cw: death, illness, 9/11, mental illness
My aunt was the focus of my earliest stories because I was absolutely mad about her. She was 13 years old when I was born and we were closer in age than she and my mom were as sisters. I called her Tata from the time I was a baby well into adulthood because tía didn't stick for some reason. Her nickname for me from the time I was a toddler was chicle: Spanish for "bubblegum" because I never ever left her side and followed her around everywhere. Once she picked me up from preschool and let me sit on her lap and steer as we drove home listening to 80s freestyle; this directly led me to think driving was very easy and to attempt driving my abuelo's van by which I mean I turned it on, put it in reverse, and waved to my grandparents as the van rolled backwards down their driveway into their neighbors' driveway across the street. I banged up the neighbors' garage door but I didn't have a scratch on me to my grandparents' relief. When they asked me why I did that, I was casual about it.
"Tata taught me how to drive so I wanted to see if I could do it alone," I chirped.
She got yelled at way more than I did and she reminded me of this when she taught me to drive as a teenager.
Tata was the one who always took me places my parents thought might be too dangerous: water parks, petting zoos, Busch Gardens. Yes, Busch Gardens, home of Montu, the tallest and fastest inverted rollercoaster as of late 1996. My parents took me to Disney as a kid but I was obsessed with the commercials for Busch Gardens because I was a rollercoaster freak. I'm not sure what it was about them, especially as I was mostly a rule follower as a kid, but I think I was attracted to the fact that I was actively choosing to be terrified as opposed to just being anxious all the time. Plus, the adrenaline: it slapped. My parents thought rollercoasters were too dangerous and they also hated Tampa the way people who live on the opposite coast of Florida tend to for some reason. I played RollerCoaster Tycoon on the family computer and dreamed about doing more than owning an amusement park.
My aunt always got me the gifts my parents didn't go for and for my 10th birthday, she told me I could have whatever I wanted. I knew if anyone was going to be down to let me do something my parents wouldn't be happy about, it was Tata.
"I want to ride Montu at Busch Gardens," I said. "In Tampa."
"Just Montu?" She frowned.
"Well, no, I want to ride all of them but Montu is the tallest and fastest inverted steel rollercoaster in the world right now and I feel ready, I'll be 10."
"Alright then." She grinned.
Somehow she got my parents to agree to the trip and the last weekend of winter vacation, we drove to Tampa and checked into our hotel. She promised my mom she would slather me in sunscreen and that she did. We both wore ponytails, Bongo shorts, and t-shirts: her in a Coca-Cola polar bear one she had gotten for Christmas because she was really into that marketing campaign for some reason and me in a shirt with a white tiger on it because I was really obsessed with white tigers as a kid. We were ready.
I was practically shaking when we got to the park because I was finally going to ride a rollercoaster. We saved Montu because we didn't want it to ruin all the other ones and it was the right call even though they were all spectacular: Python, Scorpion, Kumba—I mean, we rode them like three times each, screaming our heads off every single time. And then we rode Montu and I screamed so loud as we flew through the air. I couldn't believe I was so high, that I was doing this, that I felt so unafraid. We rode it five times and by the fourth time, they didn't even make us walk all the way back out and around to come back in. It was incredible.
We checked out all of the other attractions, had lunch, and even saw the Clydesdale horses. They were huge and scared me but my aunt insisted we get a photo with one so we could show my parents. She tried to calm my nerves by joking around with me.
"Oh look! He's peeing." She pointed at the sea of piss forming under the horse.
"Oh my god why is its penis so big?" I was stunned.
We got to the screens where you see your photo and she cracked up immediately. In the photo, I'm smiling awkwardly and leaning away from the horse while my aunt looks fully at ease. She didn't just get a copy for my parents but a keychain that she had on her keys until she died. It's the funniest thing I own and that horse's dick was terrifying.
