly quickly.  I became depressed, and bruised myself regularly for feeling so guilty that I didn’t do more to keep things happy between us.  We ended up going to prom together; however by this point she was already interested in another guy, one of my best friends, which ultimately ruined any chances of either us getting back together or me respecting her as a person at all.  We ended up going to senior week together where we stayed in the same house while she hooked up with my good friend Steve, which was the cause of the first time I had ever yelled at a girl.  She’s scared of me now, and it’s been about ten months now since I saw her last, and we could not be on worse terms.

Considering this, many would think this was a story of woe and tragedy, but on the contrary, this opened up a whole new world to me.

When one door closes, several new doors open.  I found myself lost, not knowing what to do, but quickly I found that this was not at all the end of the world.  I built a new relationship around my family that was nearly nonexistent before.  I starting hanging out with my brother at least some everyday, and spent so much more time with my parents whose bridges I rapidly rebuilt between us.  We went to movies and dinners together, and were able to talk about my future together in ways I never really felt comfortable talking about before.  Most importantly of all, I was able to solidify my participation with my new beautiful friend group.  Joining theater in the end of my high school career earned me a group of friends so exquisite that I will cherish for the rest of my life, and the separation between me and ex-girlfriend could not have helped more in getting me closer to these people I consider my second family.  Also, by experiencing the sadness that haunted me for quite a while, I was able to realize the true value in happiness.  I learned that I could be happy on my own, and that it is truly up to me to conjure my own happiness.  I spent the rest of the summer into my fall semester at Penn State doing whatever it took to get a smile on my face, which became easier and easier as time went on.  I was free, and I was able to really rediscover who I am.  I listened to more music, and I wrote more poetry.  In the end, it isn’t about how a person becomes enchanted, whether it be a relationship, a trip to the prom, or a summer of countless memories with friends; as long as the feeling is attained, the effort was worth it.  As for us, we’ll always have the curb.

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untitled (by Taylor)

I never thought I’d love another women as much as I did in that moment; I was lucky to have a friend like Amy.  We both knew exactly what was going on once that phone rang.  I was in a state of shock listening to my mother talk to Penny, and Amy was just watching everything unravel.  I put my head down in my pillow and lost all control.  Everything I had been holding in the past few months was let loose as I sat there crying, gasping for air.  The next thing I knew I felt the bed cave in next to me, and a hand rubbing smoothly on my back.  I was never one for theatrics, tears, or being “mushy” in any sense; and knowing that, my best friend just sat there rubbing my back.  Nothing was said; she sat there knowing that there was really nothing to say.  And that was exactly what I needed.  After a few minutes my mom came out, somewhat distraught, now knowing that I too knew exactly what had happened.  My grandpa, her father, had passed away that night.

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She came out gave me a hug and told me “Focus on what you need to do today, we can always be sad later”.  I wiped my tears, gave my mom and best friend a hug and started getting ready for the competition.  Getting ready was always a process with our mothers, so Amy and I always took to doing it ourselves to avoid a fight about whether our poof was crooked or not, because in the scope of things, especially today, that didn’t matter.  The entire morning was a blur for me, the only distinct details being that Starbucks burnt my first bagel and had to make me a second one, and the fact that I did my hair by myself.

Since cheerleading is mostly mental my mom was worried about how I would preform under this kind of pressure.  My grandpa’s death was on my mind all day, and memories of my childhood kept hitting me in waves.  I recollected playing in the pool over the summer, going shopping with my grandmother, and listening to his old navy stories as my sister and I lay with him by the fireplace.  My mom thought it would be a good idea to let my coach, Mark, know the situation, so he wouldn’t have to ask me about why I seemed “out of it”.  He must have told the gym manager about it, because before I knew it half of my friends were coming up to me asking me if I was okay, and half of them would just stare and see how I was reacting.  Amy helped deflect most of the comments about it and distracted me with anything else to get my mind off of it.  She kept me calm and focused during stretches and warm ups, and did everything she could to make me laugh.  As we moved backstage for my last performance of the year we did our proud circle and shimmied out our nerves into Mark’s invisible garbage bag.  Before they left Mark and my other coach Dre, made sure to come up to me and give me a hug, knowing that I would be okay.  Amy shot them both a look as if to say, “Don’t say anything!” which must have worked because they gave me my hug and a kiss on the cheek with a simple “Good luck T, we’re proud of you” before they left. Amy and I gathered our team into a circle, to give them one last pep talk before we hit the mat.  She hugged me after the team dispersed again, shaking out all of their final nerves, and said “You’ve got this”.

We held hands as our team name was called up to the mat, and separated into our spots.  Our friend Elyse called out “One, Two, Three….” And the whole team jumped into the air yelling “WOO!”.  I landed clean on the mat, everyone was frozen, with our heads down until the music started.  I gave our routine everything I had in me that day, putting on the best performance, for me, to date.  I was so proud of myself and relieved to be done.  When the routine was over I frantically searched for my best friend, sprinting to give her a hug.  She grabbed my hand and we walked back stage again to talk to our coaches.  I felt great, everything that I did, hit and I was ecstatic.  Our coaches told us we were good, but a stunt fell at the beginning, Amy’s stunt.  After watching the video everyone knew it wasn’t her fault and she did everything she could have to save it.  After some final words from our coaches we ran out into the sea of parents waiting for their children, and searched for our moms.  People kept trying to pull me and talk to me but Amy and I just pushed past them for our mothers.  I ran to my mom and gave her a huge hug.  She hugged me back and said “Your grandpa would have been so proud of you!”.  That was when reality set in.

