It was a sign.

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Me telling this story, about 10 years after it happened – State Theater (Oct. 2016)

I was naked from the waist up with a man I didn’t even know. He was putting little wires and pads on my chest. I figured he normally did this to old guys with similarly saggy boobs.  All I could think to say was “Can you tell they’re fake?” He laughed.Sorta. Inappropriate things fly out of my mouth all the time, especially when my chesticles are hanging out.  After the devastating four months I’d had I thought I might as well keep things light.  My heart had been obliterated. And I was at the hospital to see if I was having a heart attack. At age 42. It was a sign: God hates me.

I knew getting divorced was not supposed to be fun. But I thought finding Mr. Right would be, like, totally fun. And easy.  I had a sign, on my head, “Hot to trot divorcee looking for true love after a shitball of a marriage.   

Well, I met him innocently enough through one of my kids’ activities. It was such an exciting time. Our kids got along, he was smart, good looking, and seemed to be damaged just enough by his evil ex-wives.  And he talked.  He revealed.  He told me things that made me feel special; you know, it was a sign – he liked me. I was special.

I liked that things were going slowly. We spent a few months hanging out. At the start I thought we were taking things slowly because of his history; two divorces. But months of soul bearing and fancy glances led to nothing but lingering hugs. He still hadn’t stuck his tongue down my throat. Was it a sign? Bad breath? Didn’t he like my butt? 

After months of wondering, one night I gathered my courage and said “I’ve decided I can’t ever kiss you.” He replied, “Oh yeah?” So I said – “Yeah, cause if I do I’ll want to strip you, lick you, and ride you like a mechanical bull.”

His reply: He kissed me…. on the cheek. Looking back, it WAS a sign. I never heard from him again.

I can only explain the four months after he quit coming around as annihilating. I felt sick to my stomach which meant I couldn’t eat. I lost weight. I looked nasty. I also cried constantly. I cried. And I cried.  And I cried. It was a sign – something was coming. The loss I felt was the first thing that hit me when I woke up and it sat on me all day. Why did he leave?

I managed to hold it together when I had to, which is, most of the time – but I used to sit through doctor’s appointments and just cry to the nurses. I also cried through sessions with a counselor once a week. I didn’t care about anything.  Nothing made me happy. I went on with life, but only because I had to. I had three kids and I had to keep going to grad school classes.

So, four months of crying later, it was the end of the semester – early December.  I was going out to jog.  Well, jog is a strong word.  Flounder around with legs in motion like Olive Oyl is more like it. I started my jog and noticed my left arm and hand hurt. I thought it was weird, so I just quit jogging and walked.  The pain stopped. I jogged again. The pain came back. It was a sign!

I walked for a few miles then went home and stretched.  My son got off the school bus and I got on my computer to finish writing a big paper that was due the next day.  One of my girlfriends called and I noticed the pain was back. So, I told my friend, Heidi, I was probably having a heart attack. Great.  Fucking great. Next thing you know it’s two housefraus in a minivan headed to Mt. Nittany medical center.

So fast forward to the pads and wires on my chest. Not long after that, a nice, female ER doc came in very casually so I could give her the blow-by-blow. Fast forward to the lifeflight helicopter that was already on its way to haul me out of there. Before she came in she’d read the EKG – it was a sign! This chick is screwed! 

One lifeflight, an angioplasty, and two stents later, I was in a hospital about an hour from home.  I stayed for two nights, had the worst migraine of my life, and managed to scare the living shit out of my ex.  Even though we weren’t together, we are still family.  The best part of being a 42-year-old cardiac patient was the odd looks from doctors.  I was in shape, had low cholesterol, a low resting pulse, and normal blood pressure.  It always seemed to make them feel better when I told them my dad died at 57 from heart disease and that I used to smoke. “Good good good! Makes sense…thanks.”

But wait.  I didn’t have a heart attack because of family history or prior smoking.  No.  I had a heart attack because some fucktard broke it.  Crying every day for four months is not normal.  Neither is not sleeping and not eating.  Stupid fuck bag.  But I couldn’t tell the doctors any of that.  I already felt like an idiot.  And they were all men.  They would roll their eyes.  Poor girl with a broken heart.  Boo frickin’ hoo. They would’ve put me on anti-depressants; I already knew they didn’t help. They would’ve told me to see a different counselor for my delusions. How do you fall for someone after two months of no kissing? Idiot! It was a sign – I was a nincompoop! 

Six days after the heart attack I was back in class.  What else was there to do?  Plus, I had a semester to finish.

