A Second Family When I Needed One Most

Lucy-Ann Huskisson
May 2011

Receiving any sort of tragic news is awful. But receiving it when you are over five thousand miles away from home makes it all the more unbearable.

My exchange to San Jose State University and arrival to the International House started just about the same as any other students; I endured a gruelling flight, I relished in the mysterious effects of jet lag and I began the exciting, yet equally challenging task of learning the names of everyone of my new 72 housemates.

I spoke to my parents once of twice, desperately trying to get to grips with the 8-hour time difference between our countries, and I spoke to a friend from back home- already missing me and wanting me to upload photos onto Facebook. And for all intents and purposes, my life in California started out brilliantly. The first night I arrived I dumped my suitcase in my empty room and joined a group of strangers, who soon would become some of my closest friends, and went to a local Mexican restaurant. On the second day I explored the city that was to become my new home, and on the third I took a hideously early morning train (remember I was still under the persistent grasp of jet lag!) to San Francisco, one of the most engaging and interesting places on earth.

But on the fourth day, the thin layer of pavement I had begun to carve beneath my feet disintegrated. I received an email from my Mum, informing me that my Godmother was seriously ill. A cancer I believed to have gone had spread to a terminal degree.

I can remember feeling so alone and isolated, that it was almost like suffocating.

My room was still a mess, barely organized since my arrival. It wasn't familiar and there was no sense of comfort anywhere within the four small walls. The people I met in the corridors were still strangers, who wanted to know about my day and about where I came from; there was no way for me to tell them that a section of my home had just imploded.

Cradled up next to my large silver suitcase in the darkness of my wardrobe, I tried to process exactly what it was that was happening, and desperately waited for it all to go away.

Of course it didn't, and there was little comfort I could find and no seemingly bright side to a hideous situation. But my Godmother was a strong woman, one of the reasons she hadn't told any of us exactly what was going on, was because she didn't want us to put our lives on hold for her. She knew, rightly, that had I known the news just a few days earlier I would have discarded my trip and gone to help her within a heartbeat.

But she also knew how long I had been wanting this, and how much I had been craving an adventure just like the one I ended up embarking on. And so, being the kind and gracious woman that she was, she let me go, and allowed me the chance to take advantage of the incredibly amazing opportunity that lay before me.

When I received the news that she has passed away, I was just about to leave for my second day of class. I remember, sombrely walking with tears strewn down my face onto campus, with one of the girls who would later become one of my closest friends in the house. But despite my inability to contain my emotions or to even walk in a straight line, she didn't ask any questions of me. No probing queries into my personal life or intrusions into whatever it was that was causing me pain. She simply handed me a tissue in silence, and then followed shortly after it with a whole packet.

And that's the reason that I am writing this article. It isn't to focus on the pain of loss or even on the cold hard truth of life. It's to emphasize how special the International House is, and how the people housed within it helped me (albeit mostly unknowingly) get through one of the hardest things in my life.

The day after I first heard that initial news, the RA's had organized a trip to Monterrey Bay Aquarium. I was going with people I was still having the luxury of meeting, and I knew that hiding away in my room simply wouldn't work if I honestly wanted to make the most of this experience. So I bit my tongue, pushed away all the pain, and got on that bus with everyone else. And I had a good day.

Then the day that followed my finding out that my Godmother had passed away, I went on my first American Roadtrip. We went to Big Sur, cruised down Highway 1 and discovered the wonder that is Santa Barbara. And again, I focused on the good- I stared up at the star pricked , midnight black sky in Pfeiffer State Park and instead of thinking about what I had lost, I thought of the opportunities that lay in front of me, and all that I had to gain.

And that by no means is to say that it didn't hurt. Despite all the things I was doing, and all the places I've seen during these four short months: Vegas, San Deigo, LA, Yosemite, Alaska; everything has been tinged by brutal and unavoidable brush of death.

But the people I've met in this house; the friends I've grown to become close to, everything I've done, makes it bearable. These white wooden walls and long fluorescent lit corridors have become more of a home than I ever could have imagined. And all of it helped me to cope with the one thing I would have struggled to anywhere else in the world. 

The very notion of returning home to a world where my godmother no longer is, is nothing short of heartbreaking. But my experiences here at the I-House, the things I've done and the people I've become so close to over this time, have helped me to develop into a much stronger and better person.

And when the instances come for you to receive such tragic and seemingly cruel news; that really is the best that you can hope to gain.