It all started in early November, just after my birthday when I had come home from practice.  I remember having a horrible practice that night and being in a really bitchy mood already, so when my mom asked if we could talk my snarky response was “What now, did someone die too?”.  She just looked down and said “Your grandfather is in the hospital, they think he has a bad case of pneumonia”.  I instantly felt horrible for what I had said and tried consoling my mom that it would be okay.  But it wasn’t.  Within the next few weeks, the pneumonia medicine wasn’t working and he kept going in and out of the hospital, until he was diagnosed with lung cancer in late December.  We would visit the hospital whenever he was there, and as his stays got longer our visits became more frequent.  Cheerleading picked up and I was at the gym three hours a day every day almost right after school, and I wasn’t able to be there for my grandpa as much as the rest of my family.  But that was okay in my mind because I had talked myself into believing that everything was going to be fine.  But I could only lie to myself for so long.  I realized how serious things were mid competition season in March when he was put in hospice, given six months to live, a fact that my mother could never get up the courage to say.  Balancing visits to the hospital, three teams, and schoolwork every day was tough, but Amy helped me through it all.

Right before I left for U.S. Finals, the week before he died, my mom and I went to their house, where they had an in-house nurse taking care of him for the time being.  I gave him a big hug while he laid in his favorite recliner and helped him in anyway I could have.  We talked about school and cheer like we always do, and he wished me good luck at my competition.  It’s always upset me that that was my last goodbye.  I always thought last goodbyes are these big important moments of your life and that you just know when they’re going to happen, but I didn’t and it was just like an ordinary day for my grandpa and I.  And maybe that was the best last goodbye, at least for me, because although not knowing hurts, I feel as if I had known that would have been much worse.

Two days after the fastest eight-hour car ride home from the competition, was the funeral.  Something that I thought I wouldn’t have to face for quite a few more years.  Walking into the cold weird room with my family was the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do.  It appeared as something straight out of one of my worst nightmares.  After seeing the pained faces of my family, especially my mother who was in hysterics nearly the whole time, the reality hit me.  I couldn’t be in that room any more.  How could the rest of my family expect me to be here for such a sad, morbid event?  I had to excuse myself to the nearest bathroom where I could just sit down and collect my thoughts for a few minutes.  I needed a distraction, I didn’t care what it was but I couldn’t be in that room alone.  After a few minutes of collecting myself I went back into the room and sat with my sister.  She was always the “emotionless” one.  I always admired how she could keep herself together at times like this.  I looked to her to help keep my mind from racing.  Our conversations were helping, but soon people from our other side of the family kept coming up to us and talking about it.  They clearly didn’t know how I handled things like this.  No one did.

I tuned out of the conversation with my sister and my dad’s parents and looked to my mother, who had appeared with the person that I needed most.  I ran up to Aim for a much needed distraction.  Amy and her parents were all here.  I was ecstatic.  The second she walked in we immediately started talking about our teams rank in the country.  Since we won first at the competition we had just got back from, we were likely to place first overall in the country, against the other branches of competitions.  She was telling me how she checked all the scores on line and how we had had the highest so far in our division, and we were most likely going to be awarded the banner for being the best team in the country.

Interrupting our conversation, a small, older man that appeared to be in his fifties announced that he would like to say a few words about my grandfather. The man was with my Grandpa’s chapter of the Knights of Columbus, which my grandfather never attended, because he hated everyone there.  I sat with Amy, and my sister, Katy, as we listened to the man speak.  I was somber the entire speech until the man said “Richard was a very honest man with respect for the law”, that was when my sister and I lost it.  My mom must have heard us because I saw her shoulders move up and down repeatedly, as I tried to maintain my own laughter.  My grandpa was known for always taking a few extra screws from Home Depot and putting them in his pocket before he left, or eating a couple grapes from the counter at the grocery store.  Not that he ever committed any felonies but he most certainly did not have “the highest respect for the law”.  I slowly regained control of my laughing fit with my sister and told Amy that we would tell her later when it wasn’t so obvious.  After the speech Katy and I filled Amy in, as my mom came over to us and yelled at us for making her laugh during the man’s speech.  The service was nearly over and people were beginning to leave, but Amy and her family stayed longer than most.  Before she left she gave me a big hug and told me she would see me later at practice that week.  Her parents gave their condolences to my mom and dad and they left us alone with the rest of my mom’s family.

