EMMA JONES, Suffocation, Drawing & Illustration. Grade 12, Plainfield South High School, Plainfield, IL. New York Life Award

EMMA JONES, Suffocation, Drawing & Illustration. Grade 12, Plainfield South High School, Plainfield, IL. New York Life Award

The New York Life Award was created in partnership with the New York Life Foundation to encourage bereaved teens to express their grief over the loss of a close loved one through art or writing. The Award is presented to six students in grades 7–12, along with $1,000 scholarships.

Congratulations to the 2019 recipients!

Zoe Chen, Emma Jones, Sofia Liaw, Eric Schlesinger, Makayla Wach, and Brian Wee

For resources to help children dealing with grief, visit AChildInGrief.com.

Split Ends

SOFIA LIAW, Personal Essay & Memoir. Grade 12, Jamesville-DeWitt High School, DeWitt, NY. New York Life Award

“The average age of becoming a parent if you are to adopt is significantly older than if you have biological children. This proves to be a challenge when you and your spouse are deciding what is to be done in the event of death seeing as your older age equates to an older age for that of your parents, siblings, and friends who might volunteer to take on the responsibility of raising your child.”

——— Excerpt from A Parent’s Guide to International Adoption

“Where are you from?”

In Shanghai, there are two strollers, side by side. Four parents, uncertain, but overjoyed, crouch next to babies that are now theirs. Both are six thousand miles away from their new home in Southern California, but growing up you and your best friend will be only thirty-two minutes apart from each other.

Remember when you were five and your white mother didn’t know how to handle Asian hair? How you sat terrified on the toilet seat as she lowered herself onto her knees to trim your bangs? They were nothing more than the welcome mat for society to continue believing the stereotypes about Asian nerds before getting to know the person you are. Whose idea was it to keep snipping, to perpetuate that?

On Bastille Day in 2009, there is a photo taken of you and your best friend underneath the Eiffel Tower. You stand with your arms around each other as if that was the way best friends could become part of the same body in the city of love.

Your bully has no idea that you can’t leave the house without brushing your hair because of her. The teasing in 5th grade convinced you that your hair—thick, coarse, and always mistaken for black—defines you.

In sixth grade, you are growing into your preteen body and start to watch YouTube tutorials on how to apply red lipstick and pair it with a neutral eye look, get your wardrobe ready for fall, and plait a French braid. Because you cannot do your own hair, your poor mother is subjected to hours of experimentation. The two of you binge watch episodes of White Collar, Sherlock, and Merlin every Friday night. By the time Netflix says “Next Episode Continuing in 5… 4… 3… 2… 1…” she has had already had a Dutch, Waterfall, and Fishtail in her hair, and you’re about to begin on a Mermaid Braid.

You and your mom come home. Enter the house. Migrate to the living room. Not her bedroom. She didn’t want this memory there. She asks what you thought of her spending half a week in the hospital. You intertwine the fibers of doily dripping from the silk pillow. Ask when she is coming back to school. The other teachers have inquired. This week? Next month? After Winter Break? She tells you she doesn’t know. Then she tells you why. Tells you not to be afraid. Don’t look up anything. She didn’t want you to know how low her chances were. Information is inconclusive when it comes to esophageal cancer.

You can’t remember when your mom asked if you could cut her hair. Sometime when you were nine, you think. Eventually, with the chemotherapy and the old age, her wild curls learn to wave, then straighten. Tangled yarn becomes loose strands. At age eleven the margin for error has lessened. You learn to cut more carefully.

Huntington, Hospital [the first time]: A Conversation Between your mom and your best friend’s mom
Terminal? There’s a chance. // You’ll fight it. // If I can’t—— // You don’t have to. // Her godparents are too old—— // Unimportant. // Her father can’t take care of her—— //Unimportant. // If my family was younger—— // We’ll do it. // You’ve known her as long as I have—— // We’ll do it. // I’m sorry for asking—— // Stop worrying! // What? // Your daughter will be part of our family.

When your mom begins another round of chemotherapy, she tells you to pull a little less tightly when braiding her hair. She has been finding pieces on the pillow when she wakes up. You frown. Four strand braids don’t look as good loose.

Remember when you were six and you saw one of your classmates come into Kindergarten with a perm? You asked if you could do the same thing. Your mom didn’t want the chemicals in your hair. Instead, she spent a Sunday afternoon with a printout on how to use rollers. The sun was reflected off the seafoam green wall onto the mirror by the time the grand reveal was supposed to happen. Your faces fell flat when your hair did. It didn’t work.

