The Stranger Across the Street – Creative Non-Fiction Piece

Hey fellowers, this was an emotional piece for me to write. I would like specific feedback if you read it. I want you to read it and then read what I want feedback on so your opinions aren’t biased, so the feedback points are belong the essay.

It’s amazing to think about all the little things that can remind you of someone. A place. A song. A smell. A shirt. The shape of a nose. So many little pieces encompass a person and you really don’t notice them all until that person is gone. At the time the person is around, you think you take in all that he or she is, when in reality, you take a lot for granted. Also, some things become so commonplace, like the smell of a house, that you don’t notice it anymore. It’s amazing how fast those things come back when the familiar becomes a memory and the once known is now foreign. Those little pieces that make a person you know—well knew, suddenly spring up on you in many ways when you’re least expecting it.
It was so many years ago, 17 to be exact, and I still remember when I first met Ryan. He was 5 and I was 4 the first time I moved onto our street. Ryan’s family had been there before Ryan was even born, so we were the new family on the block. His family wanted to make us feel welcome and his mom approached my dad one day as he was outside with me as I played in the front yard. Ryan was on a red scooter. The adults exchanged names and Ryan introduced himself. I was far too shy at this point, causing my dad to have to introduce me. The memory fades out after that, but after almost two decades, I’m surprised I remember that much.
As the years went on, I remember the waves that Ryan and my friendship took. At first, we became pretty close. In my early years, as both my parents worked, I was babysat by my grandparents in a town about twenty minutes from our street. There were times I came home to little scribbled notes in my mailbox from Ryan that read, “Holly, I miss you so much.” There was also always a hand drawn picture that was cut up to make a puzzle that I was supposed to make. Around age eight, Ryan found girls gross and I was cast out. As cliché as it is, I remember being told, loudly, “NO GIRLS ALLOWED,” when I asked to join in when Ryan and the other boys on the street were playing in a fort.
When I started middle school, Ryan’s mom offered to drive me to street so my mom didn’t want to take the trip since Ryan had been attending the school for a year and she’d have to make the trip anyway. Ryan and I picked up our friendship again. This time, we became even closer than before. Soon my friends and his friends became one in the same. There was nothing I couldn’t tell Ryan, he was my best friend, my number one. One of my favorite memories is lying on his front porch, looking up at the stars, and just talking for hours. There are few people in life that you just connect with so easily and to find that was special and something I’d thought I’d never lose.
It’s too hard to explain because there is so much complexity to the issue and emotions involved; however, I will always remember the date, January 5, 2009, the day Ryan and my friendship ended. Ten days later, my grandfather died on my sixteenth birthday when I was at his house celebrating the day. I was so torn apart from these two losses in my life that I literally left into a depression where I wouldn’t leave my room except to go to school or at meals. There were times were times Ryan tried to talk things out, but I couldn’t be reached. I was too hurt and didn’t want to deal with it.
Ryan still lives on my street and I see him from time to time. In the beginning, the sighting brought hate and even tears. The emotional and mental anguish of what I blamed Ryan for was too much to handle. Now, seeing him brings regret. There are times I just want to reach out and say hi or even leave a note in his mailbox, but I know he’s moved on. My feelings of longing are one-sided. The most communication I’ve had with my former best friend is when I pull out of my driveway and he’s coming down the road. I stop my car and wave him on. That is all the communication we’ve had for almost 6 years. I’ll never know what would happen if I would have taken the time to talk to him when he wanted to reconcile and that is a guilt I’ve carried with me. All I know now is when I am in the car and a Rush song plays or I see a guy with the same thin frame and tousled dark hair, I think of Ryan. I doubt he ever thinks of me in the same way.

Thanks for reading my essay. I hope it wasn’t too annoying or depressing. This story has been begging to be written, but it is really hard for me to think about this topic since it still brings a lot of baggage with it.

Feedback Wanted:
– Is it not worth writing since I left out the conflict that caused the end of our friendship? To be honest, I did it because it is a really long story and all my point of view, none of Ryan’s since we never talked about it.
– Did this seem like an emo girl’s journal entry and did I play the victim?
– What did you think the point of the essay is? I know what I want it to say, but I’m curious if it comes through.
– Any other feedback you’d want to tell me.

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My Battle with Social Anxiety, a CNF piece

“Today’s the big day,” my mom chimes as I walk past her room to begin my morning routine. I let out a deep sigh. Stop reminding me, I just want to get it over with, I think. “Oh stop. I’m really proud of you for taking this step! Four years is long enough to wait,” she responds. I’m not particularly in the mood to get into the layers of this issue with my mom for another countless time, so I drop the subject and get into the shower. I avoid any further conversation long enough to just hear my mom call out, “Don’t forget your money! Good luck!” as I walk out the door.
I know what you’re wondering. Am I going on a trip? Am I attending a job interview? Am I starting a new job or school? What could I possibly be doing to make my mom proud yet still wait four years to do it? I don’t expect you to understand, but I’m throwing myself out there, so what the hell; here it goes. Today, I am going to the school cafeteria at the college I’ve been attending for almost four years. No confetti, no award, no possibility of a brighter future. Just me going to a lunchroom in my school, something people do every single day like it is not big deal. However, life is really normal when you have a disorder. Yes, here is the big kicker, I have social anxiety which has made doing the seemingly most simple things, horribly difficult.
While most people would merely be planning the time for their lunch and possibly what they will eat, my mind is in an upset at the sheer thought of going into that building. What are you thinking? You can’t do this! You won’t know what you’re doing and will look stupid! You will hold up the line and people will be mad. Places like that are for people with friends on campus, not you. It seems harsh, right? Well, that is my every day with social anxiety. To be honest with you, it’s been much worse.

