I got the text from my mother on a Tuesday.
When they diagnosed my father, I had just begun my sophomore year. I was a transfer student navigating my disorienting new collegiate environment. Grief and mourning is its own unique and dizzying experience. As his diagnosis has dragged on and his symptoms have grown, my father’s illness has sometimes left me as a husk of the girl I wanted to be, the girl he wanted me to be.
His diagnosis is no longer new. I’ve carried it with me for months—and let it calcify into something deep and dead, rotting inside of me. Most days, I keep myself disorientingly busy. I suspect if I stop sprinting, all the darkest and ugliest parts of me will leak out, so instead, I run marathons and triathlons. I repeat “I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay” at each slight pause, like a mantra. Like a prayer.
But I haven’t done it without help. As overwhelming as this year has been, I’ve found a collection of people to call my own. They help me carry the burden of grief. My roommates have watched me fall time and time again, with wisdom and support that I still marvel over. Christie has let me lean on her more times than I can count, has let me come into her room and talk for hours in a meandering fashion about nothing particular at all, just because I’m too scared to say what I actually want to. In the blank spaces of conversation between us, she has let me say all that I needed to without confessing anything at all.
And my other roommate, Aliki, has held me up each time my knees threaten to buckle. I don't have a sister, but that same fierce protectiveness I feel towards her is what I imagine it must feel like to have one. Some days, she climbs into my slim Twin XL bed, and we stare at the twinkling fairy lights across from us as we confess the various worries—silly and serious—that plague us. Our text messages read like love letters filled both with touching sincerity and obscene jokes. In Aliki, I have found a best friend who not only lets me borrow her clothes, but also lets me share the parts of me I try desperately to shed. She accepts my sadness with a grace and kindness that has buoyed me through the best and worst of this year.
There’s also Anthony, who never fails to make me laugh, who can read me like a book, even the chapters I wish he would just put down. Anthony who lights up my day with his text messages, his sincerity, his tough exterior but shining and luminous interior. He has let me cry on his shoulder as we sit side by side on my ugly brown couch. Yet, at the same time, he is my forever dance partner and date night date. In him, I have found the brother and best friend I’ve always wanted.
And then there has been Swathi, my childhood friend who has watched and supported me through each and every growing pain. In the summers we used to take long, winding car rides across the countryside and into the city. With the windows down and our playlists on repeat, the street lamps lit up a city we seemed to know so well and yet hardly at all. Our friendship has spanned eight years and different continents, yet somehow we ended up back in the same city for college. Although we go to different schools, she and her roommates have always welcomed me with open arms and waiting hot chocolate, and her apartment has become a sanctuary from the tumult of my life.
Two weeks ago, on my 20th birthday, Aliki organized a surprise party with my parents, and walking into that karaoke lounge, I looked around at the face of all my loved ones—Peter, who brings me food, sends me the best emojis, and is possibly one of the funniest people I know; Jacob and Christine, my first friends at Penn, my future roommates with the best music taste, and the people I know I will always have a good time with; and Sarah, who once, after I sprained my ankle badly and began crying in Allegro's at 3 a.m., looped my arm around her neck and helped finagle me back into my apartment. I was reminded, suddenly, of how lucky I was, how immensely grateful I have been, and will continue to be, towards all these people who I have somehow, surprisingly, astoundingly, let myself become soft around.
In the face of all this pain, I have gained an astonishing knowledge on the true nature of love. Love has meant being vulnerable, sacrificing the security of emotional armor that I try hard to shield myself with. Love has also been bowing my head, learning the unique lesson of humility through watching someone so important to me gradually get sicker and sicker. And yet, at the same time, love has meant leaning on those close to me, letting them in to see the darkest parts of me, the facets of me that I wish didn’t exist. It has meant trusting that they will choose to see the good in me, even when it isn’t so evident. Loving these people and being loved in return has given me a community and a sense of belonging at a time in my life when very little seems to make sense. In that sense, is each “I love you,” not really just a “thank you”?
There are days that I am still overwhelmed with the uncertainty of the future, with the suffocating sensation of helplessness, but on these days, I’m teaching myself how to walk down the hall, to knock on my roommate’s door, climb onto her small Twin XL bed, let her make me laugh, and trust that things are going to be alright.
They have to be.