I was apparently the world’s worst baby. My mother often referred to me as the “poster child for birth control.” All day, I would just cry uncontrollably, for I was what they called a colicky baby. There was no discernable reason for my crying, at least not to the people trying to get me to shut up. But I’m sure in that little, baby head of mine, there something worth crying about. Maybe I was mourning having been forced out of my mother’s womb so suddenly. Indeed, Mom had only been in labor with me for little more than an hour. It was a miracle she’d made it into a hospital room. She blamed this on me, of course, on my pushiness and my need to come screaming into this world. The crying I did for months after this probably did nothing to quell this hypothesis.
My poor mother stayed home with me all day when I was a baby. I didn’t do much to show her my appreciation either. When she tried to feed me, I would cry and do what my entire family refers to as “power puking” all over the kitchen. When she put me down in the crib for a nap, I would scream and cry until falling asleep, at which point, my sister Cait, who was nearly two years old at this point, would come into my room and scream in my face, jealous of the attention I was getting. It must have been hard for her adjusting to having a screaming puke machine in the house when she was so used to being the only child. I would, of course, immediately wake up and resume my screaming, as my mom somehow managed to keep herself from throwing us both out the window.
By the end of the day, Steve would come back from work to find my mother holding me in her outstretched arms, covered in puke, crying and begging him to take me so she could maybe have a shower and some time to sob under the covers of her duvet.
Perhaps to prove her bravery, my mother went on to have two more children. Molly came two and a half years after me, and Lily five and a half years after that. The two of them were perfect babies. They smiled, and giggled, and ate their food without fussing. They slept. The only cause for complaint from either of them would be Molly’s aversion to the outdoors during her first summer.
But then something happened. Lily, who had just been learning to walk and even talk a little bit had suddenly lost it. She reverted to crawling, and she cried whenever someone went to touch her unless it was my mom. None of us knew what was happening or why. She’d just had a wave of vaccinations, so she should have been fine, right?
It wasn’t until she was about a year old that she was diagnosed with autism. We didn’t know what this meant. There wasn’t a manual for raising an autistic child. They were all so different that they had completely different needs. Lily was pretty low on the spectrum. She made no eye contact with any of us and cried all day. We were completely unable to console her. How could we? All she wanted was to be in her own, little world, and here we were, trying to bring her back into ours.
Even as Lily got older, she had a strict bedtime of seven o’clock at night. At this point in time, every light on the second floor had to be out, and the entire house went silent. Lily was an intensely light sleeper and could be woken up if we stepped on the third stair leading up to the second floor, causing it to squeak under our weight. And when she woke from any such noise, she would scream until my mother went in her room to calm her. When she returned, she tersely told us that if we weren’t quiet, we would be grounded.
I learned to be silent, to skip the third stair from the bottom, to turn my doorknob slowly enough that it didn’t make a sound, pull the door open with my wrist still twisting the knob, grab the knob from the other side with my left hand—keeping the knob in its twisted position—shut the door as slowly as possible as to not make a noise louder than a dull thud, before finally turning the knob slowly back to its normal position. I did my best never to drop anything in my room, for fear of waking up Lily. I dreaded the sound of my mother walking down the hall, knowing that I must have made a noise loud enough for her to hear, loud enough that now she was going to yell at me. I’m still this way now despite being twenty-two years old.
Molly, on the other hand, had a pretty debilitating fear of the dark and found that if she had to walk up the stairs at night alone, she had to run as quickly as she could, bounding up the steps before pulling open her bedroom door and slamming it shut. On most occasions we made sure to double-team the stairs in order to avoid this.
Cait was lucky enough to have a room in the basement, where none of the noise she made could penetrate Lily’s sensitive ears.
In fifth grade, we had a woman, who referred to herself as Miss K due to a long, complicated, Russian surname, come into our class to speak to us about joining orchestra. I had always been gifted with a good ear, thanks to kind genetics and a grandpa who was constantly singing and playing the piano without any sheet music in front of him. So I signed up to play the violin.
I can remember my first violin. It was a three-quarter sized violin which seemed humongous to me at the time, though it now looks like a child’s toy. Its wood was a rich color, and the strings smelled of the musty-scented rosin I would learn to use on my bow in order to cause more friction between the synthetic hairs and the strings, thus creating the vibrations necessary for sound.