When I was in elementary school and people would go around the classroom handing out birthday party invitations, I wasn’t excited like the rest of my classmates. A party meant interaction. It meant I had to be in a strange place, a peer’s house, with a group of children, most I admittedly knew, yet had to socialize with. Even from a young age, I hated the party atmosphere. No specific memory sticks out, but flashes of several moments do. I remember moms being afraid I was too shy, or even worse, that I was being excluded. As a result, as everyone played a party game and I sat on the sidelines waiting for it to be time for my mom to pick me up and save me from this torture, the mom would swoop in and politely encourage me to join in. After a few attempts, I remember being physically pulled, not in a painful or harmful sense, but just literally coaxed to join the group. With social anxiety, it is hard to be assertive, especially to an adult, a mom, so I complied. I didn’t talk, but I sat closer to the group. Back then, everyone just tagged me as shy and thought I would grow out of it. I even thought of myself as simply shy and hoped that one day, things would magically get better. I would wake up one morning wanting to talk to anyone would listen. As you would expect, things didn’t work out that way.

As my school years progressed, I watched classmates come out of their shells and yet I was still under lock and key. Though my memory fails me again for an explicit instance, I can specifically remember being in several classroom situations that went something like this. “What is the proper way to divide fractions?” The teacher would ask. Flip the second fraction and multiple across, I would think. The room would go silent. No one would raise his or her hand. Come on, someone has to know this. We went over it in class yesterday. “No one?” The teacher presses. “Were anyone of you paying attention?” I could raise my hand, but I’m probably wrong and if I’m wrong, people will think I’m stupid and laugh at me. With an audible sigh, the teacher writes an example on the board and explains the process again. I was right. Though that was a fictional example, I remember the disappointment all too well. If I would have just trusted myself, I could have said the answer. The teacher would know I was paying attention. I would be so angry with myself for not speaking up, yet the next time the situation would present itself, the vicious cycle would continue.

It wasn’t just school either. Any public place was hard for me to speak up in. At shoe stores, I could find a pair that I wanted to buy, but they didn’t have my size out on the sales floor. Although I knew there was a backroom that an associate could check, I was too nervous to ask. If I didn’t have someone there who could ask for me, like a friend or relative, I wasn’t buying shoes that day. When I would go out to eat with my family, I would have to coach my mom on the way to the restaurant about what drink I wanted. As the waiter asked for drink orders around the table, my mom would order for both her and me. The same routine happened with the meal selection, except I had more time to tell my mom what I wanted as we were given time to roam the menu. It was embarrassing to have my younger siblings be so forthcoming as they ordered their food and I couldn’t utter a word to the stranger serving us. With friends, I couldn’t be the first one to walk into a place. If I opened the door, people would look and all eyes would be on me. I couldn’t have that.
Things like this created tension towards me. People cared about me and knew I was shy, but after a while, they got fed up. “Can’t you ask the saleswoman yourself?” “Why do I have to order for you?” “Seriously, you are going to have to go to places by yourself sometime. People aren’t going to be here to do things with you forever.” I understood what they meant and I tried to not resent them for their words that hurt me. It was hard though. I just wanted someone to understand that I didn’t choose to be this way and I didn’t know why speaking and being the center of attention was so overwhelming. I would do anything to be normal.

As if by chance, in the second half of my junior year of high school, I finally began to crawl, cautiously, out of my shell. My school was very small; with Grades 7-12, the student population totaled roughly 600 students. There was only one public middle school and high school in my one-square mile town, I had known the kids around me for literally over a decade. Once I thought like that, they didn’t seem as scary anymore. With the help of my best friend, who I had now since third grade, I joined the bowling team. I then was inducted into the National Honor and National Art Honor Societies. Soon, I was meeting more people and found it easier to talk to people I didn’t know. My senior year was when I truly came into my own. I was nominated Treasurer of my honor society, member-at-large of my art honor society, and varsity bowling captain. I even joined chorus. Four things I never would have imagined a mere two years before. I still was anxious giving presentations in class, refused to ever perform a solo in chorus, and had a rough time talking to strangers. However, most people were like that. These were acceptable forms of shyness in my society.

