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Essay of the Week: A New Dad and a Dead Cat

Essay of the Week: A New Dad and a Dead Cat

By Sydney Stephens

A wall hits me when I walk into class–an odious aroma permeating the lab. I hesitate. So do my peers, but Ms. Wise, my anatomy and physiology teacher,  commands us to enter: “Come on in guys.”

A scalpel, pair of scissors, and a teasing needle sit atop the black lab table. A bag in the center of our tray encases a dark brown cat. Her forepaws guard her face, her hindpaws are tucked delicately beneath her thighs while her mouth remains slightly agape; if alive, she would be adorable. She reminds me of Gandalf, my neighbor’s cat who I play with when I babysit Sophie and Amanda.

I pull the cat – soaked in preservative –  out of the bag. The smell is repulsive. My three lab partners do not hide their disgust. Immediately, Emily turns her head and nose upwards. “Ughh, there is no way I’m touching that.”  

I had a similar feeling a couple of years prior when Mom began dating. “Sydney, come into the pool!”  My sister’s voice bounced off the concrete and onto the pool chair I’ve made into my private island.  

No! He decided to show up so I refused to enjoy any part of this getaway.  The “he” being Carlos, the man Mom dates. He and his daughter, Maya, tagged along on the Stephen’s Girls’ trip to Atlanta. I ignored Him, Maya and my sister, Olivia, who keeps urging me to jump in the pool. I buried my nose deeper into the book I pretended to read.

The idea of Mom dating made me feel like my dad was being replaced even though he died when I was five.  As I stared blankly into my book, my godmother’s words echoed through my mind.  “You have no idea how lucky your mother is to find a man who loves not only her, but you and your sisters as well.”

I began to feel guilty. As the oldest of three girls, I sometimes have a difficult time being immature and irrational especially when I consider the potential of my behavior rubbing off on Olivia and Lola, my other sister. I jumped into the pool for a few minutes. This big sister instinct to lead also came over me when I pulled the chemically soaked cat out of the bag and placed her on the lab tray. I looked at my lab partners to see if anyone wanted to make the first incision. Seeing hesitant faces, I grabbed the scalpel made the first cut. They looked relieved.

I found things to be bit strange at first–the cat and the new dad. (Mom married Carlos) I hadn’t lived with a man in the house for most of my life and thought he would fit the stereotype of a burping, macho man. He did not even smell and was surprisingly clean. When I picked up the cat, I was also a bit surprised at how heavy it felt in my arms. This was my first time holding a dead animal except for the snake I caught many years ago and accidentally killed by dropping a rock on it’s head.

I was actually starting to think of our cat as cute in a strange, dead-cat way. Halfway through removing the skin from the abdomen, I suggested we name our cat to make my lab partners more comfortable. We named her Philicia.

Similarly,  I became more comfortable with the presence of a man at home.  I still hold onto the memories of playing “tickle monster” with my biological dad. He would lay under a blanket “asleep” and my sisters and I would sneak up to him and run away. When he caught us, he would tickle us into loud laughter.

Mom’s marriage forced me to accept change, while still cherishing memories of my biological father. As I learned after making that first incision into Philicia, true lessons come through great challenges.

Sydney Stephens, a graduate of Providence High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, just began her freshman year at Howard University.


Seeing Reconstructions of Myself

Seeing Reconstructions of Myself

By Georgia Bell

georgia-bellA loud noise startles me. I turn around to the face of Janet, the elderly woman whose home we would be working on.  She yells at an old truck screeching by and it comes to a rickety stop. Janet’s anger resembles my grandmother’s temperament if I touched something that was forbidden.

Fortunately, her lioness voice wasn’t directed at me. She was yelling at Gus, her husband who was driving the truck. The interaction was so comical and heartwarming that I could barely contain myself.  I came to Mexico, Maine for one week to renovate Gus and Janet’s house. The construction project became a mirror into my past, cementing the connections of humanity. I was in an impoverished town of Maine and knew no one but my 20 fellow Parish volunteers.  In this strange place, familiar moments rushed through my mind.

Most people I saw were poor. They were also white, like my mother, but they would never have guessed this considering my brown skin, a shade lighter than my fathers’. I never thought anything of my parents being different races-until one day when I was 8. Joel, a classmate, pointed out that all the other black kids had black moms. “Georgia,” he yelled across the schoolyard, “your mom, she’s white!  I think you’re adopted.” This shook me to the core.  I began to notice people who stared when I was with Mom in the park or the grocery store. For the first time I felt alone, like I didn’t belong.

