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In Search of Everything This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.


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She died young.

In September of my senior year, I began working on a family history project for Studio Art class. Digging though family photos, I unearthed one that immediately caught my attention. It showed a young woman in a sepia-toned, formal pose, her head in her hand, pale eyes staring into the camera. The caption read simply, “Nora: age 20.” She was my great-grandmother's sister.

What caught my eye and resonated with me was the fact that she looked like me. Showing my parents, they agreed. Suddenly a piece of my puzzle clicked into place. While my eyes resemble my father's, and my nose is from my mother, the origins of the rest of my features seemed unknown. Now I see. I wished the photo were in color; perhaps my blue eyes had come from this ancestor too.

I continued sorting pictures, but as I worked, Nora's face stayed in my mind along with some questions. I knew from my grandmother that Nora had died during the influenza epidemic of 1918, at the age of 20 – the year the photo was taken. “She died in my mother's arms,” said my grandma when I asked her. “So very young. The tragedy of my grandmother's life.”

I brought the photo to school for my project, and my art teacher acknowledged what I'd felt: “This picture is haunting.” And Nora continues to haunt me.

When I was a sophomore, my aunt and cousin died in a car accident. I spent months in a daze, my grief only compounded by the realization of my own mortality. Writing became the preoccupation that saved me, helped me deal with the aftermath and regain my identity and ability to function.

Growing up in a law-enforcement family, I've always been aware of the possibility of loss. There was a constant, subconscious fear that someday my father might not come home, that his coffin would be saluted by the honor guard, his requiem played on wailing bagpipes.

I try not to think about these things; death is inevitable, but dwelling on what could happen doesn't help. My cousin's death was a blow to my conviction that if I didn't live forever, it would at least be a very long time. It's the province of teenagers to believe we are immortal; Tara was only 19. Her passing – such a polite, vague term for something so awful – made me realize that someday, maybe tomorrow, my time would come too.

My English literature teacher said, “You don't learn lessons from death. You just learn to pay closer attention to life.” I know now that I have to take chances, risk everything for happiness, because regret is something I refuse to carry with me. I try to live intensely, to find meaning in everything I do and that life offers me. Before my motto was the same as Scarlett's from “Gone With the Wind”: “I'll think about it tomorrow.” Now “Carpe vita” (Seize life) is my new mantra, and I try to live it.

Tara's death caused me to confront mortality, Nora's picture forced me to consider eternity. I wonder if 90 years from now, the traces of my life will be reduced to a faded photo and the words “She died young.” If I do indeed die young, I do not want my death to be my defining detail. I want to leave behind a greater sense of myself, to have perhaps made a difference, even for just one person. I want to have made as many choices and experienced enough for several lifetimes.

Nora's face still appears in my mind once in a while, and now I take it as a reminder of what I'm seeking. I once read in a book that “Education is an adventurous quest for the meaning of life.” That continues to be the best definition I've found. I hope to have an education that meets that definition, one that will help me on my journey, my discovery of life. One that will not only help me learn who I am now but who I'll become. I hope to go to college.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.




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momo said...
Nov. 24, 2009 at 4:47 pm
Lovely, tragic tale written beautifully.
 
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