Dealing With Discomfort

May 31, 2010
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This is a story I have never expressed my emotions on before. It was a cool February day in Naples, Italy. February 17th to be exact. I was just weeks into a new experience, and I couldn’t be happier. I was a brave girl ready to start an adventure, which included being a foreign exchange student for six months, in Italy. And I couldn’t be happier. I was 16 years old in a crowded Italian household. And I couldn’t be happier. I had met a great new host family, and I was attempting to make new friends. I was very lucky. I had been on an experience that I would remember for a lifetime. And I couldn’t be happier. Until some awful news came my way.

I remember it like it was yesterday. As I looked out the sparkling glass window, I saw the wind. It was blowing each individual tree back and forth, as if a storm was fast approaching. It was the third week into this new experience and being away from my family was beginning to become easier. I was finally making friends from my new school I was attending. I had been on an experience that I would remember for a lifetime, and I couldn’t be happier. But on this particular night, I was at a new friend’s house checking my email. I had received an email from my mother, who was more then 1,000 miles away, on the other side of the ocean. The email had said, "Please call me ASAP." I kept thinking to myself that she had found something that she didn’t want to, or that something happened that she wanted to tell me. But, I was sure it was nothing too heart breaking that I couldn't handle. Little did I know I was wrong. As I looked closer at the tone sent in the email, I started drawing conclusions. The period after the "ASAP." had me thinking. Did she find something of hers that I never returned? Did she have a story to tell me? Was there a problem and she missed me? I didn’t even think of the horrific side of the situation. All I kept thinking to myself was that I had been on an experience that I would remember for a life time. And I couldn’t be happier.

Shortly after reading that email, I walked home. The walk back to my house on Via Pontano, was a little frightening. It was 9 o’clock p.m. in Italy. The street lights were on. Every time that I walked through that beaming light, I was walking through another spotlight. I had a feeling, like a quick adrenaline rush. The kind you get when you know in your heart that something is happening. It was on that cloudy evening that I was confronted by my host mother. She, Ennia, pulled me aside and said, "Mary, penso che la tua mamma ha chiamato alcune ore fa, devi chiamare la tua casa!" Her facial expression continued to shrink, as if she knew something was going on back at home. She was telling me that she thinks my mother from the United States had tried calling, and that I needed to call her back.

At that exact moment, when the last words came from her mouth, my heart began to sink like an anchor. In the back of my mind, I knew that the program rule was that you couldn't call long distance unless it was an absolute emergency. I remember the thoughts running fast through my head. The thoughts were as fast as a plane, taking off from O’Hare International Airport. I remember the butterflies flowing through my stomach, like they were all trapped inside and trying to escape. I remember the sudden drops in my stomach. They were uncomfortable drops. The drops were like the kind you get when your about to get in a car accident. You know, the ones that after your car just jumped out of the way, when you get that hurtful feeling in your stomach, followed by that sign of relief. Those kind of drops, but my sign of relief never reached my stomach. I remember the sudden bursts of pain, like the kind you get when you stub your toe. I remember my sweaty, clammy palms, like the sweaty, clammy hands you get when your really nervous about something. I remember how nervous I was to hear my mom’s voice.

As I put the comments aside, I picked up the phone, and I started to dial my house number. The phone rang for what seemed like forever, and then finally I heard, "MARY?".

I took a deep breath, to assure myself that everything was fine, and said, "Mom, is everything alright? I just got your e-mail."

I heard her inhale and then she broke the news, “Mary, I‘m really sorry, but grandpa passed away earlier.”

And then it hit me, right in the heart, like breaking up with someone, you know, the kind of feeling you get when someone you love walks out of your life, and I broke down into tears. I had tears running down my face, like an infant crying for a nap, but the tears never ended. I couldn't stop. My body had taken total control. I was having trouble breathing, gasping for each breath of air that I could, feeling as if I was drowning in my own tears. I looked around for comfort. It was no where to be found. Where was my real family at? Why was I suddenly so uncomfortable? No one in my new Italian family knew what was going on, all they saw were the endless amount of tears. It was a great night, that took a turn for the worst.

I couldn’t speak. I was unbearable. I was wide-eyed, as if I had just seen something that completely brought me into shock. I just stared into that bright white, freshly painted wall.

“Mary, are you there? Mary, are you okay? Mary, Mary, Mary?”, my mom questioned on the other end of that long wire.

“Mom… I’m here… I can’t believe this…”, I began to mutter, avoiding every pause I could, and trying to catch my breath.