Nevertheless, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. When I enrolled in Kean University, I knew my world was going to change drastically. I knew I was going to a school that had a student population bigger than the population of my hometown. I knew I was going to be twenty miles from home in a completely new place with all new people. Yet, that was college. That was what happened when you make the transition from the shelter of high school to the adult world of college. I would deal with it and get used to it like everyone else who adapted.
Unfortunately, history repeated itself and again I wasn’t normal. I was alone on campus most of the time because I didn’t know any on campus. I didn’t talk to anyone in class unless it was required group work. I didn’t raise my hand if I had a question about the material or knew the answer to a question. I didn’t eat lunch because I didn’t want to sit alone. Heck, I’d never even been to the cafeteria to know where to go. What I knew was, I was not going to sit in a room full of people talking and laughing with friends while I sat alone. People will think I am weird. They will know I have no friends and will talk about me. They may even laugh at my loner status. That’s when I knew it. I was back to square one, except this time, I felt I couldn’t get out of the hell I was in. I had lost all hope.
As fate, destiny, or God would have it, I had to hand in paperwork to the health services office on campus. On the way there, I saw the counseling center. I thought I needed help and could get it here. I shouldn’t hate going to college as much as I did and feel so alone. After a few meetings with a counselor, it was determined that I had social anxiety. This wasn’t a simple nervous feeling of shyness. It was a fear, a phobia. Likened to people who are afraid of heights or spiders, I was afraid of talking to people. Just as going on a bridge would cause an immediate response in someone whom fears heights, talking to people did that for me. Both our bodies had the same reaction—fear. Months of working with my counselor, it was suggested that I join a social anxiety support group that was forming on campus. Although going into a room with strangers to talk about intimate feelings may seem the exact opposite of what someone with social anxiety would do, I went for it. I thought things couldn’t get any worse and I even let myself believe that I would find that I wasn’t the only one with these issues.
As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one. The group of four of us, you see, it is really hard to get people who are afraid of socializing to be in a room together, lasted eight weeks and met every Monday for an hour and a half. The structure was set into two parts. For the first four weeks, we learned about psychological theories into the phenomena of social anxiety, the usual physiological, emotional, and mental reactions, and something called cognitive distortions. The last one is the way people with anxiety disorders mentally change their perceptions automatically. For instance, there is one called “fortune telling.” By assuming that if I talk to a stranger, he or she will get mad for being bothered, I have taken it upon myself to believe that will happen without any evidence to support it. What I have trained myself to believe after years of having the same reaction, has now become automatic in my brain.
The second half of our meetings was taking what we learned, knowing our fears, and trying to do things that scared us. Each week, we would have the goal to complete an activity that scared us and the following meeting we would discuss how it went. Now, we didn’t have to worry about disappointing just ourselves, but our group members too. Also, knowing that someone was facing their fears like you really helped. That group changed my life in college. I am more open to talking to people in class, and I have joined a group, the English Honor Society Sigma Tau Delta, which I am currently vice president of. I still battle social anxiety every day and it is a struggle. However, I know every step forward, no matter how big or small, is positive. A few weeks ago, I conquered a goal that has plagued me since my first semester at Kean University.

“Where are you? I’m in the UC & I don’t see you.” I text my friend Nick as I look around the Kean University University Center that is bustling with people going in every different direction. I barely even enter in this building because of the chaotic nature of it. However, with friends it’s easier. At 12:30, I am supposed to meet Nick and our mutual friend Ashely for lunch. They know my struggles and have made it a point to support me through this obstacle. The fact that they aren’t there is irritating me. My heart is thumping against my chest and my fists are clenched. I try to look at my phone to seem busy and to distract myself, but it isn’t working.
A grueling five minutes later, the phone that I am squeezing in my hand lights up. “Hey, sorry. I was talking to my professor. On my way to the UC now,” a text from Nick reads. I already knew Ashely was going to be late, as she made it clear from the initial invitation. However, Nick’s unusual tardiness is an unexpected change. I hate things I didn’t anticipate.
At 12:47 p.m., finally everyone has arrived and Nick and Ashely lead the way as I have never been here before so I am unfamiliar with the way to the cafeteria. After a series of a few doors, I hear the roar of the crowded lunch room. I must have shown my reaction on my face because Ashely gives me a concerned look and asks, “Are you okay?” “Yeah, just a little overwhelmed. I’m sorry,” I quickly reply and look down. “It’s fine. It will be okay. Me and Nick are here literally by your side!” She says with a small laugh in what I think it an attempt to lighten the mood.
Suddenly, the doors are in front of us. I can see the tables and the people. The thumping in my chest gets stronger. It abruptly feels like there isn’t enough air in the room and my chest aches. I slightly shake my head and retain focus. I take a deep breath and we walk through the doors. Ashley walks ahead and finds a clear table and set her stuff down. I put down my black messenger bag and reach inside it to get my wallet. I clutch it in my hand as I know I have to face a fear very soon. Walking into the cafeteria was one thing, but now I had to order food, in a crowded cafeteria line. I decided to get a basic item, the simpler the better. Nick and Ashely talked as I rehearsed in my head over and over what I was going to say exactly. The BLT Special. The BLT Special. No changes. Take it exactly as it is. Doing this is hard enough without complicating the situation with specifics. Before I knew it, it was my turn. The cafeteria worker turned her attention to me. “What can I get you?” She asks. “The BLT Special, just like the picture,” I answer. I relax as I watch her assemble my lunch. Everything is working out perfectly. “Do you want that with a combo?” Wait, what? I didn’t prepare for this! “What?” I ask. “Do you want a pickle and a bag of chips with your sandwich?” She asks. “Um, sure,” I respond with my heart beating quicker than it had a few moments ago.
Then, the worker hands me a plate with a sandwich, a pickle, and a small bag of potato chips; the moment is over. I can breathe. Ashely and Nick get their food and we return to our table. I wish I could say something amazing happened like confetti went off or a marching band arrived. However, it wasn’t like that. No one but Ashely and Nick knew how hard that was for me and how I struggled to do such a simple task for nearly four years. I knew though. I knew I did it. I had a fear and I faced it. Yes, I wasn’t alone, but it was a step and for that I am proud. Every day I try to face a social anxiety fear, sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail. The result doesn’t matter as much as the fact that I keep trying. I don’t know if I’ll ever get over my social anxiety completely; for now, I am just taking one day at a time.

