Dear Teen Me from author Bridget Birdsall (DOUBLE EXPOSURE, ORDINARY ANGELS)
Dear Teen Me:
What would I tell you now? Well, just like A.S. King, I’ve rewritten this letter twice, so let’s cut to the chase: everything will turn out okay. Really. You have to trust me on this. You are not dumb and you aren’t to blame for your brother’s death! Not the one in this picture, because as far as you know there are no pictures of Michael anymore. That’s Mom’s secret.
Eventually, you’ll retire the burdensome role as the perfect oldest child, chief caretaker, de-facto parent, family hero, though it will take a while, but your love of books and basketball will help. In fact, you’ll discover a huge world out there beyond the soulless suburbs that you hate.
“You could never do anything. You always had to babysit!” Your sort-of high school friends will say years later. But the truth was bigger than they knew—way bigger—your job was light years beyond babysitting, your job was to keep your siblings alive, because safe wasn’t always an option.
And dead was what Michael was.
Yes, it sucked that you spent such a huge-ass chunk of your life blaming yourself for Michael’s death, but years later, a friend, a cop, will dig up the Accident Reports—and you will know—what you always knew.
There was no credible evidence to prove that Mr. P’s car hit Michael. He died of head and internal injuries. No mention of your mother. None.
So many secrets.
I would tell you that perhaps the one true thing your Mother ever uttered was when you threatened to call the police. “They’ll never believe you.” It was the chill in her voice that made you believe her. From where you sit now, you realize she was probably right.
It wasn’t your fault, Bridget! You were only eight. But thanks to the stupid Catholic Church the babies keep coming, increasing your workload, your responsibilities, your fear and your guilt. As a good Irish Catholic girl you are uber good at guilt! But with each new baby Mother gets crazier and Dad conveniently disappears 99.9% of the time, because, oh yeah, he knows “he can depend on you!” He has important business drinking expensive scotch and playing golf at the country club.
Wouldn’t it be great to be a normal teenager for once?
Maybe invite a friend over once in a while, but there’s no way you will ever do that. Instead you’ll smile and keep going. You’ve perfected the fine art of hiding out in a crowd and you’ve learned how to love people without letting them in. Even though the isolation and loneliness is killing you.
All this will change, I promise.
You’ll start to understand that your parents aren’t bad people, they’re just sick. Super sick. You’ll learn about alcoholism, mental illness, emotional incest, and the definition of a sociopath.” Though it will take awhile, you’ll even figure out who you are, what you like, and what it means to love and accept yourself—exactly as you are.
Yes, you’ll grow to love your long lanky androgynous boyish-body; your upside down inside out dyslexic brain; your love of rocks, acorns, woods and water; your adept skill with a basketball; your empathetic heart that actually feels the pain of others. Yes, even the scary fact that sometimes you know things you could not possibly know.
Not ever. Not in a million years. Like what happened to Michael.
You can’t say it now, but that’s okay, even this will change. You’ll find your voice. Someday, when you can’t bear carrying the secret one more day, you’ll start to write it down, but right now, you are smart to shut up about it.
Right now, the truth might topple the whole family system, the house of cards, the thinly veiled curtain of social acceptance and propriety that your parents prop up for the world. Right now, even if you told, your friends, teachers, neighbors, the people at church, even the cops would probably never believe what’s going on inside that nice respectable suburban house.
Despite your dyslexic brain, when you start to write it down you won’t be able to stop. You’ll fill notebooks, hundreds and hundreds of them, and the writing will heal you. And as you write you will remember. Then the depression that dogs you, even the occasional suicidal ideations that play ping pong through your brain, and exacerbate your learning challenges, well, those too, will become the fodder for your writing and ultimately, a better life. It’s just hard to see it now.
In high school even though you feel like a total loser you stoically mix and mingle with all different groups, jocks, freaks, cheerleaders, brains, but people don’t have time to get to know you. It’s impossible to have any real friends because when you’re not playing basketball, or working at the Big Boy plopping globs of red goop into pie shells to make strawberry pies, you are home keeping everyone alive. Trying not to think about how Michael died.
Don’t worry you won’t have to live with your secrets in these stupid-ass suburbs forever! I promise.
You will leave home, and you will have time to let yourself, be yourself. Basketball and books will continue to be a part of your life. And writing will be added to the pile. Over and over again, you will find yourself in the company of queer artistic types and you will finally feel like you fit in. You will actually have time for friends, and every once in a while you’ll even invite them over to your house for dinner.
And like you, your real friends won’t give a crap about which country club you belong to, or what kind of car you drive, or how much money you have, and they won’t even hold it against you that you don’t drink scotch or any other alcohol and that you hate golf. The whole idea of spraying chemicals and ripping down trees to make acres of fake-looking quaffed green grass is a sin if ever there was one.
Yes, you will change. You’ll spend more time alone in the woods than in church. You will walk miles barefooted, listening to the birds, collecting acorns, watching the frenetic jerky motions of the squirrels, writing novels in your head, talking to Michael or your ancestors or whoever will listen, even DOG. (GOD.)
You will split your time equally between Buddha and Jesus. They are great at sharing and the guilt will subside and when people ask, you’ll tell them you’re a “Salad Bar Spiritualist.” Which means you take what you like and leave the rest. Then a beautiful wrinkled brown-skinned baby boy will grace your life teaching you the true meaning of family, of love, of life itself.
That life is meant for more than just surviving, that you too, can thrive.
The other two loves of your life basketball and books will be usurped by the writing. All those people who laughed when you said you wanted to be writer, who thought dyslexic meant dumb, will have to eat their words. because you will write books. You will write about the things people refused to talk about in the home where you grew up. And you won’t shut up! Even when your mother threatens to sue your ass off!
Not all, but some people will believe you. Nevertheless, just in case you will write novels, because the people who want to see the truth, will.
It’s probably hard to imagine now, but poetry is soon to become for you the highest form of prayer and you will come to understand in the spaces between the lines of your life that Michael really is okay, and so are you.
You will find a new home, not in some soulless suburbs but in yourself.
Bridget Birdsall is an author, artist, and inspirational speaker. She seeks to help others harness the transformative power of words to affect positive change in their lives and in the world.
In 2005, Bridget received her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College. Since that time she has been the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships. She has taught writing and literature classes in both academic and contemplative settings, including poetry, literature, creative writing, business and research writing classes at Madison College, Edgewood College and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
She has published two novels that have both received high praise, ORDINARY ANGELS, about siblings’ surviving the death of a sibling, and DOUBLE EXPOSURE, the story of an intersex teen athlete.
Bridget is known as a writer willing to tackle tough topics. She resides in Madison, Wisconsin. Learn more at: bridgetbirdsall.com.
Article also published at: http://dearteenme.com/?p=8367#more-8367