There's Pain in Making a New Home

Illustration by Stephanie Yim

Illustration by Stephanie Yim

My first apartment had linoleum countertops and scuffed hardwood floors. It smelled of cleaner chemicals and a new coat of paint, and faced a noisy street. We would later learn that it was close enough to the local fire station that we could hear the sirens loud and clear every night. But it was mine (and three others’), and I was happy to have my own space. My parents and I left the three bags and few boxes that held everything I had brought to Seattle in the empty living room and got to work — my mom swiffering the floors and wiping the countertops down, while I cleaned the bathroom, and my dad entering the magical realm of Ikea-land in the other room.

But the excitement of my first apartment was easily overpowered; in fact, it was hard to feel any excitement at all. We worked silently and quickly, trying our best not to let the elephant in the room distract us from the tasks at hand. Our elephant was a five-foot-tall, 85-year-old Filipino man who was laying in a hospital bed 1,158 miles away, awaiting dialysis.

We kept working, nonetheless. When Saturday was over, we had built a bed and a bar cart, and cleansed the apartment of any dust or debris the cleaners had missed during the routine sweep that occurred at every lease transfer. The living room was still an empty wasteland of boxes and packaging; there was nothing about this place that felt like a home. But I stayed the night here, because it seemed like the thing to do; I was supposed to be excited about this place. My parents said goodnight and went back to their hotel, saying that they’d see me tomorrow. I spent my first night in my new apartment feeling little excitement about having my own space, rather a mixture of anxiety and dread, as I thought of the small man who lay helpless so far away, as we all willed him to live a little bit longer.

My Lolo was born on December 27, 1932, in Alcala, Pangasinan, Philippines. He grew up in San Ildefonso, Ilocos Sur, a town for which he would later start a charity in the States. He emigrated to America in 1970, leaving his wife and children in the Philippines while he worked to build a life for them all somewhere else. He worked odd jobs and lived in overcrowded apartments, but eventually settled in Long Beach, California, where my Lola, mom, aunt, and uncle would later join him. He worked for the State of California Air Resources Board for 30 years, retiring when I was about 6 years old.

My brother and I would spend weekends at Lola and Lolo’s house, where we’d eat eggs, rice, and spam for breakfast (and when we were lucky, Lola would make torta). Lolo would go on walks around the neighborhood; I only ever went on one, and learned that they were silent walks that we weren’t supposed to talk on. Sometimes we’d wash his car to cool off; Long Beach had its fair share of hot days and they didn’t have air conditioning until I hit high school. Other days, we’d help him pick fruit from his garden (occasionally avocados, but mainly oranges). And we’d go to church every Sunday morning we were there. My brother and I weren’t huge fans of church, but with our attendance came the promise of donuts and chocolate milk afterward, and we couldn’t really say no to that. At one point, my Lolo tried to teach me and my brother Tagalog, which didn’t end well, but I still have the packet he put together for us with vocabulary words and phrases that likely wouldn’t get us further than a little bit of small talk or ordering at a restaurant (as long as it was one of the meals he had chosen to include the word for in the packet). When it was time to go home and my mom was there to get us, they’d often wait in front of the house, waving until we had driven off and were no longer in sight. These weekends, though seemingly uneventful to my brother and I, meant a lot to my grandparents; they were a sort of happy routine of laziness and comfort.

I laid in my bed that night in my new apartment, thinking about these weekends, and the other days, and holidays I spent with them. And I started to panic. My roommates were yet to come, and I hated to admit it, but I was scared to be on my own. I was scared that he wouldn’t live much longer, and I was scared that I wouldn’t have a shoulder to cry on when he died.

But Sunday came, and my parents came back, and he was still alive — though the brief relief that I felt was soon replaced with a certain tightness my chest had previously only reserved for anxiety attacks.

Sunday’s tasks were similar to those of the day before: We went back to Ikea to get a dresser that had been restocked overnight and then got to work on it; we continued to inspect the apartment for damages to put on the move-in condition report; and we hoped and hoped that he would be alright. One of my roommates showed up around lunchtime that day to unload some of her things and turned right around to get more. And I was relieved to have the space to myself for just a little bit longer; I knew full well that the tears could fall at any time.

Another roommate came later that day, and she and her parents began to work on setting up her room in the same fashion that my parents and I had, though they didn’t have to endure the paint and chemical smell (or the dying old man two states away). And not long after we finished the dresser, my mom got a text from her sister that read, Leah, call me. And my heart sunk. The three of us stood in the living room that had now become home to a mountain of broken down cardboard boxes but was otherwise empty, as my mom made the call. And then we cried. We huddled and quietly cried, as two rooms over, my friend and her parents experienced the elation of a first apartment that I had yet to feel.

My parents had to fly back to California that night. I thought about asking if I could go with them, but I knew better. School would start up again soon, and there was still unpacking to be done. I walked them down to their car, holding back tears, though they fell fast and hot as I gave my parents one last hug before they got into the car and drove off to the airport. I went back inside and cried again, feeling more alone and empty than the night before. I felt a sense of gratefulness for getting to be with them when we found out, but almost immediately felt bad when I thought about my brother, who was home alone when he found out; I regretted that he had to experience my biggest fear just for me to avoid it.

A couple of weeks later, I flew home for my Lolo’s service and burial, and I was happy to be surrounded by so many people with such fond memories of him. I had previously not known how big an impact such a small man could make, but words could not describe the happiness that I felt knowing that so many people cared enough about my Lolo to come and celebrate him. They traded stories about him, allowing me to listen and learn more about the man that my Lolo was, for which I was grateful. My Lola clutched my hand as he was lowered into the ground, and we all cried together.

I flew back to Seattle the next day feeling a sad sense of closure, but I knew I was lucky to be able to go home at all for his funeral. I was greeted by my smiling roommates, who couldn’t wait to show me how clean the apartment was; they had really scrubbed it, through and through.  They showed me the clean bathroom, kitchen, and living room, and walked me through all the decorating they had done while I was gone. And though my face was still hot from the short cry I’d had in the Lyft from the airport to my new apartment, I couldn’t help but smile knowing that I had such a great support system here in Seattle; I knew I would be okay this school year regardless of whatever else happened.

My apartment now has art on the walls and smells of fresh cotton. There’s not much we could do about the linoleum countertops and scuffed hardwood floors, but they serve their purpose. A couch has replaced the mountain of boxes, and everything feels a little more like home. And though my memory of this apartment will always be marked by the pain that I felt while huddled in that empty room on one of Seattle’s last sunny days, I love my space, and I love the people that I share it with. And, who knows, maybe I’ll pick up Tagalog past the small talk and meal ordering vocabulary Lolo provided me, though that’s a good start.


About Allison Kirste

Allison Kirste was born and raised in Southern California, spending the majority of her adolescence in a small town outside of Pasadena, California. She’s currently in her second year at the University of Washington in Seattle, pursuing her bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies and minoring in Laws, Society, and Justice. In addition to being passionate about writing, Allison cares deeply about environmental and social justice issues and has spent a considerable amount of her time working on environmental campaigns. She also previously wrote for Affinity Magazine, a social-justice minded, teen-run, online magazine. After college, Allison hopes to find a career at the intersection of her passions for the environment and social justice, and she hopes to keep writing, too.