That was definitely the hardest weekend of my life, and I’ll always remember what Amy did for me those few days, and the weeks leading up to that weekend.  Whether it was the silent gesture of just rubbing my back when I found out, or completely distracting me at the service when I needed her most, she was my rock.  I honestly don’t know what I would have been able to do without her at the competition and at home for the next few weeks.  After all, you never forget losing someone, that I’ll always know.  Ever since that day, May 1st 2010, I’ve been taking the time to appreciate the people I love more, because I’m so lucky to have them in my life.  Especially my best friend, who knows me better than anyone else, and who I love more than words can describe.

Untitled (by Benjamin Bobo)

I took a step forward. My left hand reached out towards the box. My fingers tightly curled around its smooth wooden handle. “One, Two, Three, lift.” I thought that the casket would tug on my shoulders and cause my arms to stretch and ache, as my grandmother’s casket had. With a small pine box, carried by me, my brother, my five uncles and grandfather it was quite light. I took a step forward, pointing my feet outwards, so that I would not step on my grandfather’s shoes in front of me. I lifted my head up, my eyes finding the shoulders of my grandfather and took another step.

As I took my step, I pictured myself sitting in 111 Forum for microeconomics less than a week ago. I was sitting there trying to pay attention. I had just taken a chemistry test the evening before. I was anxious about the Math 251 test I had that Tuesday evening and the physics test I would have the following night. I was counting the minutes before the class ended, so that I could run back to my dorm and use my last hour I had before the test to study. All this was going through my head when my pocket started to vibrate. I woke up from my little zone of taking notes and pretending to care about the material. My pocket vibrated again, I reached my hand inside my pocket, slipping it along the jean and pulling out my phone.  I look at it and it was from my mother. I pressed the big red upside down phone symbol. I sent her a text asking if it was important, she responded that it was.

After scooting past a few students with some difficulty, I made my way to the hallway in forum where I called my mother back. “Hi, honey…” she said when I called her. I knew something horrible at happened. With these two words, I could hear the sadness in her voice. From these two words I could tell that someone in my immediate family had died. It wasn’t her and it wasn’t me. This left my brother and my father. Looking back, from the loneliness I heard in her voice, from the croaking sound that came from fighting through tears, I should have been able to predict who it was. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but… your father has died.” All I could responded with was a half sobering-in-disbelief “what?” The ground rushed up towards my face and I had to block it from hitting me with my arm. I had lost control of all my other muscles except the muscles keeping the phone to my ear and the ground slamming into my face. The first thing that came to my mind is that my father would not be driving to pick me up in a few weeks. Other students would be picked up by their parents and be driven back home at the end of the semester. I, however, would now only be picked up by my mother. It would be a long, sad nine hour drive home. So, there I was lying flat on the soft carpet floor, in the hallway in forum with cold tears wiggling their way down my face. My mother then went on to explain how she was going about her daily routines. That she thought my dad was just sleeping in, so she didn’t wake him. Eventually, he didn’t get up and when she went to check on him, he was dead.

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I took another step. I looked to my right and saw my father’s friend. She was staring at the ground, near our feet. Her body sort of dropped, her body language showing that she could not face the pain of looking up into our eyes. I turned my head to the left, slowly, trying to savor the moment, yet at the same time trying to let it go. I forced my eyes open, trying not to blink, so that I would not miss a second. On my left was my mother’s friend. Tears were falling down her cheeks. She tried to give me and my brother a smile. You could tell in her eyes and from the dimples formed by the smile that she was proud of us, but she had a deep sorrow for what we were going through. I took another step.

I started thinking about how two months ago I thought what I had to look forward to at home had disappeared. Two months ago me and my girlfriend of two years broke up. It was a long distance relationship, but I thought out of all my friends that we could be the ones to make it through. I turned out to be wrong. I knew it wasn’t the end of the world, but I thought I had lost a good chunk of what was waiting for me back home. I had lost a part of my life back home, it wasn’t quite as shiny as it was before. After a week or so I came to realize that, I had a great family and lots of caring friends back home. I had a few really close friends, a brother, a mother and a father that still loved me. Like most break-ups, I eventually discovered there might be someone else waiting out there for me in the future.

I took another step. To say this was much worse would be an understatement. They weren’t even comparable. My grandfather had described it as a punch in the stomach. However, this punch felt as if it was from Hercules. This punch, is what caused me to lose control of my muscles in the Forum building. This punch will bring any grown man or woman to his or her knees. This punch sent me aching for weeks. It gave me a headache for about two days and gave my stomach pain for a few weeks. I took another step.

I tilted my head to the left. Out of the corner of my eye I could see my brother one person ahead and one person to the left. I looked at my brother and saw, that with his slouched shoulders, clamped jaw, tense neck, but flexing forearm he was thinking something similar to me. What if that Tuesday I had never received a phone call? What if I had sat through the entire class, continued on to take my math test and then my physics test? What if, on Wednesday night I had called my father to tell him my tests were over with? On Tuesday I was beginning to feel the end of the semester. There were a little over four weeks left, all I had to do was get through that week and finals and I would be home for the summer. I had been home for less than fifteen days since august. I was looking forward to seeing my mother and my father, even watching a movie at night as we always did. The one thing that had helped me get through my breakup and the rest of the school year was that I would still have a wonderful, happy and complete family to come home to.

