What’s This? What’s This?

About a year ago, I needed help making friends.  I was a recent grad student graduate, with an anti-social job in a foreign country where all of my fellow international friends had moved back home.  I was cold and alone.  Wasting away with nobody to talk to but a filing cabinet.

But now I am back in the United States, closer to my old college friends, have a (temporary) full-time job, and *gasp* work friends!  Which has all lead to *another gasp* having a social life!  As of now, I am living in a suburb of Chicago that is 15 minutes away from my work, and 20 minutes away from Chicago.

It is pretty awesome.  I have weeks where I am in the city every day for trivia nights and dinner dates.  Sometimes I even have to tell one person that I cannot hang out because I have already made plans.  If this is what life was supposed to be like in high school, then I get it.  Being popular is awesome.  I get why young teens do whatever means necessary to become part of the elite.

This whole experience has also opened me up to dressing better, caring about my appearance, and just embracing my femininity.  I am wearing jeans and tee shirts far less than I ever have in the past 5 years, wearing boots and flats instead of Vans and Converse, and utilizing blow dryers and curling wands.

Not saying that if you do not like these things, then you are not a woman.  They’re just parts of my life I never thought I would embrace.  Unfortunately, first impressions are still very important when meeting new people.  So I am simply putting my best foot forward and using fashion to express certain aspects of my personality.  Whether it is through wearing a skull spotted blouse or maroon colored tights.

**Old Me vs. New Me**

I have group texts that don’t annoy me when they go off.  I have regularly scheduled plans.  I am having fun and enjoying life.  This is probably the first time in a very long time where I am genuinely happy with all aspects of my life.  Work is good, friends are good, family is good, my self-esteem and confidence are at an all-time high.  Everything is good.

I am good.

Five Birthdays Since

My brother was born on December 5, 1993.  I was three-going-on-four.  The earliest memory I have is going to the hospital for his birth.  I remember wearing my pink Minnie Mouse PJs and lining up my Aladdin Barbie dolls on the windowsill facing my mother.  When nurses asked me what I was doing I would say, “They’re waiting for my baby brother.”  I remember it being much later than I am usually allowed to be awake.  Saturday Night Live was on, and my dad was laughing at the tiny TV screen instead of feeding my mom ice chips.  I remember my uncle being with me to keep me company while Mom and Dad were doing their thing.  I remember suddenly being so tired that I passed out on the hospital bed next to my mom’s.

And when I woke up, I was a big sister.

We fought a lot.  And when we fought, we fought with words.  We would cut each other down using the biggest insecurity we knew the other person had.  My grandma used to stop the car on the side of the road whenever we were arguing and scream, “GET OUT!  If you’re going to fight, get out of my car and walk home!”  Being siblings, we would fight about the stupidest, most inconsequential things.  How a line in a movie went, what we were going to watch on TV, whether or not we were sitting too close to one another.  But when we got along, we were just as annoying.  Sometimes my parents would yell over their shoulders in the car for us to stop goofing around.  Our chatter and giggling was pointless to them, but for us, it was the most hilarious thing in the world.  The bond we shared was special.  We could tell each other how we wanted to kill the other in one moment, and then sit down and quote every word from Zoolander the next.

We did everything together.  Just like brothers and sisters should.

In June of 2009, my 15-year-old brother was diagnosed with hepatocellular carcinoma, a liver cancer that has an incidence of 0.7 per 1 million children in the United States.  By the middle of July 2009, he had died from it.

The loss of a family member is always difficult.  But the loss of a sibling is detrimental.  Nothing shook me harder than that drive home from the hospital after he passed.  I was in shock.  I was numb.  I sat in the backseat of our car clutching two things: his stuffed hippo and his pillow.  I didn’t care about anything else.  I didn’t want to think about anything.  When I did, I knew it was real.  I didn’t speak for the entire drive home.  When we got home, I silently walked upstairs and fell into a dreamless sleep, still clutching those two things.  I couldn’t let them go.  You suddenly begin realizing things you never thought about before.  It hit me that I would never be called “Aunt Allex,” by anyone related to me.  I went from always having someone around with me to being alone.  I was suddenly an only child.

Today is the 5th birthday our family will be celebrating without him.  He would be 20 years old today.  He would be older than I was when I first found out he was sick.  He would be in college.  I love playing this game called, What Would He Be Doing Now?  I think about where he would have chosen to go to school, what he would be studying, whether or not he would have a girlfriend, or if he would have gone Greek like our dad and me.  And when I play it, I am never sad.  I don’t know why, maybe to some people it is a morbid game to play.  But it’s nice to wonder.  If I was able to control how the world works, what would I have him be doing?  But knowing him, he could have skipped going to college and decided to get into flower arranging or party planning.  And it would have worked for him.

The thing about my brother was that he was the hugest pain in the ass.  He would always whine and complain when he didn’t get his way.  He had to be correct, and would fight you tooth and nail to prove how you are wrong.  He was condescending at times, reminding me how terrible I was at Spanish while he rrrrrolled his rrrrr’s with a smug little smile.  But he was also amazing at everything.  There was nothing that he couldn’t do.  School, sports, games, music, everything he touched he excelled at.  He was caring, grounded, and sensitive.  For a 15-year-old, he was just brilliant.

He was funny, charming, and everyone loved being around him.  Some people just radiate goodness, and that was my brother.  He shined.  He was a magnet.  It was impossible for someone to not like him.  He was goofy.  He was alive.  Everything he did was with passion.  I always admired that about him.  His ability to just put his heart and soul into everything he did.

