by Emily Bradley
There are at least 12 different ways to make a grilled cheese sandwich. The right way involves taking two pieces of white Wonder Bread, slathering them with margarine on one side, slapping a piece of Kraft Singles cheese between them, throwing them into a non-stick frying pan, and flipping until golden brown on both sides. Squishing repeatedly with a spatula is not optional.
Non-acceptable variations on the above procedure include: using butter instead of margarine, using multigrain toast instead of white, and using anything other than Kraft Singles cheese. You should never feed a child a grilled cheese sandwich made with Swiss. You should also never deviate from the standard three-ingredient recipe. Please keep tomatoes, lettuce, and even bacon away from your grilled cheese sandwiches.
When you are 11-years-old and bouncing between relatives and family friends while your sister is sitting in the hospital waiting for a heart transplant, eventually the person you are staying with is going to hand you a grilled cheese sandwich. Without fail, it will be a non-acceptable variation.
If you had asked me in early 2001 to define “family”, I probably would have given you a typical “kid” response, something unsophisticated like “a mom, a dad, and some kids.” If I had been particularly insightful, I might have said “the people who you love.” After spending five months being squeezed into other people’s families, I can confidently say that family is so much more. More than love, even. Family is history, traditions, and folklore. It’s the time at which you get up in the morning, it’s whether you say “please” when you ask someone to pass you the ketchup, and, yes, it’s how you make your grilled cheese sandwiches.
I can’t imagine what it must feel like to immigrate to a new country, but I do know what it’s like to be plucked from your family and deposited into an environment where you don’t understand the customs and routines. During my time as a serial migrant, I learned a lot of things. I learned that some families leave their dirty dishes on the table whereas others put them straight into the dishwasher. I learned that some families talk with their mouths full and some complain if you drag your feet. I learned that some parents ask a lot of questions and others let you drive an ATV without a helmet. I learned that some people dip their French fries in ice cream and that some don’t talk much at dinner. I learned how much the feeling of “home” is tied to the jokes you tell, the things you eat, and the TV shows you watch together. Most of all, I learned how uncomfortable it is not to understand the architecture of the home in which you live.
This is not to say that the people with whom I stayed were not hospitable. Everyone was kind and welcoming. Everyone made room for me at the table. But at my house, I didn’t have to ask which chair was reserved for me at dinner. At my house, no one had to explain the context behind an inside joke. At my house, I didn’t have to wait for people to tell me the appropriate way to proceed. Obviously with time I got used to the norms of each household. I learned the vernacular, I completed the chores that were expected of me, and I followed the rules. I also got to do so many cool things that summer. I remember standing on the side of the pool and learning how to do a backwards dive with my Uncle Ray. I remember camping and playing touch football. I remember my cousin Amy teaching me to shuffle a deck of cards “the cool way”. But I also remember never feeling relaxed. No matter how much I tried, I never really fit into those other families. While those around me effortlessly navigated their family dynamics, I struggled to fall in sync with their daily rhythms. While I had fun, I was also emotionally exhausted. I just wanted to go home where I could relax and be myself.
These are the feelings and images that come to mind when I try to think back to when Laura was sick. To be honest, I have trouble remembering much about Laura at all. I know what people have told me, but I don’t have many memories of my own. I didn’t visit Laura much while she was in the hospital. She didn’t want me to. I understand that. The only visit I really remember is the first. I remember walking down the long hallway that led to Laura’s room. I remember looking into Laura’s room and seeing what seemed like a wall covered in machines and blinking lights. I remember how small Laura looked in the big white bed and how the room seemed really dark. I also remember feeling scared. Most of all, I remember how angry Laura was. I remember her asking what was wrong with me and then realising that I was crying. I remember her telling me to leave and doing so. I remember my mom telling me it was okay and that Laura didn’t really mean that. Looking back, I understand why Laura felt that way. If I was her, I wouldn’t have wanted to deal with my cry baby little sister making everything about her either. Why should she have to make me feel better on top of everything she was dealing with? Logically, I know that we were both kids and just dealing with this absurd, unfair situation as best we could. But still, every time I remember that day, I am filled with shame for not having done the “right thing”. Whatever that elusive, unknown thing was that I could have done to make Laura feel better instead of worse.
