Life is so weird. It is cruel, wonderful, hideous, beautiful; you name any adjective and there isn't a doubt in my mind that it could be used to describe some aspect of my life. I've only been on this planet for twenty years, but I feel as though I have had many experiences which have affected not only me, but countless other people. So many events have shaped the person that I am today and I believe that a lot of them have shaped others as well.
My life began on the day after Thanksgiving in 1985. I was born at a hospital of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York. My mother was a pediatric nurse and my father a splicer for the telephone company. I was raised in New Rochelle, ten minutes from the Bronx. My hyperactive brother, Jonathan, had been born five years earlier and at a young age, I was convinced that I was an accident because I could not understand why my parents would want to punish themselves with more children like him.
I never liked my brother much because it seemed as though his goal in life was to make me miserable. Fairly recently, my mother, my brother and I engaged in a conversation that helped me to understand him better. While my mother was pregnant with me, she suffered some complications. She actually went into labor months before I was due, and after her scare, she was forced to "take it easy." As I mentioned, my brother was extremely hyperactive as a child, and required more attention than other children might. My mother struggled to give my brother the attention he craved, but it simply wasn't possible to satisfy his needs. As a result, Jon apparently felt abandoned by my parents and I was the source of his feelings of rejection.
In retrospect, my childhood was pure bliss. While my brother and I never got along very well, I always knew that I was loved. My earliest memories are of the camping trips our family would take for two weeks at a time each summer and they are the best memories I have. I specifically remember one trip to a campground in Maryland where my father and I went fishing together. I remember hiking with him on a roundabout trail to the river. At the time, I was so young that I couldn't tell my right from my left and as we would come to forks in the trail, he would ask me which way we should go as a way of teaching me.
When we got to the river, we got into his old Zodiac and set off, the wind in our hair. We slowed at a swampy area and prepared to fish. He baited my hook, for there was no way I would push a sharp hook through a defenseless worm's body. Then, in true fisherman's fashion, we waited. I wish I could remember what we talked about as we sat there, alone together on the water, but I only remember what happened next. Something was tugging at my line! Imagine the sheer excitement felt by a little girl on a fishing trip with her dad (who hasn't caught anything yet) when something below has taken the bait. When we tried to reel in the fish I had caught, it began to struggle and actually pulled our boat through the water! Once my father had gained control, it revealed itself as a monstrous alligator gar.
This memory is by far one of the fondest I have of my father. It is one of the two or three vivid memories I have of the two of us bonding together. I loved my father immensely and, while it probably wasn't very fair to my mother, he was always the favorite of my parents. The memory is so precious to me because my father's approval meant the world to me and catching that fish is the only thing I can remember doing that made him proud. There is no doubt in my mind that my father took pride in my catching that fish. He showered me with adulation, emphasizing that he had never known anyone to catch an alligator gar, particularly one so big. When we returned to the campsite, he boasted to anyone who would listen that his little girl had caught the biggest fish he had ever seen and that the beast had pulled the boat clear across the river.
Several years later, when I was eight years old, my life changed dramatically. On a Friday night, I returned home after a dinner out with my mom and brother and my father was sitting in the living room (he had left work late that night) watching the Simpson trial, eating his own dinner. My brother and I went upstairs to watch TGIF because we had no interest in what was playing in the living room. Perhaps an hour later, my mother called my brother to the top of the stairs.
"There's something wrong with Daddy. Don't come downstairs. I called an ambulance. We're going to the hospital. Call Anne Marie, tell her what happened and ask her to come."
My brother went to the phone and called our neighbor Anne Marie, then my grandmother. Meanwhile, I stood in the window of my parents' bedroom and waited for the ambulance. I have never experienced a longer five minutes in my entire life. I waited for what felt like hours before the ambulance finally came and went. When I mustered up the courage to go downstairs, I was hit with the severity of the situation. The living room was in shambles. Scattered on the floor were needle wrappers and buttons from my father's favorite shirt. The coffee table was pushed to the side of the room and the bottom of the couch had actually broken, leaving it tilted down on one side.
