One could assume that because I had the privilege of living and working in a manor house (for the love of all things holy, Harlaxton is NOT a castle) in the United Kingdom for four months, traveled nearly every weekend and found love along the way, that my life may as well be written in some Disney fairytale book, right?
*Insert eye roll, giggles, and maybe a little knee slap.*
I can’t say grace enough in a lifetime over that experience, and it WAS an experience of a lifetime. However, who would guess that I was battling a very deep depression while I was there? Who would know that for the first six weeks I was abroad, I was unknowingly isolating myself from my new friends and coworkers, fighting sleep every night, trying and failing to focus on where I was at and enjoying the moments I was in, and cognitively and physically debilitated?
You see, the year leading up to my time in Europe was a whirlwind of events. My dad was in a severe logging accident in October 2014. He now calls it a “tree wreck.” At the time, I was extremely involved in school, work, and an internship. I was constantly on-the-go and gaining confidence and traction as a near college graduate, feeling myself evolve into a young professional and staring what I thought of as “real life” in the face. I got the call about my dad as I was pulling into work one morning. It was a call I had prayed would never come, but knew was a great possibility in his field of work. That moment changed my life and family indefinitely.
We spent seven long weeks in the Critical Care Unit at the University of Louisville Hospital. Dad had a severe head injury, a broken scapula, three broken vertebrae, and all of his ribs on the left side were broken. My stepmother and aunt rotated shifts staying with dad during the week and I drove to Louisville to stay with him on the weekends. It’s safe to say this was the most horrific event of all of our lives. I’ll touch more on it at a later date. After leaving the CCU, he was transferred to SKY Rehab in Bowling Green, which was much closer to home. By that time, we were rapidly approaching Christmas and Dad was hell-bent on being home. Let me tell you, when Graham Mitchell puts his stubborn head to something, he does it. He spent ten days in rehab and was home for Christmas. He kept telling people that his daughter was about to graduate from college and this may be the last Christmas he got to spend with her at home. (For the record, it wasn’t the last Christmas I spent at home, but it was a sweet concern.)
Two weeks later, I was studying abroad in Ecuador. It was a hard decision to follow through with at the time, but dad had made it home and was in good hands. Though that was an incredible experience, there was a guilt that hovered over me while I was there. While I was more than appreciative of my time there, it’s hard to fully enjoy it when you know what lays waiting at home, and knowing that you get to frolic in a foreign place while your loved ones are huddled up at home in the most uncomfortable and ugly of situations.
Fast forward a few months and I’m running a half-marathon in Nashville. Three weeks after that I’m shaking hands with the president of my university at my college graduation. Three days later I get news that I’ve been accepted as the first Media & Communications Intern at Harlaxton College in Grantham, England. Dad continued to show improvements physically and mentally. My family supported me leaving and starting my life, accepting that this is our reality now and learning how to manage along the way.
Things were looking up. Way up. I was about to embark on the biggest adventure of my life and couldn’t have been more excited. The year had been the most challenging of my life and things seemed to be piecing together again. About two weeks before I left for the UK, I had a weird gut feeling that life was about to balance itself out again. You can only stay high for so long. That’s just reality. I called my grandfather one day to ask if I could come see him on a certain day before I left the country, and he ended up telling me that something was very wrong with my uncle. He didn’t know what, but he knew it was bad.
Eight days before I left for England, we found out that my Uncle Eric, my father’s only sibling, had a very aggressive incurable brain tumor. As the only grandchild on this side of my family, this was a pretty brutal hit. I was not only leaving my dad behind, I was now faced with kissing my uncle bye. The permanent bye. We knew he probably wouldn’t make it through my four months in Europe.
These events haunted me at Harlaxton. It was a weight that I carried more visibly than I realized. There I was, twenty-three, a fresh graduate with a full life ahead. I was literally working in a position that I couldn’t have dreamt up in my head, working with wonderful people from around the world, and exploring new places on a weekly basis, and yet I felt hollow and selfish for being so far away during such a difficult and heart-wrenching time for my family.
I do not regret my decision to go. I know there isn’t a single thing I could’ve done at home to change the outcome of our situation. I know my Uncle E wouldn’t have wanted me to pass up this opportunity to stay home and watch him die, but that fact will never erase the daily battles I fought with myself while I was away.
The photo above was taken in Edinburgh, Scotland on the day my uncle died. When I got the call from my parents, I was in the company of my new found love and two dear friends. I couldn’t have been in better company when I received the news. They gave me a group hug. They didn’t suffocate me with questions or talk at me too much, they just held me. They were just there. We continued the day as planned. We had breakfast in our adorable Airbnb. The day was warm and sunny (in Scotland! That’s apparently a rarity) and Austin and I hiked up to Arthur’s Seat. We made it to the top just in time to see the sunset. That day brought me so much peace. I spent it in a way that I knew would honor my uncle, in nature and in good company.
I grieved on that day. I fell in love on that day. I felt like the most fortunate person on the planet that day. I knew what it meant to lose a loved one, which only intensified the love I had just found. I was left with a sense of gratitude that I wouldn’t have experienced without the hardships before it. It really was the best of times. It just so happened to come in the worst of times.
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Kalu Ndukwe Kalu
The things you do for yourself are gone when you are gone, but the things you do for others remain as your legacy.