I was kept in the dark most of that summer. Not intentionally, I don’t think. I think my parents were just too busy to look after the needs of the kid who wasn’t hospitalized with a life-threatening condition. Because I wasn’t privy to Laura’s day-to-day struggles, for me, it felt like one day Laura was sick and the next she was getting a new heart and coming home. If you had told me Laura was in the hospital for two weeks instead of five months, I would have believed you. Most of my memories are from after Laura for home.
Laura coming home felt somehow both momentous and ordinary. Of course, Laura was going to come home. There was never any question in my mind about that. It didn’t even occur to my 11-year-old brain that there was another possible outcome. Because Laura coming home seemed so normal, it never occurred to me that things would be different than before. No one told me that Laura would still be healing when she came home, and no one told me that I should treat her differently. I remember the first time Laura and I got into a fight. I kicked her in the stomach (not an unusual response when things got particularly heated.) Moments later, my dad came upstairs picked me up and screamed at me. At that moment, I knew he hated me for what I did. I had never, and have not since, seen my dad so angry. I remember him screeching through clenched teeth that I could have split open Laura’s stitches. That’s when I found out that Laura had stitches in her stomach.
I don’t remember when I realised that I no longer understood how to behave in my own family. I think I always expected that at some point things would go back to the way they were before, only to eventually realise they never would. Everything was askew once Laura got home. We weren’t a normal family. This wasn’t anyone’s fault, not my parents’ and certainly not Laura’s. It suddenly felt like we were living with a black hole in the middle of our lives that sucked everything towards it, but which we never talked about or even acknowledged. The feeling of unease I had lived with for five months was soon back. My family and my home were suddenly unfamiliar and strange. I was right back to live in an environment where I didn’t understand the rules of the game. Except for this time, the stakes were so much higher.
Sometimes our family felt like a broken bone that wasn’t set quite right – we were together, but not quite as solid as we could be. I remember not knowing how to “be” a family anymore. Whatever family traditions existed before were pushed aside for the new family practice: worrying about Laura. Suddenly just existing together was hard. Laura and I never got to be normal siblings. Once she was home, it felt like there was this wall between us. I was the kid who got to run around and do whatever I wanted, scar-free (physically at least). Meanwhile, Laura had to heal while trying to catch up to a world that hadn’t waited for her while she was in the hospital. She started school months after the rest of her class. She became the “miracle” kid who just wanted to be normal. People always thought they should “help” Laura which often really meant holding her back to ensure she was safe. I can’t imagine what that would feel like. I think I might have exploded. But… In a different, shameful, unspeakable way, it was hard being the “normal” kid too. I was the kid whose problems never really seemed big enough. How can you complain about anything when your sister spent five months fighting to stay alive? How can you ask for help when you don’t need it as much? How can you relax and live your own life when it feels like you’re slapping someone else in the face with how easily life treats you?
I know none of us will ever truly be free from this insane, unimaginable, unnameable thing that happened. It has honestly shaped my life and who I am more than I care to admit. It had profound effects on our family. It took a lot from us. While other families were making happy memories, we were just trying not to fall apart. We were weighed down by worry and stress. We fought. A lot. We drifted apart. We stopped trying to understand one another. Being together as a family no longer felt like sinking into a familiar old chair; it felt more like sitting on a pin cushion waiting to get pricked.
I think, though, over time, my family clawed its way towards normalcy. Being together isn’t as uncomfortable and stressful as it was. We don’t walk on eggshells (as much). We know how to talk to one another (most of the time). We are finally reaching a point where we can just be a family again. When I think about what changed and allowed us to heal, I know that it’s Laura. Against all odds, Laura survived and carved herself a place in this world. I think watching Laura live and dream and succeed has also allowed us all to relax a bit. No matter what happens, I know that Laura’s going to be okay. It’s now safe to focus on something other than just surviving. We can finally go back to thinking about what kind of pizza we want for dinner instead of what Laura’s future holds. I know that we still have some work to do as a family. But I don’t worry about Laura anymore. I know now that I never needed to.