Random Nightly Flash Fiction

I wrote something like this months back but my brain wanted me to revisit it.

A loud clank wakes me up from a sleep state that I have no idea how I entered. The door to my prison opens and he stands before me. “Tsk tsk, my little flower. Did I tell you you could sleep?” I don’t answer and just keep my eyes locked on his. “Hmmm, quiet today.” He steps closer. “Ah, but luckily I have ways to make you scream.” He opens the jacket of his fine tailored suit and pulls out a knife, still stained with my blood. The sight makes me cringe and I turn away. “Yes, my little friend is back. Maybe you two need to get more acquainted since you don’t seem to like him very much.” He comes closer with the knife and teases the tip over various places on my skin. He gets to my chest and the knife makes contact. I dig my wrists into the shackles chaining me to the wall. I try not to flinch, but then he makes a slit on my collar bone. Not enough to be remotely lethal, but enough to force a wince out of my throat. “That’s all you have for me?” He frowns and in a fluid motion he stabs the knife into my thigh. The pain is immediate and I scream. He laughs and a wide grin forms across his face. “That’s more like it.” I can’t take it anymore. “Why-” I hesitate at the sound of my own voice because I haven’t heard it in days. He seems surprised too, as his full attention is taken from my body to my face. “Why don’t you just kill me already?” His smile returns. “Oh darling, where’s the fun in that?” He moves so that he is right in front of me and our noses touch. “Besides, when I kill you, I want you to beg for it. I want you to need death like the very air you breath.” He lets out a small laugh. “How ironic for you to want death like you would air- an utter oxymoron. Now, now, let’s get you cleaned up. Can’t have you bleed out, can we?” He is silent as he tends to my wounds and eventually leaves. Only one thing is on my mind. He didn’t if, he said when.

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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.

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 1 of 5 – Villanelle: Life through a Photographer’s Eye

The scenes I frame with my photographer’s eye
Are begging to be shot.
“They must belong to me,” I cry.

Colorful kites flying way up high
Red burning feet in sand that is hot
The scenes I frame with my photographer’s eye

Bright fireworks blowing up on the 4th of July
A worried mother as she chases her wandering tot 
“They must belong to me,” I cry.

A nervous prom date adjusting his tie
Incredible patterns that the painter’s colors blot
The scenes I frame with my photographer’s eye

Speedy joggers in track suits running by
A young boy scout as he practices his knot
“They must belong to me,” I cry.

Two young lovers at the airport saying good-bye
A forgotten, overflowing mail slot
The scenes I frame with my photographer’s eye
“They must belong to me,” I cry.

Mid-Term Portfolio

Villanelle
Titled: Life through a Photographer’s Lens

The scenes I frame with my photographer’s eye
Are begging to be shot.
“They must belong to me,” I cry.

Kites flying way up high
Burning feet in sand that is hot
The scenes I frame with my photographer’s eye

Fireworks blowing up on the 4th of July
A worried mother  as she chases her tot 
“They must belong to me,” I cry.

A nervous prom date adjusting his tie
Incredible patterns that the painter’s colors blot
The scenes I frame with my photographer’s eye

Speedy joggers running by
A young boy scout as he practices his knot
“They must belong to me,” I cry.

Two lovers saying good-bye
An overflowing mail slot
The scenes I frame with my photographer’s eye
“They must belong to me,” I cry.

 

Creative Non-Fiction Piece
Titled: My Bittersweet Sixteen

            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 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. “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?” The questions and comments from my younger cousins and siblings seemed endless as we all sat in the car. 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 backseat. “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.
            Finally, 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 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 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, 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 flooding 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. 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.
            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 every day; but I stay positive hoping that I will meet him again in Heaven someday.