About two months after the heart attack I got a call from the cardiologist’s office. They asked if I would talk about my ordeal for something called “Go Red for Women” day.  Apparently, it’s a heart health awareness thing that comes around once a year.  I said I would, so I went to a couple of radio stations and talked about my heart attack. A few days later one of the stations offered me a job on a morning show.  I even ended up on a country music morning show. Words cannot tell you how much I hated country music. It was a sign – God still hates me!

But – it was a sign! I ended up writing my Master’s thesis about country music and advertising. And now – 10 years later, I still happily and joyfully work in country music radio. I even taught at Penn State for a few years and I used to brutalize my students by teaching with country music lyrics.

And as far as the “sign” I got – the heart attack – the sign that God hates me? Well, that actually saved me. I found out months later that Mr. Wonderful was actually Mr. Massive Piece of Shit – he did this and this and this and I was saved from him. And the heart attack got me off the track of thinking about him. I had to re-focus and worry about recovery. God Bless my cardiologists and country music.

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My three kids  🙂

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Florida Georgia Line in the early days (as if they’ve been around forever)

A Loss of Innocence by Kerry D.

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            “Stop!” I screamed as I ran up the stairs, “You don’t understand, just shut up”. My older sister Lizz had just walked in the door yelling at my parents because they didn’t pick her up from Youth Group that night. My outburst hardly surprised her; we were constantly fighting and bickering with each other. She didn’t know it wasn’t my typical whining until my mom walked over and sat my sister down. I watched from the top of the staircase as my mom broke the news. My sister’s eyes widen, the tears forming immediately. I wanted to comfort my sister; I wanted her to comfort me. But I was stuck, frozen on that staircase and clutching on to the banister, because in that moment it was the only stability I had left.

Two hours earlier I was sitting in my parents bedroom playing The Sims computer game when our home phone rang. I sprinted to get it, even though being the youngest I was the only one whoever answered the phone. Ten year old me loved talking on the phone; I would keep a conversation going with a random sales guy just because. It fascinated me how someone could be somewhere else, anywhere else in the world, but their voice was right next to my ear. The Caller ID showed it was my grandparent’s number, so I ecstatically answered “Hey Nana!!!! Whatsup?!” I was shocked when my normally jubilant Nana flatly requested to talk to my mom.

“Mooooooommy,” I called as I ran into her bathroom, “Nana’s on the phone and she sounds angry soo…be nice!” I sat next to my mom as she talked, being the curious kid I was, until my mom’s faced turned as serious as Nana’s voice, and she ushered for me to leave. I was offended, my mom always let me listen in, especially when it was Nana calling to talk about something crazy the neighbor’s kid had done, or the new shoes she found at TJ Maxx. My mom half closed the door, and as I peered in through the cracks, I saw her sit on the closed toilet seat and begin to cry. My mom is not a crier. I had never seen my mother cry before, and it terrified me.

My feet lead me down the staircase in a furry to find my dad. He was reclining in his chair, watching the football game with my older brother Mike, as per usual on a Sunday evening. “Mom’s crying,” I blurted, which immediately got his attention. He went up the staircase to see what was going on, and my brother and I crept behind and waited next to the stairs to listen in. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, my mom was breathing heavily and couldn’t speak clearly enough for me to grasp what she was saying, but Mike knew. He told me to walk away, that it was “too sad” for me to handle. “I can handle it Mikey,” I pleaded “I’m almost ten I’m not a little kid anymore”.

My brother and I went down into our basement to play a game of ping-pong, his way of distracting me from what was really going on. But the curious kid I was demanded an answer, “Just tell me! I won’t tell mom you told, promise.”

And then the words I never saw coming, came next. “It’s Kaitlyn” he started. Kaitlyn? I thought, our cousin? Kaitlyn was our 17-year-old cousin, and my role model in life. I idolized her; she was the embodiment of what I wanted to be when I grew up. Kaitlyn was smart, and Kaitlyn was pretty. Kaitlyn played sports and Kaitlyn sang in choir. But above all Kaitlyn was the most kind-hearted individual I have ever met, even up until present day. I remembered a time at their West Virginia home the winter before, where Lizz was annoyed at me for following them around all day, but Kaitlyn let me stay, because I was “one of the girls” and she said she wanted to be with me just as much. I snapped back to the moment, my brother and I at the ping-pong table, and he continued to tell me, “There was a real bad accident with her and Aunt Rhonda, and Aunt Rhonda’s in the hospital she’s in a coma Ker, they don’t know what’s gonna happen to her, but Kaitlyn…” and he trailed off. He couldn’t finish it and we both knew what was next. I started hyperventilating.

