Book Awards - Essays - 2016
The following three essays were submitted to KYMMA by students at Plymouth State University (PSU) when applying for the Clark Family Book Award, the Joan Merrill Book Award, and the Michelle Morse Book Award in 2016.
I woke up to the familiar smell of old spice, coffee, chocolate, and cigarettes. I hadn't gotten much sleep the last few weeks so it took a moment to realize where the smell was coming from. I must have forgotten to hang up my jacket last night when I got home from visiting my dad. I was there for a long time, as I was most days. The smell must have gotten on me when I Spent time with him. Every day I leave the house at dinner unless it is my night to stay late or my sister needs a break.
The last night I stayed with my dad he was in hospice, in my childhood home. My sister still lives at home and needed some time away. We all take a little time away, time away from those comforting, familiar smells. The smells that could make my sister angry or tear up in a second. The familiar smells now mixed with the scent of rubbing alcohol and the sound of an oxygen tank in the background. We all take turns. I know it won't be long now, but I still understand my sisters' need to get away. The smell can be overwhelming, especially when you think of losing someone who is your comfort, and whose scent brings you back to your earliest happy childhood memories.
My dad knew he was dying. He wanted to die at home with family, some dignity, and some humor. I spent a long time with him. Time enough to know he had stopped eating. When he was not in pain the only thing he ate was a piece of chocolate, every now and again, and coffee. My dad is not a tall man, but pretty slim. Last night, when I hugged him I realized how much weight he had lost. It seemed like I hugged him every few minutes. This is where the strong smell came from; it's also what caused him to make some smart ass remark to me about pestering him with hugs. "XXXXXX, are you sick or just not getting enough love at home?" he said slyly one of the times I hugged him. He waited for a reaction, I had none, and so I just smiled and shook my head. What can I say? I am not normally much of a hugger.
I sat by dad's bed and we watched television. He was eating a chocolate and then suddenly spat it at the screen. It landed on the television screen, slowly rolled down, and fell off. I was laughing when I asked why he did that. He said "I have always wondered what would happen if I did that." After this he went quiet. This was fine, I had been there all day, he doesn't have a lot of energy anymore, and there's not much left to talk about anyway. I gave my dad another hug and hoped he didn't notice me sniffing him as I did this. I did not need another smart ass remark about hugging. Dad must have known I needed those hugs. He knew I needed the feeling of closeness. The feeling we both knew we would not have much longer. He didn't say anything, just hugged me back for what felt like hours. I had to work later in the morning. When I got ready to leave I promised him I will be over after work.
After I woke up to the scent that reminded me of dad, I got ready for work. Later, I am standing in the middle of my office when my best friend ran in. She told me that my phone was off, that my family could not reach me, and that it was time. I stupidly asked for what. She told me that my sister had called and my dad had died during the night. I didn't know what to do or where to turn.
I don't remember how I got to my dad's house. I was standing next to him as other family member arrived. Someone tried to take my jacket and I shrugged them off. It is selfish, but I couldn't think of anyone else's grief in that moment, just mine. I finally broke down and hugged his body. I stay like this until my family started to back away. I was trying to smell the familiar smells of my dad so I would never forget them. I was desperate to smell them. I continued to hold him even as the coroner prepared to take his body away. The day passed in a blur. Alcohol was handed around as family talked and shared memories. My dad wouldn't have wanted us to cry and the stories told about dad helped to block the pain that day. I finally went home, where I could be by myself and let my grief take a hold of me.
I went to bed and even though I was exhausted, I couldn't sleep. I got up for a glass of water. I had hoped this would give me time to calm my thoughts, that way I could return to bed and sleep. I walked around my apartment slowly sipping my water. I was prolonging returning to bed. At that point I didn't think I was going to get any sleep that night. I was walking past the coat rack when I smelt it, my dad! I forgot about the water, grabbed my coat and I went back to bed. I finally slept.
