Creative Nonfiction

This Is My Art

“Everything can be art,” Jeremy claims as he lets thick, soft-green paint drop in careless puddles onto the carpet. He dangles a paintbrush like comical carrots on a stick before a donkey whom craves it, so he gives the sweet vegetable chase. I, however, do not give chase, for I do not crave it. It is, instead, me before Jeremy, and it is I potentially holding a paintbrush that sets his cheeks red and legs ready to chase. I grab at the brush for the sheer fact the carpet is not ours to keep, but only ours to replace. He has falsely won. He doesn’t care; he never cares about how he wins, or even if he does. Pride is not an issue for him, just getting and wanting, always wanting. I believe he wants to want more than to obtain. I grab the paintbrush, and he wants more. I take it to the fresh, obnoxiously-white canvas. He let me turn the tiny backyard into a shelter for stranded pets, so how could I not show my lack of skills with a paint brush and some beautiful green paint?

The nearer I come to my shame the more excited he is, “everything can be art,” “all you touch and alter has become a creation.” I have visions, grand visions of scenes I want to place on to this canvas. Huge roaming fields where he and I will be eating juicy mangos, watching  butterflies rest, talking about how life began and why I decided to wear my hair down that day. A place where we could be naked, warm, and free. Where tall grasses hide our games, and no paths lead to us. Only the sweet gentle caresses of the open wind and kind hugs of the sun could find us.

I picture where the lines should go and how the colors should change, yet the image in my mind is lost when my disconnected hand takes over. The romantic, magical landscape turns into a three-year-old's rendition of green sticks with yellow tops. I give up on trying to portray my thoughts through paint. I write what I want people to see instead. This seems to be cheating. Jeremy thinks it is brilliant.

HERE is where WE loosen
as the original lovers, Adam and Eve
HE rests his head lower, lower,
lower, with each moment
HE is humbled in the presence of such
glowing confidence
MY hair grows long, past the knees
MY clothes return to separate threads,
fall to the ground,
take root,
rise again as a tree bearing gifts of
delicious apples
I am the upper hand
it will be too much for HIM to resist
when I bite into the fruit, and sweet juices start to flow
from my chin,
over my stomach,
down my milky legs
dripping, losing
Itself into the lush
never to be seen again
but HERE is not the garden
HERE is the field that surround it
where the true loving, exploring, companionship begins
lost from the closeness of God WE have to look for IT in
each other, from
each other.

He instantly places the canvas in the large front window of our tiny apartment for all to witness my non-ability with paint. I feel the word confidence should be taken out of the poem.

From a young age, I have wondered what it was about me that I couldn’t create, that I could only write silly poems of anger and love. My mother was an artist. She used paint to portray thoughts. Going into her gallery at young ages was a bitter-sweet adventure. It would allow me to leave the everyday and take a warm-breezed-walk through tall reeds of some undiscovered white-sand beach. I could visit the heavy wetness of the south to watch a swamp-home family prepare an outdoor meal. She was not restricted in her ability to depict landscape, people, or things. I was perpetually jealous and let down. I would gather what was left in her palette from the day’s work and start to envision. But nothing close to what I had wanted to show up ever did. The lion was just two blobs of yellow with four rectangles for legs. Maybe shading a darker mane into the lighter body would shape this lion, and people would stop in their reverence for such a beautiful creature, but it too was just a blob.

I kept trying. I wanted to give off that mystique of walking into an art store covered happily in splashes of dried-on color or the look of frustration when the store had run out of that one and will-be-the-only-one-to-do tube of precious periwinkle rain. I was not to be this person. Although I felt the passion for it, my soul expanded hard against my skin. I would never be that person the people debated over whether my black-outline-phase was a cry for help or a sign of great control over my life.

Around the age of seven I acquired an electronic keyboard. I can recollect that it was a Christmas present, but I assume not from my parents as it had a volume control that could be turned up very high. There was not a clue in my head about playing the keyboard. I would wait until the night fell, when I could assume some privacy, clear the piles of frenzied writing from my desk and begin to try my hand at making a masterpiece of electronic notes. I enjoyed holding the lower notes for long dramatic moments, until the rush of vibrations pulled my hands away. I loved it here. I was thinking something and here was a sound, it gave my soul something to speak with. Yet when I would try to link that deep boom with another note, the whole thought would fall apart. It wouldn’t make sense. It wasn’t beautiful. It wasn’t clear. No one would spread rumors that I had met the Devil at the crossroads.

During my high school years I found a limbo-of-sorts place to hide and disguise creativity. I took up photography. The chest in my room that acquired journal upon journal was cleared out to make room for the many pictures and camera gadgets that I hoped would one day be priceless. No actual mind to reality was necessary. It was just about finding an image that would speak for me. I understood what would shock and amaze; what would really grab people. I can’t really be sure it was about me though. I loved to head out and feel the pride with myself and the awe of others. I would stroll, no strut, about places with my large camera slung over my shoulder, across my chest ready for that moment that needed to be forever held. The hours spent in the darkroom were pure magic, just be patient and images will appear in the water. The smell of the chemicals, the shock of light, all gave me a label. I was a photographer. I won an award for some picture of a cross and an empty wine bottle, splayed out in a sun-spot over a shaggy carpet. It was special to someone, to a panel of judges, but not to me. I wasn’t going to find my uniqueness, my own thoughts out “there.” I abandoned the darkroom.

Jeremy watches with those eyes that can see through my present and sees the little me, complete with radiant blonde curls, trying to bring forth her lion. He watches, and listens intently to the long, drawn-out notes, of an untrained keyboardist. He feels the disappointment that my visions do not exist anywhere but in my head.

I am now to create again with my hands but to physically shape my mind’s thoughts onto earth’s gift of clay. In my head is the sleek image of a naked man and woman in a strong embrace. One leg and one arm of each is wrapped around the other. They both have one leg straight down and one arm extended in an exaggerated reach upwards. I want to create tree roots at the pointed toes, allude to tree bark with their bodies. The stretched out fingers and the woman’s wild free hair are to grow into branches and healthy summer leaves. I wet my hands, put them to the clay, breathe. He watches my thoughts, he sees my hopes dash around my heart and tries to talk down the “I can’ts” that are starting to darken my blue eyes. The loving red couple starts as long snakes and do not progress much farther than that. The hope of turning them into passion and a tree does not seem possible. Instead, I take a pencil and dig into the still wet, sweet-smelling, squishy page a message about what I am thinking.