“I have to pee” was all I could manage as I ran up the basement stairs to the bathroom. I locked the door and fell to my knees. It couldn’t be true. He must have heard wrong. Bad things don’t happen to good people, and Kaitlyn was the best person I knew. A knock came on the door so I knew I had to come out. I wiped my eyes and tried to look normal, because if I could get back to normal, maybe we all could. Maybe I could walk outside this bathroom door, and everyone would be smiling. We could go back to normal, and I could play my computer game and go back to being a kid.

But as I opened the bathroom door, my mom waited outside with arms stretched open, and I fell into them immediately. “I’m so sorry honey,” my mom cooed as she caressed my hair. “She’s in a better place, and she loved you. Kaitlyn loved you so much sweetie, you know that.” We all kinda stood there in the kitchen for a while, fumbling on words and “I just can’t believe its”. What do you say in that situation? Everything’s gonna be okay? Because it wasn’t. And I wasn’t. I wouldn’t be for a long time after.

My sister Lizz was at youth group, so my mom arranged for her to get a ride from a friend. She walked in annoyed and called out to my parents “Why couldn’t you get me? You know I hate driving with Rachel Benenson she’s so annoying you were supposed to pick me up!” Even the slightest outburst upset me, as I was still trying to decipher what was going on. I went to run to my bedroom, being dramatic as always and yelling at my sister for yelling. And when my mom told my sister what had happened, another thought hit me. My sister walked in the door, and the first thing I did was yell at her. 5 hours away in West Virginia my cousin Ryan sat in a home where his sister would never walk in again. Where something as normal as saying goodbye to your mom and sister as they leave for church, ends up being your last memory of your only sibling. And somehow I still couldn’t even get along with my own sister the first five seconds that she walks into the house.

I spent the next week praying. Really praying hard, to a God I wasn’t really familiar with. I was raised Catholic and I had my Baptism and Communion, but we rarely went to Church and my parents didn’t really talk about religion much. But for the next week every time my mind wandered, I prayed to God that it wasn’t real. That Kaitlyn would wake up, and we’d realize the first responders and doctors were wrong, she wasn’t dead. Every 11:11, and every eyelash I wiped away I wished that she wasn’t gone.

We drove down to West Virginia for the viewing and the funeral, and I brought my favorite American Girl Doll. It was one of the custom ones that you can choose how they look, and I had special ordered her the year before with long brown hair and brown eyes, and named her after my best friend, Kaitlyn. I clutched that doll the entire car ride there. I wasn’t the only one who had trouble accepting this tragedy. My Poppop drove from South Jersey all the way to West Virginia and forgot his suit for the funeral, and instead of renting one there, he drove all the way back home to get his suit. I was so confused at the time by this, but now it makes sense. At a time when he was about to burry his seventeen-year-old granddaughter, he needed his own suit to resemble a sense of normalcy.

I wore a pink skirt to the viewing. Everyone was dressed in black and I couldn’t handle it. Kaitlyn was the happiest girl, why she would want me to wear all black? It was my first funeral so the concept was foreign to me, but my mom liked my reasoning, and let me wear my happy skirt. Once we got there, everyone was hugging each other and couldn’t stop crying, but for the first time I couldn’t start. I saw my other cousins and relatives bawling, and I took it upon myself to try and comfort them. I’ve never been one to deal with my own problems, so I focused on helping my other cousins get through the night.

As everyone was leaving, I sat with my Uncle Pat, Kaitlyn’s father. We talked about the agenda for the next day, the details of which I can’t really remember. But I was certain it started at one time, and he thought another. He called over Ryan, his son, and Ryan agreed with me about whatever time. I laughed and was proud of myself for remembering the funeral information I had read over and over again on the car ride here. Then Uncle Pat looked at me and rubbed my back, laughing a little and said, “You’re a smart one Kerry, just like Kaitlyn was. You remind me a lot of her, you know that?” And that’s when the tears came. I excused myself to the bathroom, because if Uncle Pat could hold it together, I really couldn’t lose it in front of him. I was really impressed by him and Ryan that weekend. Aunt Rhonda was still in the hospital recovering so she couldn’t be there, but Uncle Pat and Ryan stayed strong the whole time, comforting relatives and practically the entire county that came out to remember Kaitlyn. I’m not exaggerating, literally it was packed with people from all over, and all of them told me how wonderful of a person Kaitlyn was. Whether it was classmates she sat with when no one else would, or a teammate who needed moral support, Kaitlyn was always the one helping everyone else out.

I left West Virginia with a heavy heart, but a new outlook on life. I realized it doesn’t matter how good you are, or how hard you try, because life is a fragile thing. It can be gone in an instant, everything you thought you knew can change with the blink of an eye, but you have to be ready for that. You can’t waste your time on petty matters and materialistic desires, because when you die none of that matters. I decided I wanted to live a life the way that Kaitlyn lived hers. I want people to have stories about me, and I want someone to miss me as much as I still miss her.