In the coming weeks it would have been easy to slip into a false reality. It would have been as easy as reaching out and turning on a sink faucet. I could have tricked my brain into believing he was still alive, that he was just away on a work trip. I could trick myself into believing that he would pick me up once my finals were over. All I had to do was reach out. I eventually learned to walk away from this faucet and accepted the reality that was handed to me.

I took another step. I took a deep breath and sighed. Not a sigh as if it had been a long day. This sigh came from deep from within the lungs, like the breath of someone about to dive into water. This breath came from deeper within, it came from the heart. I tensed my neck. I was not going to dwell on sad thoughts, I had to keep moving forward and put one foot in front of the other. I took another step.

I started giving some thought as to what the future would be like. It would not be the large things that I missed. I would miss him as a person, a father and a friend. The biggest pain, however, would come from the smallest things. I would miss the weekly call from him and how he worked so hard to keep my single pet fish alive. When I get home, it will be the absence of the soft sound of a shoe against a sock, him taking off his shoes. It will be him setting gently briefcase down with a little clunk sound after work. It will be him handing me his black Ace comb that had a few teeth missing to comb my hair before we went into church. Once again, I tried not to dwell on the sad things, I tried to focus on the good. I took another step forward.

I readjusted and tightened my grip on the now warm wooden handle. I looked to my left and saw the man who had read at my baptism. He did his best to stand tall and with his dark grey and shining blue eyes, he looked at me. I gave a slight nod of my head, to show that I see him and appreciate him being there. He stood strong, looked back at me and blinked his eyes, telling me that he was confident I could get through this. That it is horrible, but when you get through with this, I am here for you. I took another step.

I turned my head forward, turning my head slightly to look at all of the people in the back row. Most of them were people I did not know. But all of them had the same expression. All watching us intently, trying to see what we were going through, pitying us for what we were going through. I took another step.

The doors of the sanctuary were before us. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. I was supposed to be in State college, just getting up and making my way to the dining hall. My father was supposed to die in about twenty or more years, after I had graduated and maybe even started a family. He was supposed to die an old man, like in the movies when the family kneels around his bed and listens to his last words. My father had no known health conditions or any symptoms. It was as if someone or something had snapped its fingers. It had just woke up one morning and decided that my father would live no more. It had decided that my brother and I would not have a father, my mother would not have a husband; my grandparents would not have a son; my uncles and aunt would not have a brother. Until this moment, I had not fully understood the fragility of life. Death had always been something that was reserved for the old and unhealthy. For dangerous activities and freak accidents. Never could I have imagined that life could be there, and the next moment not. Never could I have imagined that in between weekly phone calls, my father would be gone. My father who had raised me to be the person I am. My father who did so many things for me. My father who showed me what friendship, kindness and love is. My father who I was looking forward to seeing when I got home. My father who wouldn’t be there to pick me up when the semester ends.

Once again I took a deep, deep breath. I took another step out of the sanctuary. Eventually we made our way down the steps of the church. We then lifted up the pine box, put the box to rest in the hearse and closed the door. And that is the last time I ever saw my father.

Home Is Where The Heart Is (by Jessica Bagwell)

As I sat in English class awaiting the arrival of my professor, my phone rang.  It was my mother.  I was instantly annoyed.  I had just talked to her the night before and she knew that I was in class, so why was she calling me now when she knew that I was unable to talk?  My voice cut into the stillness of the nearly empty classroom as I harshly whispered a single word into the phone.  “What?” I said, in a tone of annoyance that I instantly regretted.  I could hear my mother sobbing on the other end of the line.  “It’s an emergency isn’t it?” I asked.  Before I had even finished asking the question, I was standing out in the hallway, bracing myself for the news.  I could barely comprehend the words that came from my mother’s mouth.  “Jess, I don’t know how to tell you this, so I’m just going to say it because you need to hear it from me.  Your house, our house…it’s burning down as we speak…”

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And once again, I whispered “what?” into the phone, only this time with a tone of despair rather than annoyance.  My mother had to repeat herself three times before I was able to make sense of what she was telling me.  My younger sister Sam grabbed the phone from my mom when the sobs made her speech incomprehensible.  “Jess,” she said, “I’m standing in the driveway and I’m watching our bedroom burn.”  My stomach churned as the disturbing vision manifested itself in my head and I could not bear to hear any more, so, after quickly promising to call after class, I ended the call.  I stood in the hallway, helpless and desperate and alone, leaning against the wall for support, trying not to visualize my home of 18 years and the flames that were consuming it.  I made the short journey back to the classroom and opened the door with tears spilling uncontrollably from my eyes.  I could feel apprehensive stares coming from my classmates, but my efforts to keep my emotions in check were completely unsuccessful and I sat in class for 50 minutes, silently sobbing.

Hours later, after the day had run its course, I sat on my bed exhausted and barely able to function, surrounded by my best friends.  Every phone call brought more unbearable news and by the end of the longest day of my life, I was physically unable to shed another tear.  As the day progressed, I slowly learned the details of what the media was calling “The Tragedy in Shaler.”

