Dear Teen Me,
I know you wish you had woken up that morning to say goodbye to him. You were home sick with a cold, and he came into your room – you have a faint, sleepy-eyed memory of this – he nudged you awake for a hug before he left for work. (How were you to know it would be your last?) You sat up, put your head on his chest for too short a moment, and then you fell back on your pillow. You wish you could go back, wake up more fully, hug him harder, tell him not to go. Stay here with me, Dad, you would have said, They will be fine without you. I need you today. I need you to take care of me: today, and everyday after.
He left, though, so that he could fix the plumbing problem at the old downtown building your parents didn’t want to own. You fell back asleep, and when you woke up a few hours later, the house was empty, Mom having left even earlier in the morning to take care of other issues at the building, like disgruntled tenants and unpaid rents and property taxes that they couldn’t afford.
You wished they were home with you. You were four weeks fresh from an appendectomy and now it was compounded with congestion and fatigue. You wished you weren’t alone.
But you were seventeen and perfectly capable of taking care of yourself, so you went downstairs and curled up on the couch. You watched TV and dosed in and out of sleep. Mom called to check in on you, to tell you that she’d be home soon. You relaxed. At least you weren’t at school. At least there was that.
But then, an hour later, the phone rang again. It was Arlene, this time, one of the tenants from the building, a nice lady who had watched you grow up. “Your father collapsed,” she said, her voice shaky and scared. She stumbled through a confusing explanation. He’d been working on the plumbing, but then, when his work went quiet, she found him in a contorted pose, underneath the low pipe of the bathroom, passed out. She’d called 911, and he was in the ambulance now on the way to the hospital. “Is he okay?” you asked. She wouldn’t answer.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I just don’t know.”
You were worried, but there was the hovering reality that this also wasn’t necessarily unusual. He’d been sick since before you knew what a memory was. First, when you were in preschool, he’d beat the cancer. When you were nine, he’d survived the back alley mugging and a subsequent heart attack, and then, for years after, there were the countless procedures, including the open-heart surgery that had left him nearly dead with bruising. He was an old man, and though he was mobile and strong, he often felt faint and needed to be taken to the E.R. You’d visited emergency rooms in Florida, California, Minnesota, Wyoming and Greece – each visit meant a few hours of observation, some oxygen, and rest. He was a survivor. Before you were born, he’d lived through World War II and the Nazi invasion of his homeland when he was a child. He’d immigrated from Greece to the U.S. without a penny in his pocket. He knew how to fight for his life. He’d done it many times.
There was the reality that day could be the same – it was just another opportunity to fight.
But this phone call felt different. Maybe it was the sound of Arlene’s voice. The hollowness. The fear. Or maybe it was that you felt his spirit leaving the earth. (Maybe there was some part of you that knew.)
You weren’t raised to pray, but you were scared and alone, and you fell to your knees on the cold, concrete floor of the basement. You screamed out a prayer, a plea, a wish to the universe, to God, to time, to fate. You begged for him, for his life, even though you knew he was already dead. (How did you know?)
Mom arrived home, and when you told her, she held back her tears and went into her own version of survival mode, though you could read the fear in her eyes. You jumped in the car with her, and she sped back downtown. Neither of you spoke. Maybe she knew already, too. There were two possible fates that awaited you: a life where your father was alive, and the other nightmare (that turned out to be the truth.)
He was dead. I can’t remember who told you. Mom, I think. I do remember her primal, guttural howls. I do remember her falling into someone’s arms, a nurse maybe. You felt sick in a new way. You couldn’t scream like her. You couldn’t howl like her. But there were tears, so many tears; they were endless and suffocating.
You visited his body. He still looked alive. His hand was warm. You thought if you squeezed it tight enough, you could will him back to life. But the earth had shifted, and he was gone. There were no prayers or pleas or wishes that could change what this new world was.
Your world will shift again, I promise. It doesn’t feel like it right now, I know. Right now, you want to hide from the world, you want to drop out of school, you want to run away from everyone and everything. You will live in a deep, quiet sadness for a very long time.
But you will step out the door to finish high school. Your friends will surround you with love. Mom will surround you with love despite the fact that she must face her own grief, her own private struggles. Together, they will convince you to stay. You will go to prom in a bright red dress even though it’s 1994 and black is in season. Your father hated when you wore black. You will go, and you will dance so that you can honor him.
Then, you will go away to college where you will meet new friends who will let you cry but who will also teach you how to laugh again. You will meet a boy – and even though you swear you won’t get married until you’re thirty – you won’t be able to help but fall in love with him. You will grow up together. You will finish college, become a teacher and a writer, and then you will fall in love – again – with your beautiful child (who wears our father’s smile.)
I know it doesn’t seem possible now, but your world will shift – again and again and again.
You are at the bottom, but you will climb out.
You will fight for your life. After all, he taught you how.
The letter above is the first in an ongoing weekly series featuring letters from authors to their teen selves. If you're a published author who'd like to participate in this series, we'd love to have you. Just click here and let us know you're interested.
About The Author: Katherine Kottaras is the author of the critically-acclaimed YA contemporary novels, HOW TO BE BRAVE (2015) and THE BEST POSSIBLE ANSWER (2016), both from St. Martin’s Press/Griffin Teen. She has worked as a middle, high school, and community college teacher for two decades, and she currently teaches full-time at Pasadena City College. She's served as a mentor and on faculty for her local SCBWI chapter and as a board member for the Children's Literature Council of Southern California, and she is a proud team member of We Need Diverse Books. As the queer daughter of an immigrant, she was especially proud to be honored as PCC's 2019 Ally of the Year, for her work supporting undocumented and LGBTQ students. Building upon her experience as a certified yoga teacher (RYT-200) and an ACE certified personal trainer, Katherine is currently pursuing a second Master's degree in Kinesiology, with a focus on Integrated Wellness. Katherine is interested in the stories we tell, the stories we are given, and the ways we can redefine our worlds by discovering which stories are true. She believes in working towards a future that is inclusive, empathetic, and full of love.