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The Art of Staying Strong

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Louisa travels back to America after a year of studying art in her home country of Italy. She returns unsuccessful. She is unable to make a living for herself. So she settles down with Frank Vinciguerra, an air force man who was drafted before he could live out his dream of being a clarinetist. Together they have three boys. They raise them so they know that the only way to be successful in life is the study hard and to never try to be an artist.
Virginia Beach 1994 you are born with an extremely high fever and rushed to the emergency room. Struggle, as Dad holds you down and doctors shove needles through your skull.
Once mom has been stitched up, go home to the boat that has been named by the proud new parents. Mom and Dad take you out sailing so that you will fall asleep to the soothing sound of the wind on the water. Cry when you are taken from your sanctuary.
Visit Nonno and Nonna in Old Saybrook. They fawn over you and give you anything you want. Cry when Mom and Dad leave you to go out to dinner. Spend hours hammering nails into a piece of wood, Nonna says you will grow up to build houses. When Mom and Dad get home cry because you are so happy to see them. Cry when you leave Old Saybrook.
A baby sister arrives. Get jealous of the attention given to Cesca. Every Thursday night you, Mom and Cesca watch Dad race the boat as you eat McDonalds and try to keep the ants away. At home, look at the shelf with all of Dad’s trophies. He reads you stories of pirates and the sea. Stare in wonder as he shows you the rocks and magnets in his "science box." He laughs and giggles with you. Find it funny how red his face gets and how bad his breath smells, like the drink in his glass.
Dad gets a new job. He travels a lot. Look at your five year old self in the mirror and cry because you are afraid of your reflection. When Dad gets home, sit alone in his truck and eat a whole bag of honey mustard onion pretzels he left. They will forever be your favorite.
Mom and Dad decide it's time to move to Old Saybrook. Most of your favorite things are lost and some remain unpacked for ten years. Live with Nonno and Nonna while your new house is still being built. Hide under the covers of your bed because you are afraid of the dark corners in the room. Making friends at school is hard. Mom gets concerned and asks if you want to invite any one to have a play date. You just shake your head. At school, cry because you miss Virginia.
Listen quietly in bed as you hear the loud music from the party guests down stairs. You hear shouting and bad singing. Mom and Dad both have had too much to drink. This becomes a habit.
One day a boy walks over to your favorite dirt pile and starts to dig with you. Soon he moves in next door. You play with him and the other kids in the neighborhood everyday. They are your new family.
At school the teachers ask you a lot of questions. Get put in special reading classes and have many psychiatric analyses done. In third grade you are diagnosed with ADD. Homework is a battle from the beginning. Sit at the kitchen counter night after night and listen as kids come to the door asking for you to come outside. Cry when Mom says no.
Spend every summer sailing all around Long Island. Start to follow in your Dad’s footsteps and become a racer. The water is the one place where you feel at home but it scares you. Race anyway and pray that you never have to face what may lie beneath the surface.
In sixth grade, start to find your voice. Start to make some friends. Mom and Dad make strict expectations for you. When you visit Nonno and Nonna they always love to hear you sing for them or dance or act out small skits. Nonno gives you his old clarinet and you realize that music is a way for you to express your feelings. In seventh grade, fall in love with reading.
Start to lose your sense of reality. Refuse to take you medicine because it keeps you from your fantasy world. Start to stay up really late reading. When Dad comes in to take your book away, cling to it. Dad yanks you out of bed and drags you down the hallway as you kick and scream. He hits you over the head until you don’t have the strength to fight back. He leaves you in the hallway sobbing. Mom yells at you to shut up. Cesca sits in bed and plugs her ears.
Make several attempts at running away. After school, walk to Nonno and Nonna's house instead of going home. Sing as Nonna plays the piano. Show Nonno how good at the clarinet you are. Listen as he tells stories about his time in the Air Force and giving up his dream. You play in band and practice every day. At night Dad yells at you for playing.
During thunderstorms, lie in bed with Cesca singing the Sound of Music. Talk together about everything. Do everything together. She becomes your best friend.
