Trauma & Heartbreak: Growing Up in an Unkind World

Recently, I was going through files on an old thumb drive and came across a personal essay I wrote for my high school English class. I’ve used platform this as a place to be vulnerable and share my deepest feelings. So, I decided to share it with all of you on Medium. I fixed 15-year-old Emily’s grammatical errors, but largely kept the content as it was. I hope you enjoy.

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It was a chilly spring evening when my world fell apart.

It was May of 2004, and my dad had just undergone brain surgery after months of unexplained headaches and memory lapses. When the doctor came out, only the adults went with him into the compact room outside of the ICU. My brother, Justin, and I chewed our nails as we waited in the worn plastic-cushioned chairs.

Ten minutes passed before my mamaw ran out of the chapel and into my arms saying they needed to talk to us. As slowly as I could, I walked toward the room, trying to prolong my life as I knew it. In that moment, I knew everything was about to change.

Malignant.

A word that would forever alter the course of my life. The doctors were right. Glioblastoma Multiforme they called it. At only twelve years old, I didn’t know what that meant. It’s made the news lately as the disease Senator John McCain recently passed from.

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“It’s a very rare brain cancer with a rapid growth rate,” they explained.

“Your dad,” my mother said, “will eventually die from this. There is no known cure, all they can do now is try to keep him with us longer.”

I didn’t know what to say. “There is no way,” I thought. I glanced at the brother I looked up to, to see how he was taking this nonsense. When I saw his face, I knew it was no cruel joke, but a vicious reality. “No!” I shouted at the top of my lungs. “You’re lying to me! Where is my daddy? I want to see him!”

“He’s in recovery baby,” said my mom. “They only got 75% of the tumor or they risked severing essential brain nerves. I’ll take you to see him as soon as he’s had some rest.”

Justin sobbed; fat tears silently sliding down his cheeks and hitting the fabric of his jeans. “Do you want to see anyone,” asked my mamaw knowing exactly what the two of us were thinking.

“Brother David” we both managed. Quickly she slipped out the door of the cramped room. I found myself thinking how surprising it was we all fit in this tiny room with our pastor and his wife.

Soon we were joined by our youth minister, Brother David, and his wife, who sprinted into the room and straight into our embrace. I caught myself focusing on the pool of mascara trickling down the back of Brother David’s shirt.

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It’s funny how our minds do that in moments of shock. We focus on one concrete detail: the compact size of a room or a ribbon of running makeup, to drown out the trauma.

That night, sitting in the cracked chairs of the ICU waiting room, mom finally suggested Justin and I go to our friends’ houses to get some rest. Houses which would soon come to feel like home over the next few months.

I was still in shock when we arrived at my best friend’s house. Courtney and I went upstairs, but I waited to cry until I could use the noise from the shower as cover. I hoped the water pressure would be enough to hide my sounds of anguish. I would find out years later that Courtney sat outside the bathroom door listening to every agonizing hiccup, while she wallowed in her own grief and inability to protect me from pain.

When dad came home, weeks later, everything seemed to be back to normal. With the exception of a giant horseshoe shaped scar above his right ear. He was a huge Sooner football fan, so a lot of people said he should take a sharpie and make an upside-down OU logo.

He and mom made two trips to MD Anderson. Once for a second brain surgery, and another to discuss other experimental options. The doctors weren’t sure he would live through a second operation. But just as the first time, he was up and walking around his hospital room the next morning.

Everything was going as well as we could possibly hope.

Death rarely crossed my mind. I don’t know if that’s because I refused to let myself go there, or because I tricked my own brain into focusing on the positives. He underwent two different rounds of chemotherapy, and the maximum amount of radiation treatments. Both of which caused him to lose his hair in patches. The radiation left burns and scabs on his head to match the angry scar above his right ear.

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I had all but forgotten about the night my mom told me this would kill him. I had the naive hope of a child. My dad knew better. Although he put on a brave face for us, he felt himself growing weaker. When our pastor asked if my dad wanted him to pray for a miracle, he asked him to simply pray that my mom, my brother, and I would be okay once he was gone.

Eventually we all had to face the inevitable.

