My sister will turn 18 this Friday.
Mom and I traded party ideas once or twice, but the truth is that neither of us wanted to talk about the fact that Taylor can’t eat her own cake, or that most of her friends will be moving into their dorms this weekend and starting their college careers next week. They won’t be around for the 18th birthday party of a dying girl.
Most people don’t know about my own difficult first year of college. They don’t know that I wore sunglasses to class so other kids wouldn’t see me cry, or that Mom and Dad drove to Chapel Hill to meet with the Dean of Students. They don’t know that I transferred to N.C. State University in the spring.
I’ve had 16 years to sort through the emotions of that experience, but most days I still don’t understand how a teenager with the world at her fingertips spiraled so far down the rabbit hole, she couldn’t leave the dingy dorm room she shared with her potluck roommate without bursting into tears.
I was homesick, and that played a big part in what was ultimately a case of major depression. But I also grappled with self-identity issues and zero self confidence and a huge sense of loss. Ankle injuries kept me off the soccer field for a full year, and the campus newspaper didn’t offer me a job as a reporter, and even though I made the Dean’s List, I found no joy in my classes.
I needed a fresh start.
It took a lot of blood and sweat and unconditional love, but I dug my way out of the hell I’d created for myself. During the spring semester, I commuted from my grandparents’ house to the N.C. State campus in Raleigh for a full load of classes, and Grandma Kathryn cooked homemade dinners every night while Papa Jerry cut the grass or sorted treasures he’d found at the flea market and I wrote English papers at the old oak kitchen table. Sometimes, my sister came to see me on the weekends, and we’d ride the merry-go-round or hide under the sheets on the couch bed in the bonus room and tell stories or download music from her favorite cartoons on Napster. An old family friend in the university’s merit awards office took me under her wing, and a creative writing teacher helped me rediscover my voice, and my ankles mostly healed, and I wanted to live again.
My family and friends saved me, and on a freezing cold Saturday that February, I was sprinting around a gravel track in Charlotte when I realized I had to go back to UNC in the fall.
My parents thought I was crazy; I think Mom’s first words were, “Absolutely not.”
But I knew that if I didn’t go back, I’d spend my whole life wondering whether I could have righted my wrongs – if I could have excelled where before I’d fallen so far. So I transferred again in the fall, and I faced all of my demons at UNC, and I beat every single one.
My story had a happy ending, yet my sister won’t ever have a chance to go to college. My own rough road forced me to grow up more quickly than a lot of my peers, yet it wasn’t until my sister’s diagnosis that I really understood how much the gifts I’d received were just that – gifts. It wasn’t until I watched Batten disease steal everything from Taylor that I understood dreams can’t always be earned.
Happy 18th birthday to my beautiful, smart, talented sister. I earned a degree 12 years ago, but you taught me everything I know.