The next few days remain as blurs in my memory, interrupted by limited instances of clarity. My father was treated in the local hospital for some time before being sent to a more prominent hospital in Manhattan. Before he was transferred, Jon and I visited him. When we walked in and stood next to his bed, he smiled at us and said "hi." Smiles are strange. Usually, they are indicators of happiness, but in this case my father never looked as sad as when he smiled at my brother and I. More irony: "hi" was the last thing my father ever said to me.
Once he was transferred to the hospital in Manhattan, Jon and I were only allowed to visit him once. Later, I was told that the reason was because he was in the Intensive Care Unit, where children were forbidden. Because my father was so ill, my mother convinced the hospital staff to let us say "goodbye." I had no idea that this would be the last time I saw him but I knew before I entered that room that things would never be the same. My mother had taken me aside and walked me to the cathedral across the street to tell me that my dad was getting worse. He had suffered another stroke and she told me that he would probably die and even if he didn't, he would never be the same person he was before. What did she mean, he wouldn't be the same? He'd be a vegetable, she said.
Knowing that my father wasn't going to get better didn't make his death any easier. He died on November 8, 1994, the Tuesday after the stroke and exactly three weeks before my ninth birthday. I suffered a great deal of disillusionment. I told myself that he wasn't really dead and that it was all an elaborate conspiracy; that he was alive and well on some foreign island in the sun. When I came to the realization that he was really never going to come back, I wanted to die too. I just wanted to be with him and I didn't mind dying in order to do it. I remember my mother having to physically restrain me and ultimately hospitalize me because she was afraid I would hurt myself.
I became depressed and withdrawn. I stopped talking to my friends because none of them understood. As a result of my self-inflicted isolation, I spent the next few years as an outcast amongst my peers. I finally found closure when I reached middle school and had a dream in which my father came to me and told me why he had died. Even with this immense weight lifted from my shoulders, I had become so withdrawn that I no longer knew how to be a normal person.
Death is one thing that affects everyone. My first experience with death was the death of my father and it was the worst experience of my life. As much as I learned from it, I would give anything to have my father back. It wasn't worth losing my dad in order to learn about life. I learned a lot, though, and I suppose it prepared me for tough times later in my life.
Luckily, my life was fairly uneventful from fourth grade until I reached high school. The events of September 11, 2001 are some of the most vivid of my high school memories. Comparable to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, everyone remembers exactly where they were when they heard the news. On this day, during my junior year of high school, I left my United States history class and moved on to my photography class. Upon entering the classroom, I realized that I had forgotten my sweatshirt in Mrs. Gunther's class. My photo teacher excused me and I took the trek through the huge school back to my previous classroom. As I walked, I could hear the principal's voice echo, indecipherable in the wide halls which were scattered with late students rushing to their classes. It was rare for Mr. Baughman to make announcements at all, as this duty was reserved by a woman's voice most of the time. I didn't think much of it, but when I got back to the classroom where I had left my sweatshirt, classes had already started and the door was locked. I knocked on the door, but no one opened it. My teacher was standing at the front of the room and there were students within an arm's length of the door, but no one moved to open it. I knocked again, but Mrs. Gunther just put up her hand to silence me.
I became impatient, wondering why no one could simply reach over and turn the doorknob. I could still hear the muffled voice of my principal, and struggled to decipher his words, but it was of no use. Finally, he stopped speaking and someone opened the door. I just walked in, grabbed my hoodie and walked back into the hall. As I started back to Ms. McCaul's photography class, I noticed more people in the halls. I bumped into my friend, Annie, and asked if she had heard the announcement, but she had only heard as much as I had. As I continued on my way, the students I saw in the hall weren't the same tardy bustlers I had seen before. These students were crying. Why were they crying? By the time I got back to class, I had encountered at least a handful of distraught students who were sobbing or desperately calling people on cell phones.