In her mid-twenties, my aunt became a flight attendant for United. She had worked in insurance before that and would after her career as a flight attendant but for about five years in the years around Y2K, she was a flight attendant. She ended up being based out of Chicago and the first time I flew alone was to go visit her for a week the summer I was 13. My mom was a wreck and stayed with me at my gate until it was time for me to board with my assigned flight attendant/babysitter guiding me to my seat. I chewed the gum I'd brought so my ears wouldn't pop and one Ann Rinaldi book later, I walked off the plane into the United terminal at O'Hare. My aunt was waiting at the gate, talking to crew she had flown with before and ready to hug me tight to her. One of the crew asked if I was her little sister which made me happy—I honestly was.
"Better: she's my niece." She squeezed my hand.
I had a great time that week. She took me shopping for clothes my mom wouldn't buy me and she let me eat whatever I wanted without talking about calories or grams of fat. We walked around the city and it was the first time I saw a Great Lake. She bought me a Polaroid i-Zone and we took so many pictures of sights and flowers and dogs and ourselves. We stuck a bunch of them on the fridge in her apartment and I saved some to stick on my fridge at home. She took me to get a Chicago-style hot dog for the first time and looked at me sternly before we ordered.
"Listen, I know you love ketchup but you can't get ketchup on a hot dog here," she said. "It's basically against the law."
"Really?" My eyes were wide and I thought of how much ketchup I'd always put on my hot dogs.
"Seriously, trust me."
I learned about a world without ketchup that day but I also learned about one with sport peppers and celery salt and it was the start of something really really good.
About a year and a half later, my life was completely different than it was that week in Chicago. I was almost 15, a freshman in the first new school I'd gone to since kindergarten, and my parents had gotten divorced weeks before. The anxiety I felt in my brain throughout my childhood had worked its way to my body and I was uncomfortable in almost every possible way a teenager could be. I had fallen down the stairs my very first day of school in front of a bunch of upperclassmen and then in my hurry to get to Latin class, I tripped and fell into that classroom as well. Every single inch of my skin was red for weeks.
It had just started to fade the tiniest bit when I walked without tripping into that Latin class three weeks later to see that the TV was on and everyone was staring at it.
"What happened?" I asked the girl who always sat next to me.
"A plane crashed into the World Trade Center," she replied, eyes locked on the TV.
It was 8:59am on Tuesday September 11th, 2001. The bell rang at 9am but no one moved to open their books; our teacher didn't call us to attention. We watched the coverage when suddenly at 9:03am, a second plane hit the other WTC tower. We gasped and one girl broke down crying, just saying over and over again that it wasn't an accident if it was two planes. Our teacher didn't know what to do and we just kept watching the coverage. Eventually the bell rang and the class period was over. Everyone was talking in the halls and I went to my homeroom to switch books at my locker. I was in a daze when I got to my next class and barely heard my teacher calling me to his desk.
"Don't put your things down," he said. "The front office just called, your mom's here to pick you up."
I knew my mom was a worrier but I couldn't imagine why she would need to get me from school in Florida for something going on in New York. Other parents were getting their kids too but I didn't really know what to make of it as I followed my mom to the car. She didn't say a word the whole way to my grandparents' house and when we got there, my dad was already there too. My grandparents were stonefaced and I knew something had happened. My mom was the first one to speak.
"We don't know for sure but we think your aunt may have been on the second flight, 175," she said. "She was flying Boston to LA regularly six months ago and we expected her to be home in Chicago but we can't get through to her. We're worried she may have switched assignments with a coworker and been on that plane."
That plane. The one I had watched come into frame on the news and smash explosively into the World Trade Center. I couldn't even fathom that this was happening. We all took turns calling my aunt and only getting her machine. United hadn't yet made public the list of passengers and for a few hours we were frozen. I tried to remember the last time I'd spoken to Tata and how I never got to ask her what I should do about the guy in my biology class I liked. I beat myself up for worrying about that at a time like this. Around 1pm, she finally and groggily answered the phone for me.
"I have a thousand messages, why are you all calling me?" She sounded pissed but so extremely alive that we couldn't even be upset with her.
"Turn on the news."
I heard her mumble as she found her remote and turned on the TV, not even needing to flip through a bunch of channels as almost every possible channel was covering what was happening.
"Oh my god."