 

Short Story
Titled: “‘Tis Better to Have Loved and Lost than Never to Have Loved at All”

           The day someone enters the world, he or she is not complete. In fact, people wander around the Earth for years, doing their daily activities, such as going to school, washing the dishes, clocking-in to work etc., as only half-beings. A person’s true potential as a whole cannot be earned until one finds his or her other half—another half-being that is predestined to connect perfectly with the first. For some people, it may take years to occur; for others, it may never happen. However, the biggest tragedy of all is finding one’s other half and losing him or her to an inescapable twist of cruel fate. 
            A nameless baby girl was born on a freezing January night. Snow had not fallen since the beginning of December, so the streets were bare. However, there was an unavoidable cold that caused the breath of all those who went outside to produce puffy white clouds as they spoke in the nippy air. The cold that chilled the infant’s bones on that very first evening of life was just the start of a series of harsh blows that rocked her to her core. The baby came into this world unwanted, for she was found in a dark alleyway by a fireman with nothing more than a tattered, blue flannel shirt wrapped around her as a makeshift blanket. The man just happened to hear her wailing cries while walking to get a cup of coffee during a rough night of being on-call. Once he found the source of the noise, he couldn’t believe a mother would leave a newborn out in such harsh conditions. With no trace of identification or knowledge of how the child got there, he wrapped the helpless baby in his coat and brought her back to the station. After that, she was rushed to the hospital and ordered an overnight stay to make sure she was stable and okay. Fortunately, it was deemed that the newborn had not been exposed to the freezing weather long enough to be affected. At eight o’clock the next morning, the state arrived, took her away, and placed her into the foster care system.
            One would think that being rescued from the streets and having a chance at life would have meant great things for the baby; however, through the years, the girl’s childhood evolved into what could never be classified as “great.” Although her first foster home was a child’s dream: brothers and sisters, a playroom, and even a dog, the year she was four years old, her foster father suffered from a debilitating car accident. As a result, even though they were heartbroken to do it, the only family she ever knew put her back into the foster care system with nothing more than abandonment issues and the name they had given her, Lily Warner. For the next few years, Lily was switched to and from three foster homes. In the first placement, she was deemed “too rambunctious” after starting a Bible fight amongst the other children in her pew at a quiet church service. The second family called her “a bad influence on others” when she was involved in physical fights at school that spilled back into the home with her foster siblings. Both of these traits seemingly resulted from the emotional scars of never having a true place to call home. When she was ten, she was finally placed into a third house that ended up being her final stop in the system.
            Despite staying at one residence, Lily’s house was not a home. While her foster mother favored her biological children, she was extremely verbally abusive to Lily. Many of her upbringing years were tainted with constant insults from the mouth of her guardian. “You’re worthless.” “You’re going nowhere in life.” “You are a useless loser.” “I can’t stand you.” “Just having you here disgusts me.” “You’re nothing more than a check to me.” Though each attack damaged her self-esteem more and more, the one insult Lily hated more than all the rest was when her foster mother would taunt, “Your own mother didn’t want you, that’s why she left you out to die with the trash.”
            With no physical evidence of her mother’s awful words, Lily always thought that nothing could be done about her situation. This led to years of suffering in silence. The other children in the house tried to defend their foster sister a few times, but were punished severely for their disobedient actions which quickly stopped any further acts of retaliation.
