During March of 2016, I was at the Oakland International Airport, checking myself in for a flight. I was heading to Boston to stay with a couple I knew from college. To make a long story short, I needed help.
I'd spent the winter months ambling around most of the west coast. After six years abroad, I couldn’t think of a better location to put my life back together — California! Endless sunshine, handsome faces, palms trees that touch the sky.
I was looking for a fresh start. My father died that previous year and the pain of his loss was too much to bear. So, instead, I dismantled my life. Which was typical of me at the time, choosing a path of avoidance.
In the time it took to cross five time zones, I lost my home, career, friends, and my identity as an expat. And at first, I acted like I didn’t care. But the moment I landed, I felt overcome with a sense of singularity. Depression set in. And it lasted for months. There were days that I worried I would never stop crying.
Those months in California were difficult. I was lonely and sad but also angry and resentful. I couldn’t make sense of my father’s death no more than I could I understand why I sabotaged myself. All I knew is that my life had taken a heartbreaking detour and I definitely wasn’t holding a map.
By the time I accepted my friend’s offer, I’d run out of money, had no job, and had nowhere to stay. I wasn’t only depressed, but also scared. And I had been for weeks.
Only, I wouldn’t admit it. I was too filled with pride.
People know me as a strong woman, someone who is resilient. I wanted to believe I was, I wanted to be the person everyone perceived me to be.
I'd told people back east, where I was from, where I had roots, that I was fine on my own. That I didn't want to barrel into their lives after so much time had passed. We’d all moved on, our relationships had changed, and we each played our part.
It took me a long time to see that my attitude was springing from a lack of instinct toward love, toward survival. I'd stopped caring what happened to me. I was ashamed to have needs.
And that was how I learned that bravery doesn’t always mean carrying on in the wilderness of your life alone. That sometimes courage means exposing your vulnerability. It means knowing your edge, even when it’s time to back off.
A friend had loaned me the money to get back east. After the flight was purchased, I had about $200 left. Enough to get groceries for a couple of weeks while I got settled. But when I approached the ticket counter, checking my luggage, I was informed that my bag was too heavy. It was going to cost $175.
Tears pressed behind my eyes.
I explained how I’d moved back to the States without a plan, and how everything fell apart — and by everything, I mean me.
She looked at me. I did not need to tell her this story. Why did I tell her this story?
“Ma’am. There is a long line of passengers waiting to check in,” she said, referencing behind me.
I turned to see a long line of people, indeed, waiting. Most of them were women, older. I waved a small, weak, pathetic wave and mouthed the word, “Sorry.”
After a moment of pause, the receptionist started talking. Her hands were moving very fast as she spoke. I didn't realize she had an accent before. She sounded like she was from the Caribbean. The Bahama's.
She said, “When I came to the United States 20 years ago, I only had $20. But you know what? I believed in myself and that I was worth a good future. I trusted that a good life would come to me if I worked hard, and with a steady, patient forbearance. Now, ma’am, I need your debit card.”
Her words were beautiful, yet sturdy, but I appreciated them. I knew she was right.
I wiped my eyes and handed her my debit card. What’s money, anyhow?
She took my luggage off of the conveyor belt and tagged it. Then she placed my debit card, boarding pass, and receipt on the counter. She told me the boarding time and pointed in the direction of security. I smiled and thanked her.
Looking down at the receipt, she’d only charged me $20. I then looked at the ticket, and she’d booked me in a first-class seat. Confused, I said, “There must be a mistake,” and she kept pointing in the direction of security, while winking an eye.
Then, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
I turned to find a woman standing in front of me. She was from the line. I remembered her short, curly red hair.
She said, “Hi.” and handing me $20, she said, “I overheard you talking. Please, buy some food.”
I stood there, shocked.
Then another woman stepped out of the line. And then another and another. Six women in total, each handing me twenty dollars. They all told me quick versions of their stories. Each had experienced an iteration of loss, heartache, poverty, and violence.
I felt amazed by the resilience, fortitude, and generosity of these women. And how these women were mirror images of me. That was the day I learned that on some extraordinary level, we are all living the same story. It looks different, yes, but the trials and lessons are the same.
I learned many things that day. First, you have to allow yourself to make mistakes because you’ll make a lot of them. And second, people will hurt you. They’ll hurt you and leave you, and it won’t be your fault. Third, you’ll also hurt yourself. But you must forgive yourself. And fourth, the most important, treat yourself with loving kindness, always. Even when it’s difficult.
I boarded that flight with the sensibility that all life is an award. The good parts. The bad parts. The beautiful, ugly, heart-aching, and devastating parts. That’s what makes it worth living. Each experience is a seed in the great forest of our memories, our lives. And we never walk those woods alone. We never walk those woods alone.
Jocelyn M. Ulevicus is a writer, educator, and seeker — seeker of truth and beauty. Her work aims to assign a meaningful, accessible, and loving language to themes of loss, trauma, and heartache. To remind people that a poetic essence does exist in a world that is cruel and out of touch with our beginnings, our communion with nature, the earth, and ourselves.
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