Chapter One: Diving In
All of the days sitting aimlessly in class, all of the hours spent cramming for tomorrow’s test, and all of the nights wondering when I would finally be able to break free of this jail have led me here: scrambling to gather up last minute things. Cap? Check. Shoes? On my feet. Tweety Bird necklace? Around my neck. Cologne? Oh no. Panic engulfs all of my senses as the emptiness edges slowly to the front of my heart, emptiness only he can fill.
Where is it? Where is that cologne? It’s the least I deserve. I can’t do this? A voice creeps into my head, “No, you can’t. Just stay home. Then you won’t be disappointment, you won’t be reminded of what’s obviously missing.” Oh God give me strength.
Searching for some form of courage, however fleeting, I hurry to the bathroom to try and compose myself. Clutching the closest thing to my heart … the last gift he ever gave me … I take a deep breath.
Feeling the gold chain between my finger tips, an eerie sense of comfort overcomes me like a hug from the grave. The jewelry’s smooth texture against my skin sends me back to another place, another time; the moment I received the gold chain resting next to my heart.
The thirteen year old version of me is jumping off the bus after a long day of middle school. As I walk down the driveway I see dad’s blue Chevy parked under the carport. Not an unusual thing, sometimes Dad got off work early. The weird part was that Mom was home too; Mom was never home early. So, I cautiously walk down the concrete drive and into the house bracing for the unknown. Once, in the kitchen, I see Mom sitting at the bar. She puts on a smile as the pitter patter of my feet step closer to her. Even a thirteen year old can tell life just threw her an unexpected twist. As I reach out for my after school hug, I hear the distant sound of water running and realize dad’s in the shower. Mom fetches me a snack and I sit at the bar to eat. That’s when I notice three bags sitting on the counter. And of course I assume the gifts are for us; three girls, three bags who wouldn’t jump to that conclusion. Mom sees that the presents catch my eye and warns me to wait for my little sister to get home from school. That’s an entire hour! You have got to be kidding me. I am never going to find out what is inside those bags.
The next sixty minutes of my life are raked with anxiety, curiosity, and disdain for having a sister still in elementary school. Samantha IS the reason I have to wait a lifetime for this. I pace back and forth in my tweety slippers as the clock slowly ticks away. Finally, I hear her bus arrive. Mom walks out to greet her baby girl, and I get the best seat in the house, eye level to my unopened prize.
Dad walks into the kitchen, and I sense the hour is near. He gets all of his girls to take their place at the bar. And then he says we need to open the gifts in birth order; everyone knows this is one of the best and worst things the oldest can hear: the best if it’s a moment like this where presents are involved, or the worst if we’re talking about bath time.
I rip into my gift like Christmas morning. Mom cautions me to be careful and dread fills my mind. Ugh, it’s something breakable. As I unlace the bow and tear through the delicate paper, I am left holding a black box. The box reminds me of a gift the Tooth Fairy once left me, a necklace for my tooth which I thought was a fair trade. My teeth were awesome.
So my faith in the gift was restored. The click of the velvet box revealed a tiny golden tweety bird. Glee filled my whole being and I flashed my gap-filled pearly whites at my father. What teenager wouldn’t want a tweety bird necklace to call hers? This is so much better than Christmas morning.
Each gift the Sorrells’ girls opened revealed a different golden necklace based on their individual personality. After everyone opens their present, mom gingerly locks the jewelry around my neck, and I rush to my father to give him the biggest bear hug my little body could muster. I left the kitchen that afternoon thinking no daddy ever loved his little girl as much as mine loved me.
The five year old memory pushes back the present day tears forming in the corner of my eyes. I release the necklace from my fingertips; it clinks next to my graduation gown settling on top of my heart, guarding me from tonight’s lingering pain. I take a deep breath. You can do this Roya. God has thrown you tougher curve balls than graduating from high school. You got this.
My pep talk may not have led a losing team to victory but it gave me the strength to get off the toilet seat and head out the front door to face an evening I was dreading for five years, my high school graduation without my father’s prideful, smiling face.
Sadly, the emotions stirred up from my bathroom pep talk only last five minutes in the real world, and I am force to call the one voice that can soothe any ache in my heart. “Mommie, hey are you almost to the church? Yeah …” My throat tightens at her answer and tears swell up in my eyes. Don’t give it away, Roya. Today is just as hard on her. “I can’t find his cologne Mom. I can’t do this without it” … him. That’s what I really wanted to tell her. But even I knew my words would be cruel. She’s suffered enough. Tonight’s pain I needed to carry alone.
Mom vowed to step in as my superwoman one more time and return home to find the comfort I so desperately searched for, so desperately needed. But, for now, I faced tonight solo with only three words providing me strength to take each new step, to embrace each new hug, and to flash each new smile: forever and eternity.