            Fortunately, school was Lily’s comfort zone, because she realized that the longer she stayed there, the longer she could avoid the torment at her house. In high school, she joined the tennis team, chorus, prom committee, and a peer leadership group. Lily went even further by earning high grades after she found another place of evasion—the library. All the time spent at school and studying forged a path to college, a permanent escape to finally get loose from the tight grip of her abusive keeper. Once she turned eighteen, Lily aged out of the foster care system. Since there were no more federal checks coming to the house every month, Lily’s exit was not protested because she was used for all she was worth.
            An ache sprang to Lily’s chest on “Move-In Day,” as she watched as all the parents help their children to their dorms. Yet as she sat on her small twin bed, Lily smiled as it first sank in that she was finally free from her years of suffering. The smiles continued when a financial aid advisor informed Lily that because she was an independent and had such high grades, the school worked out all her tuition payment concerns with scholarships, grants, and a work study program that brought her into giving campus tours. This is where she really thrived. By being so grateful to be at the school, she channeled all her enthusiasm into her tours. Soon, she became a mentor for the new guides that were hired every semester. This is how she met Danny Conklin, who grew up in a blue two-story Colonial home, complete with a white picket fence, two devoted parents, and an older brother,—all in all,a stark contrast to her own upbringing.
            In his sophomore year of college, Danny started working for the school’s admissions office. The department he was placed in was titled, “Campus Tours.” Being a shy person, he had never been one to be particularly comfortable with talking in front of groups of people. Throughout his school years, he was always overshadowed by his older brother, Tommy, who was captain of the baseball team, student representative of the board of education, and eventually earned the title of valedictorian of his class. Contrastingly, Danny was an average student who was into music and didn’t care much for the spectacles that surrounded Tommy. In fact, when he graduated high school, he was happy that he was not called up for an award because he hated being the center of attention. However, he needed the money, so he tried to not let his fear get the best of him. The following week he was paired with an experienced tour guide to shadow, so he could learn the effective way to give a campus tour. Although he knew the campus very well and there was a script to follow for certain points, the university would do this to give the new guides first hand observation. The girl he was matched with was named Lily. She stood at five foot four, had long wavy brunette hair, and deep brown eyes. A bubbly personality and a warm, genuine smile added to her physical beauty, and all of which made Danny and his heart hooked.
            During the tours, Danny watched as Lily told the group little tidbits about the campus that he didn’t even know. For example, she informed them that there was a small bakery a few blocks down the road named Edgar Allan Pastries that had an amazing “Tell-Tale Apple Turnover.” She even had a way of engaging the crowd with jokes and activities. For instance, there was one time their tour group was approaching another, so Lily told the group to wave at them. The prospective students were reluctant, but once she did it with such eagerness, the whole group joined in. “This may seem awkward, but you have to understand that you have to step out of your comfort zone to meet new people in college,” she explained. “Those people in that other group could possibly be your future classmates. That girl in the red dress could be in your math class begging you to let her copy your homework. You now have an excuse to say no because she was rude and didn’t wave to you during this tour. She won’t remember, but you will! And that guy in the back with a bright orange shirt, he could be a great writer that can help you with your papers. You never know someone until you start the conversation. It may seem silly or weird, but if you want to make friends, you have to take risks.” Danny admired her philosophy and was eager to incorporate his own into the tours he would man in the future.
            After the pair completed a total of four tours and the day was done, Lily stopped Danny as they were walking back to the admissions office. “So what did you think of the tours? You think you have what it takes?” she asked. “I think I have what it takes to guide a tour, but I’m not sure I’ll be as good as you. You really know how to command a crowd,” Danny complimented. “You really think so? I was so nervous! I was afraid it would show! I have been doing these tours for about a year now and I still get anxious every time. I hate talking in front of people,” she admitted. Her openness led them deeper into conversation, and Danny was enjoying every minute.