Since that time, I have grown as a person. My father passed away and I entered the work force. Every year my family and I try to participate in Cancer fundraising as well as celebrating my father's birthday instead of his date of death. I think of him in all I do, wishing he could see me back in school, meet my daughter, and to see how far cancer treatment has come. When anyone has a family member or friend get stricken with cancer it can affect your whole life. Cancer stays with you. Whether you had it or someone close to you did. Looking back I see this is true. Every moment, even at work, my energy and thoughts were with my father or thinking about others who may be going through a similar situation. Even now, knowing the inevitable fate of my dad, I wouldn't have my energy directed any other way.
- Name Withheld, PSU Student
It was a normal day: no fire drill, no fights, not even a substitute teacher. There was nothing that would make the day seem any more than ordinary. As I walked into my study hall, my teacher said in an envious tone "Get out of jail free, Max! You're being dismissed!" Neither I nor my teacher had any idea why. I was excited for a moment, but then as it occurred to me that I had never, in all my years of school, been dismissed; a feeling of dread started to develop.
As I walked to my locker to gather my things, I knew something just wasn't right. Walking down the main hallway, I saw my mom walking into the school blinded with tears as one of the secretaries gave her a hug. Concern was quickly turning into panic. The next moments went blank for me until my torn mother said in simple, unemotional words, "Your brother has a brain tumor." Time stopped and moments blurred. I couldn't form thoughts in my brain. I couldn't believe this was happening to us. I did what I was told. I packed to move in with my grandmother. Everything I knew was uncertain. I went through the motions without thinking.
A life-changing event can happen at any moment. No matter how secure and safe we are in this life, it can be turned upside down. There is no plan, there are no boundaries. None of us is spared from hardship. I had thought that nothing bad could ever happen to our small-town, ordinary family. Life happened, however, and no one in my family will ever be the same.
When my brother Joe was diagnosed, I thought about the times we had spent together because I didn't know how much longer he would have in this world. I wondered if I had fulfilled my role as the big brother to him. I wondered if he knew how much I really loved him. The day after his diagnosis, he was operated on. Eleven hours of brain surgery left him unable to speak or walk. When I saw him at the hospital several days later, I had no idea if he even knew who I was or that I was there. To say the sight of him was shocking would be an understatement. It was jarring. His eyes no longer could focus. He screamed in pain. Blood oozed through the large bandage that covered the back of his head. I knew then that he would never be the same, but it took longer to discover just how different I had become, as well.
When I think back on that period of my life, I know it was a turning point: everything now measured as before or after cancer. Although I would have never wanted this to happen to my family and most importantly to Joe, I know that it has also given me a perspective that I value. I no longer fear the future and know that hard times do not break you. I now know how important it is to live not in the future, but live every moment in the present. So many people believe they will be happy if and when certain events unfold at some point in the future. I have learned that every moment has value and can either be enjoyed or lost. We do not know if we will have a long life or a short one. High school drama, stress about finals, and hours of homework are not things that will upset me or cause me to lose focus of that which is truly important.
I also know the power of giving back. My family was touched by countless acts of kindness during that hard period, every one of them making it clear that we were not alone. We were carried by kindness of family, friends and in some cases those we didn't even know. I now seek opportunities to do the same for others. I have done heavy labor on church mission trips, purchased shoes for a little boy who showed up for a day camp in Detroit barefooted, served meals to the homeless, simply to do the right thing: *This is how I choose to live my life and will continue to do so. I hope to teach others how a gesture, no matter the size or value, can have such a positive impact on someone else’s life.
I want everyone around me to know every day how important they are to me and how much I care. I no longer hold grudges against anyone. You never know when you may see someone for the last time. The hole in your heart cannot be filled by their forgiveness. I want to leave this world knowing that I did everything in my power to love those I care for and to help those I may never know. I have learned that life isn't measured by how many years you can add on, but measured on how you spent the time you were blessed with.
