By Katerina Glowienka
Outside, he was teaching me how to make a horn noise from a single blade of grass. Ryan held the blade between his long, thin hands and made a funny face. The sound that came from his blown-up face made me giggle. I rolled on the ground, the laughter bubbling up inside of me. Brett was busy gardening behind us, his hands and under his nails covered in dirt.
“You’re playing with cow poop!” Ryan snickered at his older brother, and then smirked at me.
“But he’s really good at it,” I chimed in, trying to be friendly. Brett had been my favourite since I was born. The front screen door swung open, creaking loudly on its hinges. Laurel’s long black hair floated behind her as her legs stretched out in front of her. She was what I wanted to be when I grew up, mysterious, always in black, no-one ever sure whether she was being serious or joking.
She set down a beige tray with mini sandwiches and fruit. But as she turned, I could see her limbs tense. Her eyes narrowed at something in the distance. Confused, I stopped what I was doing and turned as well. There, storming up the stone walkway, was a massive guy. His arms had to be the same size as my torso. In his meaty fingers was a baseball bat, and he was swinging it like he was about to hit a home run.
“Michael, what are you doing here?” Laurel’s voice shook. I wasn’t sure why. Weren’t they together? Maybe he just wanted to visit her while she babysat her brothers and me, their 13-year-old cousin. It would be sweet of him to keep her company. We were probably boring her. I flinched away when Michael swung the bat and it connected with Laurel’s skull.
“Stop!” Brett had been watching, no longer absorbed in his gardening. Michael raised his arm again, swearing and using words I had never heard before.
Although I don’t remember much after that, I know far more about that day seven years later. Michael had anger-management issues, and he and Laurel had their troubles. His pain and hurt from Laurel ending their relationship got the better of him, causing him to snap. I still wonder just how bad someone has to feel to do such a thing to someone they once loved.
Mum said Laurel wouldn’t be around anymore, that she was in a better place. What does a better place mean? I sat crossed legged on Mum and Dad’s bed, hugging our fluffy, ginger cat, Watson. Mum patted my head and then wiped at her eyes. Loud discussions were coming from down the hall. There were so many people in my house that it was worse than my birthday and Christmas Eve combined.
“You’re going to stay with Adam and Aunt Angie.” Mum began to dig through her closet. “It’ll only be until all of this is done, OK sweetheart?”
I like staying with Adam. We always have fun playing his video games. His mum lets us use the computer as well. I snuggle Watson, burying my nose into his warm, soft fur. He makes this weird mew I’ve never heard before. My Dad sticks his head around the open door, his big green eyes red, just like Mum’s.
“George wants you to go see Laurel,” Dad whispers, not looking at me. No one is looking at me, and everyone’s eyes are red. I don’t understand why I’m not going to see Laurel for Easter. “Here kiddo, I’ll pack your clothes for you.” He takes over what Mum is doing, and she hides her face in her hands.
“I’ll be back later.” She hugs Dad extremely tight and I can see her shoulders shake. Is she cold? It’s warm to me, but it’s also February.
A while later, Dad takes my hand and walks me out of their room into the living/dining room, where everyone is in black. They are matching, and I wish I could be matching as well. My throat seizes up with discomfort. Watson follows behind us, but then runs away. Our whole house is filled with flowers, making it look like a rainforest. My grandma comes and hugs me close, her shoulders shaking just like Mum’s did. It makes me sad to see everyone crying, but I don’t know what happened. Should I be crying too? Dad tells me to go around and hug everyone, that kids make these things better. What things? I do what I’m told and make my rounds. Once I finish, Dad picks me up into his arms, something he hasn’t done in a long time. His aftershave smells strong and it makes my nose tickle. He’s stronger than he looks and I’m pretty lanky and thin, allowing him to pick me up even at thirteen.
“All right sport, you’re going to go with Aunt Angie now, just for the weekend.” He squeezes me against him.
“It’s okay Dad.” I pat his head like mum did to me and he tears up.
“You’re so brave.” He sets me down and I don’t know what he’s talking about.
“It’s just me.” I lift my shoulders up and down, excited to see my cousin Adam.