My mother was home alone getting ready for work when she heard an unusual popping noise at around 8:00 am.  She went outside to look for the source of the disturbance and her senses were immediately drawn to the black smoke rising out of the roof.  Several people, including my mom, dialed 911 because the smoke could be seen from a distance.  It was later estimated that the attic had been burning for at least a half hour while my mom was in the house.  It took approximately 45 minutes for the fire trucks to get water from the fire hydrants, which were a block away, and to start extinguishing the flames that had already destroyed the majority of my house.  After a three-hour battle with the flames, the 10 fire companies and the 17 fire trucks on the scene finally succeeded in putting out the fire.  When the smoke cleared, all that remained of the house that had once been so sturdy were four unstable, badly charred walls.

Until the official cause of the fire was determined, my father blamed himself.  Eighteen

years ago, he built our house with the assistance of a few family members.  He was extremely proud of the home he had built for his family.  After a thorough investigation, it was determined that the fire originated from an insulated pipe that ran through our heating system.  The pipe split due to an excess of heat and pressure, which caused it to catch on fire.  It was deemed a “freak accident.”  My entire family was content with this explanation; we were just happy that my dad could finally stop blaming himself for something that was certainly not his fault.  The cause was not determined immediately though, and watching my dad blame himself was unbearable for my entire family.

With every phone call, my mother had to continually assure me that everyone was fine.  I felt useless and disconnected from my family since I could not physically be there with them.  There was not much I could do and I was incapable of taking care of them, so I did the only thing I could think of.  I sent them Penn State t-shirts since they had lost all of their clothes.  I later realized that I did not have to worry about my family at all because the entire community of Shaler was selflessly taking care of them.  My grandparents housed and fed them until they found a new house.  My extended family bought them clothes and other necessities.  Our friends also did whatever they could to help.  Complete strangers donated essential items to my family as well.  I am eternally grateful to my community, which has helped us through the toughest of times.  The support has been ongoing ever since the fire happened.  A local church hosted a benefit spaghetti dinner and the high school organized a bake sale.  The two events raised approximately $10,000 for my family and we greatly appreciate the aid the community has provided.

While my mom promised me she was holding up just fine, I heard a different side of the story from my older sister, Ang.  When I talked to my mom on the phone, she seemed like she was doing okay considering the circumstances.  When I talked to Ang on the phone, she informed me that my mom was practically a zombie.  She said that both of my parents just sat around, silent and dazed, and that they would not even eat.  When she told me about my father’s reactions to the event, my heart broke.  My father has a very rough exterior, so I was surprised to learn that he had cried, even considering the extreme circumstances.  We had never seen my dad cry before, which made it especially hard to bear.  My father is also a very proud man.  The only clothes he had were the ones on his back and he refused to change out of them even though they were coated in ashes and smelled of smoke because he was digging through the debris.  He did not want to change because the clothes on his back were one of his few remaining possessions.

I remained in State College while all of the chaos was happening, but I was in constant contact with my family.  It has now been a little over two months since the incident and I am still in constant contact with my family.  I do not ignore my mom’s phone calls anymore and I talk to my other family members more often as well.  I now find it significantly easier to open up to them.  I have always been very close with my two sisters, but the tragedy has also brought me closer to my mom, dad, and brother.

I chose to remain in State College because I could not bear to see the scorched remains of what used to be my home.  Initially, I thought this was unfair and I felt extremely guilty.  The other members of my family had no choice but to face the devastation, but I was sheltered from it because I was three hours away.  They had to watch our house burn down and I could not even face the ruins.  It felt wrong that they had to suffer more than I did.  While I was talking on the phone with my mom, I told her I felt like I was cheating and that I had it easy compared to them because I did not have to see it.  She responded by saying that she was glad she could protect me from seeing the destruction and that she wishes she could have done the same for my siblings.

I was reunited with my family for the first time over spring break, which was three weeks after the fire.  Going back to Pittsburgh for the first time after the fire was one of the most surreal experiences in my entire life.  I was dropped off at my new house by my friend’s dad.  I stood outside the door with my bags, unsure of the protocol for this situation.  I did not know if I should knock or just walk in since it was technically my house.  I decided to knock and my mom answered the door.  I immediately noticed the toll that the past few weeks had taken on her and the rest of my family.  They all looked exhausted and stressed, but they were in good spirits and happy to see me.  My parents were no longer the zombies that my sister had described a few weeks ago.

I cautiously explored the new house and by the time I left a week later, it still felt foreign to me.  The house felt big and empty and I was terrified of being home alone.  It was only bearable when my family was there with me.  There were little pieces of home scattered throughout the new house, but most of the objects saved were seemingly insignificant.  I constantly found myself wishing that my collection of track awards, medals, and scrapbooks had survived the flames instead of my old charm bracelet from third grade or my sister’s box of poker chips.  Useless items were rescued from the ashes, but irreplaceable objects that I considered my prized possessions were gone forever.  I would have traded everything I had with me at school for the priceless tokens of my past.

