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Photo by Caleb Brooks

I understand

Trigger warnings: suicide, school shootings


January 26, 2020

 Udaipur, Rajastan, India


Schools held Republic Day celebrations and families gathered around television screens, watching the spectacle of the annual Delhi parade to celebrate the implementation of the constitution of India. But I spent the majority of the day alone. My oldest homestay sister was at a boxing tournament in Jaipur (she won!), my other two siblings were at a friend’s house celebrating, and my homestay parents were at a funeral. They asked me to help keep the house while they were gone. This week, since the funeral, a somber atmosphere has pervaded my homestay through weddings and tournament congratulations. There is a heavy kind of quiet where the space between two people seems almost fragile. The world hushed and excitement dimmed.


Before my homestay parents left for the funeral, my homestay mother called to me: “Theek hai, hum ja rahe hain.” Okay, we are going. I walked to the door to see them out and heard my homestay mother muttering something under her breath and glancing at me. “Kya?” I questioned. What?


“Angrezi meh, puh hunri hal” she said looking at me. I stared back, unsure of what she was trying to tell me. “Angrezi me, puh hoonari hul, puh hunrial, puhrial…” she trailed off into a fit of giggles, and I joined. In English, funeral.


In part, it felt inappropriate to laugh about anything related to a funeral. In another, I breathed an internal sigh of relief to see my homestay mother smiling, tears of laughter and something bittersweet brimming in her eyes, as we giggled over one of our daily language struggles.


That evening, over dinner, we practiced saying funeral in English as well as bath and gutter in Hindi (the distinction between “nahayee” and “naalee” is one I make often). She laughed. I laughed. Our laughter is purposeful. We reached for other things to laugh at. Something, anything else to keep the smile a little while longer. We laughed at candy commercials on TV, we snickered at how the dog barks as a motorcycle passes outside, we chuckled at how I clumsily eat (even after using my hands to eat for the past five months, I still manage to make a mess).


“Theek hai, bus.” Ok, enough.


March 29, 2019

Denver, Colorado, USA 


Security guards stand by the door of my first period AP Spanish Literature class. They walk kids one by one to the counseling office if they ask. We aren’t allowed to walk alone. They are afraid of what we might do to ourselves. Our teacher mumbles something about suicide contagion while she hands out colored pencils and crayola markers with stacks of printer paper.


“Draw something. We aren’t going to do any work today.”


Crayola marker bleeds and blooms when there are drops of salt water on it. Like flowers. Or fireworks. Out of the corner of my eye I see my teacher pull out her seating chart folder. I see her hand move horizontally across a spot on the page. I imagine the pen runs through the name attached to the seat on my left. It will stay empty.


It’s not the first suicide at my school that year.


“Today you guys can do whatever you need.” My choir director hesitates. “We won’t sing today-”


“Can we?”




We do. We cry and our voices catch and the notes don’t come at first. Then the music flows easier. And the air starts to clear.


“I don’t want to feel sad anymore.”


“Me neither.”


“I need to do something.”


“I’ll do anything.”


“Let’s do something crazy.”


“Let’s go.”


Then we laugh. We laugh until our bellies ache and tears spring to our eyes. We laugh at how I got bleach on my new pants. We laugh at how Jess looks like an alien with her hair rolled up in tin foil. We laugh as Benjamin contemplates how he would look with bright pink leg hair. We need it. We need the laughter. Maybe it isn’t right to feel so happy when everything is so wrong. So sad. So pointless. But that’s why we laughed.


Later we laugh over our ridiculous mirror selfies with lines of red, blue, pink, and green streaking our hair. That day was horrible. That day was wonderful. Two extremes existed in tandem in a stunning, impossible duality.


May 7, 2019

Denver, Colorado, USA


Secure perimeter. Students are not to proceed to their next class. Please stay in your current class until the secure perimeter is lifted. There is an active shooter at STEM highschool in Highlands Ranch.


Hey, didn’t you say you went to STEM? I know we just met at that pton thing but please text when you can to say if you are ok.




The hours pass. Mrs. Mernitz lets us play with the physics’ toys. We mess around. Laugh.




Some of the boys who sit in the back of the classroom stand on the tables and dance to Taylor Swift songs. It’s pretty hilarious.




Hey, I’m ok.


But not everyone is.


Hannah messes up a math problem, crumples up her paper, throws it at the trash can, and misses. We laugh.


June 6, 2019

Orlando, Florida, USA


I’m sweating while standing in line for a Toy Story related roller coaster in Disney World. It’s somewhat miserable, but I don’t care. I’m with my friends, graduated, Princeton bound, and in the Happiest Place on Earth. My friend Miko and I are trying to balance on the railing that funnels the crowds of tourists in endless switchbacks before they finally reach the ride. There’s a phone call.