Summer is still your favorite time of year. You and Cesca swim and collect shells along the beach. At night, watch the stars as Dad tells stories about each one. Find yourself lying in bed many nights questioning the world and questioning yourself. The idea of growing up scares you. Try to figure yourself out.
High school is great, you gain even more friends but the work load is crazy. Field hockey practice right after school. Then straight to play rehearsals. Then you go home to practice clarinet and maybe do some homework. Dad hits you on the head when you’re not studying. Break under the stress. Cry a lot.
Refuse to return to reality. Mom sends you to counseling because she thinks you are wasting your life. Hang on the edge of depression and insanity. Lock yourself in your room with your books and computer. Watch your grades spiral down as you lose motivation.
Summer comes and you are living on the water again. The salt air is addictive. Start to get a feel for wind patterns. Dad helps to teach you techniques for starting races. But as the summer comes to a close your greatest fear becomes a reality. Twenty knots of wind and five foot seas. You go and race anyway. One wrong gust and the boat is over. Your body is plunged into the freezing dark water. Salt clogs your lungs and you panic. You scream, not for help but just scream. You watch your boat drift away and you are even more frightened. You imagine sharks or sea monsters eating at your legs. You start to cry. Your race coach comes to pull you out of the water and you cry on his shoulder. Your season is over. Dad is disappointed. You lost.
Sophomore year begins, try to turn over a new leaf but instead you get swept into a great big leaf pile. Get a text message saying your two best friends broke up. Jump in the car and rush to her house. Run through the door shouting her name. It is Sunday, her parents are at church. You hear sobbing but you can’t find where it is coming from. Your body freezes as you hear the screams. She is lying wet and naked on the bathroom floor. The mirror is still steamed from the hot shower. Red blood covers the floor. It flows from her arms. The smell is over powering. Stand in the door way shocked holding back tears. You have to be strong for her. Slowly move in and pick up the blood covered tools and put them out of reach. She whimpers as you wash the cuts and apply at least 20 band-aids. Pray that you are strong enough to hold her together.
Spend half of your time worrying about her, the other half worrying about the fall season. School, field hockey, and now you are the costume designer for the play. The stress sets in and you have stomach aches daily. You get irritated at everything and the smallest things make you cry. You eat more than normal. The weight gain is visible. Your parents complain about it. Mom doesn’t want you to develop diabetes like her brother. Dad just calls you fat. Cesca grows taller than you as you stare at your short and stout reflection. But at school you smile. Don’t let anyone in. Don’t let them know how weak you are. You want to be strong. Save the tears for your pillow.
The band room is the one place you feel safe. You still play the plastic clarinet from Nonno. Play it every day. You want to do this for the rest of your life. But Dad won’t let you. Nonna won’t let you. You need to go into a science field. But your grades are slipping. You have your heart set on music. Dad cries when he is drunk. He tells you that he wants you to be happy and to have a good job and a good life. He begs you to try harder. Mom tells you not to make the same mistakes she did. Cesca doesn’t understand why you waste so much time. You look for your lost motivation but it’s so hard to find. You decide to start from scratch. Every day gets a little easier. You work hard to get your work done. You still refuse to take your medicine. ADD is something you can fight alone.
Time slips away from you and its junior year. There are not enough hours in the day to do everything, but you try. You are still as busy as ever. Jazz band, school, field hockey, costume manager, Girl Scout Gold Award, and then homework. It’s hard to get out of bed in the morning. Desperately look for help but you don’t want to burden your friends. Fight like you always have. Until you break and fall to pieces. Shove your problems away and pretend that they will go away. You have no time for feelings. Crying makes you look weak. Take it one day at a time. Practice clarinet more than ever because the music business is so competitive. Begin to look for back up plans, but those plans require time as well. Time that you don’t have. Time that you feel that you will never have. Begin to fully understand the expression “living for the weekend.” Make plans instead of falling victim to ADD. Love your bed but use it for homework, not for sleeping. Try to set up your future every day and hope that in the end you will finally be able to breathe.





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