I’ve been thinking more and more lately about myself as an adolescent. There’s something about being 27 that makes my heart hurt for my teenage self. As the kids in my life are making their way into high school and college, I am realizing how young I was when my dad died. I wish I could time travel back to my thirteen year old self and just let her know that her ability to get through the day, however great or horrific it was, is admirable. That everything, indeed, wasn’t fair and there was going to be one hell of a road to come. That a single unfair death wouldn’t prevent losing others she loved prematurely. I’ve become increasingly interested in myself at that age and often try to remember every moment of those days.
Earlier today, a friend posted a status that made me think back to my teen years after my dad died. It reminded me about all of the ways I just wanted to be normal again. I think it’s fair to say that most teenagers just want to be “normal” – whatever that means to them. I wish I could go back and tell myself that I would never be normal again. That when there’s an earthquake nothing ever settles back into place. Instead pieces fall into a different pattern. It doesn’t mean that things won’t be be okay, it just means that you’ll always be defined by this life changing event.
The day after my dad died, my best friend and her family came over. After a long night of tears, denial and pure exhaustion, it was a relief to have them there for me. To be able to talk to someone my age, or not talk at all. She hung out with me in my room for awhile and we cried, talked about school and I’m pretty sure we napped. Eventually we made our way to my kitchen where her parents tried to get food in my family’s bellies, a large task when so much of the real estate is being filled with grief. After lunch, her dad mentioned that it was almost time to go to cheerleading practice. I assumed I was going, and asked if he was driving me as well. All the adults looked at each other until one finally broke it to me that it wouldn’t be the best idea to go today. I protested, saying that my squad needed me there, and I was told that they would understand me missing this practice.
All I wanted to do was go to cheerleading practice. I wanted to work out, be with my friends, and get the hell out of my apartment. I didn’t like the idea of my squad sitting there and finding out that my dad died. I wanted to show up like nothing happened. It was the first time I learned that things weren’t magically going to go on as planned. A few days later, I finally convinced my family to let me go to practice, but with the caveat of my aunt coming with me. I remember thinking it was weird as hell, but if it got me back in the gym I’d roll with it. I walked into my gym and had a pep talk in my head. I knew that I was going to have to set the tone for the rest of the season. As it was before the funeral, no one but my best friends had seen me yet, and I didn’t want to be treated differently. So I decided to go in as happy as I could. After a few good friends who knew my dad got the opportunity to tell me how sad they were, I changed the tone to focus on the practice on hand and had a normal practice. It felt so good to do something I knew how to do. Something that was in my everyday schedule. As I was out of school, and my small apartment was busting with family that lived far away and priests making plans and fruit baskets and cold cut trays and a freezer with so much food in it, we had to find creative ways to store it, I was so happy to be in my element. A part of me that existed long before my dad died.
The second time I realized people were always going to perceive me as “different” was my first day back at school. I had already seen my friends and some of my teachers at this point, so I wasn’t too nervous to go back. Again, I gave myself a bit of a pep talk at my locker and told myself I can either be pitied or show everyone I was back to being the funny, charismatic little eighth grader I was at the time. I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember cracking some sort of joke in my homeroom that felt like the weight of grief was lifted and I could let everyone know I was normal again.
The day I got back was the last day of presentations about the Salem Witch Trials, or something like that. Before my dad died, I finished my project. I wrote something on a piece of paper, and aged the paper over the flames of my stove and pasted it on a little piece of wood that I carved to make it really authentic. I was insanely proud of my creativity. It was actually a bit of a relief to have something to work on during the week I was away. It gave me a distraction and a chance to sneak away in such a crowded apartment. Throughout the day, my teachers would ask who didn’t get to present yet, and we would raise our hands. One by one, the students left to present got called on. Eight kids with their hands up went down to four then down to two. After the second to last person was selected, I figured they were having me go last because I was out for so long and it was only fair. After the last person went, I prepared myself to present, only to find my teacher offering closing remarks and dismissing us back to our normal classes.
