Despite everything

April 28, 2011
You can never fully appreciate something, until you’ve lost it.
The anguish and fear in her eyes quieted for just a moment as she spoke. “Are you sure?” No, never even crossed my mind. I nodded slowly as my hands firmly clutched and twisted the plaid hoodie of my sweater. Then we were out the door, crying our eyes out when it was safe to, in the shelter of our car.
At that moment I couldn’t grasp what my aunt was saying. The only sounds I could make out were that of the roaring motor, and my mother gasping for air; I could hear her heavy, uneven breaths between my sobs. She was hyperventilating. I took hold of her hand and squeezed it as we prayed.
It was like a roller coaster—the way we’d hold hands and suck in deep breaths, ready for the fall. Except this time, there was no excitement, only fear and desperation.
By the time we got to the hospital, our mascara was running and we were suffering major migraines. We ran up to the red head behind the counter. “Where is he?” I demanded.
“Excuse me?”
My aunt cut in. “Daniel Pitaluga, is he here? We got a call.”
That call was everything. We were huddled around the computer, my cousins and I, laughing at everything and anything Youtube had listed under “Funny and Fat”, while our parents sat around the living room drinking coffee and laughing about our past birthdays.
“Ok, ok. My turn.” Sean took hold of the keyboard and began to type “C-A-T…” That’s when the phone rang. A man, a complete stranger, was calling from my brother’s phone.
“No, Uh...can I speak to an adult?” Alright, strange.
I answered slowly, “Uhh… Sure. One sec.” I walked into the crowded living room and called for my mother.
“ Mom! Mooom!”
The woman in a flowery, green blouse, standing by the sofa, turned. “Jessica, if you want to sleep over your cousins house that’s not up to me.”
“Ugh, No mom—the phone. There’s a man that wants to talk to you.”
Confound, she took hold of the phone.
After a few moments she said, “Shhh! I’m sorry what? Where?”
At that moment the world stopped.
I remember listening in on the conversation, as the room grew silent. The man had said, “Don’t worry; he’s not the one in the helicopter.”
He lied.
So here we were, waiting for what must have been only a few seconds but felt like an hour in front of the counter. “One moment please.” The red head turned and began to tap the dial. It sounded like Morse code. H-E-S-N-O-T- O-K. N-O-T…
She nodded. “Mhm. Mhm. Alright, thank you. She turned around. “The helicopter just landed.” HELICOPTER?! Right at that moment, was the surge of panic that shot up my spine—the surge that ceased to live inside my brother.
The chairs were itchy, cheap and stiff. It must have been 60 degrees inside the waiting room. I fidgeted and fought against anxiety as more visitors arrived. The room filled up with the people I love the most, and complete and utter strangers. Strangers, “Old Friends”, showed up, hovering over my mother—the one that couldn’t fight back the tears. When it came to be my turn, I ducked my head in between my knees and wept.
By 3 am he was diagnosed. “He had a spinal injury and could possibly be paralyzed forever—or temporarily, but we have to prepare for the worst.” That’s what the doctor said. After long hours of pointless pacing and crying and waiting, I went home. But not until his surgery was complete—some immediate freezing method they were convinced would prevent further damage. FURTHER DAMAGE.
I opened my bed room door, to find my cousins in my bed, awake, and anxious to hear the news. Forever is a long time. We cried.

I sprang up and threw the covers off my bed. Am I late? I turned over to the only source light illuminating from my bedroom. 4:48 am. Too early... just go back to bed. I lied on my back, and tried to steady my breathing—tossing, turning, fidgeting every ten minutes or so. It is so hard to sleep! What if I say the wrong things? What if they don’t like me? Ugh... how I wish I had better people skills! Two more hours.... I pressed my eye lids shut.

Sometimes the blind see better than the sighted.

My eye lids opened for a split second, darting at the clock. We’ve been doing this for 2 hours now! I heard footsteps nearing. Ugh, Barbie is coming. Shut.

Trying to keep your eyes closed when you know there are people around you can be the hardest thing. What a weird exercise. Here I was sitting no more than a foot away from my partner, face-to-face, with our eyes closed, trying to pass this test. Somehow this “exercise” would better our teaching skills.
“We should be collected, indifferent to the changing elements around us—if we want to successfully tutor these kids. Autistic, Attention Deficit—whatever the case—we must be mentally prepared.” That’s what the principal, Barbie, had told me on my first day of volunteering there. (We had to TRAIN to volunteer there. That’s ridiculous! But… I did it anyways.)

After days of exercises like this one, we were ready. And so it was, in the later weeks to come, that we would finally do some work—scratch that—we would finally have some fun.

