Chapter Sixteen: The New Me

There it was. The letter I was waiting for. The wrinkle-free, crisp, and blinding white envelope with the little red castle icon in the top left corner and my name and address in 12 point and BOLD font stared back at me. This was it. This was the moment of finding out if I was accepted to the college that I was 100% determined to go to no matter what. I held my breath and slit the envelope. The words “accepted” and “scholarship for outstanding academic achievements” hit me. I exhaled and a wide and 100-watt grin took over my face. I GOT IN to Manhattanville College—my first and essentially my only choice!!!

“DAD!!!” I screamed at the top of my lungs from upstairs.

“What?!” My Dad screamed back.

I ran down the stairs two at a time and waved the acceptance letter triumphantly. “I got in!! I got in!!”

My Dad snatched the letter from my hands, beamed, and said simply and without an ounce of over-enthusiasm: “Congratulations.”

I stopped pumping my fists in the air and prancing around in the living room. My Dad did not sound excited at all. I received more excitement and emotions from him when I aced a grade. What was going on?

“Congratulations? That’s it? Dad? What’s wrong? I thought you would be happy. Manhattanville College is perfect for me. Liberal Arts because I do not know what the hell to really do with my life. Scholarship. Close to home. Claudia will be there. I can commute…” I rattled off and then my Dad cut in sharply.

“You are not commuting,” he said adamantly.

“But, Dad, I do not want to leave home,” I said shakily. Did my Dad not want me around at home? What had I done wrong?

He gave me back the letter, turned his back on me, and said quietly: “Are you sure that this is the college YOU definitely want to go to?”

I hesitated briefly, gave a crooked smile, and then confirmed: “Yeah, sure! It is perfect in location and my best buddy will be there. Only 20 minutes away from you guys,” I boomed proudly.

My Dad looked like he was struggling to say something, but the words could not come out from his mouth.

“What? What is it?” I asked.

He did not say anything, except: “If this is the school that YOU want to go to then okay. But, you are not commuting. You are living there on campus to get the full college experience.”

“But—“ I squeaked.

“It will be a clean slate. I want you to be independent. You cannot keep living in the past and with your health experiences hanging over your head. You have to be you.”

I opened my mouth to say to him: “But, I do not know who the hell I am.” I closed my mouth. I was pretty much speechless for once in my life. All the excitement was deflated out of me. I crept upstairs and interpreted this conversation between my Father and I as him saying that he did not want me around. Okay. He did not want me around. So, let it be. Maybe leaving to school would be the best thing that happened to my family and me since I received my second kidney transplant.

Though the tension between my Father and I about this mystery of commuting versus living in a dormitory on campus was still there between us as the months flew by to my graduation day, I honestly did not have the energy and focus to dwell on all of the bubbling issues. Graduation day was here before I knew it. The actual ceremony went by in a spin cycle haze. The day was one of the hottest and most scorching days in June. My life in snapshot photos and memories were like a slideshow in my head as the sounds of whistles, claps, and cheers went on in the background as I walked down the aisle. If it were not for my organ donors and their families, who knew if I would even be graduating and wearing this flowing white graduation gown and with my graduation cap bobby-pinned tightly to my head? If it were not for them and their decision, I would not be ready to embark on what would be one of my most exciting chapters in my life: College. In the midst of the crazy crowd, I glimpsed family with their waving hands and stretched smiles. A tightness squeezed in my chest and throat. How could I leave them? Did I have to leave them? What was I going to do with my life? What was my life all about anyway?

While probably the moral majority of my graduating class was more than ready and thrilled to pieces to leave high school and start new, I just wanted to sit firmly and comfortably in the life I had known. I did not want to move forward. Not knowing what was ahead and what to do with my life just about terrified me to no end. I barely heard or absorbed all the speeches and as each classmate walked up with glowing grins because that tightness and fear was nearly squeezing my body to shreds in the heat. I was literally dreading my name being called up because I somehow felt that as soon as my name was called and as soon as that diploma was slipped into my sweaty hands that one chapter officially ended and another that I was sickly scared about was about to begin. I practically crisped under the sun by the time my name was called—I was always last because of my surname.

When I was called and walked up to my Principal to receive my diploma, I thought: “This is it. One ending. Another beginning.” My Principal met my gaze and mouthed: “So proud of you, Mary…” The weight of my diploma fell into my hands. A flash of my Father’s camera went nearly blinded me as I walked down the ramp with my diploma clenched in my hands. I forced a smile for the sake of my family and especially for my Father on the surface, but inside, I was completely numb with shock that high school had ended and now college was about to begin. Now, what?