While just the thought of the charred box of poker chips upset me, seeing other trivial items recovered from the ashes made my day.  An afghan, handmade by my grandmother, was rescued from the house, completely unscathed.  I welcomed this small piece of home and I went to bed wrapped in it each night.  Even though it had been washed multiple times, it still had the distinct smell of smoke that will certainly linger in its stitches forever.  I did not care though, because it felt like home.  I nearly cried on the last day of spring break when my dad walked through the door with a filthy red pot.  It was the pot that my mom used to steam broccoli and cauliflower.  Even though I never ate anything that she cooked in that pot, I was still overjoyed to see that it had survived.  Last week, my younger sister called me crying because the school district had replaced all of our yearbooks and the WPIAL track and field league had replaced our 2012 championship medals.  The yearbooks do not have signatures and I do not even have a fraction of my medals back, but my heart swelled with gratitude when I heard the news.  Once again, complete strangers had gone out of their way to help my family.

I still think about the devastation everyday, but it is no longer at the forefront of my mind.  I never actually saw the ruins of my house and the situation still seems inconceivable, but my family has moved forward.  Last week, the remainder of the house was torn down and the construction of our new house began.  The fire was a tragedy, but it was not as devastating as it could have been.  I initially thought that this was the worst thing that could ever happen, but I now realize that I am so fortunate and that so many people are worse off than I am.  My mother was home alone when it happened and I am eternally grateful that she was able to escape.  I would never have gotten through this tragedy without the unwavering support system that is my family.  This situation has reinforced my belief that everything happens for a reason and I am now able to now fully appreciate every aspect of life, especially after overcoming several major setbacks previously in the year.

On February 13, 2013, I lost so much.  My possessions and my house were gone, but I still had a home.  My family was my home.  In these past few months, I realized that I truly have an entirely new outlook on life.  When I think about the fire, I no longer focus on what I lost.  I now focus on the insight that I have gained and the love and gratitude that have brought my family together.  My high school calculus teacher has been selling wristbands to benefit my family that contain the saying “home is where the heart is.”  It might be cliché, but it perfectly encompasses the past few months of my life.

My fat American toilet and my Fairy Soap. (by me)

toilet

My downstairs toilet. Massive in size in comparison. A true throne. Sorry, needs to be cleaned. Damn kids.

toilet2

So cute. A toilet at St. Pancras train station in London I think. No tank. Not a lot of water in the bowl. Cute. I thought of oompa loompas.

Before going on vacation – or “holiday” as the Europeans call it – we can’t wait to go.  It seems we are stressed out at work or bored at home.  Or both.  We need to get the hell out of Dodge, or State College, or whatever town we are hostage.  It’s glorious to think of the wonders that await us at the beach, in the city, at the lodge, at Disney, in the tropics, at the casino, or at Aunt Betty’s house.  It has to be better than the drudgery we’re dealing with at home – otherwise, why would we go on vacation?

The vacation I went on included Barcelona, Paris and parts of England including London.  It was fab.  Most of it.  I’ve traveled plenty, but we all know you just learn to take the good with the bad.  To get to the fun destination, you may have to wait in lines at airport security behind the wanker who failed to put all their liquids into a ziploc.  You may get taken off a plane experiencing mechanical difficulties after finding the last spot in the overhead and the right angle for your kneecaps in relation to the seat in front of you.  If driving, that’s a whole new set of cuss words.

van

My sweet Bessy.

But I think the hardest part of traveling is figuring out where the hell you’re going.  It takes brain power.  It sucks the glucose straight out your head.  At home I just take where the hell I’m going for granted; I have good ol’ Bessy parked right inside my house.  There she is, in my garage.  My sweet angel of a van just sits there awaiting my flabby flat, suburban ass.  I don’t appreciate her enough.  And my husband thumbs his nose at her – “minivan… ha….never!”  I just get inside and drive aimlessly to my destination.  I go from temperature-controlled air to temperature-controlled air in the van.  My auto-pilot brain takes me wherever. Yes, I do sometimes have to think about how to get where I’m going – but alas, I use Google Maps on my iPhone.  My son is Mr. BestFriendsWithTheWorld, so there is always a new address popping up for me to play fetch.

Luckily, on this last trip, I was with hubby so I didn’t have to figure out the “where the hell are we going” by myself.  We got subway maps and we got city maps. He knew he’d be driving part of the time so he brought his Euro GPS.  Once at the hotel we had to figure out how to get to our next meal.  And the sightseeing spots.  And we needed a laundromat.  And a bank.  And a pub.   So, you talk to the concierge.  You look at maps in your hotel room.  You stare at maps in metro stations.  You go into shops and ask people for directions.  You look incredulously at the GPS.   You take wrong exits at traffic circles.  You walk more blocks than you were supposed to.  You find yourself staring at the ‘stops map’ on the metro car you are riding in to make sure you got on the right one.  You stand on street corners wondering what psychic ninny thought it was a good idea not to put names of streets on street corners.

I’m not picking on European cities.  I know cities here in the U.S. are just as frustrating.  I travel here too.

drive

My ride to work.