Final Portfolio Part 3 of 5 – Creative Non-Fiction: My Bittersweet Sixteen

The red and blue flashing lights, the will reading “do not resuscitate,” the sound of my brother’s cries. On January 15, 2009, my grandfather, who I called Opa, which means grandpa in Dutch, died while my entire family was at his house celebrating my sixteenth birthday. With the patriarch of our family missing, it has been very difficult to continue on with life as usual. He was quite a remarkable man and his position in our family will never be replaced.
            My birthday began as an enjoyable day. I walked into my high school that morning to find that my best friend Korie had decorated my locker door with a collage of pictures of all my favorite rock bands with room for people to stop by and write “Happy Birthday” messages to me. Then, my mom delivered a surprise cake to the school during my lunch period. Meanwhile, my mind was occupied all day with the thought of seeing my cousins later that night at my grandparent’s house to celebrate my special day. This year, we arrived at the house at five o’clock, which was earlier than usual because my grandfather hadn’t felt well and we didn’t want to keep him up late. “Happy birthday Miss Sixteen Year Old!” my cousin greeted me when I walked through the door. “Oh, no! Holly’s street legal? Better tell everyone to keep off the sidewalks,” my uncle teased. Soon the conversation, laughs, and general loudness of my large Italian family quickly filled the house. Then, an hour into the party, Opa cleared his throat and mentioned that he had to leave the room. After a while, we realized something was amiss.
            “Can the boys check on Daddy?” my grandmother asked. All nodding in agreement, my uncles and father went into the other room to see what was wrong. In the meantime, my grandma handed me a black velvet box and whispered in my ear, “This is a special gift that Opa picked out especially for you.” I opened it and saw two glistening diamond earrings. I had never had real diamond jewelry before and I was memorized. With astonishment, I looked up at my grandmother and said, “Oh, Oma, thank you! They’re—.” I was suddenly cut off by a loud moaning that came from the other room. Immediately, my dad rushed in. “All the kids go into our minivan,” he ordered as he tossed the keys to me. The questions and comments from my younger cousins and siblings seemed endless as we all sat in the car. “Why did we have to leave the house?” “Is Opa okay?” “It’s cold out here!” “Can we please go back inside?” “Why did Opa make that funny noise?” Unfortunately, my older cousin and I had no answers as we tried to comfort them through our own confusion.
            Soon, a police car pulled up and my brother started to cry loudly. “Why is he here? Is Opa dead?” he pleaded for an answer. “No, no. He’s just here to make sure everything is okay. Don’t worry,” I attempted to soothe. Despite my good intentions, I was wrong. A few minutes later my aunt opened the driver’s side door to quietly talk to my older cousin and me, trying not to alarm the already upset children that were in the backseats. “We don’t know for sure, but we think Opa had a heart attack,” she explained. Before we could even react, an ambulance pulled up and my aunt ran up to it to guide the EMTs exactly to where my grandfather was. As I found out that night, Opa had a living will that read “DO NOT RESUSCITATE,” which kept the paramedics from doing much.
            Some time later, the grim news came in. “Opa has passed away. Come in the house and say goodbye. He’s in the hallway covered by a sheet from the chest down,” my dad announced to us all. As everyone filed out of the van, I didn’t move. “Come on, I know it’s hard, but we have to do it,” my cousin told me with tears welling in her eyes. “I can’t. I don’t want to remember him this way! I don’t want that image to haunt me,” I protested. After several attempts from my dad, aunts, and uncles, my decision was accepted, and I was finally left alone. I remember how hard I closed my eyes as the undertakers came to take care of the body. Thankfully, my efforts were fruitful and I didn’t get a glimpse of the body bag. It wasn’t until I opened my eyes and the undertaker’s van was a safe distance away that I made my way back into the house to join my family. Guests who had arrived late were in tears from the news. They greeted me with a brutal mix of “happy birthday” and “I’m sorry for your loss” sentiments. It was a horrible combination of emotions. That night, my family went home and we all slept in my parent’s room, trying to comfort my mourning mother.
            Later that week, we had a three day wake for my grandfather. This amount was longer than most wakes I had been to. However, it was helpful because every day new people showed up to give support and help us smile during such a trying time. What I remember the most is all the different things I learned about my grandfather through the many people that I talked to at the funeral home. After the last hour of the final viewing, my Opa’s life all came together like a large puzzle, which I managed to form in my mind later that night.
            On May 24, 1927, Johannes Jacobus Rustemeyer was born in the Netherlands. He had a harsh childhood, filled with extraordinary experiences. His mother died when he was four years old, leaving him with an abusive father to raise him. Being the brave spirit he always was, he often took the blame and beatings for his six other siblings. After four years of single parenting, my great grandfather had enough and put all his children in an orphanage. He ended up returning a year later to retrieve only his daughters, leaving his sons behind. The following year, Adolf Hitler needed young men to work. At the tender age of ten, my grandfather was forced into a labor camp in Poland. When he was finally liberated, he returned to a war-torn Holland and joined the Merchant Marines at fourteen by forging his father’s signature. During his service, he travelled to every continent, except Australia. At age twenty-four, he journeyed to America and immediately enlisted in the armed forces when promised a speedy citizenship in return. My family often reminisces about the first thing my grandfather did fresh off the boat. He walked around, found the nearest bakery, and went in pointing at a strawberry shortcake. Paying for it with the little money he brought with him, he proudly sat on the corner outside the shop and ate it, truly feeling free for the first time. A few years after that moment, one day, while on leave from the Korean War, my grandfather met Rachel Pietropaolo. After months of being pen pals, that same woman became my future grandmother. The two had six kids, eventually six grandchildren, and built a wonderful life together during their fifty-two year marriage.
