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I'll begin at the beginning. I was born to family who were overjoyed at my arrival. Deeply in love, my parents were a biracial couplemy father, Blair, was black, and my mother, Amy, white. My parents dated for eight years before they were married, and by that time, my mother's large, Catholic family had accepted my father as a surrogate brother and son. My parents worked well together, both as lovers and as business partners. In the years before I was born, my parents ran a comedy club in downtown Cincinnati called Aunt Maudie's.
I was conceived shortly after the tragic death of my Aunt Kim in a car accident; a joy to balance a sorrow. My father filmed my mother's cesarean section and my subsequent birth. As my tiny, slippery self emerged from my mother, all he could say, with the utmost reverence, was, 'Oh, my God.' The first time my mother held me, she wept quietly. In watching the tape today, I can almost feel what she must have felt at that moment: relief, exhaustion, joy, awe, gratitude, and overwhelming love.
After my birth, we moved to a growing suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio, called West Chester and built a red, brick house to live in. I remember exploring our budding home as it slowly emerged from the ground up, my parents planting a small garden in the front, selecting paint chips and carpet samples. Ours was one of the first homes in the area.
Though my mother initially continued her work as a secretary during my early childhood, she soon decided to stay home with me, as, back then, my father spent much of his time on the road, staying in various cities as he pursued his career in stand-up comedy and music. Though she missed having him at home, my mother supported my father's endeavors, recognizing his talent.
The first few years of my life went smoothly and safely. But things started to change by the time I reached kindergarten.
When I was five years old, my mother was diagnosed with an acute form of leukemia, a cancer of the blood. Before my young eyes, the life was drained from my once vivacious and lovely mother, her face becoming pale and gaunt, her ebony hair thinning before giving way to baldness. By the time I started first grade, my mother was hospital-bound. By October of 1998, she was gone. My father was out of town when she died but asked my relatives who were staying with me to wait to tell me so he could break the news. As soon as he arrived home, he led me outside to the front porch of our house, and we gazed up at the velvety night sky, which was studded with stars that shone like diamonds. Deep in my heart, I knew what was coming.
'See that big, bright star up there?' my father asked gently, kneeling so he was beside me. I nodded.
My worry confirmed, I clung to my father, beginning to cry. Though, in some ways, I'd known that my mother wasn't going to make it, I was still devastated that one of the most important people in my small world was gone.
A few days later, as I sat among my first-grade classmates and listened to my teacher explain my family's tragedy in words and concepts we could understand, I began to feel my life would always be different from those of my classmatesnot necessarily less happy or functional, but definitely unconventional.
The years that followed confirmed my suspicions. Despite being a fairly happy and conventional family following the dark period of grief after my mother's death, there were still subtle nuances that distinguished me and my father from others in our community. The chief difference lay in my father's occupation. My father had transcended the realm of dingy clubs and hotels and begun to perform on cruise ships. He deeply enjoyed what he did and was quite successful at it. His work, however, made it necessary for him to leave me, his only child, roughly two weeks out of every month so he could perform at sea. This fact certainly didn't fit the mold of a typical suburban childhood. Unlike my friends, I didn't always have a welcoming parent to walk home to, a supportive face in the audience of a concert or recital, or a ride home from the bus stop in the rain.
Even so, I had a fairly happy childhood and learned to adjust to my circumstances. While my father was away, I stayed with our neighbors, the Rouses, whose daughter, Holly, was only a year older than me. Because we were next-door neighbors, I was never far from my own home. By the end of my thirteenth year, I had established a reasonably simple rhythm to my life: dad gone, dad home, the Rouse's house, my own. But a week before my fourteenth birthday, my life was drastically uprooted.
In my relatively short time on earth, I have learned that life, among many other things, is fully capable of taking detours from the path we envision for ourselves. These detours can be pleasant or traumatic, minor or deeply alteringbut we all experience them, and we all must learn to deal with them.
In my life, the detours took the form of the premature death of my parents. These circumstances have simultaneously been the most difficult and life-changing ones I've had to deal with. The early losses of my parents feverously spurred me on to a path of change, healing, and a deeper understanding of myself. Though the grief at my parents' deathsmy father's in particularseemed insurmountable at times, it also initiated my quest of discovering who I truly am.
The day my life was altered irrevocably was an unsuspecting cold and gray January day. At school, I coasted thoughtlessly through my biology, language arts, and pre-algebra classes, distracted by thoughts of the weekend and my father coming home from his latest tripa trip on which he'd brought his girlfriend, Monique, along. My only cause for concern was my failure to reach my dad earlier that morning, since he had told me the previous night I would be able to call him before I headed to school.
However, by the end of the day, I was no longer worrying as I walked up the hill from my bus stop with the boy who lived down the street. We laughed, talking about nothing in particular. When we reached the top of the hill, he parted from me, and I said good-bye. As I turned toward my house, I registered the two cars in my driveway: my Aunt Chris's green one and my grandparents' gold one.
©2009. Chelsey Shannon. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Chelsey. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442