She hadn't flown that route in six months, my mom was right about that. We would have known that earlier if she hadn't covered another coworker's route and gotten home super late the night before and turned off the ringer of her home phone. She was ok. So many others weren't but she was ok and I felt like I could keep breathing that day.
My grandparents begged her to quit her job and she didn't want to but eventually she did because she wanted to move home to be closer to me as I was struggling to stay afloat in high school. That day colored so much of the last twenty years for America, for the world, and so many people, so many places, will never recover from what happened that day and especially what happened in that day's aftermath. I got the briefest taste of what that felt like and I never wanted to experience it for real. My superstitious brain, my ritual focused mind—it didn't fully comprehend that even if that day in history isn't what happens to you and yours, it'll be another day that's your 9/11.
When I was 21, it was my turn to move home for my aunt. The juvenile diabetes she'd had since she was a baby had led to chronic renal disease and now renal failure. She was on regular dialysis and I drove her to every single one. I sat with her under a blanket as we watched whatever was airing at 5:30am, the appointment slot that left her feeling at least somewhat ok the rest of the day. We watched pretty much every episode of Hannah Montana and it truly was the best of both worlds: spending hours talking with my first best friend and watching her receive life-extending treatment. It killed me that I wasn't a donor match; she could have had both of my kidneys.
She finally had a stroke in September 2010. She was on life support for a few weeks but the prognosis wasn't good. My grandparents were heartbroken at the actual reality of losing their child and my mom went even deeper into her alcoholism as the thought of her baby sister dying. I was 23 and suddenly the adult in the room. I googled the things her doctors told me so I could understand what was happening; I had to make the decision. She was only 37 but I knew the body lying in that hospital bed wasn't Tata. With my grandparents' blessing, I signed the papers to remove her from life support. The three of us were in the room when it happened and I was that feeling again. The one I had nine years before when she wasn't answering the phone. Except this was worse because even when you can prepare, you're never ever ready to lose someone you love that much. When some people talk about the day that changed everything, that made you who you are, this is that day for me.
The first anniversary of my aunt's death was the ten year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and I was so deep in my grief that I was angry that anyone else was grieving while I was. It was irrational but I just couldn't see any of it without my blood boiling. Now it's been twenty years since that day and just about 11 years since my version of that day and I can only see how pain and loss can shape a life in a way that changes its entire course, for better or worse. For America, it was for worse in so many ways; for me, I really believe it was for better. Not that I'm complete or perfect but I've made 'better' a practice in my own life—treating myself better, treating others better.
I'm going to leave you with my favorite memory with my aunt because it tells you everything you need to know about who she was and who I am.
We were on a car trip with her then-fiance and his two sons to none other than Busch Gardens. On the way there, we played a girls (me and my aunt) vs boys (the fiance and his kids) game of naming things in the alphabet in order back and forth hoping to trip the other team up. The category was fruits and vegetables and it was our turn with the letter u. I could see her eyes in the rearview mirror and I knew we were fucked. We couldn't think of one piece of produce that started with the letter u but we couldn't stand losing to a bunch of boys. I smiled at her as the lightbulb in my head lit up.
"Yuca." I said it clearly and confidently.
"Doesn't that start with a y?" The WASP fiance who had only eaten the yuca put in front of him by my abuela was suspicious but unsure.
"No, people always think that but it's actually u-c-a." I smiled but not too smugly.
"She's right, Americans always mess it up," my aunt said, years before a smartphone could ruin this ruse.
"Well alright then," said the fiance. "Learn something new every day, huh, boys."
When we stopped at a rest stop to stretch our legs, Tata looped her arm in mine as we walked to the restroom. While we waited in line, she looked at me.
"You know when I knew you were the bravest person I know?"
"Me?" I was surprised. "No?"
"When you told me you wanted to ride that rollercoaster. What's it called?"
"Yeah, Montu." She smiled the same smile I have, that my mom had. "I just knew you'd always find a way no matter what."
"A way where?"
"Just a way, anywhere, anyhow." A stall opened up and she walked into it. "You're braver than you realize."
I didn't understand what she meant then but I do now.