Kitty

IMG_0460I spent my first five-dollar bill on a stuffed kitten. We had just moved to The States and were rummaging through the toy aisle at Target when Papa slipped me some cash. “Pick something special to bring home.” On my quest, I spotted a striped orange cat with almond eyes and clear plastic whiskers poking its little head out among a sea of Beanie Babies. Someone had haphazardly thrown him into the wrong section. I pulled him out of Beanie Baby hell, like I was his god or something.  He was only about the size of my five-year-old arm and his face seemed to carry a million expressions. “That’s really what you want?” Papa asked skeptically.

“Yes.”

For the first few years of Kitty’s life, he was a she. He went by the name of Ashley, which had to do with my short-lived girl crush on the Olsen twins. I remember taking a bedazzled pink bow from one of my dolls and wrapping it around his scruffy left ear. He looked at me blankly, as though trying to communicate contempt. Then he was an “it” for a while until the gender change. I started calling him Kitty after running out of more creative options.

During my elementary school years, Kitty sat by a large Spongebob pillow in the middle of my bed waiting for me to come home every day. After school I’d run into my room, drop my backpack on the floor, and smother him. Much like my journals, he tolerated my ranting silently. I’d yap endlessly about the day, my ideas, my dreams. He was never one to judge, and his patience was boundless. In fact, the poor thing sat on my desk when I listened to Avril Lavigne’s album “Let Go” nonstop for a month straight. I still know every word.

Over the years, my bond with Kitty only intensified. I’d snuggle my cheek against his baby pink nose before drifting off to sleep, feeling protected. If ever I misplaced him and couldn’t find him in time for bed, I thought the nightmares would come for me. He was a dream-catcher. He’d wait for me by my sleeping bag during our summer camping trips in North Conway and smell like fire and lake water during the drive back home.

My grandparents, Rosita and Carlos, who are two of my favorite people in the world, would visit us from the Azores every year. Rosita has never been one to sit still and would deep clean every room in the house when my parents were at work. She’d reorganize everything and redecorate until the place looked like an Ikea advertisement. She was also the only one to ever give Kitty baths. After throwing him into “the underwater Ferris wheel”, Rosita and I would cook lunch together. When it was time, Kitty would come out of the drier brand new, his stripes and belly the color of snow again. I’d take whiffs of lavender and wrap my arms around him. We’d nestle together next to Rosita under a blanket, watching telenovelas until it was time for bed.

Snot and tears found a home in Kitty’s fur from countless nights spent feeling utterly alone, let down, and heartbroken. I never believed in God, so I saved my bigger questions and wishes for Kitty in times of desperation. I’d often ask him “Why?” and “What next?” like he was hiding the answers. I’d get frustrated when he didn’t respond. At the same time, I’d lock my eyes with his and feel safe. Our bond was beyond words.

When I was eleven, my neighbors threw Kitty back and forth in the yard. I was the monkey in the middle. His left eye came off and rolled past me on the cement path in slow motion. Playing it cool, I pretended not to care in front of the cute boy-next-door. At night I shut myself in my room and cried into Kitty’s ears. Rosita sewed the eye back on the next day, but the guilt of letting my friend down remained.

As time went on, Kitty moved from my to bed to shelves where I could see him, but no one else could. This was during the phase of giving away all my stuffed animals, tearing up the Twilight poster above my bed, and my teenage identity crisis. Kitty was on top of my bookshelf facing my bedroom window that led to a lower roof when he watched me smoke a bowl with my friend Anna, our legs dangling together into the night. He fixed his blank gaze on me when Mama caught us in the act. “You know you could’ve cracked your head open and died, right?”

Kitty hid beside my Jane Austen collection when I stuffed my bedroom into cardboard boxes, preparing for the move to a freshman dorm room in downtown Boston. Papa grabbed one of my bags and stood beside him for a moment. “You’re not gonna take Kitty with you?”

“Not this time,” I responded, scratching my fingers through the fur on his head.

I flunked out of my first semester of college, diving into every possible distraction instead of focusing on school. I gained twenty pounds, bounced around parties in a haze with my “friends” from Thursday to Sunday, and let myself go until there was nothing left. Kitty was waiting for me in the same spot on my bookshelf when I moved back home in defeat. There was judgment in his eyes for the first time, so I threw him in the closet and shut the door.

As time went on, I picked myself back up again. After taking community college courses to catch up on credits and to raise my GPA, I found my way to Salem State University. Kitty was still in the closet when I moved into my first apartment, gathering dust next to my flute and a middle school yearbook. The years spent at Salem State were some of the best of my life, filled with milestones that Kitty never witnessed: falling in love, moving into an apartment with my best friends, landing a real “adult” job, and the list goes on…I could have cried into his fur after my first gut-wrenching break-up, but my best friend ‘s shoulder and a cliche pint of cookie dough filled the void instead. He wasn’t there for any of the memories that solidified my transition into adulthood. I guess he’s only really known me as a child, which makes him all the more special to me.