            Though the nostalgic piecing together of my grandfather’s life was therapeutic, it didn’t take the pain away from the next day—the funeral, which occurred on a solemn, cold day. I never shook the eerie feeling I had while saying the final goodbye to my grandfather in the funeral home, knowing that in the next few hours his body would be cremated. Surprisingly, I didn’t cry the night of his death or even at the funeral service. In fact, it took until the month anniversary of his passing for me to finally let out all my emotions. On February 15, 2009, it was my cousin’s twenty first family birthday party and although he was from my dad’s side of the family, this was the first time we were seeing these relatives since my Opa’s passing. As a result, when we arrived, the first questions were about how we were feeling or how my Oma was coping. In retrospect, I appreciate the family support, but at the time, it upset me to think of such a tragic time during a celebratory event. The moment it really all hit me was once everyone was sitting around my aunt’s kitchen table, after “Happy Birthday” was sung, picking at cake and coffee. This is when the conversation dulled and I was left with my own thoughts. Suddenly, images of my grandfather’s body being engulfed in flames flashed in my mind and a lump formed in my throat. I knew I couldn’t stay there any longer. Fortunately, my aunt’s house was right next door to mine, so I was able to make a quick escape to my house, after I excused myself by pretending my cellphone had died and I needed the charger.
            Once in my bedroom, I fell onto my bed and gripped a pillow tightly to my face. The tears came first, and then a sobbing soon after. All the pain that I experienced that January night came back in what seemed like tenfold.  It didn’t hit me until then that day I would never see Opa again in my mortal life. Before then, it felt as though he was on vacation, but soon he would be at the next holiday gathering. It was difficult to deal with after that sobering revelation, but eventually I got through it. I never stopped missing him nor was able to think about the day he died without having sad memories flood back, but I was capable of accepting reality. Not having Opa around while the family was all together or when we visited my grandmother was a strange, empty feeling, but, as unwanted as it was, we ultimately all got used to it.
            Despite the shock of its timing, Opa’s death was not an unforeseen possibility. In the years leading up to it, his health had declined. After the birth of the sixth grandchild, my little brother, Opa began to show signs of Dementia, a deteriorating brain disease. Having little family history to warn us, the diagnosis was a surprise. In the beginning, it was a small annoyance. Opa would forget to turn off a light when he went to bed or leave the water running after he left the sink. However, his condition progressively worsened and eventually developed into full-blown Alzheimer’s disease. There was no brushing off the symptoms anymore. In fact, my grandmother had to quit her job as a paraprofessional at the local elementary school because my grandfather could no longer be left alone. Alzheimer’s is a frightening sickness that causes delusions as well as memory loss and we witnessed both through Opa’s suffering. The incidents were many, but three stick out in my mind more than the rest. First, he started to forget who the grandchildren were. He called my brother “the boy,” my sister “the girl,” and me “Ann Marie,” which is my mother’s name. Although he didn’t remember any of us, I was called by a name because I look very similar to my mother in her younger years. Next, when he was in the hospital for a congestive heart failure scare, Opa woke up extremely disoriented and wanted to know why strange people were in his kitchen. This made him very anxious, and he ended up running out of the room with a catheter bag trailing behind him down the halls. Lastly, he was once in his house and started to believe that the police had bugged it and were spying on his actions. When my uncle, who works for a patrol board, attempted to calm him down, Opa became very violent and took a swing at his own son. Those times were so emotionally draining for us all. I don’t know how my grandmother did it day after day. It was difficult enough seeing him every weekend as we did. The man who we had loved and cherished for years no longer was himself, trapped in a mind that was holding him prisoner. After a long, eight year battle, the heart that endured parental abandonment, the body that survived the starvation of a work camp in the Holocaust, and the mind that could navigate the roughest seas, succumbed to an incurable illness. It will be five years this January since his passing, and I still vividly remember the day he left us.
            I love my Opa and would give up all my possessions to spend one healthy day with him again. He babysat me for the first four years of my life, taught me how to count, and even used to put me in a wagon and bring me to the local park in his town. I will never forget those memories. I’ve learned several things from him and the life he led. To this day, he teaches me lessons as I reflect back on the experiences he went through while examining my own life. I try not to take people for granted, especially my family. I know they are not going to be here forever, so I tell them I love them every chance I can. I also try to live each day to the fullest like my Opa did. He knew how precious life was and how to savor it. Almost five years later and even writing this piece is difficult as I think about my grandfather and the tragic end to his life. However, I now think optimistically and how he was very sick and did not deserve to live that way. There are even times when I can feel his presence around me, like when I sit in his chair at his house or when I find a dime, a sign that my family has deemed as a gift from Opa, letting us know he is with us during tough times. My birthday will never feel the same and I may miss my grandfather every day; but I stay positive hoping that I will meet him again in Heaven someday.