In a European city, besides spending a lot of time thinking about how to get where you need to get, you spend a lot of time getting there – and you physically exert yourself in the process.  Of course, this is also true for U.S. cities, especially those like NYC where many folks rely on public transportation.  It may be a number of blocks to walk to the metro station.  There may be a bit of a walk inside the metro station involving stairs.  Time is spent on the metro itself and it may involve a transfer.  If you have to transfer to another metro line, there may be another walk within the metro station.  Then more time is spent riding this other metro line.  On arrival, chances are your destination (restaurant, sightseeing spot) is not going to be at the top of the stairs once you emerge from the metro station.  So it’s another walk until you figure out where it is.  Of course, this is not a bad thing.  Exercise is a good thing.  It’s just different to be coming home from dinner at midnight; riding a subway for 20 minutes and walking for a mile.

traffic

Such traffic. 🙂

Remember Bessy?  I flop onto her leather seat and she takes me from Point A to Point B.  Wham Bam Thank-You-M’am.  When I got home from vacation, it was weird.  That first day I drove to Penn State to get some books for work.  It was so wide open.  Most of the students are not back in town yet for the semester, so we don’t really have what anyone would call traffic – yet we all complain about the traffic.  I guess it’s all relative.  That day I noticed the cars here are bigger.  I didn’t see many pickup trucks in Paris.  Or many SUVs in Worcestershire.  Our gas is cheap.  Relatively.

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This kitchen in Church Lench (Worcestershire) is hundreds of years old. In the “shire” – low ceilings as it was built for hobbits.

house

My kitchen is almost a decade old! Built for tall people who watch movies about hobbits.

Hotel rooms are hit and miss.  Some of our rooms were decent sized and some were small.  But, most interesting were the homes we stayed in.  They were all in England; one in London, one in Cheltenham, and one in Church Lench (Worcestershire).   The one in the pictures was from the 1700s or 1800s.  The owner, Richard, told me, but I don’t remember.  He said he paid about 600,000 pounds.  That translates to about $900,000.  Holy cod.  It was about 13 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon.  Thank God for the GPS.

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The house in Church Lench. $900,000 a few years ago.

dawn house

My house. Almost free by comparison.

I do realize real estate price is dependent on location. The owner said his area was very expensive.  I got the impression that the England location is very expensive.

Now that we are home I appreciate my bed, washcloths, top sheets, my van Bessy, AC when I want it, restaurants with AC, exercising only when I feel like it, free water, and my DVR.  Things I miss about the city:  plays (we saw Once), new food, new sights, sparkling cider, new words, new friends like Gavin, Pablo, Monica, and Paul, cool churches – you know – all the stuff people go to cities for.    But I think mainly I liked noticing all the things that were different….like toilets. (see previous blog posts)

As far as souvenirs for the kids;  my son now has socks with Arsenal and Manchester logos (soccer teams).  My middle daughter got funky earrings from Paris and the oldest got a necklace.  And I brought home the Fairy.

fairy

I may be the only one in central PA with Fairy dish soap.

London: In search of a washcloth and top sheet. (by me)

faces

How do they wash their faces?

They say it’s the little things.  Yes – every night I just want something little.  Not a little piece of chocolate on my pillow and not a little shot of liquor to put me to sleep.  I just want a little square of cloth to wash the mascara off my eyeballs.  In Barcelona I got some from the hotel desk as they were not in the room as in U.S. hotels.  In Paris they flat out told me “no.’  In Cambridge, the hotel had washcloths and I cherished them like a meth addict cherishes their last tooth. But after we left Cambridge I realized I should have stolen the washcloths because the luxury would vanish once again.  Once again I found myself stuck using the end of a hand towel.  My middle child would say this is a first-world problem. Others would ask why I haven’t joined the modern world of moistened face towelettes.  Simple.  I have to use what I call eyeball wash for my “dry eyes” – so I guess I better start packing my own washcloths.  Or do they call them flannels here?

And the horror continues.  Of course I’m jesting.  I love England.  But as one ages we get used to having things a certain way.  Like coffee….

coffee

Sanka – Euro style

Coffee:  It is very easy to find a Starbucks or any number of coffee houses here.  But when you wake in the morning it is nice to have a coffee maker in the hotel room.  Often, U.S. hotels have a mini-maker that makes a cup or two.  Here, the hotels give you INSTANT coffee!!  Shudder.  Wince.  Wonder.  Ponder.  This has happened in Barcelona, Paris and all cities in England so far.  Instant coffee.  Granules of dehydrated coffee.  1970s Sanka style.  People drink this on purpose?  I thought this was what you packed for the apocalypse.  This is what my granny bought because she was being thrifty.  This is emergency coffee.  This is Army coffee.  I bet the Army has better coffee than this.  I’m not really much of a coffee conoisseur.  But I’m a step or two above instant.  And Folger’s.  I drink about two cups a day at home.  I try to avoid Starbucks at all costs because I’m saving for retirement.  Anyway – the takeaway thought.  Brits serving Americans instant coffee is like Americans serving Brits instant tea.  But I do admit that when Brits come to the U.S. they are most certainly horrified by our tea bags.  From what I understand, Lipton tea bags are more like bags of tea dust.  We don’t serve loose tea in a pot to be poured through a strainer.  So I suppose we are even.  At least I can get a good coffee on the street and Brits can get good loose tea at most groceries in the U.S. nowadays.

