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While we were growing up, my younger brother and I never, ever got along. I’m not sure if it was a complete personality clash, the incessant sibling need to piss each other off, or a combination of the two, but it was known by all for many years: Jessica and Matthew do not get along.
The fact that the two of us were in a room together without ripping each other’s throats out on that cold, damp Christmas night was nothing short of a miracle. Completely stuffed from our feast, us “older kids” were posted up in the den on various pieces of furniture watching TV, while the younger girls were playing upstairs; my dad, aunt, and uncle were also upstairs, but in a different room. A relaxed energy filled the room as we watched TV and chatted.
When we heard a loud crash come from upstairs, we agreed it was my cousin, Alex, and my baby sister, Samantha, doing whatever preteen girls do. Making up dances? Someone fell? Jumping off the bed? Who knows — I’m sure they’re fine.
None of us felt the slightest bit concerned until they rushed down the stairs.
"What’s going on?” I asked the girls.
“They told us to go downstairs,” Alex answered in frustration.
A cold chill rushed over me. I motioned for the girls to come sit and watch TV with us, so Sam curled up next to me on the couch, and Alex took the seat next to her brother.
Matthew and I exchanged a glance. The energy in the air started to change. We didn’t know what was going on, but we knew it wasn’t good.
The silence and tension quickly became painfully unbearable. No one had to say a word, but it was mutually understood that we were all confused and terrified.
Our mom had been battling a chronic illness (Crohn’s disease) for the entirety of our lives, and my gut instinct told me something bad had happened.
Eventually, Matthew, Samantha, and I were directed to go upstairs. I dropped my phone where I sat, took Sam’s hand, and led the trip upstairs into the room where my father was. None of us looked him in the face as we assembled into the room and onto my aunt and uncle’s bed. Samantha was sitting in front of me with my arms wrapped around her, her small hands holding onto my forearms for dear life; Matthew was standing behind me with his hand on my shoulder.
When I finally allowed myself to look at my father, I felt my chest collapse and the air escape from my lungs. I held onto my sister tighter, because I knew.
My father kneeled down to our level and put his hand on Sam’s leg. My dad — a fairly large, stoic, well-spoken, and strong man — looked up at us as he struggled to find his words. He looked as if he aged 20 years in 20 minutes.
“Our family has suffered a loss,” he started.
And that’s all I remember.
I held onto my screaming sister for dear life, hiding my face in her hair. My brother squeezed my shoulder, attempting to stand upright as the following thoughts raced through my mind:
I am 19, and my mother is dead.
My dad is 50 years old, and he just lost the love of his life.
My brother is 16 years old, and his mother is dead.
My sister is 10 years old, and she does not have a mom.
We don’t have a mom.
I spent the rest of that night in a daze. I held my sister’s hair as she puked. I apologized to my new boyfriend incessantly for the awkward situation he had been put in. I called my new boss to tell her I couldn’t come into work the next day because my mom had just died.
Three years later, everything about that previous scene still makes me physically ill. We have a completely different family, but we’re surviving.
I have always had a soft spot for my sister. Being nine years her senior, I was old enough to witness and remember all of the monumental moments in her life, from when the doctor first told us my mom was having a girl (my eight-year-old self walked into that doctor’s office with everything crossed, praying for a baby sister) to her first words to when she graduated elementary school.
Sam was everything I ever wanted in a sibling. I may be a little biased, but she was just the most beautiful, sweet, intelligent, observant, and talented girl with the biggest heart, which made it impossible for me to not adore her. As I got older, my mother always came and watched my dance practices and brought her along as a toddler, creating my own mini fan club. In return, I would often tag along with my mother to pick her up from daycare or preschool, and I student-taught some of her dance classes. I was my parents’ built-in babysitter and didn’t even mind the work… most of the time. To my benefit, I was released of responsibilities whenever I wanted to, because she had two parents — she didn’t need me as a third.
But once Sam was missing a parent, I wondered how was she going to handle adolescence.
When we had two parents, I didn’t have to worry as much. She had two parents; it wasn’t my job. But once my mother passed away, her wellbeing increasingly became my concern. Our sisterly chats became more frequent, more in-depth, and longer. I became more available — for rides, for food, and for “girls days” consisting of hair, nails, shopping, and never-ending Red Mango trips.
I could never take the place of our mother, but I need to make sure she knows she will never be alone. She might have one less parent than the majority of her peers, but at least she has someone who adores her enough to step in (as much as I possibly can).
To be honest, I was not very intelligent at 19. Or savvy. Or independent. Or strong. I was a lost, naïve, and superficial college student, who wanted nothing more than to be accepted by others. And leading up to the moment of my mother’s death, it finally seemed like I was on the way to getting the life I had always wanted.
