You Are Infinite
Everyone has a unique study abroad experience. We experience different cultures, different foods, and different languages. We meet different people and travel to different places. We bring with us different baggage, both physical and mental. Just as no two people are alike, no two study abroad experiences are identical. But there are common themes. Though most returnees rave about their experiences abroad, many were also faced with incredible obstacles. I am no exception. Although my case may seem extreme and unique, the resulting love and support is universal. So, without further ado, this is my story.
May 5th, 2013 was supposed to be like any other day of my study abroad experience in Townsville, Australia. There was a massive music festival being held in my city, which most of my friends were going to. I couldn’t afford the $100 ticket, having just spent a week in New Zealand, so I made plans with my friend Shannon, another broke American, to bike to the nearby beach and spend the day being as lazy as possible. It was suppose to be just another tropical, sunny day in Queensland.
But everything changed when I woke up to find multiple calls and a text message from my mom on my dinky Australian track phone. When the text message read, “Call me as soon as you wake up” I knew something was wrong. I can vividly remember getting on my computer and immediately calling my mom. She had this pained, pitying look on her face as she sat down, with my stepdad behind her, and told me that my dad had died.
I should clarify. My dad had been really sick for over half of my life. When I was 8 years old, he underwent what should have been a relatively routine brain surgery. Instead, he contracted bacterial meningitis as a result of the procedure. The meningitis lead to a multitude of other complications, forcing him in and out of the hospital ever since.
The first week I was in Australia, he was in the hospital with a serious infection. This mixed with the incredible homesickness I was already feeling was not a good combination. I considered going home right then and there, but I didn’t. I knew I would end up regretting cutting my time abroad so short. After all I had been planning to study abroad for years. So I stayed, and he was discharged. This cycle repeated itself a few more times over the next couple months. He would go into the hospital, I’d question whether I should go home, I’d stay, and he’d get better. While I was traveling with a friend in New Zealand, he once again ended up in the hospital. But he had been steadily improving as the week went on. In fact, whenever I spoke with him, which was on a daily basis, he would tell me he was ready to go home. But that never happened.
The sequence of events following the phone call with my mom was a blur. I had a remarkably short conversation with her, instantly switching into planning mode. I had so much I needed to figure out. I needed to find a flight home for the funeral. I needed to call Timmy, my IFSA-Butler coordinator, and let him know what was going on. I needed to email my professors and get extensions on my assignments. It was just task after task after task. I called Shannon, waking her up at 8am to bluntly tell her that I couldn’t go to the beach because my Dad had died so I had too much I needed to figure out. I could tell she was shocked and wanted to help, but I brushed her off and hung up. My mom quickly found me a flight home, but it didn’t leave for three days. Three. Whole. Days. It seemed like an eternity. I couldn’t imagine what I would do on my own for three days.
But I quickly learned that I was not alone. Not much time had passed before I heard a knock on my door. Shannon had arrived. She didn’t need me to ask her to come; she just came. In fact she sat dutifully in the corner of my room while I finalized travel details. This is a girl who, until that day, had been straddling the line between acquaintance and friend. Yet here she was, on the worst day of my life, comforting me. She had no obligation to be there in any way. But she was.
The support did not end with her. Though I had many “friends” in Australia, none of them knew my dad had been sick. This was not information I often shared. Yet over the next few days, the outpour of support I received was staggering. Some friends dragged me out to play Ultimate Frisbee. Others sat me down to watch a marathon of Friends. One friend got up at 4:30 in the morning to drive me to the airport just so I wouldn’t need to take a taxi. Several others jumped at the opportunity to pick me up from the airport when I finally did returned. Even the simple act of inviting me to come to dinner did not go unnoticed. I might have forgotten to eat had it not been for their subtle reminders. What is astonishing to me is that most people didn’t actually know what had happened. I only told the people who needed to know. But most of my friends knew something was up, I had to tell them I was going home for a week and a half. No one pushed the issue; no one pried. They just silently supported me when I needed it most.
Making the decision to return to Australia and continue my study abroad experience was one of the most difficult decisions of my life. Once I was home, all I wanted was to stay with my family. I wanted to help with all the technicalities. I wanted to be there for my grandparents and my brother. I hated feeling so far away from everyone I loved. But my family encouraged me to return. The truth was, I needed to return. I needed the credits in order to graduate on time. So return I did, fearing what I would face.
But support continued to be plentiful and astounding. I was blown away. I had been so concerned that people would treat me differently or take pity on me. I had been so nervous about leaving my “real friends” back home when I thought I needed them most. But my Australian friends surprised me. They somehow, collectively managed to fill the large footprints of my friends back home. They managed to subtly cheer me up, without acting as though something terrible had happened that invoked their pity. It was almost as though nothing had changed. By now nearly everyone knew that something had happened, but that was beyond the point. I was still the same person to them. They still treated me the same. No one walked on eggshells around me. They treated me normally, and I needed that more than anything.
I needed to finish my time abroad. I needed to get all those experiences. My dad would have been devastated if he had been the reason I’d ended my adventures early. He was a man who, years ago, spent months fighting to regain his strength after numerous surgeries and complications just so he could take me and my brother to the Galapagos Islands. He adored adventure and travel and exploration. I owed it to him to continue my own journey. Mark Twain once said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” I took the leap; I went abroad in the mist of my dad’s illness and I returned to my abroad experience after losing him. Because of this, I can honestly say I have no regret.
(Seen from the top of Castle Hill in Townsville, Australia)
“With everything that has happened to you, you can either feel sorry for yourself, or treat what has happened as a gift. Everything is either an opportunity to grow or an obstacle to keep you from growing. You get to choose”