That summer before I started university was the fastest and most surreal summer that I ever endured. While I wanted to enjoy every single minute and moment in the familiarity of my bedroom and home, my Dad was constantly reminding me and probing me to pack up my stuff because I was leaving. So, I was the diligent daughter in hoarding away as much of my life as I could into suitcases and boxes, including my stuffed animals, bulky and trusty computer and inkjet printer, worn-out large clothes, books, and new bed sheets. I discovered and re-read many of my journals with my scribbled handwriting about my time in the hospital and was in awe that I had now reached this point in my life that I was healthy enough to go to college. I never would have imagined this happening. As I spent those summer days reflecting on my past and packing for my future, it was the first time that I began to feel uncomfortable around my Father. He was always my rock, closest confidant, and role model in my life, but there was no denying that things were not the same between us as we tiptoed on glass around the sore subject of me really leaving home. Summer was going to end, and all along in the back of my head, I thought that my Dad could not have been serious about me living on campus. Why in the world would he fork over all that money when I was only 20 minutes from home and could easily commute? But, he was more than serious and determined when he submitted the money and signed off on all the official documents that had me kicked out of the home I had known forever and into the zone of an unknown college dormitory with Claudia. My saving grace was that Claudia and I were set to be roommates. Whenever the nerves started all over again about my questionable future and life, I thought about Claudia. At least I would have one shred of soothing comfort with me. But, at the same time, I could not believe when everything was signed, sealed, and official.

“Dad, I did not think you were really serious about me leaving,” I admitted.

He looked at me, sighed, and said: “Mary, we are going to make a deal. You are going to live on campus for at least two years. If you absolutely hate those two years than you are more than welcome to commute. Just do me that favor. Oh, yeah, and one more thing…”

“Yeah?” I responded with bright eyes, in hopes that he was changing his mind at the last minute.

“Watch out for the freshmen fifteen of gaining all that weight you worked so hard to lose.”

My face fell to pieces. I was abandoned all over again like when my Mom left.

On the day that I moved into my dormitory, I took a deep breath and forced a perky smile and attitude. This was a fresh start and not a funeral, I reminded myself. We hauled my belongings into my Dad’s car. I took one more long and hard stare at the red brick home that I had lived in my whole life, remembering how I use to dance and skip on the brick driveway as a little girl after my first kidney transplant, remembering all the special moments with my family as I waited to hear when or if I would receive a second kidney transplant, and remembering when I first returned home after my second kidney transplant. The memories flooded me. How come all my memories always came back to my health? Was I just my health and nothing more or nothing less? I turned away and braced myself for this newest college chapter in my life.

The campus was swarmed with cars and people unloading or bidding tearful or excited farewells to one another. Claudia and her family were already in what would be the place I lived in for at least the next two years of my life. The dorm room was L-Shaped. As soon as I walked in, there were two large side closets, a bed in the corner with shelves above, and a side window overlooking the front entrance of the dormitory. As soon as I turned right, there was another area for another bed, shelves above that, a desk space area, and the bathroom was all the way on the other side. I took the side that was closest to the bathroom that Claudia and I were going to share with a girl that we had not yet met.

I took one quick survey of the dorm room and then I looked at Claudia to try to meet her gaze. She looked like how I felt. We were both miserable—and so scared. What was wrong with me? Why was I so scared? I could not possibly be this scared of living life when I had overcome death—but I was. Claudia was in a back corner as her Father carried in suitcases and random items while her Mother and sisters rummaged through the closets.

“Look at all the closet space!” Her Mother squealed.

“Did you check out the bathroom? It is huge!” I think it was one of Claudia’s sisters that exclaimed that, but I was not too sure.

Claudia’s family and her and then my family and I went into a methodical and mechanical mode of folding clothes, making the bed, setting out the desk space areas, and chattering aimlessly and superficially. However, the more we all got into it and the more my area unfolded to reveal my personality and me truly living here, the more the knots tightened in my tummy. As soon as all of this was done, my Dad and Stepmom were leaving. I could not face it. It could not happen. Why did everyone leave me? Why did things have to change?

