One of the last assignments I have for this school year in history/English is a personal narrative. The prompt is the question, what was a time you felt like an outsider? This is what I wrote.
Theoretically speaking, the line between life as an only child and life with siblings should be dark, thick, and distinct. In real life, when government laws force over a decade of time between you and your older sister, the line changes from Sharpie to pencil. In 1990, my sister was born into a China under population control. Thirteen years and an ocean later, I was born in California. She was already in seventh grade. From the beginning, we were like two planets in the same solar system, orbiting the same star, yet separated by a huge expanse of time and space. I started first grade the same month she attended her first college class. Five years later, she married my brother-in-law a few days before my first day of middle school. Three years after that, the distance between our seasons of life once again revealed itself.
It was Friday night-in other words, I was at church for bible study. After it finished, I checked my phone and saw that I had two missed calls from my mom. As a surprise Mother’s Day gift, we had given her plane tickets to visit my sister in New York, which was where she was now. I called her back, and she said she wanted to facetime my dad and I when we got home. Thinking nothing of it, I said yes. Both the multiple calls and the fact it was getting late failed to set off warning bells in my head.
They called us first, but something or another went wrong with the connection, and the call ended. Finally, we figured it out. I don’t remember who held the phone or whose phone it was, but I remember that their three faces barely fit in the screen. From left to right, they sat-my mom, my brother-in-law, my sister. Thousands of miles away at home, I leaned into my dad’s shoulder as we also sat side by side. We were at our formal dining room table, the one that got used mostly as a study table and only served its actual function for the occasional potluck.
My mom asked if we wanted to see the Mother’s Day gift they had given her, and we said yes, of course. For the second time, I wrongly thought nothing of it. Then again, life-altering changes rarely leave calling cards; this one came in the shape of a common greeting card. She held it up for us to look at.
It said: The Best Moms Get Promoted to Grandmas.
In that moment, my mind synapsed so fast that trying to explain it would be like explaining how one solves an easy addition problem. It was as if I had thought of something I already knew. My head immediately understood, but my mouth let out a delayed and quiet, what? My mom laughed and asked if my dad was in shock. He didn’t say anything. Nudging my dad, I said to him, you get it? You’re going to be a grandpa. To this, he finally spoke. Great, he said. A big smile spread over his face that refused to budge anytime soon.
The three of them in the screen showed my dad and me ultrasound pictures and a video of my mom’s reaction to the news. My dad, my mom, my sister, my brother-in-law. Everybody was smiling, everybody was excited. I mirrored their expressions, putting emotions on my face that I didn’t fully feel inside.
In that moment, I truly knew how all those children in the books I had read had felt after being told they were going to be older brothers and sisters. There I was, jealous not of a younger sibling but of a niece, and not at age five but fifteen. They spoke of my mom going to New York before my sister’s due date and then staying there afterwards for her first post-partum month. Who was this baby that was taking my mom away from me for over a month when I only had four years left with her at home? It doesn’t feel real, I told my dad. Real is real, he said.
The thought of my dad becoming a grandfather plunged me into a loop of dark calculations. If he lived until eighty, I only had twenty-five years left with him. To be twenty-five felt impossibly old, but to be forty without my dad? I would still desperately need him at forty years old. Paralyzed, the numbers pushed my mind into a full-blown existential crisis. I felt ashamed, ashamed of feeling the wrong things. The news of one of the most beautiful announcements known to man, the announcement of life,had shoved me into thoughts of loss, sorrow, and death. I was supposed to be happy. I wantedto be happy, and only happy. Why wasn’t I?
It was time for bed, and so the call ended. I climbed the stairs, I slipped into pajamas, I brushed my teeth, all the while holding that ugly and complicated mess of feelings inside of me. I was scared of telling my dad how I felt. How was I supposed to tell him that I was jealous and angry and confused because of an invisible baby, a baby he had been hoping for ever since my sister married? How was I to do so without being an awful person?
I climbed into my bed, listening to my dad’s slippers as they clapped against the stairs. He was coming to pray with me before I went to sleep as he and my mom had done so since forever. I curled up deeper in the covers, feeling like an adulterer before confession. Finally, his footsteps entered the room. He asked me a question, but I didn’t-I couldn’t-respond. The secret chaos inside of me had turned into silent tears. Oh, he said, moving towards me and wrapping me against him.
What I really heard in that word and in his arms was the one thing I truly needed to hear. Daughter, I love you.
What are you doing in school for the last few weeks? This week in history/English we will be spending a few class periods watching Dunkirk, which is very exciting. Have you seen it?
Do you have siblings?
What did you give your mom this past Mother’s Day?
ARE YOU EXCITED FOR SUMMER? There’s really only one answer to this question.
P.P.S. A letter I wrote to the baby in this story-my niece(!!!!), Clementine.
P.P.P.S. Studying picture from Note Buddy Tumblr.