As I tried to gather myself together, I finished talking to my mother. For the time being, she put her tears aside and explained to me when the memorial services would be held. She had told me that it was sudden and she didn't want to hurt me because she knew I was just starting to enjoy the first of six months that I would be spending away from home. She had told me that if I really wanted to, I could come home, but that wasn’t necessarily the best idea for me. I didn’t listen, I was suddenly a determined 16 year old girl, ready to leave my experience behind and come home for that funeral. Some of the first thoughts that I had were, how am I going to get home? When will I get home? When will I see my family? When will they see me? I was thinking about myself, an hour ago, and how all I cared about was that I had been on an experience that I would remember for a lifetime, but it changed in a matter of time, because that wasn’t what I had cared about anymore. I was anxious. I felt the need to get home, to see my family, comfort my family, and to feel comfort from my them too.

Decisions needed to be made in the next few days. Was I going to leave this amazing experience behind me? During this hard time, go comfort my family back at home, and see the ones who I felt needed me? The rule was, once you left, you were done with the program. I would have to stay home, and throw this expensive experience away. Or was I to stick it out, and stay in Italy where I would continue a once in a lifetime experience? I was only three weeks into the long six months ahead of me.

For the next couple of days, all I was able to think about was four weeks prior to my plane ride to Italy. I was in a church. A church full of flowers, and family. I knew that this moment felt similar to a recent situation. In my head, all I saw was one face, his face. And then I knew where I was. I was with my grandpa, at my grandmother's funeral. Yes, you're right, I lost two of my grandparents within one month of each other. As I thought about this hard time, I started to feel the pain again. Remember, the kind you get when you stub your toe? Yeah, that pain. The pain was slowly becoming as sharp as knives. My head was throbbing. In a way it seemed as if it was making its own beat. My emotions were running back and forth, was I to stay, or to return back to the United States?

As I sat in the big, black, leather chair in my new house, across seas, I started to think about each option. I looked out that same sparkling glass window. The whole town must have left, because there was no one in viewing sight. Then I started to picture that gray haired, blue eyed, skinny, 94 year old man from 4 weeks ago. I thought about my grandpa, and how he was so proud of me for being able to have the courage to broaden my horizons. I remember him telling me what it was like to be away from home. He would tell me about his experiences about being away. He’d occasionally mention his time at war. He told me about writing letters to get over pain. I pictured him hot and sweaty, during World War II, with a pen and some paper, his pen moving on his paper fast like a NASCAR. He had told me that times would be tough, and the others would be easy, just like they were for him. He reassured me that the tough times needed the greatest amount of strength, and that I would make it through the whole trip, no matter what obstacles were going to come my way.

Coping with what was happening was another struggle, but ended up helping me. The more I thought about his death, the more uncomfortable I felt. I wrote a blog to my family and friends back home. As I reflect on each note, one in particular stands out to me. On Wednesday, February 18, 2009, I wrote a tribute to my grandpa. The man who fought for his strength, the one who never gave up, and of course, the hero of my life. It stated, "Dear Grandpa, I am very sad to hear about this news, and I really wasn't able to sleep last night. I am obviously upset about seeing you leave my life, but really what is there to be upset about? Mom and Dad were right, I should be celebrating. Celebrating your life. You lived 94 long years. Hey, you made it through some of the toughest times, like The Great Depression, and WWII. To still be alive after devastating experiences is more than anyone could ask for. Having you as a big part of my life, is really more than anyone could ask for! It is very hard for me to see you go, but I know that you wouldn’t want me to be sad. You would want me to stay in Italy, and not necessarily come home for you. I know that you were very happy for me when you found out that I was going to be on a foreign exchange program in Italy for 6 months. You knew it was going to be a long time, but you said time would fly by. Grandpa, you made it through the toughest times and you were very inspiring to me. You were helpful when I needed someone there for me most! I will miss you very much and you are still here in my heart. I hope you will help me make the best of the rest of my time here in Italy. I would love it if you were here by my side. You were strong through all your struggles and I think I need someone to be there with me to help keep me going. In fact, that's what I am going to do, stay strong. I am going to follow your footsteps and be strong the rest of my time here because I know that you fought for 94 years to stay strong. I am not giving up on this amazing opportunity and I am not coming home yet! We're going to do it together! I love you so much, and you are my hero!"

This tribute was read by many people, like family and friends, who were back at home, in the United States. They were commenting like crazy and some were convincing me to come home, while the others wanted me to stay in Italy. That night I decided that I would talk to my host family to finalize a decision.

At last, after 4 long, stressful days, my decision was made. I decided that I would stay in Italy and enjoy the time remaining. And I honestly couldn’t be happier. To throw away an experience like this, where you would meet new friends, see new places, view new perspectives, and learn that change isn’t always for the worst, would have been a big mistake. Mistakes often happen in life, but I’m so fortunate to have had someone there, in my heart, stopping me from making one of the biggest mistakes I could have ever made. I don’t have any regrets on my choice and I am happy that each year that will pass in the future, I won’t necessarily be thinking of my grandpa on his birthday, or on the day he died. But I will think of him on the day that he showed me that decision making could be difficult and life changing. The day that I decided to finish off what I was passionate for because of my grandfather.

I eventually completed an opportunity that I would remember for a lifetime. And I couldn’t be happier.

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