Laurel passed away in the hospital. I look back at home videos and I can see that something wasn’t right. She wasn’t right. She had to be suffering from depression, and part of me assumes now that it was the abuse her boyfriend was dishing out to her before he fully snapped. There’s one particular home video I like to watch, which depicts pretty accurately how Laurel was around us. It was my birthday party and I was five. Brett, Ryan and two other cousins were lined up behind me to play pin the tail on the donkey. Laurel sat five feet away, curled on the couch. Her dark, thick black hair covered her, like shutters on a window. Her eyes were dark, too dark. She barely spoke and she barely smiled. But in the video you can see her watching us, and my father attempts to have a conversation with her while he films the kids. I never knew too much about her, because I was too young and we never really spoke. When she did babysit, it was Brett and Ryan who looked after me and played games with me. Two days later, her father – my uncle – passed away from a brain aneurysm we had no idea existed. Now, I think it’s more a symptom of stress and a broken heart.
Michael was seventeen going on eighteen, making this case very difficult. He was sent to a juvenile correction facility, despite my family and multiple lawyers fighting for the right thing. He had murdered someone, with serious intent of doing so. Michael should have been treated like any other criminal, but instead he was still a “teenager,” a “troubled boy.” He refused all the help handed to him while in jail. But he went on chaperoned trips to the beach, he was able to play the latest Xbox video games, and have a substantial lunch. I find this, as a tax-paying adult, nauseating. Michael had only five years in the correctional facility with parole. Currently, he is out living his life and being a part of society.
Fast forward two days: after my mother called the shots to remove her niece from life support, because her own parents couldn’t do it, Laurel’s father passed away. George was as healthy as they come. Being in construction, physical labour was a daily element for him. He had quit smoking fairly early on and proof from his doctors showed his lungs had not been affected. Although I don’t remember having the discussion with my parents that Laurel’s father had a brain aneurysm, I know that they spoke to me about it. My mother, two days after having to end my cousin’s life, now had to make the decision on how to handle her brother’s fate. His brain had lost oxygen, as well as been flooded with blood. The mysterious burst of the blood vessel hadn’t been random at all. Despite the shock, doctors proved that the vessel had been blocked for some time and was like a balloon building pressure.
Mum was around the house more than she ever use to be, but I never saw her. She stopped showing up to dinner and her bedroom door was always closed.
“Is mom joining us tonight?” I asked my father one night as we popped Indiana Jones into the DVD player.
“No, she has work to do,” he answered flatly, not removing his eyes from the TV. I had hoped that maybe with her being home, we could spend more time together, but it seemed she had no interest in me or my father. All I wanted was to go shopping with her, or for her to drive me to school. It wasn’t fair that she wouldn’t let me into her bedroom, or that she would eat after us, not bothering to speak.
At thirteen, I couldn’t begin to understand what my mother was going through. I labeled her selfish, thinking she didn’t want to see my father and me anymore. But it wasn’t until years later that I understood what was happening. Now, it makes sense that she had depression. I remember being out shopping with my mother after having a fight over my own case of depression. It was something we often did, fight and then go shopping as a form of reconciliation. We didn’t have to speak about important things, we could hold up a sweater and ask if the other liked it. There were no heavy conversations. It was that one day, as a seventeen-year-old dealing with her own self-loathing, that I felt what could be the closest thing my mother has been dealing with inside of her. Being forced to choose if your niece lives or dies, as well as your own brother, changes a person. She lost two people in the course of three days, and I was being a moody teenager, unaware and assuming it was all about me. We still do not talk about it, it’s become something we avoid. We speak about George and Laurel as if they are still alive; we never state that they are dead and no longer a part of our lives. As a family, we can talk about my uncle and my cousin, reminisce about Christmases with them or funny events. But if we remotely come close to the idea that they are no longer living, my mother shuts down. My grandmother, on the other hand, had been through a lot, even prior to all of that. She had been through three failed marriages, and now, her eldest son had passed away on her birthday. As a child, I had no idea this was a factor in her depression, and led to her hard-ass personality, which she maintains to this day. The death of her son and her granddaughter put as much stress on her as it did my mother. Looking back as an adult, I can see the differences those deaths made. We used to throw laundry at each other and play silly games when I was home from school for lunch. Since then, we barely speak. I hardly speak to my own mother because part of me still has that childish, teenage disgust about how she shut down, how she practically left my father and me for months to fend for ourselves. It’s not fair, but when you’re put through something as brutal as losing two people in a matter of days, it can affect you deeply and for a long time.
Perceptions change, especially with age, but sometimes the effects of that remain. It’s still difficult to swallow the fact that two of my family members are gone, and not just a grandparent from old age. Life isn’t fair, I learned, it’s random. But despite all of the hurt I watched my family go through, we know better than anyone to cherish those around you every day. Do no overlook people’s place in your life, because once they’re missing, that’s when you need them. Although I had only lost two people, it was as if I had lost my mother as well.