BY GABRIELA PALAZUELOS
My curly hair never stood a chance against my straightener. The morning of September 10th was no different. I sat in the chair of my vanity that my dad had put together for me, getting ready for my long day at school. He strolled in, bubbly and smiling, and asked what I wanted for breakfast, and my response was always the same, “chocolate chip pancakes, extra chocolate chips.” Hesitant because of how late it was, he said he would make them as fast as he could and no surprise, he did. The best chocolate chip pancakes he had ever made, and let me tell you, he made the best pancakes. My mom decided to go in a little later than usual and everyone was smiling and laughing, except for my older sister who was going through her angry teenage phase. I ate so many pancakes my dad told me that I was going to turn into one. My father, being my primary care giver, always brought us to school in his big, red Ford Expedition- man, I miss that car. As always I raced my sisters to the shotgun seat, and luckily, today I got it. We all drove to school listening to to our favorite country station, Country 102.5. Only my second week of high school, I was still nervous every- day walking in. My older sister and I hopped out of the car, and my dad quietly called us back, which was not too uncommon. He hugged me tight, tighter than usual. When I was young- er I did not have a lot of friends, this left me more time with my dad, he was my best friend. I hugged him back and told him how much I loved him.
The living room was filled with screams, but from what I can remember all I felt was silence. I fell to the floor. Only being fourteen, I had never experienced personal tragedy like this. I already knew it, no one had to tell me. I knew my dad had died. You see, when you are sleep- ing and your cell phone rings on the loudest tone on your shoulder, you wake up. It was my mom calling him, she had missed his call earlier in the day and was calling him back, a call she still regrets missing to this day. When you are shaking someone so violently, they wake up. They always wake up. Why was he not? Why were my father’s eyes not opening?
In a weird way, I knew something was wrong before I was even home. I remember sitting in my history class and suddenly getting an anx- ious pit in my stomach. I pulled out my phone to text my dad, but decided it was nothing. I blamed it on nerves. after all, tomorrow was September 11th and the entire school had been talking about the national tragedy all day in every class.
“Are you sure your foot is all the way on the gas mi amor” my dad tried to say calmly, even though I could hear the fear in his voice.
“YES! Yes, it is daddy, what do I do?” I asked frantically
“Okay, do not freak out... put it in park and keep your foot on the break, I’m coming to the driver side door.”
When I was in fourth grade, my dad and I took a weekend trip out to Western Massachusetts to go hiking, something we both loved to do. We spent the entire day in the mountains walking around the woods trying to spot deer and other wildlife. My dad, always bringing the most delicious snacks, prepared us the best picnic. His homemade soup he kept warm in a ther- mos, with cheese and crackers, and other small finger foods. It was almost spring but there was still snow on the ground. The air was cold, but crisp and I can remember breathing felt so refreshing. Each inhale was so clean and fresh for my lungs, as if this small part of the world had never been affected by fossil fuels or harsh chemicals. We drove his Ford Expedition, and although I was only about ten at the time, he let me practice driving. He was awesome like that, always so fun and had such a free spirit, so carefree- qualities I always strive to obtain. As expected, I drove about five miles an hour, which felt so fast to me at the time. I then was faced with a choice, drive straight on a flat path, or turn and go further up the mountain. Look- ing back, it seems as though that was foreshad- owing my future. I could either take the safe, easy path, or I could push myself to try some- thing that was more challenging. When I looked to my father for his opinion on what to do, he told me that I had to pick and to choose which path felt right to me. I chose to go further up the mountain. Looking back, this was my first fault. While I was going up the icy incline, I made the mistake of stopping the acceleration of the car. This is when I felt all the stress in my body take over. We were stuck on a windy, steep, icy hill. Being only ten at the time I started freaking out because I had no clue what to do. My dad calmly made it out of the car and around to the driver side and to no surprise, saved the day. Proving himself to be my hero, yet again.