. http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/daily-prompt-sixteen/

My Bittersweet Sixteen (Creative Non-fiction Piece)

(Hello Reader 🙂 Before you are so kind to read my piece, I would like your help on how to make this writing less telling and more showing, if you can give me some feedback on that OR ANYTHING ELSE, I would be very appreciative!)

       The red and blue flashing lights, the will reading “do not resuscitate,” the sound of my brother’s cries. On January 15, 2009, my grandfather, who I called Opa, which means grandpa in Dutch, died while my entire family was at his house celebrating my sixteenth birthday. With the patriarch of our family missing, it has been very difficult to continue on with life as usual. He was quite a remarkable man and his position in our family will never be replaced.
            My birthday began as an enjoyable day. I walked into my high school that morning to find that my best friend Korie had decorated my locker door with a collage of pictures of all my favorite bands with room for people to stop by and write “Happy birthday” messages to me. Then, my mom delivered a surprise cake to the school during my lunch period. Meanwhile, my mind was occupied all day with the thought of seeing my cousins later that night at my grandparent’s house to celebrate my special day. This year, we arrived at the house at five o’clock, which was earlier than usual because my grandfather hadn’t felt well and we didn’t want to keep him up late. “Happy birthday Miss Sixteen Year Old!” my cousin greeted me when I walked through the door. “Oh, no! Holly’s street legal? Better tell everyone to keep off the sidewalks,” my uncle teased. Soon the conversation, laughs, and general loudness of my large Italian family quickly filled the house. Then, an hour into the party, Opa cleared his throat and mentioned that he had to leave the room. After a while, we realized something was amiss.
            “Can the boys check on Daddy?” my grandmother asked. All nodding in agreement, my uncles and father went into the other room to see what was wrong. In the meantime, my grandma handed me a black velvet box and whispered in my ear, “This is a special gift that Opa picked out especially for you.” I opened it and saw two glistening diamond earrings. I had never had real diamond jewelry before and I was memorized. With astonishment, I looked up at my grandmother and said, “Oh, Oma, thank you! They’re—.” I was suddenly cut off by a loud moaning that came from the other room. Immediately, my dad rushed in. “All the kids go into our minivan,” he ordered as he tossed the keys to me. The questions and comments from my younger cousins and siblings seemed endless as we all sat in the car. “Why did we have to leave the house?” “Is Opa okay?” “It’s cold out here!” “Can we please go back inside?” “Why did Opa make that funny noise?” Unfortunately, my older cousin and I had no answers as we tried to comfort them through our own confusion.
            Soon, a police car pulled up and my brother started to cry loudly. “Why is he here? Is Opa dead?” he pleaded for an answer. “No, no. He’s just here to make sure everything is okay. Don’t worry,” I attempted to soothe. Despite my good intentions, I was wrong. A few minutes later my aunt opened the driver’s side door to quietly talk to my older cousin and me, trying not to alarm the already upset children that were in the backseats. “We don’t know for sure, but we think Opa had a heart attack,” she explained. Before we could even react, an ambulance pulled up and my aunt ran up to it to guide the EMTs exactly to where my grandfather was. As I found out that night, Opa had a living will that read “DO NOT RESUSCITATE,” which kept the paramedics from doing much.
            Some time later, the grim news came in. “Opa has passed away. Come in the house and say goodbye. He’s in the hallway covered by a sheet from the chest down,” my dad announced to us all. As everyone filed out of the van, I didn’t move. “Come on, I know it’s hard, but we have to do it,” my cousin told me with tears welling in her eyes. “I can’t. I don’t want to remember him this way! I don’t want that image to haunt me,” I protested. After several attempts from my dad, aunts, and uncles, my decision was accepted, and I was finally left alone. I remember how hard I closed my eyes as the undertakers came to take care of the body. Thankfully, my efforts were fruitful and I didn’t get a glimpse of the body bag. It wasn’t until I opened my eyes and the undertaker’s van was a safe distance away that I made my way back into the house to join my family. Guests who had arrived late were in tears from the news. They greeted me with a brutal mix of “happy birthday” and “I’m sorry for your loss” sentiments. It was a horrible combination of emotions. That night, my family went home and we all slept in my parent’s room, trying to comfort my mourning mother.
            Later that week, we had a three day wake for my grandfather. This amount was longer than most wakes I had been to. However, it was helpful because every day new people showed up to give support and help us smile during such a trying time. What I remember the most is all the different things I learned about my grandfather through the many people that I talked to at the funeral home. After the last hour of the final viewing, my Opa’s life all came together like a large puzzle, which I managed to form in my mind in my mind later that night.
            On May 24, 1927, Johannes Jacobus Rustemeyer was born in the Netherlands. He had a harsh childhood, filled with extraordinary experiences. His mother died when he was four years old, leaving him with an abusive father to raise him. Being the brave spirit he always was, he often took the blame and beatings for his six other siblings. After four years of single parenting, my great grandfather had enough and put all his children in an orphanage. He ended up returning a year later to retrieve his daughters, leaving his sons behind. The following year, Adolf Hitler needed young men to work. At the tender age of ten, my grandfather was forced into a labor camp in Poland. When he was finally liberated, he returned to a war-torn Holland and joined the Merchant Marines at fourteen by forging his father’s signature. During his service, he travelled to every continent, except Australia. At age twenty-four, he journeyed to America and immediately enlisted in the armed forces when promised a speedy citizenship in return. My family often reminisces about the first thing my grandfather did fresh off the boat. He walked around, found the nearest bakery, and went in pointing at a strawberry shortcake. Paying for it with the little money he brought with him, he proudly sat on the corner outside the shop and ate it, truly feeling free for the first time. A few years after that moment, one day, while on leave from the Korean War, my grandfather met Rachel Pietropaolo. After months of being pen pals, that same woman became my future grandmother. The two had six kids, eventually six grandchildren, and built a wonderful life together during their fifty-two year marriage.
            Though the nostalgic piecing together of my grandfather’s life was therapeutic, it didn’t take the pain away from the next day—the funeral, which occurred on a solemn, cold day. I never shook the eerie feeling that I had while saying the final goodbye to my grandfather in the funeral home, knowing that in the next few hours his body would be cremated. Surprisingly, I didn’t cry the night of his death or even at the funeral service. In fact, it took until the month anniversary of his passing for me to finally let out all my emotions. It didn’t hit me until then that day I would never see Opa again in my mortal life. Before then, it felt as though he was on vacation, but soon he would be at the next holiday gathering. It was difficult to deal with after that sobering revelation, but eventually I got through it. I never stopped missing him nor was able to think about the day he died without having all the sad memories flood back, but I was capable of accepting reality. Not having Opa around while the family was all together or when we visited my grandmother was a strange, empty feeling, but, as unwanted as it was, we ultimately all got used to it.
            Despite the shock of its timing, Opa’s death was not an unforeseen possibility. In the years leading up to it, his health had declined. After the birth of the sixth grandchild, my little brother, Opa began to show signs of Dementia, a deteriorating brain disease. Having little family history to warn us, the diagnosis was a surprise. In the beginning, it was a small annoyance. Opa would forget to turn off a light when he went to bed or leave the water running after he left the sink. However, his condition progressively worsened and eventually developed into full-blown Alzheimer’s disease. There was no brushing off the symptoms anymore. In fact, my grandmother had to quit her job as a paraprofessional at the local elementary school because my grandfather could no longer be left alone. Alzheimer’s is a frightening sickness that causes delusions as well as memory loss and we witnessed both through Opa’s suffering. The incidents were many, but three stick out in my mind more than the rest. First, he started to forget who the grandchildren were. He called my brother “the boy,” my sister “the girl,” and me “Ann Marie,” which is my mother’s name. Although he didn’t remember any of us, I was called by a name because I look very similar to my mother in her younger years. Next, when he was in the hospital for a congestive heart failure scare, Opa woke up extremely disoriented and wanted to know why strange people were in his kitchen. This made him very anxious, and he ended up running out of the room with a catheter bag trailing behind him down the halls. Lastly, he was once in his house and started to believe that the police had bugged it and were spying on his actions. When my uncle, who works for a patrol board, attempted to calm him down, Opa became very violent and took a swing at his own son. Those times were so emotionally draining for us all. I don’t know how my grandmother did it day after day. It was difficult enough seeing him every weekend as we did. The man who we had loved and cherished for years no longer was himself, trapped in a mind that was holding him prisoner. After a long, eight year battle, the heart that endured parental abandonment, the body that survived the starvation of a work camp in the Holocaust, and the mind that could navigate the roughest seas, succumbed to an incurable illness. It will be five years this January since his passing, and I still vividly remember the day he left us.
            I love my Opa and would give up all my possessions to spend one healthy day with him again. He babysat me for the first four years of my life, taught me how to count, and even used to put me in a wagon and bring me to the local park in his town. I will never forget those memories. I’ve learned several things from him and the life he led. To this day, he teaches me lessons as I reflect back on the experiences he went through while examining my own life. I try not to take people for granted, especially my family. I know they are not going to be here forever, so I tell them I love them every chance I can. I also try to live each day to the fullest like my Opa did. He knew how precious life was and how to savor it. Almost five years later and even writing this piece is difficult as I think about my grandfather and the tragic end to his life. However, I now think optimistically and how he was very sick and did not deserve to live that way. There are even times when I can feel his presence around me, like when I sit in his chair at his house or when I find a dime, a sign that my family has deemed as a gift from Opa, letting us know he is with us during tough times. My birthday wil never feel the same and I may miss my grandfather every day; but I stay positive hoping that I will meet him again in Heaven someday.

