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Making My Own Way
I love my family, but I have to do what’s best for me
Anonymous
headshot

Names have been changed.

When I was growing up, there was nothing in the world that could divide my family. Two of my sisters and I, in particular, were very close.

I have one brother, Jason, and three sisters: Vera, Jessica, and Maya. Jessica is just one year older than me and Maya is two years younger than me. We three sisters shared everything: clothes, money, food, and even secrets. We knew everything about one another and we loved to be together.

When I was 13, my mother gave custody of me to my aunt so that I could attend a better junior high school, but I planned to be back living with my family when I entered high school the following year. But during 8th grade, the backbone of my family collapsed. Our mother died. No one saw it coming. Nothing would ever be the same.

Not only did our mom’s death change each of us, it changed our family relationship. I’ve always been the type of person who could bounce back in difficult and sad situations. When my mom died, I didn’t cry much. I didn’t let it interfere with what I had to do. I was hurt, but I kept telling myself that my mom was looking down on me and she wanted me to succeed in life. It was my motivation to be more independent and a harder worker.

But our mom’s death affected my sisters in a very different way. Instead of using the tragedy as motivation to do for themselves, they saw no one in their lives to supervise and guide them. They went wild.

Pushed Aside

After my mom’s death, I stayed with my aunt and my older sister Vera took responsibility for my other siblings. She felt an obligation since she was the oldest, 21, and if she didn’t take them in they wouldn’t have anywhere to go.

Not long after I moved, I began to experience tension between my sisters and me. They seemed angry that I no longer lived with them. In spite of the difficult circumstances we all found ourselves in, they blamed me. One weekend when I went to see my family, Maya asked, “Why don’t you want to live with us anymore?” I could tell everyone was waiting for me to respond. They were all looking at me and I felt so pressured.

Soon after that, my whole family began to say similar things. Even Jason, who I thought understood my situation, spoke up. “What do they do for you that we can’t? Why don’t you just come back here?” I sat at the window, cornered and alone. I wanted the conversation to end because it made me feel so uncomfortable.

There had never been an opportunity for my family to get together and grieve over the death of our mom. We all just silently dealt with it. We acknowledged the fact that it was a very unfortunate event, but then everyone just seemed to go in separate directions. Now I felt my family was pushing me aside.

Keeping the Peace

I did not want my family members to become my enemies, so I felt I had to stay as neutral as possible. I felt stuck. I thought about how our family used to be so close and happy together. Now it seemed as if we could never go back to that.

It was a hard position for me. I felt I had to live with my aunt because my siblings hated me. I felt I had to try harder to make them love me. Maya and Jessica seemed to think I was a traitor, so I had to say things they would agree with and that didn’t make me stand out. I had to have the same “f-ck it” attitude that my sisters had, as if I didn’t care about my future or what people had to say. I had to convince them I was still a part of the family and not an outsider.

Plus, I didn’t want to be another responsibility on Vera. She had a child of her own and was overwhelmed caring for Maya and Jessica, who had become out of control since our mom died.

Then my aunt got into selling drugs and our home got raided. That’s when my life in foster care began. It had been a year since my mom died and I was only 14 years old. At first I was going to move in with Vera, but when I told her, she didn’t seem so enthused. I wanted badly to live with my siblings, but again I knew it was too much of a responsibility on Vera.

The truth is, part of me also did not want to live in a negative environment like Vera’s house in the city. The only other option was to move to Puerto Rico with my paternal grandmother, and deep down, I felt I wouldn’t be as successful if I lived with Vera as I would be if I lived with my grandmother. I never told anyone that. I missed my sisters all the time, but I knew living with my siblings in New York City wouldn’t be right for me.

We Became Different People

But in Puerto Rico, I was miserable. It was hot and boring. I felt alone in a foreign place, separated from everyone I knew best. I hated living with my grandmother. She never spoke to me and I was always alone in my room. It was especially bad for the four months before I started going to school.

I wanted to see my family. I wanted to hang out with my siblings because they were the only ones who understood my feelings, thoughts, jokes—and me! I looked at our family photos countless times. I had lost what I knew.

There were many times I cried and spent the whole night talking on the phone with my sisters. They always wondered when I was going to visit and got upset when I said that I didn’t know when. But our relationships would never go back to the way they were before our mom died. Since the day she died we had become different people.

I finally got enrolled in school, and that helped me forget about any negativity that my family might have felt towards me. I was able to stay focused on school, adapt to a new culture, and develop new and positive perceptions. I didn’t have a lot of time to think about negative things.

Hiding Myself From Family

Christmas finally came and it was time to get on the plane back to New York City. When the plane landed my stomach began to flutter uncontrollably. I just couldn’t wait to see them! I was so anxious and excited. I stood waiting at the airport and after an hour I saw two of my sisters running up to me and screaming my name. I gasped with excitement and ran and jumped into their arms.

“Oh my gosh, I missed you guys so much!”

image by Ariadna Urbina

“Oh, you look so beautiful and you got bigger!” said Maya. “You are so strong. Dang, they feed you good out there. You be playing sports? Let me see your stomach, oh my god it’s so flat.” My little sister was so interested in how I looked.