“Who wants to play Pictionary?” The teacher sang. As teens busted about the small room forming two teams, they called over to us.
“Hey, we could use a few more players, wan ‘a play?”
We were caught off guard. Filing all day tends to do that to you. You know, bore you out of your mind? Yea…
My partner and I exchanged looks waiting for the o-k. We nodded and turned our attention back to the room. “cool.”
Maybe, I’ll never know what their “label” is. So what if they’re autistic or have ADD? I couldn’t tell, and it didn’t seem to make any difference. In fact, the friends I made that day are no better than the ones I have at school. We’re all the same. We’re all weird!

The time had finally come. Today’s the big day… Oh dear god, I hope this goes well.
“Camper’s coming!” Here comes another one.
As we gathered in the entry way of the parking lot, I felt a large hand fall on my shoulder. Looking down at the sidewalk I could already make guess who the large rounded shadow belonged to. Santy.
A good friend of mine—practically my brother—the man that got me into this in the first place—was behind me. Santiago. “Hey Jessie, this is your camper Jessica. So uh, be nice, and don’t forget to talk to the family too—they’re new. He patted my shoulder and disappeared into the crowd.
The white van was parked, and the doors opened as a lift carried her down. Jessica. I had no idea what to expect.
Dude, her wheel chair was huge! I mean, not to say that others weren’t—every case is different, but damn it was big! As she rolled onto the street we cupped our hands around our mouths and chanted, “VACC CAMP! WOOT! WOOT! VACC CAMP! WOOT! WOOT!”
I pushed through the crowd and made way. I cleared my throat. “Hi Jessica.”
We exchanged smiles.
So I gave her and her family the tour after our little awkward encounter. I showed them the cafeteria, the restrooms, all that good stuff. I even showed them to their bunks. Nice people. Friendly.
I’m glad this whole set-up worked out in the end. I worry too much.
“So Jess, what do you wan ‘a do first?”
Her arms were always kept above her waist, barley resting on her arm rests. Her hands were always pressed along her ribs. It was kind of monkey like, but more similar to that of a girl with attitude.She was sweet though, so I thought she just felt more conferrable sitting that way.
“Wan ‘a go shoot some hoops, the whole set up today is a carnival?”
She shook her head “No thanks.”
“Well if your hoping I’m going in the dunk tank just to make you happy… well…dang it I have to.”
She laughed and turned down the offer, although she did seemed entertained watching others get dunked. Later I learned her arms were stuck in that position. Well to clarify, not STUCK, but uh, stuck. I’m not really sure how to explain it.
She couldn’t do a lot of things. Her mom had to feed her and keep watch of her ventilator. She couldn’t walk, as far as I knew. She couldn’t do a lot of things—just because of that machine.
“People look at them funny, just because they’re different, but that doesn’t mean there any less human.” Santy taught me that.
It feels weird—I mean, this is Miami; I’m used to the rude stares, but this felt different.
I was pushing my brother through the mall in his wheel chair—I don’t mind. But I felt it, the stares. Not the usual “I’m a pervert checking you out kind” you sometimes got from middle aged creepers, but the “you’ve got something on your face” kind.
It stopped, eventually, I think—that or I stopped noticing it.
Danny has always been outgoing, friendly, all that. He’s a cool kid, and I’m not just saying that because he’s my big brother, he really is. Maybe that’s why everyone knows him, notices him. But then again, there is that—the whole “I’m wheel chair” thing. He’s come around too. It was really hard at first for everyone to accept what happened. Now a year later, here he was living the almost normal life. He can drive, he can move—well sort of. He can manage, despite everything.
He plays murder ball. It’s like rugby, but for wheel chairs. Now, I’m not going to lie: the team he’s on sucks, but it’s something. He competes in marathons too, only on a special kind of bike. He does a lot, despite everything and that’s what inspires people; it’s what inspires me.
Despite everything
Despite everything Jessica and I had a really great week. We were determined to do it all, and we did! We went bowling, we went to the beach, we partied, we sang, we did everything on the camp schedule and more. And those are the things I will never forget.
She inspired me. She gave me the push to do things I’d never do otherwise. I did everything possible to make her smile.
I sang Hannah Montana--HANNAH MONTANA--because she loves it (I suck at singing). I ran into freezing cold waters just to keep her company. I got up on a table and danced, just to make her laugh. I dedicated my entire spring break just to be with her. And if I had the choice, I’d do it all again, because despite it all, we did it: The things they say you can’t .The far-fetched impossible. The too complex to even attempt.
We did it, despite everything.

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