Kamryn Hannigan


Kamryn Hannigan

My chest heaves and my eyes burn from holding back panic-stricken tears. The walls of my bedroom close in until I’m breathing back in my own choked sobs. My mind races, as it struggles to focus on too many things at once. I do not have time for this. I must swallow a bite far too big for me to chew, and I take in too much, yet nothing at all.

I faced junior year with a renewed fervor and a wasted ninth and tenth grade under my belt. Everything depended on the next two years of my life and I began the year in a dead sprint. With the weight of something to prove, I dragged my injured GPA higher, but by the end of the first semester I was exhausted and the home stretch loomed ahead of me.

Christmas break felt like only a small breath of air before school consumed everything once again. I landed a role in our UIL One Act Play which meant rehearsals after school until 5:15 p.m., sometimes 6 p.m. I worked late into the night for my AP classes and even added Thursday Choir rehearsals to the mix. As a result, my grades took a dip, and with them went my composure. The good student I created, began to slip.

Then my aunt got sick.

I watched as the strongest woman I had ever known fought just as she always did – with teeth bared and no regards to her sickness. But as time went on and her condition worsened, she slipped farther away from me. When we finally got her to the hospital, the doctors diagnosed her with everything under the sun. A clogged artery in her heart, a possibly cancerous substance in her lungs, severe COPD and a failing kidney.

They released her from the hospital with a long list of drugs, but she did not stay away long. One day her legs turned blue and she returned to her hospital bed. She was diagnosed with cardiovascular disease and they had to amputate one of her legs. A week later, to increase blood flow in her body, the other one went as well. The only communication between us for weeks consisted of whispered prayers through the phone as I listened to her cry – the fighter in her crippled and lost.

Eventually, I stopped calling. I stopped praying. Maybe if I did not acknowledge it, it would go away. I could not bear the reality of my aunt’s struggles, and I stayed shut in my room most of the time, leaning only on a select few. But even those select few could not see the fear that drove me. I spent weeks with tunnel vision, eyes glued to the simplest of goals. Perform well. I tied my very existence to the ability to score higher than those around me and approval from my directors. My intense desire to make up for freshman and sophomore year became so much more. It became a race against myself, against time, against my aunt’s own battle.

I can not say there was a breaking point. No meltdown. No eye-opening moment. Just a pause in the spirit. One night while work threatened to eat me alive, I reached for my phone. I longed to call the one person I always called when things got crazy. My aunt. The simple fact that I could not, brought my resolve crumbling to the ground. Fear wrapped itself around my heart and colored everything in a suffocating gray. The voices in my head whispered of failure urging me to rest, but I welcomed the exhaustion. The cold tiredness in my bones proved much easier to focus on than the rest of the world. Tears kept me company that night, but I did not stop. I just kept going.

It was not until recently when I went to visit my aunt in the hospital that the clouds parted and my addled teenage brain began to make sense of things. Before I got to the hospital, my grandmother said to me, “You have to be strong.” This simple phrase brought me to tears. I cried because I thought I knew what that meant. I cried because I was terrified of what that meant. I had been being strong.

Oh, how wrong I was.

I did not even begin to understand “being strong” until I hugged my aunt’s neck as she laid crippled in her hospital bed. However, I was not the one with strength. She was. She had the strength to cling to me in a time of helplessness. She had the strength to pull away and look at me with love in her eyes despite everything life did to take that away.

Being strong does not mean pushing past your breaking point because you think you have to. Being strong does not mean being the best by sheer force of will. Being strong means having the strength to fall to the lowest of lows and finding it in yourself to get back up. I am not the numbers at the top of my papers. I am not the number of awards I can win. I am who I am at the lowest of lows and the highest of highs and everything in between.