My senior year of college was, by far, the most emotionally and intellectually exhausting period of my undergraduate experience.
I spent hours upon hours writing, rewriting, and revising my senior thesis, the most challenging (and, in retrospect, fulfilling) research project I’ve completed to date; I saw some cherished relationships slowly dissolve while others abruptly shattered; I went through the motions of attending seemingly endless–and frustrating–discussions with university administrators about issues of “diversity and inclusion” (read: insidious anti-Black prejudice) on campus. In the background, forefront, and center of all of this, I watched what Steven Thrasher has rightfully named “the pornography of [Black] genocide.” I couldn’t seem to get through a few weeks, let alone a month, without bearing witness to yet another pointless death of a Black person, often at the hands of an abusive state.
I had many ups and downs during that year, but the downs felt particularly low. I recall continually whispering to myself, “I can’t do this. I’m so through.” I was drained.
I anxiously awaited my June commencement. Not only would I finally receive the degree I’d labored tirelessly for, but I would also find my way back home. I’d decided that once I returned home to my family, to Los Angeles, I would breathe more easily.
My first few weeks back home were wonderful. I was reading, writing, working, laughing, playing, and hanging with my family. For the first time in a long time, I felt as though I could just be.
One Friday afternoon, while I was chatting on the phone with a friend who lived in Chicago, my grandfather walked into the dining room where my mother and I were sitting. He grabbed onto the table and curved his body downward. Taking short, shallow breaths he said, “I think…I…need to go… to…the…ER.” My mother and I exchanged uncomfortable glances before she calmly but swiftly grabbed her keys and escorted him out the door. I quickly told my friend I would call her back before I followed suit.
When we arrived at the hospital, my mother and I walked my grandfather into Urgent Care. He’s battled respiratory issues for the majority of his adult life, and we thought he merely needed a breathing treatment. However, when the nurse on duty took his vitals, she informed us that he would have to be transferred to the emergency wing.
My mother stayed with my grandfather while I remained in the waiting room. An hour passed. Three hours passed. Five hours passed. My aunt came into the city from Pomona with her four month old son and waited with me. Eventually, my mother reappeared and told us that my grandfather had seen a pulmonologist and been admitted to the hospital. He was being moved to a room in the Critical Care Unit. His lungs had been operating at 17% of total capacity, and he would likely need a ventilator.
I stayed with my grandfather that first night. As I sat in the chair adjacent to his hospital bed, I wondered how the man who had laughed about having a craving for jambalaya just that morning was the same person next to me. He didn’t look like the same person. This man, wrapped in crisp white hospital bedding with tubbing attached to his arms and chest, was not the same person.
My mother returned the next morning, and my uncle arrived later that day. I stayed with my mom during her first conversation with the doctor assigned to my grandfather’s case. Lab work had revealed more complications than ER doctors had presumed, and about three or four specialists would evaluate my grandfather in the coming days. “Prepare yourselves for a significant stay, and know that he won’t ever be 100%. For now, we’ll manage,” the doctor straightforwardly told us. From then on, I would leave the room during the subsequent medical assessments. It was too heavy.
Over the course of several days, my family and I moved into my grandfather’s hospital room. One of us remained with him through the night, and during the day, there were at least three of us there at any given time. Around the fifth day, I asked my mother why my grandfather couldn’t just come home. She pulled me out of the room and led me towards a large window that overlooked Cadillac Avenue. Grabbing my face she said, “Sarah, this isn’t going to be easy, I want you to know that. This isn’t something fixable.”
Every night I that returned home without my grandfather, I cried. I cried wild. But my tears were silent because I didn’t want my mother, who was so adeptly managing my grandfather’s affairs, to know. I couldn’t seem to hold myself together, so I let myself fall apart.
I tried to distract myself with television, news articles, something, anything. Yet, a grave massacre had occurred at Mother Emanuel in Charleston. Black genocide reared its ugly head once again. Pain, it seemed, was inescapable.
My grandfather was eventually released with an oxygen tank, but he would make more trips to the emergency room in the coming months. During some of these trips, he would return home after seven or so hours; at other times, he would once again be admitted for a longer stay. Through it all, he required in-home care.
I reflected upon the many times I’d convinced myself that home would be peaceful, home would be liberating, home would be perfect. Upon my return home, I was supposed to get better. Home was supposed to fix me.
In the thick of a difficult present, I’d wrongfully assumed that the future would, inherently, be simpler. A change in location, a change in scenery would help me shed the heaviness that I carried throughout my final year of college. However, through my grandfather’s health crisis, I realized that home couldn’t fix me. There are no fixes. There is healing, but the healing of one pain doesn’t prevent the onset of another.
Now, when I feel burdened and overwhelmed, I no longer tell myself “After I complete xyz, everything will be easier,” or “As soon as I’m done with abc, things will be blissful.” I try to love and care for myself as I exist in that particular moment, because there will never be a perfect moment.
Over the past year, I’ve learned that life is about breaking, mending, breaking again, and mending once more. Some periods are more intense than others. In those times, we yearn for quieter moments. But life is never perfect. And, more importantly, we can’t rely on the future to be better and brighter. There is no guarantee that future circumstances will make us whole.
And so all we can do is listen to our hearts when they tell us to let go and break, and breathe deeply when our souls whisper that it’s time to mend and heal.
Or, at the very least, we can just try.