“WE were at one time a seed
not of man but of earth
WE all have ancestors that bloomed
Ancestors that were
the soil that nourished the blooms
and those that were helpless to the oceans’ deep currents Nature is our
we are each other’s path to her.
Is this all a fanciful scene of people growing back into nature,
Or am I just trying to express my love for outdoor loving?”

Before my hand even clenches to make a battering ram against the failed art project, he grabs it and runs with his soft-quickness to the kiln.

We sit and wait for my words to be solidified and he gets an old painting of his. This one is dark with layers of blues and blacks. There is only a hint of red in it; a shadow of a person cowering among the heavy colors. He turns to me and says, “Will you please make my art more beautiful with your work? This is a portrait of me, but he feels more lonely than I wanted him to.”

I am shocked and a little scared. I do not want to destroy his art. This is such a beautiful, strong piece, and anything I could draw would lower the maturity level of it drastically down. And I look at him and see those eyes, that soul. That artist’s soul. One that is a melting pot of all the forgotten gods of Olympus, with all their compassion and torture. The very mountain that birthed Atlantis and also the wave that destroyed it. I realize he is looking at me also and can see the same.

I take a small paintbrush of the very same green paint that at first frightened me. With excitement I write in the upper left corner so as to not put more weight on the red shadow that cowers in the bottom right.

“Here are some words to keep you company:
You are my EeeeEeeeeaaaaaaa-ZZZ—ay to love sa- -dNESS
hopes, DESSSSSSI (aaaahhhh)ERS, darkness, wants
whom I would walk with when my feet were

Words, I have discovered, are also art. They are an emotional fever that hits and puts all other activities aside until that world, moment, person, connection has finally come together and given a place to rest, whether it be on a napkin, receipt, hand or a clean page of a journal. Writing is art. Everything is art.

“Learning to drive is something that takes persistence and patience,” my dad told me as I jumped into the driver’s seat of his 2003 navy blue PT Cruiser.

“Yeah Dad, I know,” I said, trying to hide the fact that I was already getting annoyed. The idea that my dad still saw me as his baby girl in the black and white polka dotted dress with the cute beret in my hair irked me. Growing up, I had always been responsible and independent. I always made the honor roll and was always invited to the academic awards banquet at the end of the year. I was also on our middle school basketball team. I was the starting shooting guard. We would always be in the championship game and it would be unusual if we didn’t come home champions. I always made it home in time for my 11:30 curfew, I never drank or did drugs, and I was very honest with my parents. This is why I could not understand why my dad continued to treat me as if I was still that little girl rather than the mature and responsible soon-to-be adult that I was.

I could tell that my dad had sprayed some air freshener before we got in because the “new car” scent stung my nostrils. I was teeming with excitement to finally learn how to drive a car. But not just any car, a stick shift. I would finally have the freedom to come and go as I pleased. No more, “Mom can you drop me off at the school for basketball practice? Dad can you pick me up at the bowling alley?” As I sat in the driver’s seat taking in this surreal moment, I began to realize my knees were digging into my chest. I reached down under the seat, a little apprehensive for what I might find: a couple of old, moldy, McDonald’s french fries, maybe some loose change, a Juicyfruit gum wrapper or two. God only knows what else could have been lurking under that seat. Eventually I had found what I was looking for: the switch to adjust my seat. I grabbed the gray cloth seat belt, pulled it across my body and clicked it into place. I imagined myself driving the car with all of my friends. The windows were down, the cool wind hitting my face as we jammed out to the Backstreet Boys. I smiled to myself as I slipped the cold, metal key into the ignition and slowly turned it over. The 2.4 liter, 4 cylinder engine spit and spattered for a second, but quickly rumbled to life.

I was ready. I punched the clutch down with my left foot and stomped down on the brake with my right foot. My hand shook nervously as I reached for the long, slender, metallic gear shifter which was located in between my seat and the right, front, passenger seat. Slowly, I pulled the shifter back into reverse, letting my left foot gradually slide off of the clutch and the brake while trying to remember to feather the gas pedal. So many thoughts raced through my mind: don’t speed or you might get pulled over, don’t stall the car in the middle of a busy intersection. But whatever you do, don’t wreck! I could just picture the flashing red and blue lights and the shrill of the siren, the faces of the people watching as my car was sitting in the middle of the intersection because I had stalled it, and the tow truck pulling away with a mangled piece of metal that used to be our blue PT Cruiser.

As I cautiously backed down our meandering, concrete driveway, I could feel my dad eyeing my every move, waiting for me to mess up. After what seemed like two hours, I had finally reached the end of the driveway and breathed a sigh of relief; so far, so good.

My dad and I both decided that it would be a better idea to learn how to drive a stick shift out in the country rather than downtown Ottawa, Ohio, so I could more easily practice shifting gears and stopping without having to worry about being in the way of steady flowing traffic. So I turned out of the driveway and headed north out of town on State Route 65. I came to a stop sign and I tried to stop, but I forgot to put my foot on the clutch as I braked. The car started making a rattling, gear grinding noise and began to shake. Then it just suddenly shut off. I was so worried that I really messed something up.

“Oh gosh! Did I do that?”

“Yeah, it’s okay. You just stalled it. It happens all the time when people are learning how to drive a stick,” my dad replied.

Wow, I thought to myself, maybe this isn’t going to be so bad. This event had tripped my memory and I caught myself replaying the moment when my dad had taught me how to ride a bike. He let go of my pink banana seat and I pedaled by myself across the driveway. I remembered the look of pride on his face and I yearned for that look of approval as he was teaching me how to drive this car. I turned the key again, and the engine fired right back up. We were back in business.

