Everyone has a day in their life that changes everything. From that moment on, your memories, thoughts, feelings, and actions will be measured through Befores and Afters. That time I fell off my bicycle, giving me the scar on my knee that I sport to this day? That was Before It Happened. But that scar does not compare to the one engraved in my heart, the one I received After It Happened.
It is the day where your soul is torn apart into tiny, tiny pieces, and the small fragments blow away in the wind like the seeds of a dandelion. The rest of your life will be a frantic struggle to find all those tiny, tiny pieces and mend them back together so that you will be whole. So that you will be you.
But the truth is, you will never be who you were again, because It Happened. That day happened.
For me, that day was September 7th, 2015. My sixteenth birthday.
I woke up that morning with an inexplicable feeling in my stomach that this birthday would be different from all the others. This feeling had nothing to do with the fact that I was turning sixteen; rather, it had everything to do with the few months leading up to my birthday – the worst months of my life.
In January, my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, stage four. She had gone to a check-up to get some medication for her constant back pain and had come back with the grave pronouncement that she only had a few months left to live. Her life became a shuffle from oncologist to oncologist as the doctors struggled to find something – anything – that would work on her, as her skin became yellower, her body skinnier, her eyes more sunken, and her collarbone more pronounced, protruding grotesquely against her formerly pale, pretty skin.
My older brother, Steven, and I were devastated at first. Our father had left us a few years ago, and the last thing we needed on our plates was a dying mother. But we had stopped worrying last month, when the doctors said that Mom was getting better. We could see it too – the spring in her step, her increased appetite, the way her smile did not look as pained anymore. After she had been told she had sixty days left at most, my mother had lived for four months. At this rate, we would have her forever.
So when I woke up that morning, even though I knew this birthday would not be filled with balloons, ice cream cake, and presents, I was happy. I hummed to myself as I brushed out the tangles in my long, golden hair; I hummed to myself when Steven gave me my present – a gift card to our local bookstore – even though it was not much, and wolfed down the homemade breakfast he had made for me: eggs, bacon, and French toast. I hummed to myself when I kissed my mother on the cheek, careful not to wake her from one of her frequent naps, before running out the door to catch the bus. The hot breeze of the looming summer felt cool against my face.
My friends were generous to me at school. They showered me with cards, flowers, and gifts; I knew they were trying to make me feel better about my mother, but I did not need their help. Her improvement was enough to reassure both Steven and me.
What I was not expecting, however, was for my long-time love interest, Henry Kasper, to ask me our school’s homecoming, which I had not even been planning on attending. At first, I thought he was doing this out of sympathy for my mother’s situation, which had become a schoolwide phenomenon, but apparently he had wanted to ask me out for quite a while.
Steven called me in the middle of the day – once, twice, then three times. Now that Steven was in college, his favorite hobby seemed to be calling me several times a day. Even though it could get annoying, I felt affectionate towards my brother, who felt it was his noble duty to check upon me at all times and make sure I was alright. After my father had abandoned us and our mother became ill, he was the only adult in the house, which was the primary reason why he decided to attend a small, local university despite having made a perfect score on the ACT. I knew how much he had wanted to go to an Ivy League school, and I did not doubt that he would be rejected, but the location would be too far from Mom and me, and the cost would be astronomical. Steven was my brother, caretaker, family, and friend.
Every time he called that day, a part of me wanted to pick up and gush about how I had been asked to go to homecoming, but I decided against it. I wanted to tell Steven about Henry in person, and ask him for money to buy a nice, new dress for the dance. If I asked him over the phone, he would probably turn me down and give me his new favorite lecture about how we did not have enough money to waste on “frivolous endeavors” like school dances. Steven’s second favorite hobby seemed to be describing our depressing situation in such euphemisms. We were poor and I knew it, but Steven adamantly refused to admit it.
I had a lazy smile pasted on my lips when I walked home from the bus that day, for this had been the perfect day. The perfect birthday. Henry Kasper had asked me out to homecoming. I was a princess, and he was my prince. No, he was my knight in shining armor, and we would ride away together on the night of the dance. I was quite giddy when I turned the corner to our block, imaging how thrilled my mother would be once I told her, when I saw the ambulance in front of our house.
My heart stopped beating and I forgot how to breathe.
My sixteenth birthday also happened to be the day my mother died. As I rushed into the house that day, I saw Steven sitting on the floor, his head in his knees, and a police officer standing in our kitchen, talking to someone on the phone. I knew what had happened, but I still raced up to him and breathed, “What happened?”
He looked up at me, his eyes bloodshot from crying. “Mom died.”
I knew that the ambulance outside of our house could have meant nothing else, but the blunt, harsh ways his words had come out – the truth had come out – knocked the breath out of me. I gasped, and my vision began to blur with tears.
“When?” I whispered.
“When you were at school. When I called you a billion times and you didn’t answer.”
“You could have come and gotten me! You could have picked me up!” I yelled, shocked by the accusation in my tone, but Steven did not even flinch.
“I didn’t want to leave her side.”
We sat together on the floor for a long time. I took his hand in mine, the way I used to when we were kids. After what seemed like forever, he said softly, “She wanted to see you, you know. She wanted to talk to you. She was frantic; she kept screaming your name but you didn’t come.” His voice faltered, and a single tear rolled down my brother’s cheek. It was the first time I had seen him cry.