I finally entered my class and immediately asked someone what had been said on the announcements. "A plane flew into the World Trade Center," was her reply. My response, which I am ashamed of to this day, was laughter. I don't know why I laughed. Maybe I thought it was a joke. Maybe I mixed up my emotions somehow. Whatever the reason, I laughed when I heard about it.
The rest of the day was so surreal. My Spanish teacher had plugged a radio in and we listened in silence for almost a full hour. My chemistry teacher spent the class period trying with no success to reach her daughter, who was employed in Manhattan. I began to worry about my uncle, who worked on Canal Street, mere blocks away from the Towers. Uncle Steve turned out to be fine, but was actually so close to the World Trade Center that he had taken haunting photographs of the towers immediately following the crash. The buildings had not yet collapsed, and he has pristine photos of the first tower in flames and then, the second tower as the plane hit. The rest of my family scolded him to no end for sticking around to take pictures, but I admire him a great deal for capturing such telling images of one of the most devastating events in American history. His photos are truly awesome portrayals of the towers still erect, orange flames and gray smoke billowing against blue skies and frightened people in blurs as they fled the scene.
September 11, 2001, the "day of infamy", affected countless lives all over the world. Living so close to the city at the time of the attacks made the event so much more significant to me. There were kids at my school who lost family members and even a girl whose parents were both killed. There were reminders everywhere of the devastation caused by the tragedy. I'll never forget the first time I rode across the Throggs Neck Bridge after the incident. I had traveled over the bridge countless times, as my mother's side of the family lives on Long Island. In previous years, the Manhattan skyline (including the Twin Towers) was clearly visible from the bridge and it was something I always took for granted. Traveling over that bridge a week or so after the attacks was an experience that I will never forget because the skyline on this day was completely absent. Looking over the water to the place where it should have been, the only thing visible was a wall of gray where the dust had not yet settled.
The sight I experienced traveling over the bridge that day was one of the most prodigious things I have seen in my life. I knew that the towers were gone, but from where I looked, it appeared as though all of New York City had disappeared along with them. When I took the train from New Rochelle to Grand Central Station for the first time since the attacks, I saw how individual people had been so greatly affected. A huge wall plastered in what must have been thousands of posters of people who had gone missing on September 11 had been constructed in the station. They were pleas by those left behind; perhaps irrational hopes that their loved ones were somewhere safe. This experience showed me that a lot more of the city than just the towers had disappeared. Thousands of people had gone with them, and millions more had suffered because of it.
High school and college yielded a plethora of new experiences for me, particularly my introductions to sex, drugs and rock and roll. My first boyfriend, Colin, introduced me to marijuana at the age of sixteen. I'll never forget the night we all piled into his 1986 Tercel and drove out to the park. We had lost the screen for the pipe we had planned to smoke, so we took a Snapple can, dented it and poked holes in the dent. We proceeded to place the pot in the dent and smoke it through the can. I've heard that it's rare to get high the first time one smokes marijuana, but this was certainly not the case for me. I fell in love with the experience of weightlessness and comfortable confusion. Unfortunately, I only got to smoke weed a few times before my mother asked me if I had tried it and I foolishly admitted it to her.
At this point, my relationship with my mother became increasingly strained. When I look back, I feel like a truly awful daughter. My mother had been what kept me alive during the time I was mourning my father's death, and I only made things more difficult for her. At the time, however, I hated her for coming down on me because of the pot.
My mother was devastated when she learned that I had smoked weed. She cried and forced me to go to drug therapy. Despite her attempts to stop me from smoking, I did it again on a class trip to Boston for the Junior State of America convention. Somehow, she guilted me into telling her that I had done it again, and this time she decided that rehab was the only thing that would help me. So I entered an outpatient rehabilitation program which consisted of several other seventeen-year-olds.