            “What’s your major?” he asked. “Psychology,” Lily revealed, “I want to help kids, maybe through social work or counseling, but I’m not sure where I want to take it. How about you?” “I’m studying music. I really want to open my own recording studio one day,” Danny began. “My parents aren’t too happy with that though because my older brother is currently in law school and is probably gonna be extremely successful. Meanwhile, they aren’t as confident in my future as I am.” “I think it’s great that you have a dream and are going for it! So many people are too scared to risk it all for a dream, but you aren’t, despite your family’s opinions. That’s inspiring,” Lily commended. “Yeah, that’s easy for you to say, I bet your parents are ecstatic with your major,” Danny protested. Lily looked away from him and tried to act as if there was something more interesting happening in the distance. Do I really want to get into this with him? She thought. No, I can’t stand the look of pity that people give me, like my roommate from freshman year. I’ll just keep it short and casual. Her eyes darted back to Danny’s and she saw a confused look on his face. “I’m sorry; there was a bird behind you. Yeah, about my parents. . . I don’t really have any. It’s just me and I’m happy with my choice of major and that’s all I’m worried about!” Lily declared with as much confidence as she could. Before he could ask any questions, she switched the topic swiftly, “Anyway, do you dorm or commute?” Danny hesitated, but welcomed the change as his cheeks reddened a bit.   
            The two ended up talking for over an hour when Lily looked at her cellphone and gasped. “I have class across campus in five minutes! I have to go,” she confessed. “But hey could we trade numbers in case you need any help with work?” Danny couldn’t help but smile and agree. Those days seemed so innocent and given the choice, the two would go back to that time in a heartbeat if they could, for the present was too disheartening to bear.
            The strong smell of antiseptic grazed Lily’s nose as she walked through the bare, white hospital hallways. The odor used to burn, but she had been there so many times since the first frightening visit that it was a surprise that she even smelled it at all anymore. After a long walk through the winding corridors, she cautiously approached an all-too-familiar hospital room, labeled 306. Although the number changed with each visit, the rooms all started to seem the same as the amount of Danny’s stays in the hospital increased. A chill ran up her spine as Lily touched the cold, metal doorknob, and she froze. Even though she knew her time to do so was dwindling with each day, she didn’t want to enter the room that held the love of her life, for it would make every image and thought she’d been avoiding a reality. Danny had always been a fighter, battling every obstacle that had come his way ever since he was first diagnosed with cancer. However, the doctors said that he didn’t have much time left, so Lily has spent every possible moment that she could by his side.  
            Taking a deep breath, she pushed down on the handle, and the door slowly opened with a loud creak. Lily tried to quiet the squeal, but it was too late. Danny’s eyelids weakly separated. Such a simple task seemed to take away most of his energy. As their eyes locked, a memory flashed into Lily’s mind. It was of him and her in the past, before the deadly disease, on their first date.
            Suddenly, she and Danny were at the top of a Ferris wheel, at a local town’s annual fair. The sun was just setting past the silhouettes of distant trees and the autumn wind cooled the air. Lily watched as the breeze blew Danny’s shoulder length, black hair in all different directions. She smiled at the sight; soon after, they kissed.
            A groan escaped into the silence of the moment and broke Lily out of her blissful flashback to see Danny for what he was now. His once tan skin was now a pale grey. His once full head was bare; and worst of all, his once optimistic attitude was now a distant memory.