I continued heading north out of town on State Route 65. I turned down random country roads until I found one that was so remote we were guaranteed not to be bothered by other intolerant motorists. I started down the road, trying to remember to hold down the clutch as I changed gears and picked up speed. CRUNCH, CREAK, BAM! I had stalled it again and I could tell by the look on my Dad’s face and the long sarcastic sighs that the little patience he had left was beginning to wear thin. What was wrong with him, I thought, normally he’s so supportive. I knew that car was important to him. Heck, I’m sure all of our neighbors could have told you how he was out in our driveway every Saturday morning hose in hand, washing and waxing that car. When my brothers and I were little and the car would accumulate dust and dirt in between Saturday washings, we would write messages in the dirt and he used to get so mad. We would have to sit there and listen to his half hour lectures about how that scratches the paint. But now he was acting like I was deliberately stalling the car just to pester him.

“You know that’s hard on the car when you stall it all the time,” he said dryly.

“Well, obviously, but it’s not like I’m doing it on purpose,” I said defensively.

It was beginning to be very clear that my dad wasn’t too keen on the idea of his little daughter getting her license. I was worried that he had begun to think that trying to teach me how to drive was a waste of his time when he could bring me places or pick me up just as he had done the past nine years. I began to sweat as I became uneasy at the fact that I could not drive this car. My legs began to stick the gray leather driver’s seat, causing another distraction, as if trying to remember to hold the clutch and the brake at the same time while stopping was not enough. I just wanted to prove to him that I was capable of driving this car. I wasn’t about to give up. I was going to learn how to drive this car. I tried once more, again with the same frustrating result. I was getting very irritated with my dad and with the car. I began yelling at my dad out of frustration.

“Can you stop sighing and rolling your eyes every time I mess up? I’m doing the best I can!”

“It’s not that hard to remember to hold the clutch down!” he snapped right back at me.

He made it seem so simple, but he didn’t understand that he had been driving a stick for over 25 years. The entire concept of the clutch was foreign to me and I was sick of him acting like I was incapable of driving it.

I got so pissed. “You know what, just forget it! You can drive it home!”

I knew that if I didn’t remove myself from the situation soon, our fight would escalate and we would both end up saying something we would later regret. I was so frustrated I just wanted to go home. We quietly switched places and the ride home was so silent it felt like I could have cut the tension between us with an exacto knife.

The entire way home all I could think about was how I had just given up. This upset me even more because I try to live by the motto, “If at first you don’t succeed, pick yourself up and try again.” I also felt like I had just let my dad down. The fact that I had disappointed him ate away at my conscience. I just wanted him to stop seeing me as the little girl in the black and white polka dotted dress on the pink banana seat bike. I wanted him to see me as the 16 year old in her ripped American Eagle jeans and orange tank top sitting behind the wheel of that blue PT Cruiser. I envisioned him going to work the next day and telling his coworkers how he tried to teach me how to drive a stick shift, but I got irritated and aggravated and gave up.

Teary-eyed, aggravated, and exhausted we arrived back home. I walked into the door only to be greeted by my cheery, light-hearted mom.

“How did it go dear?”

“It was terrible,” I replied. “He was not being very patient with me and every time I screwed up he acted like it was such a hassle to even attempt to teach me how to drive that stupid car! He acts like I’m still six years old and I’m too stupid to do anything.” Seconds later my dad stomped through the door, and it was looking like round two of our shouting match was just about to begin. My Mom quickly intervened.

“Both of you need to work on your patience, especially with each other. Paige, not everyone is meant to be a teacher. Give your dad a break every now and then. Bruce, you need to learn that young people are sensitive, especially girls. Criticism won’t get you anywhere, so try to be more positive and reassuring.”

She had a way of smoothing things over and understanding both sides of the story. She was always more compassionate to me and my feelings at the age than my dad was because she knew how hard it is growing up at that age. I was trying to figure out who I was, where I belonged in my group of friends, dealing with the peer pressures of alcohol and drugs, becoming interested in boys and wearing makeup, all the while trying to juggle school and sports. Life is especially hard for girls at that age. She understood that learning how to drive and getting my license was such a big deal in my life. It was one of the first major steps in defining me as an emerging adult. At least I had someone I could relate to.

My dad and I both resolved the issues we had with each other and we apologized to one another.

“Paige, I’m sorry that I was impatient with you,” my dad said.

“Yeah, I’m sorry I yelled at you,” I said.

As I look back on that day now, I realize I blamed my dad for the fight for the simple fact that he wasn’t sympathetic to my feelings of anxiety and nervousness. The irony of this is that I treated him the same way; I wasn’t being sympathetic to his feelings of watching his little girl grow up.

An hour had passed since our fight and I was in the living room watching television. My dad walked in and sat down on the couch.

“Do you want to try driving the car again?”

“Yes! I would love to give it another shot,” I replied excitedly.

We took the car out again and, even though I still made a few mistakes, I was happy that I did not give up on myself and neither did my dad.

    Now that time has passed and we are getting older we find ourselves together at family events, especially around the holidays, sitting together around the table after our meal and reminiscing about our old, cobwebbed, childhood memories. This story always seems to pop up and, as I retell it, the family erupts with laughter. It is nice to look back on it with the rest of the family, especially my dad, and laugh.  As I have matured through the years, I find myself thinking about this memory and I have realized that this fight started not because my dad was mad at me for stalling the car, but because he loved me so much and it was hard for him to sit back and watch his little girl grow up.

First Place
Arbuckle Award

If you could demand that someone demand your forgiveness, I would have.  She owed it to me now more than ever.  Her actions had turned my life upside down.  I felt like I was struggling to make it through a cold winter night with no shelter from the storm.  I was alone.

My sister Jessica was a high school junior and I was a sophomore, but we attended different schools, thankfully.  I had always found her to be annoying and difficult to get along with; she just wasn’t the type of person I liked and she felt the same way about me.  To me she was overly needy, and to her I was probably too immature.  It had always been like that.  Sibling rivalry had seemed to transfer into hatred between us over the years, a game of who could hurt the other most.

The animosity began in the first five years of my life.  My family and I lived off of Kibby Street, not the best part of Lima, Ohio.  We Gonzalez children were not permitted to leave the yard and were only allowed to play with preselected, parent-approved neighborhood children.  This made Jessica and our older sister Cassandra my primary playmates.  Still, for the most part, I preferred to play by myself.   I was a loner in that respect, and in my mind nobody’s company could be as good as my father’s.  Playtime was only a way for me to pass the time until he was home from work and could then spend time with me.   This separated me from my sisters.

