“Loss pushes us to difficult places where we have not been before. We often question whether or not we have the courage and stamina to survive the pain. However, we often are given gifts that tell us that we are not alone and that we can withstand the journey.” 

Susan Barbara Apollon

When I was a child, I used to write stories. My mom loved them. She loved reading them and she was always so encouraging. I don’t know what made me start writing or why I wanted to be an author. I haven’t been very good about consistently writing over the years, but I never fully let go of that dream to write a book and be an author. Her encouragement never left me.

This is the story of how I became an orphan.

I lost both my parents when I was a child. It wasn’t at the same time, in some freak car accident, like many of my high school classmates oddly assumed. They were separate occurrences, four years apart. This happened when it was highly unusual for younger people to die. When my father died, my sister and I were the only children at our school who had lost a parent. Kids made fun of me for not having a dad. Four years later, it was a little more common, but not to have lost both parents.

My father died in February 1991. I had just turned seven years old. He had a very rare autoimmune disease called aplastic anemia in which his body stopped producing enough blood cells. I don’t have many memories from this time, and most of them are blurry. I barely remember my dad, even before he was sick. I don’t remember what happened when he got sick or even how long he struggled with it, but according to his death certificate, it was six months.

I remember a nurse that would come to our house. Once, my mom opened the garage door to find him smoking when he wasn't supposed to. And then there's the memory of Thanksgiving when he wasn't supposed to eat the cranberries. I'm not sure why. I just remember cranberries being this thing. And you know what happened? He ate the cranberries. I remember walking down our long carpeted hallway, bright red and blue flashing lights flickering across our living room curtains. I don't know why I associated it with the cranberries. I don't even know if the cranberries was a thing. Maybe that's what my 6-year-old brain gave me to deal with what was happening around me. 

He ended up back in the local hospital and then at some point he was transferred to Stanford Medical Center. They set our mom up with an apartment at the hospital and we stayed with our grandparents.

Things I remember about staying at my grandparents house: my grandma would gently caress my ear at night to help me fall asleep; they had one of those huge metal bed attachments that you put under the mattress so children wouldn't fall out of bed and I loved it; I could fit completely inside the nightstand, close it, and hide; my grandma made the best scrambled eggs, peanut butter & jelly, and tunafish sandwiches; they had mixed nuts that you had to crack with a nut cracker and a candy dish sitting out on the coffee table; and this huge front yard with cherry trees. 

One February morning, our grandparents woke my sister and I up to inform us we weren’t going to school that day. Instead, our aunt and uncle would be taking us to see our mom and dad. I don’t honestly know the last time I had seen either of them, I have little to no memory after Thanksgiving up to this point. I had a birthday, I guess. We lived in Sparks, Nevada, which is just outside of Reno and had to drive to Stanford, California. We got ready, left, and stopped at Burger King for lunch.

I don’t remember much about the hospital either. My memories are muddled. Apparently, my 7-year-old brain had made up some crazy memory that I lived with for years before a family discussion revealed I was asleep in the apartment when my mom had received the phone call that my father died.

The hospital nurses were really nice to us. They drew pig faces on the surgical masks while we waited to see our dad. I caught a glimpse of him through the window in the door and I hardly recognized him. I thought he was Grandpa. It was like he had aged 50 years in two months. He was pale and skinny and had lost all his hair. Who was this man? That's not my dad. When it was our turn to visit him, I could barely look at him. I didn't know what to say. There was an exercise bike in the room that I took comfort in immediately and focused all my attention on. I began to fiddle with the bike as my sister and this stranger talked like everything was normal. They were making plans for when he got out of the hospital. Someone asked me if I had anything to say to my father and all I could manage was to barely whisper, "I love you."

This is where shit gets weird.

The family split up for dinner. I went with Dad's side of the family to a restaurant and Mom's side stayed at the hospital and ate in the cafeteria. When we finished dinner, we drove back to the hospital. It was late at that point, and dark. As we drove up to the curb outside the hospital entrance, I saw my mom standing outside with my sister. I approached her and noticed she was looking up at my dad's room window, tears running down her cheeks. I whispered, "Did it happen?" and she nodded ever so slightly. I crawled into her arms, buried my face into her shoulder, and cried. 

That’s my memory. That’s the memory I carried with me for twenty-something years and truly believed that’s what actually happened in the end. In all actuality, after dinner, we went back to the apartment and I fell asleep. My mom got a call saying he had died. He was 39 years old. A month before his death, he had a bone marrow transplant, which weakens the immune system. But you wanna know what actually killed him? Mold. Fungus. Aspergillosis. Fucking mold. And that’s all I know. You wanna know something else I know? After all these years, I still feel like a giant pile of trash for not saying more to my dad before he died. Writing that memory sucked. And even after all these years and all the therapy I’ve been through… I still don’t know how to deal with my emotions and I still look for that damn exercise bike to distract me from focusing on the actual thing I need to. Glad to see I’ve made no progress in 29 years!

