The Life We Give

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This was a piece I wrote in October 2019 for my creative nonfiction writing workshop. There were many tears in that class. We offered our hearts as ink sacrifices, even though we were mostly strangers.

I hope they're all doing well.

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My sister split the corner of her head open and stumbled out of my parents’ master bedroom, blood leaking between her fingers – and so began my lifelong quest of trying to save everyone around me.

Ashley – a natural gymnast, an enthusiastic dancer, and perpetually stubborn – made a stage out of everything. At ten, I was familiar with yelling at her to stop cartwheeling and front tucking her way onto a submissive floor, just for her to get up, try again, and land even louder.

That day, I was reading in my bedroom as her body crashed onto my parents’ bed, legs hit the headrest, and heels punched the wall…every thirty seconds. I was accumulating more rage than I care to admit, not knowing how soon the anger would be replaced by despair.

I screamed at her to stop fooling around, and no sooner had I relocated downstairs, I heard a ruckus accompanied by dangerous silence. My feet charged up the stairs, but my mind wanted to be left behind, scared of what was to be discovered.

When my sister and I came face to face, she was clutching the corner of her forehead, hands covering her eye. Crimson tears dotted the carpet. I unleashed a scream that shocked her into momentary silence. Then, I saw her eight years of life in hot flashes for each second her wail matched mine.

Having adopted the role of the emotional wreck, I was pushed out of the bathroom by my older sister as my father dragged Ashley inside to press towels to a wound I had yet to see.

I grabbed my giant stuffed dog, Brownie, and ran back to where I was reading not even five minutes ago. I squeezed him against my chest, waiting.

And I stayed there. As my dad rushed Ashley into the car, as Valmy followed closely after, as my understanding of what it meant to be a big sister slipped away from me; because at that age, going to the hospital was a death sentence.

After countless sobs, a phone call with my mother, and my older sister returning home to serve me dinner I barely ate, I learned Ashley was fine. She had hit her head on the corner of my parents’ dresser, just above her eye. Any lower and she could’ve been blind. The doctors found the gap on her brow, wiped away all signs of blood, and stitched her back together.

When I woke Ashley up the next morning, I pulled her into my chest, hugging her until my arms begged me to ease up. That day, I walked around with a heightened awareness of the fragility of life.

I have always loved my family, but after that day, I felt like I needed to hold their hand at every cross-walk. Suddenly, we exchanged “I love you” at the end of each phone call. No one could leave the house without getting a hug from me. Going to bed in a fight with anyone – big or small – made me anxious to no end.

Now, this kind of care is not necessarily bad, but it makes me wonder why we don’t live in urgency with all the people we love before signs of trouble. Why do we remind people of our love for them when they will soon be out of reach?

I’m 21 now, and I still see myself falling into this trap. I’m doing all I can to return home to my grandma between work and school. I fear she will die when I am away, and know my mind will wander into a forest of “what if’s”.

So, I pray, and I plan, and I call her twice a week, and I appreciate her, and I love her, and I wonder why it takes seeing someone on their way out to begin enjoying their company.

A trap, I say, because as I get older, I notice everyone around me is dying in different ways.

My sister had an accident, my grandmother is aging, my friends’ minds are convincing them that they have no significance in this world – and I am trying to defuse these bombs with an embrace.

But it simply isn’t sustainable to make a job out of calling and spending all my time with the people I love, as if my presence can deter accidents, reverse time, and medicate brain chemistry.

Some days can’t be about treating them to lunches I can’t afford, joining them on walks through the park on deadline, or hosting movie nights even though I’m exhausted. Some days I have to let myself sit on my couch, watch the ceiling fan spin, and wonder if anyone else has ever noticed the hum doesn’t quite keep pace with the blades.

I am learning this love I am trying to perfect may be a weak attempt to save myself – from the hurt I would experience when they leave, or by offering the love that is sometimes too hard to give myself.

So maybe I’ll get used to watching the fan, or the TV, or my career. And maybe I’ll forget to schedule time to see the ones I love. And maybe it takes a phone call telling me they are gone when I was too consumed with someone else to notice their retreat.

But I am learning that I cannot threaten myself with this reality. Because to live that way; to covet everyone as if every breath is their last one, is not loving them, but loving a memory of them. And to spend every waking moment loving other people so hard for fear of them leaving is to make myself disappear.

At the end of the day, when I come home, collapse on my couch, and watch that ceiling fan whir, I realize that I am running out of life to give.

So, maybe that’s it. Maybe sad people aren’t asking to die. Maybe they’re just running out of life to give.