But after we moved from our Lima home, animosity grew into hostility.  I became more isolated from my sisters when my family moved into the farmhouse.  The house sat on two acres of land with eight different barns.  I quickly adapted to this new life, soaking it up like a sponge to become a country girl.  However, this life soon wore itself out with my sisters.  Cassandra was a teenager, so she was never home.  Jessica was just barely a year older than me and only a grade ahead of me in school, but she had a need for companionship.  I found this to be extremely bothersome.  It got underneath my skin, so we would fight and argue.  I called her names like “retard” because of her learning disabilities and “crazy” because of the fact she was seeing a psychologist.  In return, she’d pick on my physical flaws like my “bushy” hair, or having few friends, or being a tomboy.  These name calling matches would usually turn physical into cat fights of hair pulling and scratching; once in awhile, our fights would escalate into something a little more violent, but this was seldom.  The older we became, the further apart we grew.  We would seem to avoid each other to avoid these confrontations.  We simply did not like one another, and the times when we would get along became fewer and further between.

These overpowering feelings between us had elevated dramatically in late January of 2000 (for me at least) as Jessica had gotten herself pregnant and had had a baby that October.  He was a cute little boy, bald with blue eyes.  At this point he was about two months old and at times I would jog my memory yet not be able to think of one time I had held this infant.  But that didn’t really bother me.  I didn’t want to hold him; I didn’t even want him to have been born to begin with.  His birth had just changed my life so much. I was so mad and wasn’t ready to forgive him and my sister yet for what they had done to me.  When she had gotten pregnant, I was forced to forfeit my bedroom to her as it was bigger than the room she was in at the time.  As I had anticipated, the infant’s sperm donor was well on his way to long gone.  The “father” of my sister’s son and my sister had been together for probably two years before the birth of their son.  Once the pregnancy was over and parenthood set in, he slowly began to exit the scene, leaving behind the woman and child that he had “loved” so much.  I guess it just wasn’t fun for him anymore, so I was working to feed their mistake as I was the only one in my family who was physically able to work.  I was the one who had to endure the feel of the sorrowful and arrogant stares from the “prominent” Catholic families of my school and parish when they’d see my very pregnant sister waddle about at church and school events.

My parents had abandoned me because of her and her kid.  They would stay out of Jessica’s way to give her the opportunity to mother her child, but if need be they were there at the drop of hat (or bottle in this case).  There was a baby in the house again and they were grandparents for the first time.  I was constantly told not to be selfish or jealous; it was just that Jessica (and her baby) needed them more.  This would make me livid; she was constantly in the spotlight.  They’d even put those two before my little brother and sisters.  Kimberly, the youngest, was slightly over a year old and still needed our parents.

It was a late December evening and both my sister and I had retired to our rooms for the night.  I was tired from the waitressing shift I had just pulled, but still needed to make an attempt to finish my homework for the next day.  I sat on my bed with my books opened and began on my math.  I got through a couple of problems and then my sister’s son began to fuss.

I could hear my sister attempt to calm him with a soothing voice of reassurance that he was fine.  His fussing grew into crying, forcing my sister to make a mad dash downstairs to get the infant a bottle.  When she returned I could hear her begin to bargain with her son, “Ok, Miguel, Mommy will feed you your baba, but then you will have to be quiet and go to sleep so Mommy can finish her homework.”  Apparently her child did not like this offer because he continued to bawl.  I couldn’t help but think that this was what my sister deserved for being a teenage mother.  In an immature way, I was almost pleased that the infant refused to cooperate with my sister.  He continued to cry.

He became more frustrated with every wail he released, as did my sister.  She continued to plead with him, “Miguel, please!”  The conversation of her pleading and his screaming continued on for a good ten minutes.

Obviously at this point I had given up on doing my school work.   I wanted to hear what was going on in my former bedroom.

“Miguel, please just shut up!  I have to do this!” Jessica yelled.  By now she had joined in on the crying and was only putting her child more on edge by scaring him.  I sat there on my bed listening to the both them cry.  My sister raised her voice again, “MIGUEL, PLEASE!”  She had had enough.

After the release of her second scream, I had no choice but to get up.  I walked into their room.  My sister was sitting on her bed sobbing into her hands, her crying infant lying in front of her.  Books were scattered about the bed and floor.

I could feel the puzzled stare of my sister’s face as I leaned in front of her to pick up her hysterical infant, my nephew, and his bottle.  No words were exchanged and, as hard as I tried, I could not get my eyes to meet hers.  I was ashamed.

I cradled the baby in my arms, whispering ever so softly into his tiny pink ear.  I assured him that everything was ok, and that his mommy wasn’t mad at him.  I placed his bottle near his lips; he took it gladly.  His cries became muffled as he calmed himself; I was amazed.  The two of us arranged ourselves on my bed.  Then, out of nowhere, it was as if the almighty hand of God reached down from the heavens and smacked me across the face, because it hit me. . . this was the first time I had ever held my nephew.  

In that moment I was a mess of mixed emotions.  My heart was numb with shame.  I had turned my back on an infant with no exact nor meaningful reason to do so.  The feeling of my tiny nephew in my arms melted my frozen interior, warming my soul.  I felt so horrible about the way I had acted over the past two months of my nephew’s life, as well as my sister’s entire pregnancy.  At sixteen years old, my behavior over the past two months had become the biggest regret of my life.  These unwelcomed feelings began to settle in.

As guilt, shame and regret climbed into the bed with Miguel and me, my mind was at a stand still.  Had I ever really laid eyes on this child before?  I tried to convince myself that of course I had; we lived in the same house, his room was just across the hall from mine, he was my sister’s son.  But alas, I had never really looked at my nephew until that exact moment.  He had such a Hispanic name, derived from our Mexican heritage, yet Miguel Louis Everardo Gonzalez was so fair skinned.  Even with all the crying he had done that night, his face wasn’t all that red.  His cheeks were pink and sweet like cotton candy at the county fair.  The little bit of hair that he did have was a golden blond, as if receiving a shining light from an angel’s halo, or maybe even a halo of his own.  His tiny eyes allowed one final tear to be shed.  I had always known Miguel’s eyes were blue, but I had never realized just how blue until then, as he stared directly into my face, still guzzling his bottle.  It was as if God had filled his eyes with the blue waters of the ocean; they glistened even in the dim light of the lamp on the night stand.  He was so tiny and seemed so frail.  I feared if I were to drop him he would break into a million pieces, like a China doll dropped on cement.