The story of my mom is a little more complex because I was older, I have more memories (although still boggy), and I was closer to her. My sister and my dad were best friends; my mom and I had a similar bond. We snuggled. My mom wanted a baby to cuddle and my sister would have nothing to do with it. Then I was born. And I was all about it. Ask me to cuddle now and I will cut you. Ask Markie Mark. So, our family links were set and everything was good and then people started getting sick and dying. What the fuck, life?

I don’t know timelines because I was a small child thing and I’m bad at absorbing information when I ask family. But at some point, my mom got breast cancer, I think it was around age 35? She had a lumpectomy and went through chemo and radiation treatment where she actually ended up with severe radiation burns on her breast. I know this because it affected our snuggles. Occasionally, I would accidentally smash her sensitive boob when climbing into snug position and she had to remind me to be careful of said boob. So, cancer happened. And lupus also happened. She actually had issues with her cancer treatment due to her diagnosis of lupus, scleroderma, and another autoimmune disease that I’m too dumb to know right now, or ever. Lupus is a long-term autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks its own normal healthy tissue. I’m uncertain when it started attacking her brain, but after my dad died, she started deteriorating quickly.

She was slipping. She was nodding-off periodically throughout the day, during conversations and such. She was still working and still driving. One day, I was sick and went to work with her briefly in the morning. She only had a few things to do. We went home and I crawled into her bed to go to sleep. She had forgotten to do something at work and asked if I wanted to go back with her or stay home and sleep. I opted to stay home and sleep. Hours later, I awoke to my grandma sitting on the bed next to me. She's taking me to their house. My mom had been in a car accident on the way to back to work that afternoon. She was okay; she only had three broken ribs. Luckily, no one had been injured (she hit a parked car). The accident was her fault... she fell asleep at the wheel. 

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened had I opted to go with her that afternoon. Could I have prevented the accident? What would have happened if I was asleep? She got a careless driving ticket. She pled guilty but hoped for pity. She felt that if she lost her license, she would lose her independence, too. Before the accident, she had seen her lupus doctor concerning her issue falling asleep. They ran some tests and she was diagnosed with lupus cerebritis. At that point, her brain was so damaged she had the mentality of a 9-year-old child. The day of the accident, she was finishing stuff up at work so she could go on medical leave. Inevitably, after the accident, she was placed into a Rehabilitation Home for six weeks to prove that she could continue doing basic tasks like feed her children, cook food, use a stove properly, and take medication. But it wasn’t enough. She became so obsessed with some things, like couponing and folding linens so neat and perfectly, that she would forget to feed her kids. Most of the time, we would just make ourselves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. So, our grandparents sold their home and moved their RV into our backyard.

I remember walking in and seeing my mom sitting on the guest bed of my grandma's house after the accident. She was still visibly shaken and seemed confused. Her head was down, like she felt utterly defeated by her illness and she couldn't understand what was happening to her. I see the image of her now and I understand what was going on. Then, I did not. I knew my mom was sick but I did not understand the extent of it. They tried to explain it to me. In the Rehabilitation Home, we discussed living arrangements for my sister and I if it reached the point my mom could no longer care for us. My mom made it very clear she did not want to lose her daughters. I did not want to lose my mom. I did not understand the seriousness of her disease. But I helped out when I could. I made sure she ate. I made sure she took her medicine. I made sure she was warm. She lost her pinky finger due to a cut and poor circulation and she had to re-learn how to write. Her skin got dry and itchy and she asked me to scratch her back almost every night. I hated it and I hated her for making me do it. And now I hate myself for not appreciating those moments more. 

Do you see a theme here? I wasn’t able to fully grasp the trauma I was enduring in either of these cases. Do you know why? Because I was a child. I was a child in the middle of a bunch of adults that were dealing with their own trauma… so I was pretty much left to my own devices. And I didn’t have any devices, so I created them. I did the only thing I knew how to do: I shut down and withdrew. I didn’t have anyone to talk to… so I talked to my stuffed animals. I sat alone in corners and hid under tables. And then when adults finally wanted to talk to me, I had already shut myself completely down and I refused to talk to anyone about how I felt. Because I didn’t know how I felt. I locked it down. I put up a wall. I went inward. And 29 years later, here I still sit. Inside. Behind a wall. Therapy has helped loosen some bricks and the wall is getting weaker, but I still don’t know how to deal with my goddamn emotions. I still don’t know how to express how I feel most of the time.