            “You didn’t tell me you were coming today,” Danny complained as he turned his head away from the door. He knew what he looked like and didn’t want her to see him in this condition because he knew it would upset her. Lily smiled lightly, “You know I come here as often I can.” She turned his face to her and kissed his forehead. “Can you get me some water? My mouth is so dry, and the nurse hasn’t been in to check on me in a while.” He feebly pointed to the pitcher on a small wooden table by foot of his bed. Immediately, Lily had the container in her hand and was pouring water into a small cup. She then handed it to him. It happened so fast that one would think that Danny had had the glass in his hand the whole time.    
            “I didn’t want to talk about this, but it has to be dealt with.” He took in a long, deep breath. “Call Tommy; I want him to help you gather all my things once I’m. . .I can’t,” He couldn’t bring himself to say it. He had accepted his grim fate, but he knew Lily hadn’t. She settled in the chair next to his bedside and shook her head. “Don’t talk that way, honey. You’re going to be fine. It’s hard now and things look bad, but they will turn around. I don’t care what the doctors say.” Lily tried her best to hold back the tears.
            In an attempt to distract herself from the dismal reality, Lily found herself yet again daydreaming of a memory from the past. This time, she thought of the first time the pair exchanged “I love you’s.” It had been six months since Danny and Lily had officially become a couple, and they were spending the day at Danny’s brother’s wedding. It had been a beautiful, outdoor ceremony, and now everyone was celebrating the momentous event at the reception. They both didn’t like to dance, as they were self-conscious of their lack of technique, but the DJ pulled everyone to the dance floor with a casual hit that told the guests the moves to make as the song went on. Therefore, the couple knew they couldn’t mess it up too much and decided to give it a try.
            After a while, the song was over and although it was fun, Danny and Lily were eager to retreat back to their seats, but then something happened that made them both pause. As he asked for the couples to remain on the floor, the DJ played a slow song that just happened to be their song—“Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls. A few months later Tommy had revealed that he requested the song, “to help his little brother get some game,” but for the moment, the pair was surprised. Despite being thrown off guard, the two soon joined together. In the beginning, Lily clumsily stepped on Danny’s toes and Danny was moving a bit too fast. However, as the notes played on, their moves became more in sync. With Danny’s hands on her hips and her arms around him, Lily felt so at peace in this pose as they swayed back and forth. Then, she felt his grip tighten and his hands move as he repositioned to dip her. Though surprised, she smiled as she was impressed at his skill. “I’ve been practicing that with my mom for weeks, you know, in case something like this came up,” he confessed with a small blush on his face. “Dancing at a wedding? Oh, how taboo!” Lily teased. “Practice makes perfect I see,” she added with a grin. He drew her in closer and put his mouth to her ear. “I love you,” Danny whispered. She hesitated and bit her lip. A guy had never said those three words to her first and the last guy she said them to, back in high school, had broken her heart. Was she really ready to let someone in like that again?
            Just then, the song stopped and transitioned to another. Despite the alteration of movement from the other couples, Lily and Danny stayed where they were. “It’s okay. You don’t have to say it back; I get it,” he said disappointed as he began to pull away. No, he’s not like the others, she thought, I can’t let bad experiences from the past stop me from this moment. “Danny, I love you too,” she blurted out. “You know how I am; I always have to think before I do something. I’m sorry it took so long.” He looked at her with doubt and she knew she had to fix the situation before she lost him irrevocably. Lily then grabbed hold of the lapels of Danny’s suit and pulled him in for a passionate kiss. Merely thinking of that memory made Lily smile in the present day which brought her back to the hospital room. She suddenly wanted to kiss him again.       