What have I done?  When my seventeen-year-old sister was giving birth, I was hanging out with my boyfriend, and when my nephew was brought home from the hospital, I was getting drunk.  Not only had I chosen to be absent at both of those once-in-a-lifetime events, but I had continued to remain astray from my nephew and my sister in the first two months of Miguel’s life.  My childish, selfish anger and grudges had taken time and moments away from me that I could never regain in this lifetime.  What kind of person was I?

My self-pity party was interrupted by Jessica entering my room.  Nearly a half hour had passed.  Her normally very pale face was red and wet.  Her under-eyes were swollen from all the tears she had cried.  

“Here, I’ll take him,” she sniffled.

“Are you sure? It’s ok,” I assured her.

She nodded, her eyes filling with tears again.  I knew she felt horrible for having lost her cool with her infant son.  I think she was feeling what I was feeling too.  We were on a new level of understanding, and an unspoken, mutual forgiveness passed between the both of us.  The wall that had once divided us had become a two-way mirror.  We didn’t have to walk in the other’s shoes to understand and see what the other was going through.  We were sisters, perhaps for the first time.

My sister and my nephew made their exit from my bedroom, and I got ready for bed (I decided I’d just turn my homework in late).  When I turned off my light that night, it was as if I had turned on my tears.  I cried under my covers, my head buried in my pillow to smother my sobs.  I asked God for forgiveness for my ways, remembering the countless times I had called my sister a “whore” and a “slut.”  She never deserved that.  She knew she had made a mistake, but she was dealing with it, and rather well actually.   I knew the next couple years would be hard for my sister as she was just around the corner from her senior year, and then college.  I explained to God that I was over it now and I was prepared to be a good sister by helping her as much as I could with her son and life as a teenage mother.  Life was not only about me anymore.  I vowed I’d never make this mistake again; I would spend the rest of my life trying to make this up to them.  They didn’t need my forgiveness.  It was I who needed theirs.

Anyone who saw me as a child would have said I was a good Catholic, and I suppose I was.  Baptized as a Catholic, I made my first Communion when I was in the second grade and made my Confirmation as a thirteen-year-old.  For each sacrament that I made, I was greatly congratulated by my family members.  To celebrate those sacraments, my parents held large parties, inviting friends, relatives – practically the whole neighborhood – and served shredded chicken sandwiches, chips, and white cake with vanilla frosting, my favorite!  For each celebration, I received religious gifts such as a Bible, a rosary, and some statues of Joseph, Jesus, or Mary.  I was a very active youth in my Catholic community.  My cousin and I cleaned the windows, registers, and floors of the church every weekend until it would pass the white glove test.  I attended religion classes regularly and went to Mass on every occasion necessary.  My grandmother was very proud!

Since the Catholic Church owned our Elementary School, you can just imagine what it was like for those who weren’t Catholic.  We had religion classes before school every day and Mass every Friday.  I had friends who were unpopular because they didn’t go to religion or Mass with us.  One of my friends in particular seemed very upset that he had to stay inside the gymnasium and wait for the rest of the kids to come back from religion class.  However, he didn’t realize how lucky he really was!  Every Mass, the Priest would single out the kids to answer questions in church, and I never knew the answers.  One day when I was a second-grader, Father called out my name to answer a question, despite my no-eye-contact trick.  He made me so nervous that the following week I threw up during Mass, all over the floor!  I like to call it the “Catholic Jitters.”  At least I didn’t get singled out to answer any questions.

As years passed, I questioned many aspects of the Catholic religion.  Why do we go to Mass so often? Why do we confess our sins to a Priest?  More importantly, why can’t my mom go to communion?  I remember the day that I finally got the answer to that question.  I asked my mom if she was baptized Catholic and she told me she was.  Then I asked her, “Why don’t you go to communion?”  She softly informed me that the Catholic religion doesn’t believe in divorce and the only way that she can take communion again is if she gets an annulment through the Catholic Church.  I didn’t really understand what an annulment was, but at least I got an answer to my question.

There was one vivid day that I realized how some Catholics act around those who come from a broken home.  I was in complete shock when one of my friends came up to me during recess and told me she wasn’t allowed to play with me.  I was confused, torn, and my heart ached with pain, as I asked her why.  She looked at me, solemnly and replied, “My parents don’t want me to be in ‘that’ environment.”  What was she talking about?  What exactly is “that” environment?  My environment is no different than hers; her family is Catholic, just like mine, I thought.  “The only difference is that I have two moms and two dads,” I told her, as she walked away from me.  To this day, I don’t know if she told her parents what I said, but something magical happened and her parents accepted me.

As years went by, I grew closer and closer to my friend, and her family had shown me how to express my faith every day of my life.  I grew to know her family very well.  I went to her house after school one day, and her mother asked me to stay for dinner.  I accepted the invitation and called my own mother to let her know.  My friend and I made macaroni and cheese and hot-dogs.  Everything about their dinner was so strange: the way they made their food, the way they put sugar in their macaroni and cheese (why anyone would spoil such a delicacy is beyond me), but most of all, the way they prayed before dinner.  I remember sitting down with a full plate and a glass of milk in my hand.  No one else had sat down yet, but I was hungry; it was well-past suppertime at my house.  I reached for my fork and took a bite of that odd sugar-cheese mixture, when my friend told me to wait for grace.  “Grace?”  I thought, “Are you serious?  Who says grace anyway?”  I felt foolish and was reluctant to tell my friend that I didn’t know how to say grace, so I said nothing.  The rest of the crew came into the dining room, sat at the table, bowed their heads, and said, “Bless this O’Lord for these gifts…” as I sat there, in silence.  Thank goodness their eyes were closed, because my face was beat red.

As time ticked by, I learned more about what a true Catholic family should be like.  My friend and her family had shown me how a Catholic should act.  She talked me into going to church with her several times throughout our friendship, and she was always the first one to scold me for eating meat on Friday’s during lent.  We met new people from other towns who also shared in our faith, and it seemed as if the Catholic faith was one of the greatest things that had happened to me.  