In the Summer of ’95, my grandparents decided to take my mom on a little vacation to revisit her home state of Washington. My sister and I were going to be dropped off at our cousin’s house in Felton, CA for two weeks, and they would pick us up on the way back to Reno. Keep in mind, these were the cousins we had ultimately decided would care for us in the event my mom could no longer do so. After two weeks, we received a phone call.

I was given the phone. My grandfather told me we would be staying with our cousins. I'm sure he said a lot of other things but I wasn't listening. I started to shut down. They were abandoning us. But then he said something that brought me back online. "I'm going to let you talk to your mother." He instructed me not to mention the move to her. They wanted her to believe it was her decision. I did not like that. I did not want to listen to my grandfather. I did not want to live with my cousins. All I wanted was my mommy. My mom got on the phone and I immediately started crying. I told her I missed her and I did not want to live there. The phone was taken away from me. 

I eventually got over it and started adjusting to my new life. I liked my cousins and we had a lot of fun there. Don’t get me wrong… it was still very difficult and I missed my mom very much. I never got to say goodbye to any of my friends in Reno and I didn’t have many of my belongings. But it was the first time in my life that I had a blank slate, a new beginning, a fresh start. It was like running away and starting a new life. And I kind of liked it. I get a few other opportunities in my life to run away and start over. This was just the beginning.

The first day of school was hard. Sixth grade, new school, new town. I didn't know anyone. I was terrified. I wanted to cry. Tears filled my eyes. My cousin walked me to class and stayed with me until I was comfortable. It didn't take long for me to adjust and make a few good friends. There was a group of seven of us that did everything together. I started piano lessons and got into 4H. I rode my bike everywhere. I helped care for the family animals which included chickens and a pig. My sister and I started therapy. We flew to Reno for a weekend and visited our mom. I started opening up. And I felt like things were going as well as they could. 

Things were going well for me. For my sister, they were not. She was struggling, silently, or at least unknown to me. Part of it was my fault. I was too busy making new friends and bonding with my cousins that I forgot to check in with the person who should have been my priority. I was just trying to figure out how to survive and so was she. And her vision of survival did not involve staying with our cousins… it involved moving to San Diego to live with our godparents.

Our godparents had been nixed out of caretaker possibilities because our godmother had a severe back injury and resulting medical problems. Our cousins, on the other hand, had five children (one of them adopted) and a big farm house. Our godparents didn’t have any children, nor any experience raising children. However, my sister truly believed there was a reason why our parents had chosen these two people to be our caretakers and insisted that’s where we needed to be. Conference calls were made. Discussions were had. No one asked me what I wanted. A decision was made. Two months into the school year, we were uprooting again and moving to San Diego.

I wasn't ready to start over again. I wasn't ready to leave my new life behind. I started shutting down again. Getting quiet. Withdrawing. I no longer had any desire to participate in any extracurricular activities. No more bike rides. No more social interactions. Back to the girl sitting in the corner with her stuffed animals, talking to herself. The first day of school was even more terrifying. My godmother stayed with me for half the day. I ended up with a single friend who I held onto for the remainder of my time at that school.

We moved to San Diego on Oct. 26th, 1995. By Thanksgiving, our mom wanted to come visit but our godparents thought it might be better if she waited until Christmas, giving us more time to adjust to our new home and giving her a longer period to visit. We agreed… it made perfect sense. I didn’t see any problem with waiting another three weeks. My mom was incredibly upset, but she made her flight plans and bought her ticket for December 17th.

I talked to her a couple days after Thanksgiving and it was upsetting. I'm not sure if there was much of a conversation. She fell asleep almost immediately and I didn't understand what was going on. I spent the next several minutes screaming "Mom!" into the receiver, with no response. Finally, I hear my grandfather in the background ask my mom what she's doing. I'm terrified, still thinking something terrible has happened while I'm on the phone with her. She wakes up, apologizes, and explains that she fell asleep. My terror quickly turns to annoyance as I still don't fully understand the seriousness of her illness. She has to go. Good, because I don't want to talk to her anymore. How could she fall asleep on me? During our conversation? Her little snug bug? I'm hurt. I want to cry. We quickly end the phone call and I'm not even sure I say "I love you."

That’s the last time I spoke to my mother. The week after Thanksgiving she ended up in the hospital. She had been vomiting up bits of brown that she assumed were chocolate because mama had a sweet tooth. Then they realized it was blood. They admitted her for pancreatitis because they didn’t have a diagnosis and they weren’t sure what was wrong with her. If I remember correctly, there was a lot of switching back and forth between different diagnoses in those first few days, but I’m not really sure why.