“You are going to do great. We are just a phone call away. We can see you every weekend,” My Dad said cheerily. He took my round face in his hands, enveloped me in a hug, and said to me quietly in my ear: “I am really proud of you. Look how far you have come. You can do anything—and you have, and you will.”

Tears filled my eyes. I swallowed hard. This was not happening. They could not leave me here when I had no idea who the hell I was and what my life was about without my family there and without my health experiences all but distant and fuzzy memories. The worst part is I did not know why I was really so miserable when this was a new start and the most normal I probably ever was in my entire life thus far. Claudia’s family and my family disappeared after loads more good-byes, hugs, and kisses. It was just Claudia and I in the room. We sat next to one another on her flowered bedspread bed. Her bed squeaked when I sat on it.

“Well…” I said.

“Well,” she said with finality.

“Are you okay?” I asked slowly.

“What can we do? We do not have a choice anyway,” Claudia said bluntly.

We did not say too much that night because there was nothing really to say. We just ended up going to bed really early. It was the first night that I was ever away from home. Sure, I had been away from home in a hospital, but that did not count because I was more familiar with a hospital room than a dorm room and even my own bedroom at times. In my dormitory, my bed was right next to a huge window that overlooked a monstrous tree and one of the many pathways or walkways that students strolled on. The summer breeze seeped through the window, giving me a slightly warm chill. The moon was swollen and full even through the drawn blinds. My brand new bed sheets were starched and itchy. I heard laughter from outside and a strange thumping from up above me. I hugged my stuffed animal tightly to my constricted chest. I wanted to go home.

Just when I was about to stuff a couple orange earplugs into my ears, I heard Claudia whisper faintly: “Are you asleep?”

“No,” I responded.


She did not have her hearing aides in and so I said about ten decibels louder: “No!”

We did not say anything else. I tossed and turned for the rest of the night, thinking about my Father and hearing him in the depths of my head saying: “It will be a clean slate. I want you to be independent. You cannot keep living in the past and with your health hanging over your head. You have to be you.”

The next morning, I was groggy and cranky from a lack of sleep in an unfamiliar bed and setting. While Claudia and I were getting ready to go to the cafeteria for breakfast, she suggested that we go to the chapel to maybe pray to get through the day because we were so on edge and nervous rather than happy and excited about figuring out our classes and this college start. I reluctantly agreed. I did not even remember the last time I was in a Church. Probably the last time I was in a Church was when my parents were still married. When Claudia opened the doors to the chapel and I followed her, I stopped breathing. It was one of the most beautiful Churches that I had ever stepped foot into with illuminating and large stained glass windows and polished lined pews. Claudia and I sat in the front and she started praying to somehow get through the day.

I never thought too much about religion, because I always considered myself more so spiritual than religious. In that moment, I felt the most spiritual and at peace than I ever remembered feeling. I bowed my head and clasped my hands, but I could not resist looking all around me at such beauty and feeling such radiating warmth. Claudia and I eventually fell completely silent. A loud voice started up in my head: “Mary, no one knows you here at college. No one knows about your past, your secrets, and your life. You can hide away your past and all the pain and all the hurt with your health and how it affected your family and you. Maybe you can even feel less guilty about staying alive while your organ donor died. You can be someone that you always wanted or dreamed to be, and there is not anyone or anything to stop you. You can be anyone you want to because of this second kidney transplant.” I lifted my head and the light through the stained glass windows made me blink profusely. That is when I answered my thoughts with a combined delayed, determined, yet surrendered vow: “So, let’s start then.”

Slowly, but surely, I started to slide headfirst into this new and bewildering college lifestyle. No one to tell me when to eat my meals and what to eat. No one to order me as to what classes I had to take because I could explore and start to take whatever classes I wanted to take. No one to constantly check up on me as to where I was going and what I was doing. I could do my homework and organize my own time whenever I wanted to. I could meet new people who had no idea about what I had been through. I could break away from my past that I had let emotionally chain me.