As a freshman in High School, I began to feel accepted and knowledgeable in religion class.  After being hounded by my friends, I finally made the decision to join the Catholic Youth Group called Hearthstone.  We would have meetings that expressed our Catholic faith and our successes, and we would discuss upcoming events such as the next venue that Broken Yoke (a local Christian Rock Band) was playing and Hearthstone retreats.  I met an enormous amount of people through this Youth Group, and all of my friends were a part of it.

I remember the time I was asked to help host a Junior High Hearthstone retreat; everyone thought I was the best Catholic present that day.  Before the retreat had begun, I noticed a tiny, little thirteen-year-old girl hiding her face in the corner of the wall.  I walked up to her and introduced myself.  Then I asked her, “What’s your name?”  She looked at me through her hands and said, “Jerika.”  I could tell she was afraid of what the day had in store for her, but I reassured her that we were going to have fun.  I reached out to her like no other chaperone would, and she clung to me like static.  I chose her to be in my group and said that by the end of the day, I would have her dancing.  I gained her trust slowly throughout the day and when it was time for the dance, Jerika did the chicken dance with me.  I was so proud of myself for taking on a challenge and making her happy.  We went to Mass and split to go our separate ways. We had a chaperone’s meeting after the retreat in which my name was mentioned.

Other chaperones at this retreat continuously commented on how good of a Catholic I was and how kind I was to reach out to someone in need, but I began to question myself.  Sure, I may have been a good person for tending to this timid teenager, but I was not about to put myself up on a pedestal.  I thought to myself long and hard.  Anyone who has patience and a will can do what I did, and anyone in my situation may have done the same, not because it makes you a good Catholic, but because it makes you a good person.  It makes you feel good about yourself, all soft and fuzzy inside, knowing that someone else benefited from your actions.  If I were not Catholic, I would have reacted in the same way; it’s my personality.  Therefore, it does not take a Catholic’s beliefs to do what I did.

The more I thought about this situation, the more I began to feel hypocritical.  All of these people – my friends, Hearthstone leaders, and peers – all thought I was one of the best Catholics present that day.  One leader even came up to me after the meeting and told me that she saw God through me.  How frightening!  I didn’t feel God’s presence.  I simply chose to reach out to a little girl that needed support.  However, I said nothing, only smiled at my leader, and hugged her back as she hugged me.

Later that night, my conscience was at war with itself.  Feelings of guilt and remorse flowed through my entire body as I realized I was doing this for the wrong reasons.  I was not a true Catholic; I simply put on a front every time at church, with my friends, at school, and with the Youth Group.  I wanted to keep them happy, so I kept my feelings sheltered from the world.  Although, I knew it was wrong, very wrong.

The more negative things I learned about the Catholic religion, the more my thoughts wandered.  I had seen the human nature of many people whose actions were unaffected by the true teachings and beliefs of the Catholic religion.  More than once, I have seen two “perfect” Catholic church-goers lie to each other behind their backs.  Another “perfect” Catholic had sex before marriage and ended up having a child out of wedlock.  I know these things are looked down upon by the Catholic religion, but I thought to myself, “These people are still good people.”  Then, I realized that many Catholics put on a front.  I thought, “It does not make them better than me if they go to church and I do not, because in the end, we are all sinners.”  Catholicism focuses so much on sins that everyone in the community hides them the best that they can.

It wasn’t until I was a junior in High School that I drew my final straw relative to the Catholic religion.  I was at a Catholic Youth Conference in Bluffton, Ohio.  I attended this event simply because my friends were going to be there.  Basically, it was a weekend of fun, meeting new people, and working together to solve puzzles.  We concluded the weekend with nothing other than a Sunday Mass, which I thought twice about skipping.  I survived the entire Mass: the singing, taking the host and cheap wine at communion, and praying silently or less just thinking to myself, when suddenly, we had to go to confession!  I had had enough!

At that point in the Youth Conference, I decided to stick up for my own beliefs.  I took a stand: I refused to go to confession.  My friends left our circle and spread out among the bleachers, while I sat silently on that gym floor, praying to God.  When my best friend got back, she informed me that there was one Priest who didn’t have anyone waiting and she even tried to point him out to me.  Mind you, this is the same friend whose family’s trust I had gained just a short while ago, but I didn’t care; I stood my ground!  I told her that I wasn’t going to confession, I didn’t believe in confession by the Catholic means, and that I had already confessed my sins.  She looked at me and said, “Well, it’s not that hard.”  I looked back at her and said, “I know, but I’m still not going.”  I looked away, closed my eyes, and continued my conversation with God, which took a turn to confessing this most recent incident, disappointing my friend about my decision to boycott the Catholic confession rituals.

Inside, a feeling of euphoria flowed through my body like anesthetics through my veins.  I felt like a burden had been lifted from my shoulders, free to fly like a bird.  I was excited and afraid, but ready to fight any other belief I had against Catholicism.  The bull-headed horns that I had continued to grow, as I decided that I would stick up for and express my true beliefs.  Eventually, I quit going to church altogether and I quit the Youth Group.  I decided that Catholicism was not for me.  There were too many questions and not enough answers.

I wandered through the rest of my high school years and also three years of college doubting the Catholic faith, but unsure of which path to follow.  I seemed to carry on the conversation of religion with almost every person that I met, whether it was through school, work, or my friends.  There are so many different faiths, and I was finally beginning to understand the world.  Although I would disappoint many people if I came clean about my true feelings toward Catholicism, I would rather rebel than conform to a religion with which I disagree.  

I came to conclude that I was not a real Catholic; I wanted my faith to change and evolve.  I wanted to explore the world of religion with arms wide open.  I wanted to accept and be accepted anywhere for who I am, not what I believe.  I knew Catholic religion was all wrong for me, but at that time I didn’t know what religion was right.  All religions stem from the same beliefs of a higher power.  However, some (such as Catholicism) have gotten so picky and discrete between the lines of right and wrong.  Leaders think their own religion is the only right religion.  If every member thinks his or her religion is the only right religion, how will this lead to peace?  Why should we dedicate our entire lives to one set religion?  Why should we be dedicated to any religion at all?