Being forced into rehab infuriated me for several reasons. First of all, I could no longer take part in extracurricular activities because I had to go straight from school to a city twenty minutes away. I also had to end a number of friendships because I couldn't smoke pot with those friends and smoking weed was their favorite pastime. In addition, I was the outcast of rehab. My group consisted of a boy who had been doing all sorts of drugs since he was eleven years old, a girl who was addicted to cocaine and would bounce her leg up and down frantically, a drug-dealer, and a kid, with no remorse, who had accidentally killed another kid during a fight while he was drunk and stoned. Then there was me. I had smoked marijuana a handful of times.
The recommended time to be in rehab was six months. My counselor, Ron, actually told me that I was getting too much therapy. Never having a single positive drug screening, I was out in a little over a month. I didn't smoke pot for seven months following my stint in rehab. Finally, however, prom came along and I couldn't resist. I had proved to myself that I didn't have a problem; that I wasn't addicted to marijuana because I could quit for so long.
That summer, I learned that being "addicted" to pot wasn't the problem. One night, I went to a party with my friends in Scarsdale, a town next to mine. We were having a good time. I drank a couple of beers and a kid offered me his bowl. I took a few hits from it and I felt very different for the rest of the night. The kid who had smoked me up, Ari, followed me around for some time before he put the moves on me. In my altered state, I was somewhat oblivious to what was happening around me, and before I knew it, Ari had me on the ground, one hand up my shirt, the other unbuttoning my shorts. I pushed his hands away, but he just wouldn't stop touching me. Luckily, I got myself out of the situation before it got out of control, and I'd like to say that this event made me warier of such situations, but going to college opened me up to other, similar incidents.
I was overjoyed when I finally got to leave home and live on my own. I met my first love, Bob, my freshman year of college. I really loved Bob and I decided that I would lose my virginity to him. He lived about an hour from Buffalo and seven hours from New Rochelle, so after being together for two months, our relationship was forced into being long-distance. Two weeks before the fall semester, I visited Bob. Being apart for most of the summer made me miss him and love him even more. One night, after we were sitting in his parlor, which was decked out with deer heads protruding from the walls, I had sex for the first time.
I went back home soon after, but couldn't wait for school to start so that we would be together again. When school started, however, Bob changed dramatically. He wouldn't answer my phone calls or call me back and we barely saw each other. I had never cared about a guy so much in my life, and I was afraid to talk to him about it because I had a feeling I wouldn't like what he had to say. Finally, on the day we had been together for six months, I confronted him about his apathetic behavior toward me. He told me he didn't think he knew what love was. He wanted to be alone. Things weren't fun anymore. So it was over and I had my first bitter taste of heartbreak. Then, two days later, Bob was dating another girl and I was a total mess.
Despite my bad luck in love, the college experience has been an enjoyable one. Spending so much time away from my mother has benefited our relationship, and when I think back to all the trouble I've caused her, I almost feel guilty for the way I've behaved toward her. I've learned not to keep regrets. Yes, there are things in my past that, knowing their outcomes, I wouldn't do again. However, I think it's important to find some value in each of my experiences because if I didn't, a large portion of my life would be a series of let-downs and repeated mistakes.
I know that none of my experiences are unique; every day people are haunted by memories, loved ones die, parents commit injustices, and hearts are broken. However, I have been uniquely affected by my experiences and everything I have gone through during the course of my life has shaped me into the person I am now. I like to think I've learned from all these experiences, but I know that I'll continue to make mistakes in the future because life seems to consist of an endless series of errors. I don't doubt that people who have experienced similar occurrences are affected differently than I have been.
The Autobiographical Impulse in America, by Howard Wolf, points out that knowledge of oneself allows one to effectively write autobiographically, adding some kind of importance to one's life, but this knowledge is not limited to the writer. Countless other people in the world experience these things on a daily basis, and perhaps reading about someone else's similar experiences makes them feel less alienated from those who simply don't understand what they have gone through.