I sat still on the floor, crying, but no noises were coming out. My older sister and I both franti- cally calling 911. I was yelling at her, screaming actually. My parents sent in the phone bill a day late, and our house phone was shut off. I did not know that it still worked for emergency calls. Once I knew my sisters call had made it through to an operator, I hung up and surprisingly I composed myself in seconds. It is crazy how the human body reacts to shock. I went outside to find my little sister, who was about twelve at the time, shaking and crying on the side of our house. I had recently seen a story on the news where a boy’s father was pronounced dead for about ten minutes and, in a crazy miracle, came back to life. I somewhere found the hope to believe that was going to happen to us. This had to be a mistake. I told my little sister, he was just in a deep sleep, and after a trip to the hospital, he will be back home. 9
I turned around, I felt shaky, I felt dizzy. I saw the police officer pulling in my driveway, and I basically dragged him out of his car. He was moving so slowly, I felt like I was watching each one of his limbs taking its sweet time as he was getting out of his vehicle. He did not even have time to finish asking what was wrong before I was running inside to show him where my dad was. I was winded trying to explain to him how he was not waking up. When he was walking I was watching his face to see his reaction. I saw his expressionless face turn slightly concerned, not shocked, but I saw the tightest muscles on his face loosen, as if he knew too. He knew today was going to change everything for my family. My older sister who had been inside the entire time, was just standing there, trying to hold back tears. She had always been the strongest one, worried more about others than herself. But, I saw it in her face, the fear of the unknown, the fear of goodbye. The officer, un- fortunately I would never be able to remember his name, told me and my sister to wait outside as he called for backup.
At the time, my best friend was Bailey James, who coincidentally was also my neighbor. I grabbed my little sister’s hand, she had been waiting outside for my older sister and I. Drag- ging her behind me while I sprinted across the grass that separated our two houses, I ran up the three steps on Bailey’s porch and started banging on the door. All I could hear was the ambulance and police sirens coming down the street. I felt trapped in this bubble of loud noises and my own scary thoughts. The door finally opened, gasping for air and crying, they could barely understand what I was trying to say. Lauren was only a few feet behind us. They let us all in, and Bailey’s mother wiped the mas- cara that was streaming down my face off of me. When both Bailey’s mother and father were talking to Maria, I walked outside. All I could see were fire trucks, an ambulance, and many, many police cars. I fell to the ground. My body could not take it anymore, I could not pretend it was okay, and I knew my dad was not going to be okay. My knees just gave out, and I could not hold in my tears. Bailey and I lived in duplexes, not the same ones, but they were next to each other. Her neighbor ran over and hugged me, and I broke down in her arms. What fourteen- year-old has to experience this? What did I do to deserve this pain and fear?
Soccer was the first competitive sport I played. I loved it, and looking back, I am unsure if I actually had a true love for soccer, or if it was because my father and I bonded so heavily over the sport. I played for my town team, and my father would be at every game, every practice, always my number one fan, my only fan in fact. hen I got into high school I decided I would take up a new sport, volleyball. It was my favorite sport ever. It came so naturally to me. Although being shy and reserved towards the older girls, I did not let it stop me from proving my talent. I remember double session week was hell. Four days of six hour tryouts, my coach was a whack job. When the time came to find out what teams everyone made, mine was one of the first names to be called for varsity. Keep in mind, I had never played before and felt so honored to be a part of the varsity squad. I was overcome with joy and excitement, and I just wanted my coach to stop talking so I could call my dad. I called him immediately, and I can still hear the excitement in his voice, he kept saying how proud he was of me. Even though I could not see his face, my mom told me that when he was discussing it with her, he was smiling ear to ear, he was so proud of me. His excitement was equal to my own. This memory is one that I will always hold near and dear to my heart.
I missed my volleyball game this day and I missed most of them after that. Sports did not hold the same meaning to me without my dad. Kicking around a soccer ball, playing whiffle ball, or peppering a volleyball is hard to do alone, and it was never as fun without him. No one was as good or challenged me to be as good as my dad would. He always pushed me to be the best, but never in a crazy way, always in a fun way, a way that was always gentle, and he always had a secret life lesson. He gave the best advice.
I did not see my mom for a long time after I called to tell her what was happening. She was working in Lawrence that day. Luckily, her brother, a State Trooper, made a call which allowed her to drive as fast as she needed in the breakdown lane to make it home. Her co-work- ers would not let her drive, so one of her friends from work drove her all the way back to Belling- ham. Her only knowledge of the situation was from talking to me, and having me tell her he was not waking up. I had stepped outside to tell her this, so I would not scare my little sister. Although she tried to mask it, I could hear the fear in my Mom’s voice.