Day by day he worsened; his speech began to slur, he was always tired, his vision went, then his sense of taste. He requested pancakes for every meal, saying it was the only thing that tasted good. Mom says she had never seen him eat a pancake in eighteen years of marriage. Luckily, IHOP was less than a mile from the hospital.

He rarely left the house, but always encouraged us to keep up normal lives and have fun. I didn’t want to be at home; It was too depressing, and I hated seeing my dad incapable of doing the things he loved. I filled my time with cheerleading, school, and church. When none of those were an option, I went to friends’ houses. I didn’t invite people over, for fear that it would embarrass my dad to be seen in such a state. But he got up and went to church every Sunday when he was strong enough. Sometimes he would get sick and have to leave in the middle of the service. I should have spent every waking moment at home with him, but I refused to believe the end was coming.

One day I came home from school to find the local news station in my living room. The Dream Foundation had acquired a football signed by Bob Stoops and all of the Oklahoma players, and the news was there for a human interest story.

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After he was put under hospice care, I was afraid of what I might find when I came home from school every day. For weeks, he was bound to a hospital bed, weak with few words. Our two cats would keep vigil over him night and day. Never daring to bother him, they just sat, watched, and waited.

The day my father died I came home from school, and was told he probably wouldn’t make it through the night. I rushed to his room to find him lying there unconscious, unresponsive, and short of breath with both cats in the bed with him, something they had never done before.

The nurse assured us that he could hear us even though he was unable to respond, but I had my doubts.

My aunt called friends and family to tell them the news. Slowly they drifted in to visit with us, share their condolences, and say goodbye to my dad. At 9:30pm, trembling I went to my mom.

“Mom,” I started. “Would it be too much trouble, or make anyone mad if I had some time alone with daddy?”

“No, honey. Give me a minute, and I’ll clear everyone out.”

Shaking I walked toward the bed with his struggled breath punctuating each step.

I took his hand.

“Daddy,” I began. “I love you so much, and I’m going to miss you more than anything, but I’ll be strong, I’ve got to be strong for you.”

He turned his head slightly, while his eyes slowly focused on my face. I knew then that the nurse was right. So I began to comfort him.

“You’ve got to be strong for me too, daddy. You have to have the strength to know that we will be okay. We just want you to stop suffering. We love you too much to see you like this. I know it hurts and I know you’re scared, but everything is going to be okay. You can let go now. Heaven is going to be beautiful. It’s going to have lakes that stretch as far as the eye can see, and you can fish and hunt and play baseball all day long. With all the beans and cornbread you can eat. And you can wait there for us, and we’ll see you soon. Before you know it Mamaw, Papaw, Mom, Justin, me…we’ll all be there with you very soon. I promise.”

I kissed his cheek, then his forehead. I put my face in his chest and let my tears soak the blanket.

“I’m a selfish girl. I want you all to myself, but God needs you now, and I’ll have to wait my turn to have you again. I love you daddy. I better go now, so someone else can talk to you. I love you. I’ll never stop missing you, but we have to let go. Goodbye, daddy.”

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I kissed his hand and placed it on his chest where the blanket was still damp. Once again my mom suggested I spend the night with Courtney. She didn’t want me to be there when they came to take his body away.

Twenty minutes later, Courtney and I sat with her mom, Stephanie in their master bathroom to wait. Then, it happened.

My phone rang.

It was my mom.

“Honey,” she said through hiccups.

“He’s gone, I’m so sorry!”

I let out a cry that can only be described as anguish while Courtney and Stephanie held me and kissed my tear-soaked face.

“Nothing will ever be the same!” I said

“I know baby, I know,” Stephanie comforted, rocking me in her arms like a mother rocks an infant.

“But we’re going to make it through this together. You have tons of friends and family who are here for you. You have us. It’s okay baby, everything is going to be okay. It will get better, and we will be here every step of the way.”

I don’t know if they will ever know how grateful I am for all they’ve done for me over the years.

Eventually the sobs turned to sniffles and Courtney and I decided to go upstairs. I don’t remember sleeping that night or many nights after. But as they say, life goes on.

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Ronnie Lee Potter

June 8, 1963 — March 10, 2005

Blogger | 2x Gold Pyramid Winner | CMI Award Finalist | Lifetime Learner | Crafter of Words | Feminist | Liberal | LGBTQIAPK+ | Spoonie | Follower of Christ

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