Lessons Learned: How to hold on when you want to let go

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mia and siblings
Photo courtesy of Mia Anzalone.

Nobody wants to go to college with their older brother. No younger sibling wants to continue enduring the constant comparisons to him, risk running into him at the dining hall or hear his name in a conversation with a cute boy. My twin sister Leila and I were aware of these things when applying to college, and we felt that going to school with just each other would be an ideal experience. The same willingness did not apply to older brothers. No way.

My sister and I applied to many colleges in California as back-up options, including Oxy, where my older brother Matty is enrolled. Set on attending an East Coast college for a traditional academic experience (and to see the seasons change), we wanted to get as far away from our home in Hawaii as possible. But we quickly realized that this decision was not going to be solely up to us: a global pandemic concurrent with the release of college admittance letters forced our family to reevaluate the next four years. Unlike in any other year, this college decision became more than a matter of where we would study –– it became a matter of health, safety and comfort for my parents. You can guess what happens next.

After all was said and done, Oxy became the top choice for financial and geographic reasons. We figured that during a pandemic, it would be safer to attend a college closer to home than one on the other side of the country. My sister and I were excited for college, but we were reluctant to accept that the one thing we wanted to avoid, college with Matty, was now a reality — muting these feelings of excitement.

That was two years ago. Going to college with my brother seemed like one of the worst things in the world. But it was nothing compared to what was to come.

With Oxy online for the 2020–2021 academic year, I had a job working at a local supermarket for a few months until my mom, who had been caretaking for my grandparents, needed extra help. My sister and I quit our jobs, and together with our brother, we took care of our grandpa for four months. We rotated shifts at night and sometimes in between classes, carefully updating each other on how he was doing. My brother, sister and I were working together, but we never talked about it. We were all struggling with the idea that Grandpa was getting older, but we coped by committing ourselves to helping him. After he passed away in April, we shifted our focus toward being there for our grandma –– another way of coping without having to confront our grief.

Right as we were starting to heal, right as things were looking better for our family, the unimaginable happened. Barely two months after visiting our other set of grandparents in New York (Nana and Papa), our Nana passed away. Six days later, our Papa passed as well.

Everything happened so fast. Suddenly we were back in New York for their joint funeral, and instead of mourning one death, I was mourning three. After walking out with our Nana and Papa’s caskets from the church to the vehicles awaiting them, my siblings and I stood blankly outside. We just didn’t know how to act. Suddenly, in the silence of our grief, I felt Matty’s arms around me and Lelia. Smushed together in an embrace of validation and snot, I knew that even though I can count the times we’ve hugged on a single hand, this was the only one that mattered.

Fast forward a month and a half, and we were at Oxy, finally in person. My reluctance to attend school with my older brother had returned, and I prayed that I wouldn’t have to run into him at the MP or receive one of his awkward head flicks that minimally acknowledges my presence. Before parting ways to go to our dorms, my mom told my brother to look out for us and I knew in that moment that I would never ask him for anything. I decided I was going to college my way, devoid of the presence of my brother.

But, after all the adrenaline of college newness fled my body, I was left alone with my thoughts. Hardly two months after losing three grandparents, it was expected that I would just be okay. I tried going to parties with friends, immersing myself in college culture to cope with that grief faster than anyone should. But instead, I found that I had become ignorant of my feelings.

Merely three weeks into the first semester, I broke my promise. My fingers found the keyboard of my phone and I suddenly typed the words, “Can we get dinner tonight?” and sent the message to my brother and sister.

The next thing I knew, we were marching down York Boulevard to L&L Barbeque. Our mouths stuffed with chicken katsu and macaroni salad, washed down with a drink of Hawaiian Sun, we hardly talked to each other. But we were there not talking, together. The comfort and validation that I had lacked for so long were abundant in the sticky booth table at L&L in Eagle Rock.

We ended the night near Berkus, standing outside together in the cool September air that was not as foreign to me as it once was. Then, I asked Matty for a hug for the first time in my life. He embraced us, my sister and me, the same way he had done just a few months before. But instead of feeling such uncertainty, it was a reassurance that things would be okay and that if they weren’t, he would be here.

With Matty’s senior year coming to an end, I often reflect on the whirlwind that is our lives, especially during the last few years. Two years ago, I couldn’t imagine going to college with my older brother; now, I can’t imagine going to Oxy without him. We know that life is unpredictable, yet we try to plan who we will be and how we will feel, rejecting undesirable possibilities for the sake of our pride. Even though my Oxy experience will now continue without the presence of my big brother, I know that I will be okay. But, if it weren’t for those little moments this year of seeing him in the MP or coming up to my dorm to strum his guitar, I don’t think I would be.