Some other interesting observations:  the shelves at the Airbnb place we are staying at now are very cute.  I love the Bob’s Big Boy stuff.  The character with the black hat is from a flour company  – according to our hostess.  We have stayed at three different Airbnb places.  One in Worcestershire (not far from Stratford-upon-Avon) one in Cheltenham and one here in London.  It is much cheaper than staying in a hotel.  All of them are a bit off the beaten path but it’s nice to save the money as we are going through it quickly. (Airbnb is an online site where folks list their own homes like a bed and breakfast.)

shelfshelf2

Gas:  Yesterday, Pat filled up the tank of the Ford we rented.  It cost $120 to fill with diesel.  And gas here is $8 a gallon.  He said that was for about 3/4 of a tank. There’s also no pay-at-the-pump.  At least not where we were.

Vacuums and dryers:  It’s adorable – they call them Hoovers here.  I guess kinda like we call them Kleenex or Band-Aids.  “I’m going to Hoover now.”  It’s also a verb from what I understand.  And everyone here seems to hang laundry to dry.  Not too many ‘tumble dryers’ around.  Clotheslines and lines inside houses.  I had to explain to one lady that our neighborhood doesn’t even allow clotheslines.  I also had to explain that in the middle of the U.S. (where I lived for a long time) 4-year-olds don’t carry guns. 🙂  Also, the washing machines are often in the kitchen and they are the front-loaders.

Cheese:  The cheese here is “matured” while the cheese in the U.S. is just “aged.”  I think I’d rather be mature.

Take-out food:  Here they ask if you will “take-away.”  The other day I ordered a “toasty” for breakfast (cheese and tomato toasted on bread) and I noticed it cost more to “eat in” than take away.  I asked about it and the gal explained they charge more if they have to clean up after you – as in do your dishes.  So we ordered it take-away but they brought it to us on plates anyway.  It was very sweet.  I seem to be asking people a lot of questions.  I take pictures of toilets and ask questions.

food

Love the names of the food.

Water:  I have spent a considerable amount of money on still water in the last two weeks.  I blew the budget so when we get home, my third child is going to have to survive on Cheerios and instant coffee.  I know London tap water is fine – so my guess is the scam to only sell water must be tied into the taxation system somehow.  The Duke of Dukeington must be getting rich somewhere.

Food names:  I take it the salad cream is like Miracle Whip.  The Ma-a-Mite is Marmite which is like Vegamite.  They say you love it or hate it.  I think I could learn to like it.  It’s a yeast spread that smells like vitamins in a jar to me.  The OJ says it is “with bits” or “smooth” which is very cute I think.

Pub food:  It’s all been very good.  The odd thing is the lack of waitresses at pubs.  A pub looks like a typical American bar and grill.  Tables, chairs, a bar, stuff hanging off the wall – you get the idea.  But it’s different because you seat yourself which I am not used to – and there are menus at the tables.  But you order at the bar and pay – then they deliver the food to your table.  You get your drinks when you order.  Luckily my husband knew this; otherwise we would have been sitting there for a long time.

SHEETS:  Oh my!  I noticed in the U.S. that some of my European friends don’t use a top sheet on their beds.  They just use a comforter covered by a duvet.  That seems so odd to me.  What?  That is just insane.  How could this be?  Then you have to wash the duvet rather than just a sheet and go through the rigamarole of putting the damn duvet back on the comforter.  I do love duvets for the purpose of giving a comforter a new look but the lack of a top sheet I just can’t abide!!  And the lack of a top sheet kept me from a good night’s sleep a few nights ago.  In Cheltenham, the place we were staying did not have AC (which makes sense since England is not hot for many days per year).  So, the bed had the fitted sheet on the mattress and the comforter/duvet.  It was too hot for the comforter but too breezy (ceiling fan) for nothing.  Perfect example for the need of a top sheet.  So all night long I was pulling up the comforter and then kicking it off and freezing.  Ug.  Same thing at this place – but I asked our hostess for a top sheet and she had one.  She even bemoans the lack of ease in finding one here.

fairy

How can dish soap get any cuter?

Phrases:  Some of the words are very cute – like “Brilliant” and “Cheers.”  I’ve heard those two the most.  Last night a waiter brought me a drink he thought I would like and then asked how I liked it.  I said it was good and he sounded disappointed  – so I said – “Oh sorry, it’s brilliant!”  That seemed to make him happy.  I also heard “up the duff” for being pregnant and “throwing a sickie” for calling in sick to work.   There are a bunch of others, but I can’t spell them correctly and even if I could, it wouldn’t work in print due to the fact that I’m not there to mispronounce them for you.

But how does anything get more adorable than Fairy dish soap.  When I go shopping abroad, this is the stuff I want to bring home.  I bought a purse in Paris ($113) and a watch in Cambridge ($105) and I will spend a bit of money on hand soap here.  I know.  I’m nuts.