It wasn’t until May of 2006 that I found out, it’s okay to step outside the comfortable nest of your religion and explore the world with your wings expanded.  My boyfriend and I had planned a five-day trip to Seattle, Washington, as a graduation present for him.  Our goal was to get away from our hometowns and see something we had never seen, do things we had never done, and go somewhere we had never been before.  What I didn’t know was that I would realize something about faith I had never realized.

It was my time to fly from the nest of Catholicism and fly free like a bird released into the wilderness.  I felt like I had been caged up my entire life, caged into a Catholic point of view, but something happened in Seattle that set me free.  On our second-last day in this mysterious but fascinating city, everything seemed to go wrong.  Eventually, our day looked up as we ran into a young man about the age of 25.  He had long, brown hair, an untrimmed beard, and eyes as blue as the sea.  He was dressed in a blue and white plaid shirt, dark blue-jeans with a logo on the back that I couldn’t make out, and a pair of brown Rockies.  As we approached him, hand-in-hand, he asked us if we would like a free poem.  I almost ignored him and kept walking, but his voice lured me in like a fish on a hook.  He told us his name was Brett Dean McGibbon.  We started talking to him and before too long, I felt like I really knew him.  I thought, “Wow, he’s really got it all figured out!”  He had left his boring job in New York to travel across the country, writing poems and essays for a living.  Here he was, self-promoting his books on the street corner of an Italian restaurant.  At first, I was skeptical, but my boyfriend bought two of his books, “Fight, Flight, Surrender” and “Foreplay to Soul Come.”  The instant we got back to the hotel, the books were open in hand.  We shared a few poems and short stories with each other about faith, love, and God.  A few of them made us laugh, a few made us wonder, and a few made us cry.  But more importantly, he expressed his view on religion and gave me the idea of the evolution of faith.

Brett explained that faith shouldn’t matter, faith doesn’t matter.  As long as you respect others, you will be respected.  He wasn’t afraid to question his faith, but came to the realization that he needs God.  In several un-named poems from his book, “Foreplay to Soul Come,” Brett opens himself up to the world by saying, “I need to be strong in my love for god because god is all things- / I need to stand solo in my love for god / because god is the source of all things / is by loving all things / at once / as one / God” (96).  He does this by expressing his love for Christ in everything.  He sees Christ “everywhere, in the rain, in the Sun, / in the dusk, in the dawn, / and as the hearts and souls of those of us / wondering if we are” (71).  Reading these quotes led me to realize that God is in all things.  God is in the daybreak’s sunrays that light up the sky, as the eagle’s soar above the bright orange and pink clouds.  God is in the bright, twinkling stars of night and in the moonlit path on the snow-covered ground.  God is in the mountains, in the valleys, at the tree-tops, and in the wind.  God is everywhere.  God is in us.

Nonetheless, I thought, God is not only in the church, in our dreams, or in our prayers, he expresses himself through our actions.  God was present with me when I tended to that shy thirteen-year-old.  He was present when I went against the Catholic tradition and refused to go to confession.  God was also present when I ran into Brett McGibbon.  It was a time in my life that I was lost in my beliefs and God was there.  God is in my every action, every waking hour, and I don’t have to be a Catholic for him to support me.  I simply must believe in him, as he believes in me to share my message: it’s okay to allow your faith to change and evolve with your lives.  So let go, set yourself free, God will still love you.

As I fall into a deep sleep, I do not see “sugar plums dancing in my head.” In fact I can see nothing, but I hear something. The sound is distant but grows louder; it’s as if someone is banging a hammer against a wall. As I open my eyes, I can still hear the hammering, and my heart is thumping so wildly I feel as if anyone looking at me would be able to see it popping out of my chest. It’s not a hammer! Someone is beating on the door. I jump out of bed, tripping over my sister’s scattered toys, and finally reach the hall. I yell for my Mom to get up. “MOM, HURRY!” I yell. With a hurl of her blanket she is right behind me, pounding down the stairs, as the banging on the door continues. She walks to the door and puts her hand on the lock.

Who’s there?” she asks.

It’s ME!” the voice on the other side of the door says.

Who is me?”

MIKE!” my Uncle says.

Fighting with the dead bolt and finally winning the battle, she hurls the door open. My Uncle Mike is barely in the door before she asks “What’s the matter?” He looks at his feet and then back to my mom and me before saying, “Dad’s dead!”

What…?” she stops. “Oh God, oh God,” she kept saying, “NO!” She drops, her legs giving way, and I barely catch her before she hits the ground. Finding her feet, she looks at me. Tears now flowing down the three of our faces, she hugs me, and whispers in my ear, “I’m so sorry Sammi, so sorry!”

It’s okay,” I say. “Go!”

As she puts on her shoes and walks to the door, I stand in the kitchen sobbing. With a final “Bye, I love you” and a kiss on the cheek, my mom and uncle are out the door. I sit down on the couch, crying even harder. I hear a cough. I look up; it is my youngest sister who, until now, I believed to be asleep on the love seat. In between sobs, I say “April… are you awake?” She hesitates, and then says yes.

Did you hear what Mikey said?” I ask her.

Slowly she sits up, “Um… I don’t know!”

I know she has, but I repeat the horrible words anyways, “Grandpa’s dead!” She gets up and tries to comfort me, wrapping her scrawny, eight-year-old arms around me, and together we cry. For a while we sit there holding on to each other, not saying a word, just crying, knowing that we have to tell Katie. Climbing the stairs I feel as if the steps will never end. I flip the light switch as I walk through our bedroom door and see my little sister lying in her bed, so sweet, so peaceful, and for a moment I think of not waking her, but I do anyway. Softly, I shake her tiny body and she rolls onto her back, crumpling her face as the light hits her eyes.

What?” she asks.

Kat… Uncle Mikey was just here, um… Papa’s dead!”

What?” she says again, but I do not repeat myself. She has heard what I said, she is just processing it. Katie looks at me, and in her face I can see she is replaying my words in her head, she hugs me, and I start crying again. The three of us walk down the stairs with our pillows and blankets, crying and breathing so deep, reaching for air that doesn’t seem to be there. Together we curl-up on the couch, and I rub my two little sister’s heads until they fall asleep. I sit there, with tears streaming down my face, and finally my eyes close. I am asleep.