“Wow, I’m so proud of you, you doing so good, but you’re lucky because you moved out there,” Jessica added. “You didn’t have it as hard as we did. You don’t know what we go through. But you in school, you doing good. I wish I was in school.” The truth is, Jessica could have been in school, but she dropped out.

The way they told me I was so smart and pretty made me feel sort of upset. Their tone seemed sarcastic and jealous. It wasn’t supposed to be about how I looked or what I got into. I was so happy to finally be with them, to laugh like the old days, and catch up and be strong together.

In the past when terrible things happened, we’d stuck together and dealt with it as a family. But now they seemed to blame me for their disappointments and acted as if I thought I was better.

I reacted by hiding things from them. I couldn’t show them my new shoes; I couldn’t show them my report card. I couldn’t tell them about the dance we had at school. I had to act like I had nothing so that I could be with them. If I showed them positive things from my life, they acted like I was throwing things in their faces to make them feel bad. This was the opposite of how I’d wanted things to be.

Outcast

Christmas night came and it was time to open gifts. We all sat around the tree and I was so ecstatic that we were doing something as a family like when my mom was alive.

Vera gave my sisters their presents first: Victoria’s Secret bags, perfumes, lotions, panties, lip glosses, and pajamas. We all loved Victoria’s Secret products and I couldn’t wait to open mine. Then Vera handed me my box. But the box was not wrapped. In fact, I could see what the gift was already because very tiny in the bottom corner there was a photo of a wannabe mp3 player called “Juice Box.” I wondered, “What the heck is this?” I opened the plain white box and there was the mp3 with no instructions or batteries.

It was hurtful. Vera knew how much I loved the Victoria’s Secret scent Amber Romance. What was she thinking getting me a “Juice Box?” Maybe she was on a tight budget. Maybe she felt Jessica and Maya were more difficult to impress and please and I would be easier to get anything for. But the effect was that I felt left out.

My brother looked at me and saw the pain in my eyes. I couldn’t hold back the tears that I was trying to hide. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful; I bought some batteries and figured out how to use the thing. And since that was the only gift I got that Christmas, I really wanted to enjoy it.

I Couldn’t Help Them

I went back to Puerto Rico after the holidays and I communicated with my siblings less than before. It was difficult to get in touch with them. One day they had phones, the next they didn’t. I was also really busy going to school.

I know it was difficult for them living with Vera. Vera couldn’t always get them what they wanted because she had financial troubles and wasn’t getting much help.

Jessica and Maya didn’t see Vera as an adult that they had to respect. They stopped doing their homework or coming home when she told them to. Soon they were running around late in the streets, smoking weed and drinking every night. Eventually they stopped going to school altogether. They did as they pleased and Vera couldn’t deal with it anymore. She had her own young son to raise.

While I was living in Puerto Rico, I hated to deal with rules, too, but I knew I had to be self-disciplined to stay on track. Not only did it require structure from my grandmother but it also required my cooperation. Many times I didn’t agree with my grandmother, but I couldn’t act wild.

I tried to be an example for them because Vera was always telling me about how difficult it was raising the girls. It was hard to do that over the phone, though. I would tell them what to do to stay on track and to stay focused in school. They would say OK and tell me they were going to do what they had to, like go to school and get a job, but it never happened.

When I would visit them during vacations, they’d want me to be included in their risky escapades. They wanted me to hop in strangers’ cars, drink and smoke weed, and stay out all night. I didn’t want to do that.

They’d say things to each other and their friends like, “Oh, we can’t go anymore because our sister doesn’t want to,” or, “Aw man, it would have been so much fun but she wanted to sleep.” I would have loved for them to be like normal people who slept through the night and did things during the day. I would have much rather woken up early and done positive activities like go swimming, go to museums, or go to eat as a family like we used to.

I’ll Always Love Them

Now I’m in college in upstate New York. It’s not that I gave up on my sisters, but we have become different people. I still try to speak to them, but I’m always very cautious about what I say and how I say it. I never want them to think I feel superior to them. I love them and I will always maintain relationships with them.

Whenever I see them I bring up the memories of when we were all together. We love to reminisce about those amazing times we shared in the past. Because I’m away at college I still don’t get to see them much. It’s like when I lived in Puerto Rico. I know better now how to encourage stronger connections among all of us, but our relationships will never go back to the way they were years ago. We don’t share things like we used to. We have kind of come to an unspoken understanding of the way things are.

I look back on it now and I know that my life would have taken a whole other path if I’d stayed in New York City. I would have most likely finished high school, but not done as well as I did. I don’t think I would have gone on to college.

I would have been doing the same thing that my sisters were doing: drinking, smoking, and running the streets. They gave up on school and didn’t work. If I had stayed in the city, that kind of lifestyle would have been all around me. I’m so grateful I moved to Puerto Rico and slowed my life down. I wish my sisters had the opportunity to come to Puerto Rico with me but things just didn’t go that way. I also don’t think they would have been able to follow the rules and structure in Puerto Rico with my grandmother.

Going through this with my family has taught me a lot—good and bad—about relationships and boundaries. I know my limits with people and I don’t do anything that will hurt anyone because I won’t go past that boundary.

However, this isn’t always a good thing. I have learned to not get attached to people because I’m afraid of separation. I know I won’t be too emotionally attached in relationships and I also won’t feel dependent on anyone. I know I have to do for myself. For now, I’m all I’ve got.

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