The Greatest Man I Ever Knew

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The red and blue flashing lights, the will reading “do not resuscitate,” the sound of my brothers cries. On January 15, 2009, my grandfather, who I called Opa, which means grandpa in Dutch, died while my entire family was at his house celebrating my sixteenth birthday. With the patriarch of our family missing, it has been difficult to continue life as usual. He was quite a remarkable man and his position in our family will never be replaced.

On May 24, 1927, Johannes Jacobus Rustemeyer was born in the Netherlands. He had a harsh childhood, filled with extraordinary experiences. His mother died when he was four years old, leaving him with an abusive father to raise him. Being the brave spirit he always was, he often took the blame and beatings for his six other siblings. After four years of single parenting, my great grandfather put all his children in an orphanage. He ended up returning a year later to retrieve his daughters and leaving his sons behind. The following year, Adolf Hitler needed young men to work. At the tender age of ten, my grandfather was forced into a labor camp in Poland. When he was finally liberated, he returned to a war-torn Holland and joined the Merchant Marines at fourteen by forging his father’s signature. During his service, he travelled to every continent, except Australia. At age twenty-four, he journeyed to America and immediately enlisted in the armed forces when promised a speedy citizenship in return. My family often reminisces about the first thing my grandfather did fresh off the boat. He walked around, found the nearest bakery, and went in pointing at a strawberry shortcake. Paying for it with the little money he brought with him, he proudly sat on the corner outside the shop and ate it, truly feeling free for the first time. A few years after that moment, one day, while on leave from the Korean War, my grandfather met Rachel Pietropaolo. After months of being pen pals, that same woman became my future grandmother. The two had six kids and eventually six grandchildren.