As a prepubescent, female youth, I was very sensitive to any kind of criticism. I had also become the butt of a lot of jokes, mostly dirty ones that I didn’t understand. This was mostly because at some point, I had morphed from that screaming baby into a meek, awkward, little girl who weighed no more than sixty pounds and wore thick, bifocal glasses. But no matter what any of the other kids said to me, I knew I was good at the violin. I proudly carried my instrument to school on Thursdays, excited to miss a portion of math in order to go have a lesson with Miss K and a couple of other violinists. We were playing Disney tunes for our first concert, and I had been the first out of the lot to get through the arrangement of Fantasia without stopping, earning me a spot in the advanced class, which was shared by a couple of other girls and a boy named Zach.
Miss K had a method of making sure we practiced at home. We were each given small calendars on which we would write how many hours we’d practiced each day. We would have to get them signed by our parents before bringing them into school to show Miss K each week. So I, of course, did my best to practice every day. I loved it enough that I didn’t even consider it a chore. As long as I played in the basement, it didn’t bother Lily—even if it was past seven o’clock.
But the problem wasn’t Lily. It was Molly. For some reason, she found it necessary to follow me into the basement, knowing my intent was to play the violin. As soon as I started playing she would cover her ears and start crying, asking me to stop. She said the noise hurt her ears. I would later find out that Molly had a kind of hypersensitive hearing that went unnoticed by anyone else until she was eighteen. By saying that the sound of me playing the violin hurt her ears, she thought she was telling me that the pitch bothered her sensitive hearing. What I heard was that my violin playing sucked and she wanted me to stop.
From then on, I stopped playing unless I was alone in the house.
Unlike Molly, when Cait made rude comments, she meant them. I spent most of my high school career being oppressed by her treatment of me. She would run around telling everyone how I copied everything that she did. We were both in the colorguard—though I signed up first. We were both in the orchestra—though I signed up first. We both joined the stage crew for the school play—though I signed up first. We both liked to draw—this one’s a tie as our grandmother signed us up for art lessons when we were kids. And people believed that while she was a model student, and a model sister, and a model person, I was the unfortunate, leftover crap that tried to follow in her size nine footsteps.
During my senior year, I had some reprieve except when she returned from college for the weekend or during breaks. I would tell her stories about the people we both knew, to which she would say that she didn’t really want to hear about it anymore. She wanted to tell me all about her own life, but had no interest in hearing about mine. But I figured that was normal for college students, who were excited to talk about their new friends, and the new places they were seeing, and all of their crazy professors. And I didn’t mind too much. I was excited too, after all. She was out of my high school life for good. I had finally managed to pick the lock on the cage she’d shoved me in and make some friends of my own.
I had grown confident enough to make noise in my own house. Hairspray had recently come out in theaters, which meant I had the songs stuck in my head all day. I would roam the house singing “Big, Blonde, and Beautiful” despite not being big, nor blonde, nor beautiful in my awkward seventeen-year-old body. I walked through the kitchen singing as I retrieved my favorite cranberry-apple juice from the refrigerator, until, standing at the kitchen counter, Cait asked snidely if I was going to sing the whole song. I shut my mouth and poured myself some juice before shuffling out of the kitchen.
As Lily grew into her prepubescent years, she became a much deeper sleeper, and her ears were not nearly as sensitive as they had been in the past. However, she grew accustomed with the way things were while I was away at college and didn’t always have an easy time adjusting when I came back. We were still strict with her schedule, for the schedule was Lily’s security blanket, a necessary comfort in a world full of possible anxiety and meltdowns. But when we sat down on the couch in the family room to watch Jeopardy at night, I realized Lily wasn’t accustomed to one thing during this newer ritual: my voice. As Mom would talk about what had been going on in the house lately, Lily would quietly watch her show. But the second I opened my mouth she would start asking for my mother’s attention. She would call for my mother continually, like some kind of mantra, until I stopped speaking.
After this happened a few times, I realized one thing. All my life, everyone’s been telling me to shut the hell up.