            She bent forward and just as her lips were about to make contact with his, Danny protested, “No, stop. You know I don’t like kissing.” When he had first started chemotherapy, Danny was instructed not to kiss anyone because he had to be very cautious of infection. However, after the doctors warned that he was approaching the end, they said there was nothing a kiss could do to make it any worse and that it might even help his morale. It was the worst conflict of emotions within them both. They longed to be able to kiss again, but the desire for affection could never outweigh the price of it—Danny’s life. Their first kiss since they were given the okay was only a month ago; however, for a week now Danny hadn’t let Lily go near him in that respect. She let out a frustrated sigh and sat back down. “You have to get used to it, you know, not kissing me. I’m actually helping you. It’s tough for me too; because where I’m going, I won’t have you either,” Danny said faintly, yet was adamant. “No, it’s not tough because you aren’t going anywhere. You’ll always be here, right by my side.” She always lied to him and even herself. She couldn’t bear the thought of him losing forever, no matter how inevitable that possibility was.
            “I don’t even know why you’re here with me now,” Danny admitted depressingly. “Have you looked at me? I look like some kind of experiment gone wrong with a bald head and such pale skin. If I were you, I wouldn’t stay with Sci-Fi me.” He often had these moments of insecurity, anxious that his mere appearance would make Lily leave him. “No, you don’t. If you did, would I have stayed with you this long?” she asked to try and lighten the mood, but it was hopeless. “You know what really gets me though?” Danny inquired while switching topics, “how I will never get to marry you.”
            Lily had considered about that very notion so many times. As a matter of fact, the thought would keep her up in the middle of the night in tears. It was such a stark contrast from the first few years they dated, when she would often have dreams about her and Danny standing in front of an alter as a priest pronounced them man and wife. She imagined Danny in a classic black tuxedo and herself in a long, white, sleeveless dress, all surrounded by their family and friends in an elaborately decorated church. Now that those plans would never be and with Danny being so casual in assuring that, she couldn’t help herself or hide her emotions any longer. “I said don’t talk that way!” Lily shouted as she jumped up from her chair. “You think I like thinking about the thought of not having you in my life? Do you think it’s easy to know that one day, much earlier than I would have ever imagined, I won’t be able to hear your voice or hold your hand or even just tell you that I love you?” She bowed her head and breathed heavily as a rebellious tear fell down her cheek.
            Danny sighed and motioned for her to come over to him. This time, she sat on his bed, just as he wanted—she always knew the best thing to do—and he softly grabbed her hand. “Baby, I’m just exhausted and my mind’s all messed up from the chemo.” He tried to apologize for his behavior, looking her in the eye. “I know it’s hard for you and you have been the best girlfriend anyone could ever ask for. I am so lucky to have you in my life and by my side throughout this whole thing.” He gripped her hand tighter. “But Lily, it’s even harder for me to deal with if you don’t let me talk about what’s going to happen. If you keep pretending I’ll get better and it will all go back to what it used to be, once I’m gone you’re going to be destroyed. And I can’t stand the idea of that happening. I love you more than anything in this world and I hate that this disease is taking me from you…but it is.” “I know Danny, but you have to get in a better mood…even if it’s your last.” That was it, she couldn’t handle it anymore. Lily fell apart right in front of Danny, something she swore she never would. She had to be his rock, but then, in that moment, she crumbled. Her body slumped over and shook violently as she sobbed heavily. Danny, although lacking an appropriate amount of energy, wrapped his arms around her and held her.
            It’d been a long time since he’d done this very action. In the past, Lily had been the one holding him, like the day he got diagnosed with Stage III Glioblastoma—brain cancer. The month before then, he had a conversation with Lily after dinner as they sat in the studio apartment that they shared. “I had a horrible headache today,” he announced. “Again? Maybe you should go to the doctor,” Lily suggested. “No, it’s probably just from stress. I can’t believe I graduated eight months ago and I’m still working part-time at a dollar store. Maybe my parents were right, I should have been lawyer,” Danny said. “Stop it. You know you would have been miserable being in court day after day. You aren’t Tommy. Jobs are slow now, but you’ll get there!” Lily encouraged. She got up, went into the other room, and came back with a bottle of aspirin. “Take this and relax,” she said, handing two pills to Danny, “Let’s watch a movie to get your mind off of everything.”