Unfortunately, after the birth of the sixth grandchild, my little brother, Opa began to show signs of Dementia, a deteriorating brain disease. Having little family history to warn us, the diagnosis was a shock. It was beginning, it was a small annoyance. Opa would forget to turn off a light when he went to bed or leave the water running after he left the sink. However, his condition progressively worsened and ultimately developed into full-blown Alzheimer’s disease. There was no brushing off the symptoms anymore. In fact, my grandmother had to quit her job as a paraprofessional at the local elementary school because my grandfather could no longer be left alone. Alzheimer’s is a frightening sickness that causes delusions as well as memory loss and we witnessed both through Opa’s suffering. The incidents were many, but three stick out in my mind more than the rest. First, he started to forget who the grandchildren were. He called my brother “the boy,” my sister “the girl,” and me “Ann Marie,” which is my mother’s name. Although he didn’t remember any of us, I was called by a name because I look very similar to my mother in her younger years. Next, when he was in the hospital for a congestive heart failure scare, Opa woke up extremely disoriented and wanted to know why strange people were in his kitchen. This made him very anxious, and he ended up running out of the room with a catheter bag trailing behind him down the halls. Finally, he was once in his house and started to believe that the police had bugged it and were spying on his actions. When my uncle, who works for a patrol board, attempted to calm him down, Opa became very violent and took a swing at his own son. Those times were so emotionally draining for us all. I don’t know how my grandmother did it day after day. It was difficult enough seeing him every weekend as we did. The man who we had loved and cherished for years no longer was himself, trapped in a mind that was holding him prisoner. After a long, eight year battle, the heart that endured parental abandonment, the body that survived the starvation of a work camp in the Holocaust, and the mind that could navigate the roughest seas, succumbed to an incurable illness. It will be five years this January since his passing, and I still vividly remember the day he left us.

My birthday began as an enjoyable day. I loved the decorations my friends had made for me on my high school locker, and I even received a surprise cake during my lunch period. Also, I was excited to see my cousins later that night at my grandparent’s house to celebrate my special day. This year, we arrived at the house at five o’clock, which was earlier than usual because my grandfather hadn’t felt well and we didn’t want to keep him up late. An hour into the party, Opa mentioned that he had to leave the room. After a while, we realized something was amiss. My uncles and father went into the other room to see what was wrong. Meanwhile, my grandma gave me a pair of diamond earrings that she said Opa selected especially for me. I opened the box when suddenly, a loud moaning came from the other room. Immediately, my dad rushed in, ordering all the grandchildren to go outside into my family’s minivan. We had no idea what was going on as we waited in the car, trying to comfort one another. That is when the police car pulled up and my brother started to cry loudly. Soon after, my aunt opened the driver’s side door to quietly inform my older cousin and me that our grandfather had suffered a heart attack, not wanting to alarm my already upset younger cousins and siblings that were in the backseat. His living will that read “DO NOT RESUSCITATE,” kept the EMTs that had arrived from doing much. Soon we were told to go into the house and say our goodbyes to our now departed grandfather, who lay in the hallway covered by a sheet. I refused to go in. Having a photographic memory, I did not want the image to haunt me. Guests who had arrived late were in tears from the news. They greeted me with a brutal mix of “happy birthday” and “I’m sorry for your loss” sentiments. It was a horrible combination of emotions. That night, my family went home and we all slept in my parent’s room, trying to comfort my mourning mother.

The funeral was a solemn, cold day. I never shook the eerie feeling that I had while saying the final goodbye to my grandfather in the funeral home, knowing that in the next few hours his body would be cremated. Surprisingly, I didn’t cry the night of his death or even at the funeral service. In fact, it took until the month anniversary of his passing for me to finally let out all my emotions. It didn’t hit me until then that day I would never see Opa again in my mortal life. Before then, it felt as though he was on vacation, but soon he would be at the next holiday gathering. It was difficult to deal with after that sobering revelation, but eventually I got through it. I never stopped missing him nor was able to think about the day he died without having all the sad memories flashing back, but I was capable of accepting reality. Not being around while the family was all together or when we visited my grandmother was a strange, empty feeling, but, as unwanted as it was, soon we all got used to it.

I love my Opa and would give up all possessions to spend one healthy day with him again. He babysat me for the first four years of my life, taught me how to count, and even used to put me in a wagon and bring me to the local park in his town. I will never forget those memories. I’ve learned several things from him and the life he led. To this day, he teaches me lessons as I reflect back on the experiences he went through while examining my own life. I try not to take people for granted, especially my family. I know they are not going to be here forever, so I tell them I love them every chance I can. I also try to live each day to the fullest like my Opa did. He knew how precious life was and how to savor it. Almost five years later and even writing this piece is difficult as I think about my grandfather and the tragic end to his life. However, I now think optimistically and how he was very sick and did not deserve to live that way. There are even times when I can feel his presence around me, like when I sit in his chair at his house or when I find a dime, a sign that my family has deemed as a gift from Opa, letting us know he is with us during tough times. My birthday may never feel the same and I may miss my grandfather everyday; but I stay positive hoping that I will meet him again in Heaven someday.