I have grown beyond that inner unrest of having a biracial family.  However, the stares in Maine carry me back to that time. Here, they are staring at the rare sight of a black person. There were so many opportunities for my mind to wander while working on the house. Break, pull, scrape, breathe repeat. Each movement was a small part of a deliberate pattern, break the drywall, pull down the pieces, scrape the excess from the wood, take a breath and repeat. The attic was a cloud of dust, particles and pieces of wood, drywall, and insulation. I wore a mask to protect myself from the toxins, but I often would opt for a breath of fresh air after finishing a wall. Sticking my head out of the open window, I inhale the fresh, crisp Maine air, hinted with the smell of the meadow behind the home.

I saw the mountains in the distance, the tops speckled with the little bit of snow that survived the hot summer temperatures, the pine trees and finally Janet and her husband. Each time I took a breath, I would witness a different scene in the play of their lives: arguments, laughter, Gus’s kind attempts to help us work and their eventual retreat to sit on their little blue bench which overlooked the meadow.

Yet another flashback: Dad prepares to leave the family for 31 days for a business trip to India. On departure day, his eyes grow with expectation, trust and vulnerability.  I had never seen that look on his face before. I grew anxious. When he finally spoke, a wave of noxiousness crashed over me. “Okay George this is it, game time.  I need you to look after the family when I’m away, your mom, your sister, even the dog. I don’t need anything bad happening when I’m away, because I won’t be able to get to you. I know you can handle this.”

At that moment I realized that I was the successor, but its role carried much more weight than just its title. I had assumed the role of caretaker, leader, and relief giver and once again strove to take on this role while working in Maine.  Gus and Janet opened their home to us and I was moved to do everything in my power to provide them with relief just as I would for my own family.

Georgia Bell, a freshman at Howard University, is a graduate of Milton High School.

An Influence that Lives Far Beyond Death

An Influence that Lives Far Beyond Death

by Sage Adams


Dad reads the New York Times like Mom reads the Bible, carefully and with conviction. He starts relaying the matters of the world to me, never bothering to water down his language even though I am just ten years old. It is a part of his morning and becomes part of mine. I frown when reading about something called the recession. The writer of the article isn’t doing such a good job of being optimistic, something my parents always stress.

For years, Dad and I share a passion for politics, but sometimes differ on fashion. On a Thursday of my junior year, I wear shorts and a long t-shirt I tie-dyed myself. When I walk out the door that morning, he raises his eyebrows, mouth in a pinched line. After all, he works at Saks Fifth Avenue, dressing some of the men we see on CNN and MSNBC. I wave goodbye.

He must have forgiven me because we all sit down and watch an episode of Breaking Bad that night. Later, I wake up in my bed to Mom’s scream. I rush to the bathroom. Dad is on the floor and Mom weeps. 4am. I try giving him mouth to mouth to bring him back. It isn’t even hours, it’s minutes ticking by, and all I can hear is the blood rushing through my veins past my ears into my brain. All I can see is that the same couldn’t be said for my dad. I call the ambulance in a panic, for the first time ever sliding to the right of my iphone lock-screen where it reads emergency. I am not screaming but hysteria mounts and there is literally nothing I could do. Nothing we could do. This isn’t going to get better.

After his death, I struggled to find the optimism that my parents championed. I felt like my life became like that recession. I was GM yet no one could bail me out. I spent the rest of my junior year in reflection.

I remember in 2008, when my dad’s love of politics became something he only shared with me. Outside of the house he never voiced his political views. He would tell me about who came into the store that day, referencing articles we read, spinning stories about the policies they would be presenting whilst wearing the suit he picked out. My dad made politics fun for me, a father-daughter activity like riding a bike.

Dad was proud when I became president of the Black Girls Rock! book club three years ago. He read the books with the schedule I set for the girls. The club was reading Assata, a biography on the life of the infamous Assata Shakur. Dad joked that he found us eerily similar and that I should research vacation homes in Cuba. I rolled my eyes, telling him that she was stronger and smarter than I was. My dad didn’t often cut me off. But on that day, he shook his head. “Don’t say that.”

For months after his death, I dreamed of hearing that voice sitting on the couch, with the sound of The Office in the background, with him eating pasta next to me. I wanted to tell him how my Morality and Ideology class reshaped my views on capitalism. I wanted him to see me pursue my interest in urban agriculture and off on my trips to the farm. He would never see me grow. Despite the loss, I persevered, joining a group called Growing Youth Organizers. I decided to be the change we had so desperately wanted to see in the world. Sage Adams, President, Urban farmer, Activist. My dad was someone who listened. So to honor him now, I took his advice and assumed the strength of Assata Shakur. In doing so, I embraced the roots he planted. When my father died, an activist was born.

Sage Adams, a graduate of Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School, is a freshman at Howard University.