“The school sent an email. There’s been an accident.  Your friend Lauren….I’m so sorry sweetie… she was rock climbing…she was doing what she loved…”


Suddenly the heat is oppressive. I can’t breathe. I can’t think. Somehow I end up on a sidewalk curb, dry heaving, but nothing is coming except tears. I don’t know how much time passes, but I eventually become aware of Miko rubbing my back, dabbing tears from my cheeks. I take a breath and feel my lips move.


“C’mon. No one should be sad here. Let’s go get in line for another ride.”


“Really, Sydney, it’s ok. We can just go back to the hotel–”


“No. I really, really need to be happy right now.”


That night we snort soda out of our noses when our dinner waiter mentions what a great time he had in Colorado “around April 20th.” We are still chuckling the next morning.


June 14, 2019

Denver, Colorado, USA


I’ve turned 18. My friends come over to gorge on pizza and watch a movie to celebrate. We get a text from Lauren’s family. We set aside the next morning to practice the song we will sing at her funeral. We engage in a heated debate about whether pineapple belongs on pizza. We call each other the ridiculous nicknames we have come up with. Jom. Clean. Shenk Samhein. Hinni. Squid. Shlagul. And even though we all know those nicknames aren’t really funny any more, we still giggle.



Udaipur, Rajastan, India


I want to tell my homestay mother that I understand. I understand that life doesn’t stop when a life stops, even though we sometimes wish it would. I understand that happiness feels so wrong when sadness is so plain. I understand the guilt and shame the first time your thoughts stray from that person who now only exists within such thoughts. I understand the desire to shut off all feeling: to stumble numb throughout the world for just a little while. I understand that laughter is like a match struck into the wind. I understand laughter, yet I cannot possibly understand laughter.


But I cannot say these things to her. My wilting Hindi cannot even distinguish a bath from a gutter. Perhaps, that is my own fault. Perhaps I am holding myself back from fully living life here in Udaipur as I struggle to immerse myself and dedicate time where time is wanted. I am distracted. I am trying to straddle the gap: one foot planted in the past, clinging to my friends and experiences and prior support systems. Meanwhile, the other foot is trying to leap forward into a new life. A new language. A new set of expectations. A new set of friends from the cohort who will follow me into college and beyond.


The romance of a world is inticing. I am struck by the temptation to pack the grim and the tense from before into a box, bind the lid tightly closed, place my Princeton acceptance letter on top for the world to see, and forget the rest.


What a horrible thought. How could I forsake the memories of those I care about so deeply? Even as the ache pools deep inside me, urging me to forget. Yet, my life in India does not sparkle either. Blemishes and challenges surface, and I find myself turning towards the comforts of home, beckoning me like sirens in a wealth of bituminous darkness. Intimidated by what I have yet to learn, the things I am sure I will never understand, I fixate on my past guide points and tune out the noise pollution of Udaipur life.


Straddling the gap can be painful. Finding balance is difficult.


Anxiety clamps my chest as I wonder why I have not yet mastered how to balance the Before with the After. Why is it that Bridge Year is not the beautiful clean slate I secretly wished it would be? What curse allows emotional ugliness to follow me across the ocean but the wonderful immediacy of my friends and family had to be lost? What incompetence prevents me from fixing this issue as easily as I flit through projects at my worksite or solve math problems with my homestay siblings?


I face that dilemma that most high-achieving Princeton-accepted students face on Bridge Year: Why am I not better at this? Why isn’t this easy? I don’t understand.


Then I have to take a step back. Of course it isn’t easy, silly. It’s life. No matter who you are, this dance is never easy. I laugh at myself.


I am me in both the Before and the After. I wrestle with internal conflict, personal triumphs, guilt, and love now just as I always have and as I likely always will. Sometimes the aches and questions are old while others are abrasively new. But I realize everyone has their own loads to bear. There is no miraculous clean slate for any one of us. And I take comfort in the fact that we are nothing so two dimensional. Instead, we are like the threads of a great tapestry, intersecting and supporting one another through the warp and weft. I owe what I am to those who have been my supporting strands, lifting the pressure from me with companionship, compassion, and laughter. In turn, I sit with Dani at Fateh Sagar lake. Pia listens to my complaints and confusions. I talk with Sijbren about my anxieties for the future. And I laugh with my homestay mother.


I want to be able to continue laughing. I find it the most incredible, humbling, and unlikely of all things. That, at least, I understand.