This piece explores the impact of grief and disenchantment in the process of growing up.
My Dad liked to joke that I ate nothing but fruit just like him as a kid. The tartness of lemon made me scrunch up my face with a smile. I was delighted by the tiny blueberries that lined the streets by my cousin’s home in Southampton, convinced that the fairies had bejeweled the English countryside when they’d heard that I was visiting.
On family trips to Dad’s childhood home in England, he and I were always on the lookout for berries lining the sidewalks. Though we are a family of five, my Mom, sister, and brother didn’t share our love for fruit. After long hikes or small wanders, Dad and I often returned with pockets full of berries and scratches on our hands, pricked by brambles and thorns. We knew it was all worth it to pop those delicious jewels into our mouths.
Simple and sweet-tasting days came and went. In the years before our move from California to Pennsylvania, I began to have a sense that my family was not as happy as they seemed. I spent many nights lying awake in bed, listening carefully to hushed conversations in the next room. Muffled words didn’t make much sense to me but my sister’s sobs were hard to forget. I knew what it was to cry one’s eyes out and I hated to sit and listen.
A secret was being kept from me, something everyone else knew. It made me feel stupid, it made me feel cutoff from the family. My Mom shared scraps of the story about our family. She told us about a history of mental illness. She told us about the time my Dad’s sister killed herself. She told us about uncles and aunts living with depression or anxiety.
But it wasn’t enough. Never quite understanding where my grief came from and why, left a permanent stain on my heart. I indulged myself in tears, they tasted like those berries—the ones that made me bleed.
It wasn’t until the night that my sister sat me down to talk that I began to understand. She had been waiting until I was older. She revealed that she had something called Bipolar Disorder. It meant that at times she would be extremely happy, happier than normal people could be. Other times she would become quite sad. It was a chemical imbalance in her brain, she didn’t have much control over her emotions. She had frequent nightmares and scarier hallucinations but was seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist to get better. She asked if I had any questions. I didn’t. I already knew she was Bipolar. That was a lie but it made me feel a semblance of control—less stupid.
From then on, certain lived experiences began to make more sense. The time I sat reading in our living room and was disrupted by the sound of blood curdling screams. I now understood that my sister must have had an episode. I refrained from asking any questions because that would’ve made me feel small; it was better to pretend I understood things.
Snow covers our new home in Pennsylvania and I’m the only child still living at home. I breathe in the stale air, watching the moon glow outside my bedroom window. I creep inside my bathroom, close the door, and turn out the lights. My head is filled with a sour, sickening blackness.
I am shaky and hollow as the memory of my sister screaming stings my eyes. I still feel like my ten year-old self—that little girl who wondered how to comfort her raging sister. I wonder now if everything was somehow my fault. Could I have been kinder to my sister? Might she have resisted the urge to overdose?
I look through the bathroom cabinet for my razor. Striking its edge against my skin, crimson red slips out. It reminds me of raspberries. I am still searching for jewels left by fairies, only now I find them hidden just beneath my skin. What looks pretty to my awe-filled eyes is complicated. It leaves scars.
What is this bitter and nauseating sweetness? It feels like a force apart from me—like a sad poem or a sweet song. Its echo holds a power to inhabit me. This is the bitter taste of lemon, the dark stain of pomegranate. Sitting beneath the sink with a bloody razor beside me, I recall the times I stuffed myself with too many berries. When those succulent jewels consumed me, when too many brambles made my small arms bleed. The gusting winds over barren moors and vacant skies, how small they made me feel, how small I still feel. I can almost feel the prick of the brambles. I can nearly hear my sister’s screams from the other side of the door—I can almost taste my tears.
As a writer and an artist I have been challenged by the vulnerability in exploring lived experiences. Writing this piece has forced me to set aside my fears and draw close to my authentic self. In the process I have come to recognize that my voice deserves to be heard.
Maya Collins is a passionate writer, artist, and leader in her community. She is currently a senior in high school, and especially loves writing poetry. Travel is a big part of her life, and she loves to explore her multicultural experiences within her work. Every aspect of her work as a writer and an artist is driven by a desire to both create space for others, and likewise honor her personal life experience. Above all else, she is a lover of boba :)