Forever and eternity became a way one little girl and her father expressed their undying love for each other. After I told him I loved him, Dad would ask without thinking, “How much?” And the answer was always the same, forever and eternity. The inception of our special catch phrase is unknown. But that doesn’t change the way it has soothed my soul in the dead of night when loneliness tends to call.
Holding tight to the idea of forever and eternity, that my Dad loved me beyond the grave, allows me to put on a happy face for the night I would say goodbye to high school and hello to the real world. To the outside world I was your typical graduating high school senior; an eighteen-year-old ready to dive in and take the world by storm. I mean, how could they think anything else? Flawlessly, I greet classmates with celebratory smiles and the catch phrase “We finally made it!” I pose for every group photo I could sneak into, and I made sure my relatives knew how much I appreciated their support.
But on the inside I am slowly falling apart, waging a war within myself, with the happy people that surround me. And just when I think this is the worst feeling in the world, I see her. How could I miss her? She’s merely the missing half of my soul reunited by our presence in the same room. She’s the bodyguard God saw fit to bless me with; she’s the one person I have known before my very first breath. She’s more than my sister. She’s apart of me; she’s my twin.
And even though her presence makes me whole, I am simultaneously filled with dread and despair. Because my better half and I aren’t speaking and the awkwardness and longing to be on better terms only multiples with every click of the family camera, one that is surely capturing the portrait of the “Happy Family.”
Between each camera flash, I steal glances of my twin Deshae, gazing into her eyes, her soul … my soul. Even with our feuding stares, she can‘t hide her feelings from me; we know each other too well, whether we like it or not; it’s a gift and a curse of twindom. Her greenish-yellow eyes reveal I’m not alone in this painful evening. She misses him too. Every bone, every muscle, and every fiber within me aches to reach out and embrace her. I wish I could take up her pain so at least one of us can enjoy the evening. But the emotions fade as quickly as they come when I catch a glimpse of the walking reason behind our bickering; it’s headed straight for us with a bull’s eye on my better half. Immediately, I search for the closest exit to avoid the human hurricane, wanting no part in a fight. Not tonight. I don’t have the energy.
As I graciously scoot out of the auditorium and into the lobby, I see a sign for the restrooms posted to my left. The thought crosses my mind to take cover from the storm by hiding in the bathroom. But then I get a sad premonition of me alone in a bathroom stall; the privacy knocks down my walls; I lose all control of my tear ducks and my knees buckle, leaving me lying on the bathroom floor in a puddle of tears caused by a pain no earthly remedy can heal. Maybe that’s not the best idea Roya.
Deciding against become a raging river of emotions, I travel without direction, walking aimlessly through the lobby trying to gather up my thoughts. But they just turn back to the loneliness his absence brings. Where is she? We are about to line up?
“Students, we are about to get in alphabetical order,” says one of the many teachers there celebrating the newest batch of seniors graduating. “So pay attention and remember where you are placed.”
She’s running out of time,” I think to myself as a teacher instructs me where to stand in the growing line of 200 plus students waiting to graduate. The lobby clock ticks away and I begin to lose faith that she will make it in time. Such a trivial thing to ask of mom, she’s going to miss me graduate too.”As I count down the minutes I see her out of the corner of my eye. She made it!
“You got it Mom? I didn’t think you would make it in time,” I told her. Mom rushes over to my side, nervously reaching into her purse for what most see as cologne. But to me, and possibly my mother, it was a piece of Dad God couldn’t take away with a heart attack; it was my saving grace for the evening. His cologne made me believe, however futile, that Dad was by my side celebrating this momentous occasion in his little girl’s life.
As mom spared his fragrance into the air and onto my wrist, a rush of memories came flooding back. I was carried away to a distant land where a young girl was on the receiving end of a father’s bear hug that not even death could erase.
The memory faded as quickly as it came; hoisting me back into the reality of present day: this fragrance on my skin is the closest thing to a bear hug I’ll get tonight. Pushing back the hurtful truth, I found my mother’s beautiful green eyes. They were battling an internal struggle of their own. In one eye, she was relishing the accomplishment of two of her daughters graduating high school. But struggling to hide her despair and anger in the other; she never pictured this day happening without him by her side either. I’m sure they talked about the day their girls would graduate. How proud they would be. What they would say to us as we dove into the next phase of our lives. And most importantly, I’m sure they mentioned what they would do with a daughter free home and all that extra time to themselves. Maybe see the world together. And it was in that thought I reached my arms around my mom to give her my version of a “dad bear hug.”
To this day, I’m not quite sure my mom realizes how much that perfume meant to me. It was the supporting piece that kept me falling apart before the ceremony. That small fragrance gave me courage to face graduation without my namesake.