I love my brother with every part of my being.  And I am not the only one.  After he died, his friends put together a memorial at his high school where over 100 friends and classmates came together.  His graduating class created a badminton tournament to raise funds for the foundation my family created for him.  His two best friends are still close with my family, even coming with us on family vacations.

My brother is the last person who deserved what happened to him.  But he taught me how to live.  How every moment — no matter how small — is precious.  He taught me to go after what you want.  He taught me that no matter how far away you are from your loved ones, they are still always with you.  He taught me to embrace life.

It only seems fair that the first memory I have of my brother is his birth and the last being his death.  I was rushing to the hospital while being briefed by my aunt.  His surgery had caused complications.  His cancer had spread to his small intestine.  His kidneys were failing.  But the doctors weren’t going to do anything until I made it to the hospital.

My aunt warned me that he was on a lot of pain medicine and might be loopy.  But when I walked into the ICU and saw him, he was still my baby brother.  The nurses were trying to put his oxygen mask on him, but he kept pulling it off.  “Allex is here,” he kept saying.  “I have to give Allex a kiss.”  When I looked down at him, tears were running down my cheeks.  “Why are you crying?” he asked me.

“I’m not,” I wiped the tears away quickly.

“Hey,” he said.  “Come here.”  He waved his hand to me, and I leaned in.  He gently kissed me on the cheek and then suddenly slapped me on that same cheek.  “I hate you,” he smiled.  We both laughed and the nurse then told us his breathing tube would be going in now.  He said okay, and told me goodbye.

That was the last conversation I had with my baby brother.  And I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. […] I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful.
-John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

Thanksgiving, or FAMILY GLADIATORS

Part Deux of why Fall is a godsend and you should cherish it is always going to be Thanksgiving.  To be perfectly honest, I do not have any real heartwarming memories for Thanksgiving or funny stories to tell.  But I do know that Thanksgiving pretty much goes through the same formula every single year.  This will be the second year that I am not there to celebrate Thanksgiving with my family back in Chicago because I am in London.  And in this tea-drinking society, they don’t have anything to be thankful for, but they do give themselves a third Christmas day known as, “Boxing Day.”  And Boxing Day is… the dumbest thing I have ever heard of so, I will not waste your time with it (AMURRICAHHH!).

Anyway, back to the formula. This might only be with my family because 1. we are all very Italian-American which causes us all to 2. want to talk over one another, causing 3. nothing to ever actually be heard.  It’s really just the sound of white noise with the words anti pasta, mozzarella, or just try it! coming in and out of frequency.  With my family, everyone plays their part.  And every year, without fail, they will do what they are set out to do.  So I will try to break down a usual Thanksgiving in our family:

Who will host:  With any holiday, my grandmother usually takes charge.  Especially if there is eating involved.  Dinner at my grandmother’s house is like a marathon.  You have to pace yourself, but once you hit mile 23, you just want to let your body lose all control over itself.  So you would expect that the quintessential holiday for stuffing your face would be at her house.  But our grandma hosts Fourth of July, Easter, Christmas, every Friday and Sunday night dinner, my birthday, your birthday, Arbor Day, any holiday that you might want to eat something to celebrate.  But Thanksgiving is given to my aunt.  And she does it every year to give Grandma a break.  But it really doesn’t matter because Grandma is just going to bring four dishes and six pies anyway.  So she is still “slaving away” in her kitchen.

And every year my aunt tries to out-do herself with centerpieces and the “special moment” of what makes Thanksgiving what it is.  Being thankful.  And I love being thankful.  I am thankful every day for my family, the support they give me, the love they throw at me, and the opportunities given to me.  I am thankful for my friends — both in the US and the UK — and for what they do for me.  But I don’t like sharing my thankfulness in detail.  What I just said up there is the closest you will get to hearing me open up.  But my aunt always makes us get in a circle, hold hands, and go around and say what we are all thankful for.  It’s sweet and meaningful, but also just too many feelings.  I don’t do feelings.  I don’t have them.  I don’t understand them.  I don’t express them.  So having to hold my cousins’ hands and listen to their feelings– and then sharing my own — is always so awkward.  For me at least.

Who made it best:  We are a competitive tribe and like to one-up each other.  You have to understand that my family is very large.  My mom is the oldest of seven, and of those seven siblings, five of them live within ten minutes of each other.  We are always around each other.  And we like to be the best of whatever it is we are doing.  So when one aunt says that she is going to make the green bean casserole, my uncle likes to show her up by making a fancier, more “interesting” green bean casserole.  And then at dinner, we have a vote-off of which one was the best.  And when one person is declared the victor, they will brag about it for the rest of the night.

We always do this for everything.  Pies, sports, board games, outfits, pets, kids, whatever.  If there is a way to compete with it, we will do it.  We don’t do it to be malicious to one another — although we can get really blood-thirsty at times — it’s just how we are.  In our family, the more we make fun of you, the more we love you.  So when outsiders come to a family dinner, they are kind of thrown back by how blunt we are towards each other.  But it’s like Thanksgiving is the mecca of competition.  We will compete over EVERYTHING.

Actually, I don’t really have anything else to say about how crazy my family can be for Thanksgiving.  Because they are my family and I love them.  And they are like that for every event.  Every holiday.  Every Thursday afternoon.  They are ALWAYS like this.  Those nut balls share the same DNA as me.  I Skyped with them today and already saw both these things happening, but it didn’t matter.  Because that’s what makes our Thanksgivings special.

So whatever you celebrate, and with whomever you give thanks, have a good one.