Last week, my two-year-old brother, Gabriel, and Mama were snuggled together on the couch watching Sesame Street. I had just come back home from school for the weekend and finished attacking Gabriel with kisses when his little almond eyes reminded me of something. I walked into my room and opened the closet door, standing face-to-face with an old friend. Picking him up by the paw like the day I first brought him home, I introduced Kitty to my brother. Gabriel sneezed into his fur and handed him back to me like a used tissue. Mama and I laughed until Gabriel instinctively joined us. Kitty sat watching at the center of it all.

The Three Syllables That Divide Us

I don’t remember much of anything before I was five, apart from my trip from The Azores to America in 1998. At the airport, Mama bought me a Polly Pocket toy that opened like a book, revealing a miniature island resort inside. I had Polly dive into the plastic ocean as I watched São Miguel become Polly Pocket-sized from the airplane window. All I knew was that Papa was waiting for us in a new world where everyone spoke a funny language and ate McDonald’s. I couldn’t wait to land.

I didn’t look foreign in America – blonde hair and pale skin kept me camouflaged. My inability to speak perfect English for the first four years, however, gave me away. Then it was the word “Immigrant”, which forced me into a category separate from most of my peers. A simple three syllable word that has followed me like a shadow since the day my feet touched American ground. I wear the title like a tattoo, but it’s hidden well under the lightness of my skin. “You don’t look Portuguese” is a phrase I’ve heard almost as often as I hear, “do you spell Mariana with one n or two?”

My coloring made integrating into the American lifestyle painless. I played street hockey with neighbors and filled an empty college dorm room with my belongings freshman year, just like everyone else. Though I have the citizenship to prove that I’m lawfully American, I never once felt that I needed the paperwork to make it so.

The same was always true for the rest of my family. We knew we were privileged to be here, to lead our normal lives and to walk among everyone as equals. It wasn’t until a certain copper-haired billionaire sat in the president’s throne that we felt the weight of those three syllables on our skin. Immigrant. Up until January 2017, “immigrant” had still been symbolic of our inclusion and freedom.

During the last week of January 2017, I watched my social media newsfeeds get swarmed by endless images and videos of families being turned away from US-bound flights. “Trump’s Muslim ban” had become the core of every discussion, heated debate, and wave of new protests around the world. I clicked on dozens of videos and read countless articles, all the while feeling the knot in my stomach tighten. The new executive order barred seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. for 90 days. It suspended the United States’ refugee system for 120 days and even turned away legal green card holders, separating travelers from their families. I swallowed my disgust, but the aftertaste stayed with me all week long.

In early February, during my walk to class I heard the ding of a new Facebook notification beckon me. My grandmother had posted on our Family group page. Her posts were typically pictures she’d take during her sunset walks, or montages of my baby brother. They were always peaceful. This particular post was not. In two short sentences, she demanded that anyone who had or continued to support Trump unfriend her immediately and never speak to her again. It was unlike her but, in light of recent events, entirely justified. Everyone in the family understood and showered her with positive messages to show their support all week long. We knew we were all on same team.

Like the rest of us, my grandmother carries the weight of her immigrant roots now more than ever. As a green card holder from Madeira, a woman without U.S. citizenship, the immigration ban posed a very real threat to her. She asked herself if there was a chance a barrier would come between her and her loved ones some day too.

Though my family and I are frightened, we fully recognize our privilege. The color of our skin, our religious preferences, even our lifestyle choices, have been deemed “normal” and “acceptable”. You could place me beside a Syrian refugee and, though we both don the same immigrant cloak, I get handed the free pass. It’s no wonder a sour taste still lingers in the back of my throat.

While refugees, fleeing from the threats of their perspective countries, are turned away on the basis of race, religion, and national origin, I simply go about my life. I stress about finals, drink wine with my roommates, watch back-to-back episodes of Shameless for hours, and carry on this way. What gives me the right to this life? What makes me more worthy of shelter and opportunity than the thousands of people currently being turned away like vermin? There is no answer, and that is why this issue extends far beyond immigration. It’s about the segregation and isolation of people that are different from us. It’s about fear.