After hugging, mom went to grab her seat with our family leaving me to slowly inch forward to my future, life after graduation. Students waiting in line began filing into the auditorium revealing the long aisle awaiting my footsteps. Needing some extra courage, I take a whiff of dad’s cologne. You see I chose fashion over comfort when picking my shoes for the evening, a decision I was regretting as I looked at the long road ahead of me. God, please help me down this aisle and into my seat without falling. It’s the LEAST you owe me after every curve ball you have thrown at me in this game called my life. Hell, if you hadn’t messed up in the first place, I could wear any designer shoe right now and make it safely down this path without worry.
“Go, Roya, you’re up,” says an unknown voice jolting me out of “what if land.” Just put one foot in front of the other and you’ll make it, I mutter to myself. Each step carries agonizing pain as I slowly inch towards my seat looking more like an ugly duckling than the swan princess. Once in my seat, my fellow classmates jeer with excitement as the hour approaches and I secretly applaud myself for walking down the auditorium without incident.
Once settled into my seat, I listen to the seven valedictorian speeches and watch countless students take the stage to receive their scholarships. Soon, the principal calls me to the stage to get my own scholarship. “Roya Sorrells. She has earned the Wal-Mart and Poppa John’s scholarship for her triumphs over adversity,” said Principal Long. “Roya come get your scholarship.”
I scooted through the pews trying to avoid my classmates’ toes as I make my way to the aisle. I walk towards the foot of the stage hoping everyone remembered their next move. Earlier in the morning, the graduating class converged on the church to practice the upcoming ceremony. Most of the seniors were at rehearsal to find out their place in line. Not me, I came to map out how I would receive my high school diploma. And I couldn’t do it without some extra hands helping me up the stage’s steep steps.
Gazing at those black church steps now, I realized I was tired of life’s road blocks, tired of trying to overcome something other people didn’t think twice about. They are JUST steps. This is so unfair. I can’t have one moment where I’m not worried about falling or looking like a monster to some stranger who should really keep their stares to themselves; I’m so sorry we aren’t all perfect. Maybe you should have a chat with God about that because my conversations have hit a … my soap box is interrupted by a helping hand that guides me onto the stage and into the spotlight. Just breathe.
One, two, three. Do not fall, do not fall. Man, I wonder how many people are staring at me. I would be.
I gaze at the floor, watching each step inch me closer to my destination. As my feet move my body forward, I have a second to think about the shoes on my feet, my nothing special black flats that I bought from the kid’s section. They weren’t my first pick or second; the pair wasn’t even a choice. They were a necessity; footwear that fit my oddly shaped feet and didn’t fall off as I walked.
While I strut in my plain Jane flats, the rest of my female friends flaunt their Carrie Bradshaw heels. Some sparkle in the gradation lights. Others catapult friends to new heights and all were breath taking except mine. I hate shoe shopping. It’s just another reminder of how different I am from everyone else. I shouldn’t have to wait til’ heaven to dance around in gorgeous shoes. Why me? It’s just not fair.
The inner pity party over my sty-less shoes allows me to lose focus on my ultimate goal, getting off stage without incident. As I walk and argue across the stage, my cap falls off my head. In the moment, I shake it off. I don’t panic when I turn around to pick up the hat. But a truckload of embarrassment engulfs me when I step off the stage to hundreds of eyes staring back at me. I bet they feel sorry for me. A voice inside my head answers my rhetorical question. “You know it. I mean look at you. Who wouldn’t feel bad after looking at you?”
A lump of emotions gather at the back of my throat as I rush off the stage and find cover in the sea of graduating seniors. Sensing the oncoming tears several of my classmates offer up comforting words of advice. One decides to lead with, “It can’t get any worse when you go back up to get your diploma.” Go back up? That’s right I have to do it all over again. Face the hundreds of stares that watched my epic fail. I bet they are just itching to see what that “poor girl” will do next.
The graduation ceremony moves along like the road runner after my debacle on stage. And before I know it a staff member waves my pew stand to while the principal calls us on stage. My first instinct is to take flight and zip out of line. But camouflage is not on my side and finding the missing graduate in a sea of prideful relatives and friends would have nothing on Waldo. So, I stay put and wait to hear my name.
Needing extra strength, I raise my wrist and inhale his tantalizing perfume. “Roya Ashton Sorrells,” calls out Principal Long. A gush of pride screams from the back of the church; it’s none other than my redneck family reminding me I am not alone. The congratulatory cries warm my heart, and I tackle the steps with confidence, unfazed by the once crippling journey. I enter the spotlight unaware of the glowing lights and eyes. Grabbing my diploma, I turn and pose for a picture with my principal and then descend the stairs.
Needless to say, it was all over before it began. Thirteen years of hard worked boiled down to fifteen seconds of glory. All that was left of my high school career was to walk past my cheering family as a new graduate, exit the auditorium doors, and party the night away.
For the first time since the start of the night, I felt like a normal graduating senior who was bursting with joy over a simple piece of paper. No longer did I carry the weight of grief or pain. I was free. I had conquered my Goliath, and I was ready to celebrate. There’s just one thing I forgot, keeping your pain at bay is easy when you’re sober.
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