Seeing him cry broke me. It broke me in a way that could not be repaired.
More moments of silence passed between us before the lethal whisper sprang out of his mouth: “Maybe if you had come, she wouldn’t have died.”
I felt as though he had slapped me across the face. In fact, every time I remember that moment, I wished he had hit me, for that would not have stung as much as the callousness of his words. I wished I would have answered his calls. I wished Henry Kasper had never asked me out. I wished I would have never turned sixteen and that I could go back in time when I was six and live those days over and over again, back when my mother and father were still in love and Steven and I used to run around in the backyard finding bugs and running through the sprinkler.
“Steven,” I croaked, but he refused to meet my eye. He got up and talked to the police officer, and then talked to Dad when he came. It hurt me to see that he was perfectly comfortable with conversing with our father who had come running back to us like a coward after our mother passed away, after never being there for us when we needed him most. It hurt to know that he was not disgusted by Dad, but he was so disgusted by me that he could not even meet my eye.
The funeral was probably the worst part. As I sat in the front row, stiff and awkward between my father whom I had not seen in years and Steven whom I had not spoken to in days, I saw my life flash before my eyes. Not my whole life; rather, the most important snapshots, the ones with my mother. I saw my mother laughing and crying and singing and smiling and yelling at me for not doing my homework and hugging me when I made good grades. I saw her petting my hair to comfort me when our father left us, whispering lullabies into my ear as I fell asleep, a child in her arms. I saw her pinning up my golden locks for the eighth-grade graduation ceremony – the one Dad would “forget” to attend. She insisted it would not matter if he came or not because she and Steven would be there, because she and Steven would always be there for me. I saw her now, her lifeless, limp figure, resting in the coffin. Her eyes were closed and she looked more peaceful than she had in days. She looked happy. She was a corpse and she looked happy. But I was sad. I was so, so sad. I wanted to be the one in the coffin. I just wanted to crawl in and rest next to her and have her pet my hair one more time, sing me a lullaby one more time. Her voice was so beautiful. Why had I never told her that? Why had I let her die?
I screamed and the world went black.
From there on out, the relationship between Steven and I was, predictably, strained. I think deep down he felt I was responsible for my mother’s death, and to an extent this was true. He was there for me when I needed him as my legal guardian, but we were no longer as close as we used to be.
My father left us just as fast as he had come. After the funeral, he tried to convince us to come live with him and his new twenty-four-year-old girlfriend. Steven and I both declined the invitation.
After I graduated from high school, we went on our own ways. Steven ended up transferring to an Ivy League school after receiving a generous financial aid package to achieve his lifelong dream of becoming a neurosurgeon. I ended up going to a decent state university.
One day, however, I called him and asked him to meet me outside my dorm because I felt the need to repair things with him – my only kin left on the planet who even remotely cared about me.
He was there within hours.
“Hey,” he said, getting out of the car. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing, I just wanted to see you,” I replied, kicking the dirt underneath my toe.
“You see me plenty enough,” Steven replied, and I knew we both knew this was not true. We barely saw each other anymore, and we both did not seem to mind.
I decided to cut into the heart of the problem, the reason why I had asked him to meet me here in the first place.
“Steven,” I began, and I could tell from the way he sucked in his breathe and gritted his teeth that he knew what was coming next. “Do you still think that I’m the reason why Mom died? Do you think that if I had answered your calls and talked to her, or come home, she would have survived?”
Steven looked agitated. I hated to make him live through that day once more, that day he watched my mother die. But I wanted his answer, needed this answer more than anything else.
“I don’t know, Lex,” he admitted. I was surprised at how gentle his tone was, how he used my childhood nickname instead of my full name. “But that doesn’t matter now.”
I nodded, slowly wrapping my mind around what he said. But there was something that did matter to me, something more important than that. “Even if I wasn’t the reason why she died, do you forgive me for not being there? Do you forgive me for making you go through all that by yourself?”
Steven sighed; his exhale was the most painful thing I have ever heard. “I forgive you,” he whispered. I could hear the quaver in his voice and see the tremble of his fingers.
“No you don’t,” I insisted, shaking my head. “You’ll never forgive me, Steve.”
He looked at me for a long while, his blue eyes searching my face. I remembered how brilliant and lucid his eyes were Before It Happened, compared to how dull and lifeless they seemed to be now. At the ripe age of twenty-two, Steven looked as though the life had been sucked right out of him. It was evident in the slight hunch of his back, slack in his shoulders, downward turn of his lips. He had been ruined by life and left raw and scathed for worse to follow. So had I.
I was not sure what he was looking for, but I hoped he would find it so I could move one step closer to finding myself, finding all the pieces I had lost the day my mother died. After watching me for a little while longer, Steven opened his mouth, then closed it, and opened it once again. “I forgive you,” he said simply, before affectionately patting my hair and getting back into his car.
“I don’t believe you!” I yelled after him, watching him drive away. I realized he had not said goodbye. I realized he never said goodbye, that Steven was not one for goodbyes. I wondered if he said goodbye to my mother on my sixteenth birthday, and if she had said goodbye to us.
I also realized that when he told me he forgave me, he meant it. Steven had always meant every word he said, and he did now.
The only reason I did not want to believe him was because I had not forgiven myself.