            However, one day when he was driving, his sight became very blurry. Just as he was able to pull over, his field of vision went black. Although it was only out for a few minutes and he was able to drive home without another issue after that. He knew he couldn’t ignore the symptoms anymore and immediately scheduled an appointment with the doctor. After a few visits to different physicians and an MRI later, Danny sat in front of his doctor when he was told the awful prognosis. Previously, he purposely wanted to go alone so he wouldn’t worry his parents, Tommy, or Lily. However, as he tightly gripped the arms of the chair he was in, he wished there was a hand he could hold. Danny’s mind was spinning so fast with thoughts that he could barely hear the doctor as he used the words “oncology,” “chemotherapy,” and “radiation.” All he could think about was how worried he was that he would die. I’m only twenty-three years old. I have so many plans: my record studio, traveling, and growing old with Lily, he thought. Could it really all be gone in one visit to the doctor?
            While he was waiting at the bus stop for the next bus home, as he was unable to drive for fear that he would go blind again, all he could think of was how he wanted to see Lily. She always made him smile on his worst days, and he knew he needed her now more than ever. As if she had a sixth sense, Danny’s phone rang and the screen flashed with the name, “Lily.” He looked at the phone and put it back in his pocket, unanswered. He was too afraid that he wouldn’t be able to hold in his emotions once she spoke to him, and he didn’t want to have a breakdown on the bus.
            Each of his steps grew heavier as Danny made his way to the apartment building from the bus stop. Telling Lily the news might be as hard of hearing it myself, he worried to himself. Soon, Danny walked into their apartment where he saw Lily sitting on the couch. She stood up and asked, “Are you okay? Why didn’t you answer my calls?” “It’s cancer, Stage III brain cancer. The doctor told me a lot of things, but I could barely understand him. I was too busy worried about dying.” Danny hadn’t admitted that thought out loud until that point and once he had, it felt too real. He started to cry and Lily put her arm around him and walked him over to the couch she had just been seated in. She let him reveal all his fears and soothed his cries. Once he calmed down, she kneeled in front of him and looked him in the eye. “Danny, you are going to get through this. You are going to fight. You are so strong and you can beat this. You won’t be alone, your parents, Tommy, and I will be there for you every step of the way. No matter how hard it gets, you can never give up. I won’t let you.” For the past three years, she had kept that promise and had always been there for Danny no matter what: holding his hair as he got sick from his first round of chemo, shaving her own head when his hair fell out, and even now, during his darkest hour yet. Although he was so weak, he knew he had to be there for her too.            
            “Never give up, right Lily Pad?” Danny asked, using a nickname he’d given her years ago. She looked at him and smiled. “I love you,” she said as she snuggled next to him. “I love you too,” he replied and kissed her lips. Then it was apparent that the entire event used up all his energy and just as they got settled, Danny fell into a slumber. Lily laid there for a while, in his arms, listening to his gentle breathing in and out, and feeling his heart beat. A few years earlier, she would have taken these little things for granted, but now every second she experienced them, she felt as if she had won the lottery. Because in her opinion, every extra moment she had with him was better than any cash prize in the world could have ever been. 
            Eventually, Lily delicately moved from the bed to her chair, taking the greatest care not to stir him. She treasured his sleep since it seemed to be the only time he wasn’t in pain. From the moment she met Danny, she knew their journey would be one she would never forget. However, Lily would have never thought it would have been cut so short. The future was bleak, but whatever it would bring, Lily promised to stay by Danny’s side—even if that meant kneeling by a tombstone. Cancer may take her other half from her world, but it would never take him from her heart.