I hear my mom in the kitchen, and it feels like I have just fallen asleep, but I know she has been gone for hours. I can smell the freshly brewed coffee she has made, and I hope that this has all been a nightmare. I lie there until she comes in the living room and kisses my head. I look at her, her eyes swollen and red, and I know this has not been a bad dream. Papa is gone! Leaning over me she rubs my forehead, leans in for another kiss, this time on the cheek. She whispers in my ear, “Happy Birthday, Sammi.” I can hear her voice cracking the way it does when you’re about to cry. I look at her and I try to smile. I sit up, trying to hold back my tears, and hug her. We hold onto each other for along time.

“Go get dressed,” she tells me.

“I don’t want to go, Mom.”

“There is nothing to do, we have to get things ready, and I will be at Uncle Bobby’s all day, so just go…please,” she says.

I get up, and grab my clothes off the back of the couch. As I walk into the bathroom the heat turns on. It always does. No one else seems to notice, but it is as if the heat knows that I’m coming and turns on just to spite me. The little room gets so hot, so quick, but the floor warms my cold bare feet and for once I am at peace with the heat. I stare at the pile of clothes on the floor next to the toilet. I look at the sink, “why don’t they know how to put the lid on the tooth paste?” I think to myself, looking at the blue gel all over the stainless steel. I sit my clothes on the back of the tub, and look into the mirror. My face is pale, and I can feel the tears burning my eyes again, “I don’t want him to be dead,” I have so many thoughts racing through my head, and the tears sting my face as they roll down my cheek. Why didn’t I go see him yesterday? I go with her every day to see him, and the conversation replays in my head, “Are you going to Papa’s?” my Mom asks. “No, I don’t want to,” I tell her “Tell him I love him and I’ll see him tomorrow.” My heart hurts. I feel like I can’t catch my breath, and I know that these words will never leave me.

My Mom opens the door, she knows, and I hug her. "Why didn't I go see him?" I say, crying harder than I was before. "Now I can't." I feel her shoulders moving up and down and I know that she is crying too, “Its okay” she says, “he knows.” She squeezes me tighter, she is my rock! I pull away and wipe my eyes, and she does the same. I reach for my shirt, and she shuts the door. I pull on my clothes, put my hair in a hair tie, and brush my teeth. I screw the cap on the tube, fighting with the dried toothpaste to get it on.

I walk in the living room. My sisters are awake but quiet. Then at the same time they say “Happy Birthday Sammi," and I know that my Mom has put them up to it. “Thanks” I say, as I push my foot into my shoe. We grab our book bags and walk to the car in silence. Everything’s different, no running down the steps, racing to the car screaming “FRONT SEAT!” like always. They let me have it.

As my mom pulls up to the side of the school, she gives my little sisters a kiss on the head. “Your going to Dad’s after school” she says, “so look for his car when you get out.” She tells them. Then, like always, she says, “Bye, have a good day, eat all your lunch, I love you!”

Bye, love you, see you after school,” says Katie, April’s voice repeating the same words a few seconds behind hers. She waits for the girls to get in the building and then she pulls away.

Silence fills the car again, and I want to cry. My Papa is dead, he is gone, and the same questions keep repeating in my head. How did he die? Why didn’t I go see him? I don’t know what to say to her, and I start to cry again as she pulls up to my school. She reaches in the back seat and grabs a box.

Sammi, I know that today is a sad day, but it is still your day. I was going to give this to you tonight but you can have it now. I open the box and inside is a bunch of N*Sync stuff. I smile at her and give her a hug and tell her thanks and that I love her.

"Try and have a good day, eat your lunch, I love you," she says, and I know she is about to cry again.

“I love you too, see you after school!”

As I walk up to the doors, I wipe my eyes. I walk to my class alone, avoiding my friends so they will not ask what is wrong, but it is inevitable, I know this. I walk up to Cresha at her locker, and immediately she says “Happy Birthday Sam!” I say thanks and she knows something is wrong, she can hear the change in my voice. She looks at me, and I can tell she is afraid to ask. “What’s wrong?”

I don’t want to say it again! I don’t want all these people to see me crying, I pause for a long time, and then I say the words again. “My Grandpa died.” My heart hurts again and she hugs me, and I cry. I can’t do this all day, I think to myself. We walk to math and I sit there quiet. I hear people ask what’s wrong, and Cresha tells them what happened. Each class I just sit there, and think over and over, “Why didn’t I go see him?” and my heart hurts.

The bell rings and finally I can leave. I walk to the car slowly, I see him, I haven’t talked to him yet. As I open the car door I see a flower box, and my sisters sitting in the back seat. He knows, but still he tries to make me smile. “Happy Birthday Sam,” my Dad says as I shut the car door. He hands me the long, white box and I slip the red ribbon off of it. I open it and inside are roses, yellow and orange, my favorite colors. I look at him, tears streaming down my face. “Where did you find yellow and orange?” I ask him.

“I called all the flower shops until I found them,” he said.

“Thanks” I tell him. “Where are we going?”

“To your Uncle Bobby’s,” he says.

As we pull in the drive, I see all their cars. All my uncles are here, Bobby, Mikey, Tony, and Stevie. I feel sad as we walk up the back steps, he’s gone, he’s dead. I walk in the kitchen and they are all here, pain shoots through my heart as I look at them. Everyone is here, and I’m mad. I want to scream at them “Why are you all here now, he’s DEAD!” but I don’t. Why didn’t I come see him? I always come see him. I walk into the front room and I see Mama’s chair, the chair that he has sat in since she died. He’s not there; instead there is a white sheet over it and I don’t understand.

All of my family is here, little cousins running around. “They don’t get it” I think to myself, “he is gone.” I walk back into the kitchen and my Uncle Bobby points for me to go outside. We walk to his car and he pulls a little white envelope out of his shirt pocket, he hands it to me. “This was on the table beside his chair.” He says, handing me the envelope. I see my Papa’s small handwriting; it’s my name in cursive. I open the envelope and pour its contents into my hand. The tears are burning again. I hold the tiny charm in my hand as I hug my Uncle. He walks away and I look down at the little charm. It’s a heart.