By the time I was a junior in high school, I had become pretty self-sufficient. While not attending school I played sports and worked as many hours as I could. All of which would keep me from being at home, trapped in Trappe. It was painfully obvious that my mother was struggling both financially and mentally. Our interactions were limited as I tried to stay away as much as possible. Had I been home I would likely be there alone, not knowing what time she would come back. I was buying my own food and clothing at this point. There was really no need for me to add to the financial burdens that she faced. I stayed out of the way. I realized that it must have been difficult for a single mother to raise a teenager, working with no means to an end. I never knew what would be next − the lights on or off or a notice from the landlord. It was not an ideal or comfortable situation for either of us, but I would never leave or give up hope that things would get better for us.
There were good moments. Most of which depended on who my mother was involved with. There was some normalcy. I most appreciated it when she would be able to support my sports endeavors. I savored each time she was able to attend an event. She couldn’t be there often −I still don’t know the reason why − but it still didn’t stop me from hoping she would show up. Most nights I would be the last player to leave after games, waiting for her to pick me up or hitching a ride with friends. I would even carry my bags and walk across town to find her so that we could head home. In hindsight, none of that should have occurred. I was so used to navigating adult things in life and being resilient that I never contested why it was like this for me, for us.
The summer before my senior year I went about my routine as normal. Playing sports, and working as much as I could to support myself. Again, staying out of the way so as to not be a burden. It’s all kind of cloudy in my memory now. My brain protects me from the devastation as it has for most of my life. My mom decided or was forced to move from our home in Trappe, leaving us displaced. In that moment, she decided that she wanted to start fresh and move to Wilmington, Delaware. She was going to work and stay with my aunt who was already there to get on her feet again. This was a shock to my system as I was preparing for my senior year of high school, everything in the year was so important. I was thinking about college, senior pictures, graduation, financial aid…all the things at the top of the list for a senior in high school. The last thing that I wanted to do was leave the place that I had lived and grew up in for my last year of high school. The option was also not appealing, to live with a family that was also struggling with everything from violence to addiction. I didn’t want that for my mother or myself. I chose to stay behind.
Staying behind left me with my only and best option. I was to live this next year with my older sister, her husband and three-year-old niece in their apartment. It was good for me because I was in town, close to my friends, work and all the amenities that I needed. They had TV, the lights were on, food, and people were home. They were a family. It was hard not to constantly think about why my mother left me. Why couldn’t she make it work and be here with me. I wouldn’t hear from her often I don’t even think it dawned on her the many important decisions I would need to make to secure my future after high school. I did the best I could, seeking counsel from my sister, and trusted adults at school and in the community. Nothing could truly fill that void though; my parent wasn’t holding my hand to fill out college applications or figuring out what package to order for senior pictures (or pay for them). I kept my head down and did what I knew how to do best, survive.
Living with my sister’s family was a relief. I would still try to stay out of the way and not be a burden. I would stay out as late as I could to try not to disrupt what they had as a family. I would eat out, work and try to stay in my space. I slept on an air mattress that year in my niece’s room, I went to sleep to either Barney or The Wiz every night! I was grateful though. On top of not trying to be much of a burden, I got creative. I had a friend who worked in a grocery store, and he would help me contribute food to my sister’s house. My other friend picked me up for school every morning, so I didn’t have to ask for rides anywhere. While I knew my sister and brother-in-law would help me with things, I was often afraid to ask. I had discernment at a very young age, they had a child to raise. They did not sign up to raise an able-bodied teenager. While that year went by at a snail’s pace in my mind, it was truly moving fast. I learned a lot about life and most of the experience taught me how to take care of myself even more than I had before.
That year, my sister was the assistant coach for my basketball team. That meant we got even more time to spend together. She did her best to help me cope with our mother not being around but a lot of that is lost on me. I had built a wall that I didn’t even know was forming inside. It had to be hard for her to witness me numbing all feelings, but there was never an instance where I didn’t feel like I was loved, supported and that someone cared about me and my wellbeing. For that I am grateful.
My mother returned for my senior prom; I was so happy. She helped me get dressed and did my makeup. She was happy to see me in a dress, and in a better state of mind than she had been months before. This was a very memorable day for me, prom night, and graduation day when she came again. I can’t recall my mother ever interfering or getting involved in my plans after graduation. It was almost like she released all responsibility in that area but somehow knew that I could handle it. While my sister and I experienced our mother in different phases, we both possess a resilience inherited from her.
As an adult, my biggest regret is not being thankful enough and not being forgiving enough – but was that my responsibility as a teenager? I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t have that stability even if it was only for a year. It set me on a trajectory to be self-motivated. From that point on, every time I came home from college, I came home to my sister’s house wherever she lived. That was my home more than any other place I had been in my life. I never gave it this much thought until now….
Written by Tara Hill-Coursey