I was confused as hell. I had my project – I even made sure she knew I had it by raising my hand. I went up to her after and she explained to me that I was excused from the project due to the circumstances. That I wouldn’t have to worry about the grade because the teachers discussed it and I was good to go. While that may bring some relief to one kid, I was devastated. I tried to hide my disappointment but my chest burned and my eyes were welling. At the time, I couldn’t comprehend why I was so upset. I probably attributed it to how hard I worked on my project only to be deprived of the opportunity to show it off. But I think I realized the last shred of normalcy, the last bit of my life before my dad died, was gone.
With that project, I could have proved to my entire class that I was fine. Nothing was different about me just because my dad died in a car crash. Look – here’s a witch’s poem (or whatever shit I wrote) to prove it! This was made by me before my dad died, and it’ll carry me into the aftermath and prove to everyone that I’m just fine! The first day back at school, and look at Annie presenting in front of the ENTIRE class! But instead I was raising my hand until I was the last kid left and never called on.
I tried to keep my life as normal as possible and looking back, I see that pattern seep into every element. I hated going to the school psychologist, and literally ran away after two sessions. I hated being in her room. Normal kids didn’t have to step foot in it, normal kids didn’t even know who she was. Walking out of her office was a visual representation to anyone who was around that I was different. Instead, I responded much better to hanging out with one of my teachers during lunch and talking about everything (to which I’m in lifelong debt for). While a lot of it had to do with how much I loved her and she cared for me, part of it was also that it was a familiar setting. I knew her before my dad died, I spent plenty of time during the day in her room so it was comfortable to me, and the worst anyone could think was that I was a teacher’s pet. I wasn’t seeing a specialist who was only there for special kids. She was my teacher.
I didn’t respond to any child psychologist. Instead of working one on one, I very much preferred being part of a teen grief group. Instead of having to tell a stranger about my life, I was able to sit in a room of peers and talk about anything from boys to our dead dads, or not talk at all. It made me feel less alone, less like a sad story, and more like a typical teen.
In high school, I hated the inevitable day where a teacher found out about my past. I didn’t like the way people looked at me when they found out that my dad died. I absolutely hated telling them how. I didn’t like people trying to fix me, or break down my walls. At that point, I was still close to my former teacher and already had the people I needed to go to. I wanted to just be like any other student – I didn’t want to be anyone’s Ellen submission tape.
While I went to college in Chicago because I wanted to pursue comedy, I think a large part of my ability to move so far away was because I thought it would be a fresh start. After a teenage life of being defined by the worst moment of my life, I was eager to get the hell away and start new. And while it worked for awhile, I got to the point where I was just shoving every bad part of my past to the side until it eventually blew up in my face. My desire to be normal, in each stage of my life, meant keeping a tight lid on every emotion I had until I was in a situation that I deemed safe enough to spill out a bit – my teacher’s room, my grief group, or in my own room. This caused me to have panic attacks, insomnia and insane bits of anxiety.
I wish I could tell myself that “normal”, as I knew it, didn’t exist anymore. The harder I worked at getting there, the harder it was when I had my moments of clarity where I realized I wasn’t really normal. I wish I could tell myself that the best I can do is pick up the pieces and figure out a different way to put them together. A way that wasn’t quite the same, but still worked for me. I probably wouldn’t listen to myself, knowing myself back then, but I wish I just let shit crash all around me then figure out how to get through it instead of trying so damn hard to hold everything in place.
A few years ago, after suffering the loss of three friends, I got to the point where I couldn’t handle it anymore. I felt like I couldn’t catch a break, and it became impossible to try and pretend that I was normal. Everyone in my Chicago life knew about my friends, so I opened up more about my dad as well. I started writing and talking to my family about my grief. Since I was older, more friends could relate to me and I felt less alone. I realized that living in a new normal, where I acknowledged there was a line in the sand – the life I had before my dad died, and the life that was given to me at 2am on November 11, 2003. I was too far into my new life to ever think there was a chance to jump back. That brought relief to me. As I got older, grief started touching more people I knew and I no longer felt alone. I realized there wasn’t any such thing as normal, rather a set of circumstances we find ourselves constantly trying to navigate. While it sounds sad in theory, knowing that life could never go back was relieving. It’s much easier than striving for something that never really existed, only to come up short.
Everyone you know is just trying to get through the day with the hand they’ve been dealt. Even the most normal looking person lost someone they loved and is just trying to navigate their new normal. Once we realize we can never go back, I think it’s much easier to move forward.