I knew it was coming for weeks. I was nervous. And anxious. And scared and excited and every other emotion one goes through when a life changing event approaches. But this last day – the day before I left Pittsburgh, my home for the past five years – this day was the most emotional of them all.
I’d been getting my things packed up for weeks. Silverware one day, TV stand the next. I took my desk apart, then my shelves, then my bed. I took my wall hangings down and folded them up. Slowly my apartment was becoming empty.
My parents came a week earlier and took everything that I wouldn’t need for my last few days. That’s when the goodbyes started. “You’ll have to come visit!” I’d say to my friends. “I’ll see you soon, I’m sure.” “Not goodbye, just until next time.” “I’ll be back soon.” I didn’t want to be sad because I didn’t want my friends to be sad. Happy goodbyes are much easier than tearful ones.
On the morning of the day before the day I left, I was strangely proud of how well I was handling this enormously bittersweet situation. I’d had fleeting moments of sadness throughout the week, but kept it together even when saying goodbye to my best friends. Alone in my apartment, I turned on some music and started packing my clothing – all that was left in my now empty room. I started thinking about all the things I’d done over the past five years. The friends I made, the girlfriend I fell in love with, the laughs, the fights, the memories, and everything in between. The emotions that I’d been trying to hide for weeks welled up inside my chest.
Then I sat down on the floor cried like a baby.
Change is hard. It’s an inevitable part of life. It takes us out of our comfort zone and throws us into something new. We’re forced to thrive. Sometimes change is welcome, but that doesn’t make it any less hard. We try to be strong, to power through it like it’s no big deal. But the next thing you know you’re alone and sobbing on the floor of your empty bedroom.
For me, change took the form of moving from the city that’s become my second home. Change was moving from my friends, girlfriend, and the comforts of the place that helped shape me into who I am. But change can take any form. From the death of a loved one to the birth of a child, from a wedding to a divorce, change comes in many shapes and sizes. It evokes emotions we never knew we had. It makes us feel confused, lost, anxious, or lonely. Most of all, it can feel impossible to get through.
Sometimes change is so hard that fate steps in to help you get through it.
I woke up in the morning with a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. Thirty minutes left before departure. I had to say my final, and hardest, goodbye. My girlfriend of two and a half years. Tears were shed. Neither wanted to be the one to turn and leave first. Heart-wrenchingly, we parted ways. I watched her drive down the street, out of sight. There was nothing left to do now except get into my car and drive away.
With tears drying on my face I pulled into a gas station. I stepped out of my car and instinctively hit the lock button on my door as I closed it. Then, through the window, I saw my keys sitting on the seat. Great, of all days.
I asked the gas station attendant to use his phone as mine was locked in my car. I managed to call AAA. “It’ll be about an hour until someone can get there.” Wonderful. With nothing on me but my wallet, I headed to my car to wait. It only took a few minutes for the attendant to come out of the concrete box that he works in to talk to me. He was short, mid to late 30s, and had a thick foreign accent that I couldn’t place.
After some small talk, I asked him where he’s from.
“Bhutan. It’s a country in Asia, near Nepal.”
I pictured the map and placed Nepal. I then pretended I know where Bhutan is in relation to that. “Oh, I’ve heard of that. What brought you to the US?”
“Well, it’s a long story.”
I had nothing else to do, so I asked him to explain. Fifteen minutes later, the nameless Exxon attendant told me a story I couldn’t make up if I tried.
He was born in Bhutan, but his family is originally from Nepal. As he was growing up, he was learning Dzongkha (the official language of Bhutan) as well as Nepali and English. The Bhutanese government, however, looked down upon Bhutanese citizens of Nepali descent and refused to allow them to learn any languages except Dzongkha. They forced the teachings of other languages to stop and burned all of my new friend’s English and Nepali books.
As time went on, the Bhutanese government’s conflict with those of Nepali descent escalated. The military began harassing and arresting it’s citizens, eventually forcing them out of the country. When the attendant was 7 years old, he and his family took refuge in Nepal.
They lived in a refugee camp with tens of thousands of other refugees. He, his mother, father, twin brother and older brother lived in a hut made of bamboo siding and plastic roofing no bigger than the cement building where he worked now. The next hut was just several feet away. He only had access to what was available in the refugee camp, which wasn’t much.
And he lived there for 17 years.
In 2008, he and his family came to America. After living in Florida for two years, they moved to Pittsburgh. He works at the gas station where I was stranded as well as the Omni downtown. Some days he’ll work both jobs for 14 hours or more. In time, he plans to move back to Nepal so he can buy land and live out his days.
The AAA truck came, unlocked my car, and drove off. I shook my new friend’s hand and said goodbye. This goodbye, however, wasn’t a sad one.
Now, as I sit on the roof of my apartment in Brooklyn, watching the sunset across the river over Lower Manhattan, I realize that the nameless Bhutanese man’s story was exactly what I needed to hear. The struggles he went through and the strength he had in order to keep himself together gave me perspective on my situation. The change that I was going through was hard, but it could be worse.
The man’s story made me realize that I was going to be OK. The change I was going through paled in comparison to the changes he had to deal with throughout his life. If he’s made it through his struggles, I could easily make it through mine.
No matter the changes you’re facing, you’re going to be fine, too. Life throws us challenges all the time, and change can be one of the hardest. It’s easy to stay comfortable, but without change, we don’t grow. It’s hard to decide to make a change, and even harder to accept it. But when change comes your way, no matter how tough it seems, keep your head up. Everything’s going to be all right.
If you’re ever in Pittsburgh, stop at the Exxon at the intersection of Penn and Braddock and give my nameless friend the message that I never got to give him myself:
Tell him I say thank you.