Saturday, December 2nd, 1995 
My sister and I woke up and walked into the kitchen to discover a post-it note on the counter from our godparents: 
Out running errands. Be back shortly. Don't eat breakfast... we are getting donuts!  
My favorite donut was chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and nuts and I hoped they would bring back one of those. Otherwise, a plain cake was just as good. 
We sat around for sometime and flipped through the television channels trying to find something to entertain our easily bored little minds, waiting for our breakfast to arrive.  When they finally got home, everything seemed normal. They seemed normal. I got up and poured myself a small glass of milk, ripped off a paper towel, and picked out my favorite donut... because of course it was there. We sat down on the barstools and got ready to bite into our delicious cake breakfast. Our godparents had positioned themselves into the dining room chairs. 

"Before you start eating, we need to tell you something." 

We set our donuts down and swiveled around in our chairs. Something had changed. Their faces were different. They no longer seemed normal. Everything was not normal.  

"Your mother passed away early this morning........." 

I couldn't tell you what the rest of that sentence was. I stopped listening. Blood immediately rushed to my ears and face. My eyes welled up, blinding me. My heart started making its way to the top of my throat and I felt like I was choking. My sister's muffled wailing was barely audible over my brain repeatedly screaming those four words: your mother passed away. I was shutting down. I no longer wanted my donut. I no longer wanted to exist. All I wanted was my mom. And she was gone. 

“Losing your life is not the worst thing that can happen. The worst thing is to lose your reason for living.” 

Jo Nesbo

She was 43 years old. She died at 2:45 am from an upper gastrointestinal hemorrhage due to gastric ulceration. Basically, she had ulcers no one knew about and she bled to death. Alone, in a hospital, without her daughters. The one thing she feared more than anything was losing her children and her own parents turned on her. They separated us from our mom at a time when she needed us the most. She would have never recovered from her disease. But I think once she lost us, she completely gave up. She felt she had nothing left. It had been two months since I had last seen her. We went to see the movie Philadelphia (I know, super weird for a kid, but my mom loved Tom Hanks and I loved my mom). Two months since our last hug, our last kiss, our last snug. I wish I could have been there for her. I wish I could have comforted her and told her everything would be okay. I wish I wasn’t such a brat and I told her “I love you” more times. I wish I could have written her a thousand more meaningless stories for her to love and cherish. I wish she knew she could never lose me and that she had nothing to fear. And I wish she knew that I will forever be her little snug bug… no matter what.

“All the sorrows of life are bearable if only we can convert them into a story.” 

Isak Dinesen

The pain never truly goes away… it just gets a little quieter over time. It shouts at you constantly, always nagging, always there. You get used to it. You learn to live with it. You mute it, but somedays it breaks through and destroys you. And over the years, the shouting lessens and it becomes a whisper. And then it turns to guilt because you don’t suffer as much as you used to. But the pain is still there. It will always be there. We all have our pain. We are all broken. We all suffer. We are all dealing with some unknown bullshit, trying to make it to the next day. We are all just trying our best to survive. Writing is my current way of survival. It’s a form a therapy: it allows me to build upon my childhood storytelling and grow from it. I stopped writing after my mother died. I stopped writing stories and I started focusing on different career paths. I lost my confidence and ambition for storytelling because I had lost my biggest cheerleader. I had no desire to survive. I did not understand that writing could help me grieve. It could help me heal. I never truly lost my love for writing because I never forgot my mother’s encouragement. I suppressed it for years and now, with some helpful nudges, it’s finally coming back. I remember her words. I remember her love. The passion is returning. And one day, I will heal… because my trauma does not define me. I get to choose what defines me… and in this moment, I choose to write. Unapologetically.

“Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am in a thousand winds that blow,
I am the softly falling snow.
I am the gentle showers of rain,
I am the fields of ripening grain.
I am in the morning hush,
I am in the graceful rush
Of beautiful birds in circling flight,
I am the starshine of the night.
I am in the flowers that bloom,
I am in a quiet room.
I am in the birds that sing,
I am in each lovely thing.
Do not stand at my grave bereft
I am not there. I have not left.” 

Mary Elizabeth Frye

One thought on “Orphan

  1. The pain you have been through is unimaginable. Something that should never have been bestowed upon you, or your sister. Your parents would be so proud of who you have become. Keep writing. You are so good at it. Like, really good. Your Mom was right. Do it for her. Do it for you. It’s such a great way to air all your grievances, and show the world how you survived. You have shared several of the things in this post with me. Individually, and over 11+ years. To read it all in one story, at one time, not only shines a light on the whole experience in it’s totality, but shows me what a true warrior you are. It makes sense. All the things. All the quirks. All the sorrow. All the things that make you, YOU. You my friend, are incredible. Keep up the good work. You truly have something to offer the world.

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