Before I knew what was happening, my high school years that were all about uncertainty took a backseat and perhaps even started to evaporate all together. The bitter, anti-social girl that kept to herself and her studies in high school was withering and being replaced by a curious, eager, and hungry girl that was slowly falling in love and enraptured with university studies, the social world, and delicious and delectable freedom. An enthusiastic and social butterfly that was somewhat hidden somewhere inside me suddenly exploded out of me to talk to the new people I was meeting, bask in this freedom, and take in all the endless choices and possibilities that university offered. I took calligraphy, religion, and ceramic classes to find my creative and cultural side. I attended international student events, dance/theatre/music productions, and even played disc jockey for some time on the college radio station. I was meeting new people, learning new things, and going to events and activities that I never would have even thought of. At the same time that this newbie, fun-loving, and so-called party animal side was out and about, the studious geek side also pushed its way out. After dabbling with one too many classes and not being able to decide whether to study Political Science, Asian Studies, Sociology, Psychology, or English, I finally decided what I wanted to study in my sophomore year of university: a minor in sociology and a self-designed major entitled Psychology of Communications to explore interpersonal relationships and the communication involved. I spent days contemplating about intense and philosophical discussions that we had in class and what I read from textbooks. I listened to the professors’ lectures and found my voice to finally speak my opinions inside and outside the classrooms. I removed my rose-colored glasses and broke down my tunnel-vision views of the outside world by reading the newspaper and watching the news for current and world events and zoning in on political issues. I became politically and proactively charged outside of academics by writing letters to such politicians as President Bush at that time and previous President Clinton on my thoughts about terrorism and the impending Iraq War that I felt could only cause more disastrous consequences rather than peaceful solutions. I received appreciative responses from both political leaders as well as from my professors for voicing my concerns and opinions. Unbeknownst to me, college was a priceless, special, and probably the happiest time of my life because it was the process of discovering me and who I really was besides “the girl with kidney transplants.”

The more I was involved with academics and socializing with others, the more I began to lose weight. I made a promise to my Father that I was not going to gain back the weight that I had fought so hard to lose after my second kidney transplant. That promise and also fear that I would gain back the weight pushed me to take up swimming at the gym on campus, avoid the greasy foods that glimmered under the fluorescent cafeteria lights, and attack the vegetable and fruit buffet with a vengeance. On a daily basis, I walked at least two rounds on the campus grounds. When it rained or snowed, I roamed around the college dormitory that I lived in and ran up and down the stairs with vigor and a deep and swelling determination that coursed through my body. I swam as often as I could. Some may say that my losing weight and this opinionated, vocal, and social metamorphosis me teetered on a strange obsession. And, yes, I was obsessed. I was obsessed with forgetting about and leaving the past to become the new, slender, social, and smart me. I did not want people to know who I was. My health history was my own little secret world to keep to myself and myself alone. I only wanted people to know the new me and who I had become.

When I attended the latest university event, chattered with a new friend, or swam an extra lap, I forgot the health challenges I faced and even questioned if they ever really happened or if they were blurry dreams? It was fascinating to temporarily feed myself treats of a healthy life when my whole life was really all about unbearable truths and realisms. It was invigorating, empowering, and divine to meet new people that did not know my past and that they could judge and befriend me based on who I was rather than what my illnesses identified me as. Most of all, I discovered freedom and that I was still as passionate as ever to help others and make a difference as I was after overcoming my kidney rejection and keeping my second kidney transplant. For as long as I lived, I identified myself with my illness—my chronic kidney failure, my surgeries, and my hip problems. Everything up until that moment that I made the decision to throw myself in university life had been about my health. Everything from university and on became about me and that I was more than just my health. University gave me a clean slate, a new life, and for the first time ever, I experienced “normal.”

By the second year of university and on the cusp of beginning my third year, my weight dwindled down to 116 pounds and a fiery, bright, and high on life new me skyrocketed and was showcased to my family and friends who had known all I went through and to the new people who came into my life at college. I had a brand new wardrobe of jeans, well-fitted T-shirts, and princess-like, flowing skirts that all fit snugly on my newly slender, petite, and frame. I passed by mirrors and stopped to grin at my elongated neck, well-defined cheekbones, and slim legs. At 116 pounds and with my social life thriving with new friends and studies solidified, I was completely on top of the world with the feeling that I had my whole life in my hands to create, mold, and take charge of for the very first time in my life. 

It turned out that my Father was right all along about university giving me a clean slate. One of his many paternal gifts that he gave to me was letting me go and letting my years at university and myself be about me and my future rather than only my past. I now understood that it was from all my university experiences, weight loss adventures, and the management of my moods that Prednisone still poked upon me that we never really find out who we are but learn who we are. Yet, there was still so much to learn and there were still so many upcoming surprises in store for this newfound me.

Age 20/21 and 7 years after my second kidney transplant: 
My lowest weight of 116 pounds

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