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.

First Attempt at Flash Fiction Ever

My face stings as the gash in my forehead leaks blood and my salty sweat drips into it. I can see the red and clear liquids mesh together as they to the floor in drops. I tug on the shackles around my wrists and ankles that keep me chained to the wall. “Why are you doing this?” I scream when I can’t take it anymore. “Why don’t you just kill me now?” I plead. The dark figure comes out into the light, wearing the same mask he’s had on since he first kidnapped me. He lets out a thunderous laugh. “You think I have brought you here to merely kill you? Oh no, no darling. I want you to beg for death. Not to me, that’s too easy. No, see, I want you to beg to yourself, somehow will yourself to die because you want it that bad,” he explains. “Most people are afraid of death and avoid it at all costs, but you, I want you to crave it.” My captor comes closer and I can’t help but turn my head in fear of what he will do. He raises his hands and has a piece of cloth that he is tying around my head to blindfold me. Despite my lack of sight, I sense he coming near me and I wince in preparation. He again lets out a small laugh and whispers in my ear, “You want death, you desire death, and you need death. Just like I want you, desire you, and need you.” He forcefully kisses my lips and I can taste not only him, but my own blood, sweat, and tears.

My First Attempt at a Creative Non-Fiction Piece

I stare at the glowing green numbers of the digital clock in the darkness of my room. “3:08 a.m.,” they read. I let out an annoyed groan. Perhaps I wouldn’t be so irritable if it weren’t the wee hours of the morning and I didn’t have only three more hours until I had to start my day. Damn insomnia. If I’m not going to get any sleep, I might as well not waste the time. I get up, turn the light on, grab a book off my shelf, and fall back into bed. As I’m turning the pages of the novel, from the corner of my eye, I see my reflection and a thought hits me. Turning over and looking directly into the full-length mirror doors that cover my closet, I say out loud softly into the silence, “Who am I?” This is the heavy question that my Creative Writing professor had asked us to think about for next class. I look around my purple painted room and examine all the posters on the walls. Most of them depict the rock band My Chemical Romance because in the eighth grade, when I first obtained my “own” room, I was extremely into the band and plastered my walls with their faces.  Through the years, even though my interests have changed; I haven’t altered my room in any way. It is almost as if I keep it as a memento of happier times.
            I close my eyes and think about high school, when everything seemed clear. I was the classic school spirited nerd at South Amboy High School. I was in both the National Honor and National Art Honor Societies and served council positions on each. I was also in several clubs like Yearbook and Peer Leadership, all while being captain of the Girls’ Varsity Bowling Team. If he or she grouped those accomplishments with a close knit collection of friends and teachers that I had meaningful connections with, one could say I had a pretty great high school experience.
            The idyllic memories are short lived because immediately, my muscles tense up and I squint my eyes shut even tighter as I try to silence the anxious thoughts that are rising in my brain. Despite my efforts, I am soon thinking of the time period after graduation in 2011, when I started my first semester at Kean University the following fall.   
            During this time, academics became the forefront of everything in my life. Gone were the days of staying at school late to host a club event or even hanging out with my friends in the afternoons. School became my everything. I would spend long, arduous hours in the library, just me and my books. I went from being a very involved member of my academic setting to being a lonely hermit, with the sole obsession of getting the highest grade in all my classes. Although my 4.0 GPA was impressive for someone who graduated a mere nineteenth in a class of seventy-three students, I was not enjoying the college experience at all.
            My breath starts to quicken, and I can feel my heart pounding against my chest. “No, no. Please don’t,” I plead with my mind. I don’t want to think of the next part. If I let it start, I’ll never get to sleep! Just as they usually do, my thoughts overpower me, and I think of the Spring of 2012, a turning point for me.
            That semester, everything became too much for me to handle. Being alone most of the time and holding such strict standards to live up to worn on me mentally and emotionally. I experienced anxiety attacks, had trouble sleeping, and would cry every day without fail. My family and friends were obviously very concerned. With their support, I slowly started to alter my ways and found a light at the end of the tunnel. That comforting thought, that I was able to escape my ominous raincloud of an existence, allows me to take a sigh of relief. Despite it being months since I was in my darkest depression, it is still hard for me to think I let myself get that low.
            Forcing away any further negative thoughts, I bring myself to the present, my third year of college. This semester, I came to terms with the idea that I did not want to be an education major. I have now switched over to the English-Writing Option degree, which is where I feel most at home. Although I’m not sure what career I want to pursue after graduation, I think this is where I need to be. I’m in the process of trying to plan my life, after I earn my Bachelor’s degree, but I am also trying to do it without turning into a ball of mush whose only future is that of a padded room.
            I open my eyes and look at my reflection again. “Who am I,” the question presses. On the surface, I am a semester behind sophomore, caught between this and being a junior. I am also a Roman Catholic, photographer, writer, and rock music fan, but is that really all I am? I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure “me” out. In the years leading up to college, I thought I would have it all worked out by this point, but I don’t. In fact, I’m more confused than ever! I laugh at myself because I never seem to have things right. I almost start another set of connecting thoughts when the allure of slumber finally comes. I guess the question of “Who am I?” must be saved for another time, when I am actually conscious of what I’m thinking. I feel my eyelids get heavier and heavier as I drift off.