As these questions fill my mind, so do the sallow faces of Syrian families desperate for aid – merely one vulnerable group of many whose suffering is being wrongfully neglected. For weeks before this ban had even taken place I had developed an obsession with the Syrian crisis. The helplessness I felt, the unimaginable and inhumane violence I watched from an expensive laptop screen, and the children – the hundreds of thousands of innocent children’s bodies pulled out of rubble – draped my world into darkness and filled my eyes with tears at night. I felt in my gut at the time that surely the American government would help. Surely things couldn’t carry on this way. Yet, here we are – 120 days of neglect and counting.

Research what life is like in the seven countries on Trump’s ban list and ask yourself if one word is strong enough to cancel out the guilt and pity you feel. Immigrant, Muslim, black, child, woman, white, whatever label you please – it disappears when someone’s suffering is on display directly in front of you.

Though our individual stories are unique and the labels etched into our skin still serve to mark our differences, we all share a universal right to compassion. The tangled string of injustices that continues to grow will never be cut until we take a stand, reach out our hands, and look each other in the eyes.

Blood Ties

I spent twenty years of my life half-heartedly craving a sibling and miraculously, as though the universe heard my plea, Gabriel fell into my arms on the kind of November day that blankets the world in color. Leaves drifted around our car as I rolled the window down during my first pleasant trip to a hospital waiting room – the first journey of two I made that morning. The second was overcoming a battle with neglect and blood ties that threatened my world.

My mother became pregnant at the age of twenty by a man I still refer to as a stranger. He ran off to pursue his art career when my mother needed his support most. She was an artist herself, an immensely talented modern dancer, who put her career on hold for the little girl she had dreamt about bringing into the world. My “dad” did not give me the same importance. He would disappear, only returning to see me when it was convenient for him to do so. I recall wanting more than anything to stay with my mom as he waited, towering over me at the door.

Our relationship stayed this way, distant and unimportant. Though it pained me to accept that a stranger was my biological father, I was lucky enough to discard the rejection and confusion within the loving embrace of a true father figure who came into my life when I was only four. My mother married the man I have called my “Papa” in 1998, and the three of us traveled from the Azores to America on a mission to build a beautiful life together as a family. Papa, who is technically my step-father, always felt like my blood father. The three of us built a foundation that kept me protected by their love. I was given a father who wanted me, cared for me, and labored to keep me alive. I was the luckiest girl in the world.

Growing up, I had a difficult time accepting that Papa and I were not blood related. His family, my cousins, my grandparents, my uncles and aunts, my everything, were not biologically mine. That haunted me. I wanted more than anything to look into my father’s eyes and see myself within them. Craving this connection as much I did, I developed a jealousy for a sibling that did not exist. I would picture my parents having the child I wished I could be. How was it fair that the two people I loved most could bring someone into the world and that it would never be me? Why did I still remain the product of a man who didn’t even exist to me?

My mindset stayed this way until the moment I held my baby brother in my hands on November 13th, 2014. Not too long before my grandfather passed away, he gifted me a reason to want a sibling even as I stubbornly attempted to avoid the subject. I will never forget what he said to me.

“You know, a sibling would be the blood link between you and your Papa. A part of you, a part of him, and a part of your Mama would live inside him”.

Until then, I had never thought about it this way. I held onto his words and kept them stored away, hoping that maybe one day I would experience first-hand what he meant. Nothing could have prepared me emotionally for the day my parents sat me down to deliver the news that Gabriel was on his way. Though to be fair, Papa barely had to utter the words before I interrupted him gasping at Mama and repeating over and over again “You’re pregnant!” I remember us all breaking down laughing at how I had guessed the news and then letting the tears fill our eyes, knowing that life would never be the same. We hugged each other in silence, awaiting the homecoming of our newest member.

My grandfather’s death in 2011 killed something in all of us, my grandmother and my father especially. Papa lost the light in his eyes and would wake up in the middle of the night often sobbing and lost, wanting the comfort from someone who had been taken from him. My grandmother lost the love of her life and her spirit along with him. Her passion for life was deteriorating with each passing day without my grandfather by her side. Flash forward three years later, and tiny Gabriel, the smiling, pudgy, potato of a baby that I can’t help but kiss all over, brought back the life in my grandmother’s smile and the motivation my father needed to carry on. I watched as his warmth set off a light in them all, even before he could comprehend his own existence.

The day I held him in the hospital I thought of my grandfather’s words and was overwhelmed to find that when I looked into his almond eyes, I could see myself in them just as he said I would. Surprisingly, holding the real blood tie in my hands for the first time, I didn’t feel as if I valued him being related to me more than I valued the love I had for him simply because he was one of us. Had he been blood-related to me or not I still would have felt he was mine. I looked up at my father and realized that he was mine too. Surely I had known that all along. Gabriel wrapped his entire walnut sized hand around my index finger and held on, staring up at me unblinking, as I repeated the words softly, “I’m your sister”.

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