On December 25, 2012, at around 8:30 p.m., all of that changed. Nights out with my boyfriend turned into nights in watching family movies. Gossiping with my friends turned into hours and hours of listening to my sister talk about things going on in her preteen world. My priorities started to shift as the days passed on.
I ended up breaking up with the boyfriend I'd wanted so badly just three weeks after my mom died. I stopped caring so much about achieving a perfect body and used exercise as my therapy rather than a tool to make me more aesthetically pleasing. The aspects of the “perfect life” I thought I wanted so badly started to change one by one. Suddenly, I didn’t have the time to care about my “image.” Frankly, I didn’t have the energy to keep up with my pseudo-happy façade of “cool”; I didn’t have a mom, and I had too much shit to handle and accomplish.
And naturally, family came first on my list of priorities. Since my mother was chronically ill and constantly in and out of the hospital, we actually had “functioning” down to a science — we didn’t skip a beat. My father was already efficient in cooking, cleaning, and laundry.
But my dad is only one person. That’s where I step in. I helped him as much as I could with household chores and giving rides.
Our family spent a lot of time together after my mom died. We would spend hours discussing everything: what happened to her, what happened to our family, our past, present, and future. Talking it out seemed to work for us, so I had to make sure I was physically and emotionally available for the next person who needed to chat.
It was so strange — our family had suffered a tragedy, but the rest of the world kept turning like nothing went wrong. Trying to assimilate ourselves back into normal society after the bomb we were hit with was rough, but we all made the other three people a priority, whether it was just for a text message, a hug, a pep talk, a long and drawn-out chat, or just the company of another person.
Times of tragedy force you to realize who your true support system is, and I am so, absolutely blessed to have my dad and siblings in my life. My brother, whom I rarely got along with as a child, was the one who literally picked me up after I collapsed at my mother’s funeral once I saw her lifeless body in the wooden box. I knew from that moment forward that I had to step in and become part of this support for everyone — especially my sister. If I was 19 years old and could barely function, how was this going to impact my sister, who was half my age? I couldn’t let her slip through the cracks.
I became the person she went to for “girl advice.” I’m the one she texted when she got her first period, and I left class early and sped the entire way home to hug her and then take her out for frozen yogurt. I’m the one she told about her first “boyfriend,” and I’m the one who gave the first sex talk. I’m the one she looks up to, and it’s quite a bit of pressure.
But being forced (by no one other than myself) to step in as the main female figure for my wonderful sister has helped me become the best version of myself in ways I never thought was possible. I need to become the best version of myself, because I have to be the best role model for Sam, now 13.
To help me defeat the rest of the demons and tragedies that came my way, I ended up becoming a competitive powerlifter who now holds records in multiple federations. I took something that I used as a release and as my therapy after my mother died, and turned it into a passion. Powerlifting became something that I wholly immersed myself into, in order to feel like I had a purpose again; it has given me a sense of confidence that I never, ever had, and that confidence has coupled with both mental and physical strength. I dealt with debilitating self-esteem issues for so many years, and I will do anything that I possibly can to show my sister how absolutely essential strength and confidence are to a young woman.
I want her to wake up every day and do what she loves, so I am in the process of creating a life course that I will be happy with. Three years ago, I was living the life I learned about. It’s a life I was told I was supposed to lead, as exhibited by social media, magazines, movies, and every other outlet. Today, I am a little more aware of how dumb I was at 19.
Today, I live a life that strives for happiness. I live a life that is closely watched and admired by someone I care about very deeply, and I refuse to disappoint her. I have a tendency to get caught up in little anxieties and lose sight of what is truly important, but knowing I need to be strong for Sam, I have been much better at focusing.
Realizing what I want out of life for the person I love most has helped me take an objective view on happiness, which I never took into much consideration as I was growing up. And despite what I’ve been through, I am the happiest I’ve ever been. I don’t have any children of my own, but my mother’s sudden passing has led me to love another person more than I could ever love myself. It has not only been the biggest life lesson, but also the greatest joy I could ever experience.
It’s funny. Sometimes I have conversations with my mother in my head, and I try to predict what she would say about a certain situation. I feel my accuracy slipping as I grow and change, but I would honestly give anything to know how my mother feels about our adventures these past few years.
I’m sure she would be proud of us — I mean, we’re still functioning. We have all accomplished major milestones, and are getting better and better every single day. We’re all getting along better than ever. We’re surviving. Happy, even.
I’m doing my best to take care of her little girl for her. Everyone always tells us how proud she must be.
I’m sure she would be proud of us.