Art by Wahleyah Black
I was 13 when I was first admitted to the mental hospital. I remember a nurse walking me to my room where I would be staying for a week. I sat in my room and tried to find comfort in the plastic stickers of glow-in-the-dark stars peeling from the ceiling as I had a few of them in my childhood bedroom but the wafting smell of the hospital reminded me where I really was. My doctor handed me my hospital gown, instructing me to put my clothes in what looked like a garbage bag. She told me what the week was going to look like, the rules, and if I need anything, to ask the male nurse who was standing behind her. I nodded, changed into the hospital gown, and sat down on my bed. Moments later, a woman with stringy black hair walked into my room. I remember her shoulders hunched over, eyes sunken, and wondered when was the last time she slept but also if there were adult patients admitted in the pediatric ward. She extended her hand to shake mine and said, “hi, I’m Yaffa. I’m 17. And you?” I was a little taken back and admitted that I thought she was older to which she replied “yeah, I get that a lot.”
That night, I suppose Yaffa noticed me twisting & turning in bed, having trouble falling asleep as it was the first time I was away from my family. I had remembered wondering if there was something I could’ve done differently, perhaps been more normal so I wouldn’t have put myself and my family in this situation. It seemed as though Yaffa had read my mind as she quietly tip-toed to the door and asked me what my favorite chocolate bar was and that she would be right back. I got nervous as I was firmly told that patients were forbidden to leave our rooms at night. She came back moments later, took out a snickers bar from her bra, and said “I remember my first time at the hospital. It’s scary to be away from family but it’ll get better over time. Plus, chocolate always makes me feel better.” She smiled and went back to her bed. “But remember to flush the wrapper down the toilet. We’re not allowed to eat outside the cafeteria. Stupid fascist fuckers.”
Within the next few days, Yaffa would pass me little notes with big butterflies on them. She always managed to stash some extra jellos and potato chips for me from the cafeteria so we can eat them at night and talk about her childhood in Palestine, her crazy party stories, which strain of hash was the best, and how I should wait until I was 19 to start smoking. She did most of the talking, but I didn’t mind. She even faked a dramatic panic attack one night, alarming the entire ward, as she saw the male nurse (I soon learned was nicknamed “pervy peter”) following me to the bathroom after I told her how he kept trying to hug me during art time.
2 days before I was released, I asked her why butterflies meant so much to her. “I don’t know. I guess I’m jealous of how free they are. They’re free to go wherever they want and whenever.” There was a long silence between us, both of us understanding what this meant. Yaffa then lifted her shirt, showing me a stick n poke of a butterfly on her waist. She said, “my parents freaked when they saw this. Made it even more special”, she laughed. “My girlfriend tatted it for me.” My eyes widened as I heard the word “girlfriend”. She stared at me, watching me take it in, and laughed as she walked back to her bed. The next morning, she taught me what the word “lesbian” meant and that apparently “it wasn’t a white thing”.
On my last day, Yaffa braided my hair before I saw my parents. She told me words that I will never forget and repeat to anyone in this universe as I will forever keep them treasured. She was the first person in my life that showed me pure, unadulterated love, wishing for nothing in return. Since I was released, we’ve exchanged a few letters from time to time as her parents forbid her from having a cellphone. Each signing off with a drawing of a butterfly and her name. I have since then been admitted twice, but I never met anyone as wonderful as Yaffa.
This morning, I found out that Yaffa has died. In the afternoon, I looked outside my window and saw a butterfly sitting outside. I’m not sure if this was a figment of my imagination but I know in my heart she is watching over all of us.
Yaffa will forever live on and I know in my heart, she is flying over every mountain on this earth as a big beautiful blue butterfly. Just as she always wanted. Finally free.