Most of my family came to town that night and came to Bailey’s house to see us. Well, all of my family in the area, which was all of my mom’s family. Finally, I was able to see my mom, after hours of wondering where she was. My mom is beautiful: tall and skinny, with fair skin, and blue eyes that would make the ocean ashamed to not be as blue. But when I saw her, her skin was ghostly and her eyes had lost their sparkle. Her countenance was a struggle of smiling and crying. She sat with us in the living room of the James’ household, and trailing behind her was a town police officer that I was very close with, Officer Goselin. He was the town’s most well known officer and the director of teaching D.A.R.E at our town’s middle school. He walked in slowly, sort of dragging his feet behind him as though he had weights around his ankles. With a long face, he told us that unfortunately they had tried everything, but there was nothing that they could do. My father had been dead for hours, but told us that it looked like he had died peacefully and in his sleep. I think he thought that would be comforting to hear. It was not. It did not change anything, not one thing at all. My dad was still dead, still gone forever. The dam that held my tears broke and poured out of my body like a river. For the first time all day, my mind was empty. I could not think about one thing, not a single thing. At this moment nothing mattered to me, I was lying there at rock bottom, and all of the rocks felt like glass, stabbing through my flesh and into my heart and lungs.
My dad was not the kind of person who liked to hear “no,” especially when he wanted you to try food. I am unsure why he was always so passionate about me trying every food under the sun. Even if he ate something disgusting, he wanted me to try it too! This is a trait that I know I have inherited and I frequently do to people. One weekend, my family and I rented a house in Maryland, just to get away for a couple of days. We picked this specific spot because my dad was convinced they would have the best crabs (he loved seafood.) I personally have nev- er been a huge seafood fan until very recently. Something about the slimy fish of the ocean made my legs shake and my stomach turn. I liked shrimp and fish sticks, but that was about it. We drove down, because my family loved road trips, and the first night we arrived my dad said we had to go to a crab shack, which we did. We ordered so many crabs, but my sisters and I still got chicken fingers just in case. At first, I was so excited to try crab meat because I had never eaten it before. Yet, when I had those beady little crab eyes staring at me, I just could not find the will to eat it. With no surprise, my dad started acting as if the crab could talk and continuously tried to get me to try it, and after 13 the millionth time of him saying “come on, it’s good, you’ll love it,” I gave in. Turns out I loved it, but that is usually how it works. In some weird way, your parents always know you best.
I have never had one Bellingham Police officer in my yard, never mind the entire police force and detectives digging through my house. Black dust covered everything for weeks. They searched every inch of my house for foul play but, no surprise, they did not find a single thing. They ruled his death natural. There was no blood, no drugs in his system, no alcohol, (which was not a surprise considering my father was not a huge drinker and never did drugs,, but one key part of the story that I failed to mention earlier was that the day my father died, he was cleaning his gun. He had told my mother weeks before his death that he was planning on selling this gun because he did not need it anymore. When we came home from school that day, his gun and the cleaning supplies for it were on the footrest by his feet. I never in my life would have imagined my dad being depressed. That is what amazes me about people dealing with mental illnesses such as depression because they can mask their pain so well. I learned that my father had shot himself in the stomach, and although the police ruled it as accidental during his au- topsy, I have never accepted that ruling.
I was first read by a medium when I was a soph- omore in high school. A communicant with the deceased is something many would be skeptical of including myself. I remember I was very ex- cited at the thought of messages from heaven, but who would come through and what would they say. My mother, who had already been to this lady one time prior, went to make sure that it in a time of hurt, we would not fall victim to a scam artist praying on our fragile emotions. She told us what had happened that day, she knew every detail as if she was sharing her own experience with us, she even knew things about my dad that would not be shared publicly. In this session she told us she did not see my father’s death as an accident, but as a choice.
The entire experience was life changing and in a weird way, I am grateful for it. It made me more appreciative for what I have and who I am. The journey was not always easy and being in high school with mean girls and drama at every turn did not make my recovery any easier, but I did not give up. I am who I am today, because of the struggles I faced yesterday, and I will be a better person tomorrow because of the struggles I faced today. I found the light in the dark and I chose to persevere.