- Name Withheld, PSU Student
It was Father's Day in April of 2004, we were at my Grammy and Pepere's house. I was about 8 at the time, without a care in the world. All I remember on that day is that my Pepere was having trouble breathing, and couldn't really communicate with us. So my parents called 911 to get him to the hospital. This moment was the first time I witnessed cancer destroy one of my family members. Later on in the week we found out that he was living with lung cancer. He was a smoker so it wasn’t a shock when we found out about it. The following year (2005), he passed away and lost his battle with cancer.
I wish I could say that that is where the cancer ended for my family and me, but it doesn't. During the time my Pepere was alive and fighting his disease my Papa got diagnosed with liver cancer. His battle was short lived because the cancer was so advanced and crippled him immediately. He was a drinker back in his day, but he was sober for more than 30 years until he died from what he used to enjoy. My papa died the year after my Pepere (2006).
During these two years, my Grammy was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She was told she was going to live a few months, maybe even weeks. She lasted almost 2 and a half years battling cancer. She was there for both of my grandfather's funerals and wakes. Over the years, there were changes in her appearance and her body. She lost a great amount of weight and her hair thinned, as well as changed color. But, she kept her head up on most days and joked around a lot. She died the following year after my Papa, in May of 2007.
I wish I could say that cancer hasn't affected me, but sadly it has greatly impacted my life and my way of thinking. I have a constant fear of someone that I love dying, I have paranoia and anxiety over not hearing or talking to someone for a long period of time. I don't like to get my hopes up because I know that if I let my defense down of being anxious and paranoid, I feel that something bad will always happen.
Just recently, I got invited to go on Alternative Spring Break down in Florida. So, obviously, I called my parents to check with them to see if I can go. My mom was beating around the bush and not giving me a clear answer. Eventually she told me to sit down and that she had some news to share. She was telling me that the doctor had found some cancer in my Dad's prostate. Immediately, I broke down crying because I knew what the cancer word meant. She told me that it hasn't spread and it is contained in one specific area, so all he needs to do is have surgery to remove it and clean it out during the time that I would be in Florida on Spring break. So, obviously, I said I won't go to Florida because I would rather be with them and make sure everything goes okay. But, she insisted that everything is going to be fine and that the surgeon has done the procedure thousands of times. Eventually the plan was determined that I would go to Florida on Spring Break and he would get the procedure done during that time.
Hearing the word cancer gives me goosebumps. I know how one disease can cripple somebody so much that they want to die. I have stared death in the eyes multiple times and there's nothing I can do to prevent it or save someone from it. It's hard to describe how cancer has affected me because I'll sound like a lunatic if I say that I have PTSD over people dying and watching people die. It affects me emotionally, mentally, and psychologically.
I can't say that cancer has only affected me in negative ways, because it hasn't. I have been lucky enough to find silver linings in the trouble that comes my way. Because of having dealt with loved ones passing away from cancer I have learned to be empathetic and sympathetic toward people, I have learned that there are worse things in life than failing an exam or embarrassing yourself in public. I've learned that life is unpredictable and that we just have to go with what is put in front of us and make the best out of every situation.
There's this feeling that comes over you when you say your last goodbyes to someone. I can't describe it because it's something you feel within you. But I remember everything that my grandparents said to me on their death beds. I remember the moment that I knew they were going to die. It's dark and twisted, but once you experience and witness death, your life changes both negatively and positively.
As I was planning on what to say in this essay, I was talking to my Mom to confirm the years and dates. After we finished, she says to me, "Sometimes I wonder how we keep laughing." I had to sit back for a moment and ask the same question to myself. I realized that once you have gone through traumatic experiences, whether it be cancer related or a near death experience, seeing what death looks like makes you not want to go back to that dark place.
As a family, we learned to not take life for granted and to learn to live with whatever waves hit us. But, most importantly, we learned to not take life too seriously, and no matter what you have gone through in life, living by this philosophy will help you get through those bad times and help you understand that life goes on.
- Name Withheld, PSU Student