Written by Diem-Tran (Bijou) Nguyen
There’s purple stippled dark underneath your swollen eyes as you shuffle into the classroom, chin tucked to your small chest, knuckles white and fingers grasped tight around the thick straps of your backpack. Your black sweatshirt screams LET’S DANCE but your movements are sluggish, your slippers scrape against the floor. Your cheeks are blotchy and your ponytail, which swayed so jauntily yesterday, today hangs limp like the wet rag I use to wipe down the desks. Somehow you’ve aged overnight, and your shoulders are bowed under a crippling weight that has brought you to your knees.
Your friends around you are oblivious as they cut colorful strips of iClay with razor blades, jabber excitedly about the doughnuts we’ll have for lunch and flick mini marshmallows of snow out of their hair. Jae Woo walks backwards into you, adjusting his beanie. He whirls around, and his mouth flops open to utter a protest, but when he sees it’s you, something in his face shifts. He ducks his head, and carefully edges away from you as though your burden is contagious.
The news has spread like the snow, which dapples the playground and the bushes lining the perimeter of the school. There are hushed whispers from the teachers, secretive, knowing looks between the students. My co-teacher, Yeon Ja, who is usually stern and aggressive with all the students during English class, is now subdued, and handles you like you’re made of glass. At lunch, between bites of kimchi, your homeroom teacher somberly mentions something about needing to go to Daejeon after school to find a black dress. They treat you like a casualty.
Amidst all of this, you walk, shrouded in a daze, as if you can’t hear or see or feel. You act as though you don’t realize the sudden carefulness, the way your friends avoid meeting your eyes, the way that teachers linger closer to you, for longer. You walk as though if you convince yourself enough that it doesn’t hurt, you can will yourself to stop feeling pain.
I don’t know what it’s like to lose your father at the age of thirteen. Because thirteen is when you’re just learning to look at the swell of a bicep and when your cell phone is becoming an extension of your fingers. Thirteen is when most of your friends are busy giggling about doe-eyed Luhan of EXO and self-consciously covering their cheeks as they snap selfies.
Thirteen is when insecurity creeps in, and you need your father to be there and tell you that you are beautiful, even when—no, especially when— you don’t want to hear it, when you don’t believe it yourself.
I don’t know what it’s like to be thirteen and lose your father. If I could, I would cup my hands and come to you and collect your hurt and say, “Give me your pain, I’ll take good care of it.” I’d be happy to have it, to relieve you of it.
I don’t know what it’s like to be thirteen and to be pulled out of school early for your frantic mother to drive you to the hospital because your father has been in a car accident and now, he’s gone. I don’t know.
But I do know what it’s like to feel alone, even when you’re surrounded by people. I know what it’s like to go back to an empty home and sit on your bed and have no company other than your thoughts. You’re thirteen and you’ve started to mark your life into before and after, and you’re utterly terrified of what might come next. You are only thirteen and life, which has given you happiness and trust and love and faith, somehow simultaneously harbors loss, doubt, pain, pain, pain, and you don’t know how to make sense of it.
I don’t know how you feel and I don’t know how to make you stop hurting. I can place a hand on your shoulder and give you a smile and talk in a language of gestures to show that I care, but I can’t lift the hurt from your heart. You’re thirteen and you’re alone, but we both know that time will pass and time will strip down the bleak winter, clear out the snow and paint the grey sky lighter hues. Spring is coming, and summer will follow. And with time, your pain will dissipate and then resurface, reemerging just when you think you’ve finally managed to escape. Part of you might always hurt.
I don’t know how you feel, but I can promise you that spring will come. I know that most likely, you’ll be tougher, and sometimes you won’t feel like yourself, but you’ll keep fighting. Because the thing about pain is that it makes you appreciate happiness that much more. There is nothing that makes you appreciate breathing more than drowning, nothing that makes you love laughing more than when you’ve been incapable of anything but crying, nothing that makes you clutch harder onto one parent than losing the other.
I want you to know I believe in you.
Eight days after you received the news that turned your world upside down, I watch as you and your friend mold a snowman outside. Your head is bowed and your ponytail still hangs limp, but the side of your mouth quirks up in a semblance of a smile. And maybe you’ll never go back to who you used to be, but it’s a start.
Diem-Tran (Bijou) Nguyen is a 2014-2015 ETA at Janggi Elementary School and Uirang Elementary School in Sejong City.