Your mom has been living with cancer for a full year. A lot has happened since the conversation, your best friend’s family has moved to upstate New York for high paying tenured positions. It is election time in your seventh-grade class and you are running for president. The two of you are assessing what would happen if you move to New York, away from your father who only sees you once a week now, away from the home she has created for you in Southern California, away from your presidential reign. The solution comes from twenty-four minutes away in the form of a family from church. They promise the same thing as your best friend’s family, and they wouldn’t have to uproot you.

When the ambulance took your mom away, your aunt told people that you wouldn’t cry. As far as she was concerned, you never did. But on the day your mom died, you turn around with tears in your eyes. Hospice was supposed to come and make things easier. Yet your mom didn’t stay for the red candle snuffer to be lowered onto the pond of wax which the wick had ceased bobbing in. You press yourself against the glass, watching the blood in her hand slow to a silent trickle. Remember her last good day? When the sun sapped the leftover color at the tips of her roots and she faded into the white polka dots of the dress now slipping off her shoulders, the one she’d had tailored to fit. It happened the same way.

——::——

You stare at the window on the way back from your therapist. Your church friend’s mother sits with her khakis, pastel-colored t-shirt, and blonde bob less than a yardstick away. The dark leather has bitten through the volleyed sighs in the silent Audi as you run through the day’s events in your head. You had not been aware that anything was wrong.

“What are you doing?” the mother knocks on your open door.

“Relaxing.”

“Can you come upstairs.” It isn’t a question.

She had descended alone.

The father sits at the table, his back to you, as you approach. The mother positions her chair next to his.

You can’t read his face.

“Since the beginning of you staying here, the two of us have clashed a lot. So we are deciding not to take legal guardianship of you. I’ve already spoken to your dad and your best friend’s mother. She and her family are ecstatic to have you. Your dad is driving up this afternoon since it’s best that you leave as soon as possible.”

The father asks, “Do you need water or candy?”

He returns with two starbursts and a glass of water with crushed ice, not cubed. The starbursts are red and pink. Your favorite.
“You can start packing if you would like.”

You unwrap them, place both in your mouth. They, along with the tears, teach you the meaning of silence as you now have to take off your glasses, losing the last line of defense. Your only control in a situation where you are absolutely helpless.

“May I be excused?” through the mass of artificial strawberry.

“Of course.”

The taste of salt mixes with the cherry as you walk away.

——::——

“I know you feel helpless, but what you’re doing right now is the exact opposite of helpless. You’re doing the strongest thing you could do. You’re waiting. You’re feeling. And you will be okay, but you don’t have to be okay today.”

——— Advice from Your Best Friend When She Consoled You after Your First Breakup

You wish you had known that back then.

It isn’t until you are fifteen that you get your hopes up again. You are at summer camp when your roommate attempts to curl your hair, and this time, it holds.

Remind your best friend’s mother to schedule an appointment at the hairdressers in August. You’re going back to school soon, and there are so many split ends, you have begun to enjoy wrapping them around your fingers just to yank them apart and out of your head. Supposedly, this isn’t healthy.

You call your best friend’s parents yours now, even though you don’t introduce them as Mom and Dad, but you have been referring to your best friend as your sister since you have been living in Upstate New York. Your freshman year of high school resulted in happiness, a 4.0 grade point average, and new friends that made you a place to belong.

Among them is a boyfriend, something your Californian friends said you would be the last one to get when you lived there. The morning after your second motherless Mother’s Day, he is the person you go to when you finally feel safe enough to start grieving. When you start remembering for the first time, all of the things that had never been memories, he listens. And even though he is not the answer, he is one.

It’s a commonly known fact that to keep hair healthy, you must trim the split ends so that the rest can grow. There are times when you have come to the crossroads of what you’ve always known and what lies ahead and stopped to ponder. But you have only ever continued onward because that is all you can do.

In August, you peek at yourself through the wet vines of a rainforest, push the cluster aside to stare at yourself, reach through, and separate them so that they hang equally on both sides of your chest. You see your best friend’s mother in the corner of the mirror. You know she is wondering why. The last time your hair was this long you had just gotten back from Paris. You remember that it reached your butt when you arched your back. You were very proud of that.

Startled out of memory, you are asked for verification, “All of it?”

“Yes, please.

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