Regrets by O.R.

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We walked into my church and hoards of men and women occupied the seats, talking in hushed tones to the people around them. My dad and I took a seat near the back and waited until Pastor Rick started speaking. Even he struggled to get out what he wanted to say, although he was usually composed when conveying bad news. This news was different though, it was worse. Then he directed us to a video that had just started playing, and there she was.

Two years previously, I met Marly at a youth function at church. My parents were leading the lesson that week, and after the lesson we traditionally had the snack. No group of teenagers could go more than two hours without eating, at least as far as I knew. We sat down to eat, my parents always brought powdered donuts and water, and I noticed Marly’s food rolling around in her mouth, some crumbling out onto the table and her plate. Why was she eating like that? I was disgusted, and it became apparent in my face. We were fifteen, and this girl was chewing with her mouth just gaping open so everyone could see the powdered donuts being crunched and mixed with saliva and then swallowed down. I turned away and grimaced at my mom and dad. They returned my grimace with a distraught look.

After our snack, we went to play hide and seek in the church, a favorite pastime of ours because the church was so large and had so many rooms and hiding spots. Amanda was it, and as she counted to one hundred I went off to hide with Zoe. We snuck into a room that we knew we weren’t allowed in and hid under a table. Once we were settled, I turned to Zoe, confidentially whispering, “Is there something the matter with Marly? Did you notice how she eats?”

I expected for Zoe to also remark on Marly’s strange eating. I thought she’d join in and we’d banter about how disgusting it was until we waited to be found. Instead, Zoe met my eyes with the same distraught look that my parents had given me previously, and at this point I was confused. Zoe looked down at the floor, and then at me and said, “Marly has a brain tumor.”

I felt terrible. I thought back to our snack and knew how disgusted I was with her eating was completely given away by the look on my face. Had Marly noticed? She definitely had. She had limited power to control how her mouth moved and I judged her for it.

Yet my lousy facial expressions and actions didn’t stop there. We went to Impact a few months later, a weekend long event where teenagers from churches go to sing worship songs and do fun activities, and still I could not look at Marly like she was a normal human being. Instead, I acted as if she was an alien, and I completely avoided her. Her talking was garbled, so I disliked talking to her. Her eating was uncontrolled, and it was still difficult for me not to wear the same look of disgust on my face. I didn’t even want to sleep in the same bed as her.

Months passed, and Marly gradually stopped coming to youth. I later found out from Zoe that her condition had gotten worse. As time passed, I forgot about Marly’s once frequent presence around the snack table.

Until the last Sunday in January, when Pastor Rick stood at the podium in front of the church and announced that on the previous Tuesday Marly had passed away. A video memorial was to be held that night, he said into the microphone, his voice quavering. My dad looked at me and told me he’d take me that night.

The video documenting Marly’s last few months of life was made by a team of Penn State researchers who followed children’s lives through and after their time at Hershey Medical Center. This particular video featured interviews from her mom and her dad. Also present in the video was Marly.

Marly’s dad spoke first, explaining the breakdown of her disease. The initial fear, the progression of the disease, and then the acceptance of what were to come. As he spoke, I broke down. Silently sobbing, my actions toward Marly flooded back into memory. Our first encounter, the knowledge of her disease, and then how I continued to avoid her. I made thoughtless, heartless actions, yet nevertheless the actions were made and could never be taken back.

Then Marly was on the screen, completely unrecognizable. Her head was larger and covered by only a peach fuzz of hair, her eyes could barely open, and she was completely incapable of moving. Her mother stroked her hair and disclosed to the camera how she was coping with Marly’s inevitable passing away. When Marly was in incredible pain one day, she looked at her mom in the bathroom and said, “It’s okay mom. I’m ready whenever God’s ready to take me.” Mrs. Watson found comfort in the fact that she knew where Marly was going, and she’d soon see her again.

A few months ago, I was at my first THON committee meeting with my OPP group, and our captain wanted to know why we decided to participate in THON. People started to raise their hands and share their stories; heart-wrenching stories that made the whole committee choke up. I decided not to share mine because although it happened three years ago, I still felt guilty.

My memoir is about a girl who I avoided until it was too late; it involves regret, and chances lost. Now Marly can’t ever forgive me, nor should she. It’s even hard for me to forgive myself. Although the pain is still raw, and it’s hard to view my time with Marly as a learning experience, I have gained more compassion for sick people because of Marly. She taught me not to fear illness, and instead to give my time to those who are ill so that in a small way I can in ease their discomfort and troubles. The exact opposite of what I did for Marly.

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.

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.