Words and photos by Lilibeth Resendiz, a CAPA Sydney alumna and Political Science & International Relations double major at UC Davis.
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I can barely contain my excitement as I chase after wallabies and kangaroos. The most anticipated day of my entire study abroad experience has arrived: a bush walk in the Blue Mountains and a chance to play with marsupials at Featherdale Wildlife Park.
Our hike in the Blue Mountains leaves me speechless as I gaze in wonder at the magnitude and magnificence of the Three Sisters. I’ve completed my life-long goal of meeting a quokka, I’ve taken a selfie with a wallaby, and watched a crocodile devour an entire raw chicken; my bucket list is becoming shorter and shorter. It’s been another perfect day in Australia, not even our bus breaking down marks my memories of this day.
The first thing I do when I get home is reach for my phone and dial a number so quickly, it’s like second nature…
Hello, you’ve reached the voicemail of Elizabeth Chavez …
When my plane landed in Sydney, I was completely ready for anything that Australia had in store for me. I marveled at the city that would be my home for the next 12 weeks. I was excited for this new adventure, constantly ignoring the little pang in my chest, a skill I’d developed well these last eight months. When I caught my first glimpse of the Opera House on my first trek into the city I squealed in excitement, my cab driver let out a soft chuckle and drawled, “first time?” All I could do was nod wordlessly.
I could not believe that I was finally in Australia. For weeks I had crossed off days on my calendar and mapped every possible route to my new metropolitan apartment. I’d Googled everything I could about my internship and did extensive research on where to find the best flat white (The Nectar Coffee House on Mountain St!). Finally the day had arrived and my brain was incapable of processing all of my emotions. A week into the program and I was in love with my new home, my roommates had become friends, my internship surpassed all my expectations — everything was perfect.
….. with Joe’s Tree Service. I cannot come to the phone right now but please leave your name and number and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible. Thank you and have a wonderful day.
Eight months, four days and 13 hours before leaving for Sydney, I lost one of the most important people in my life. I lost a woman that acted as my cheerleader, best friend, and second mom. Elizabeth or Mia as I fondly knew her, was my aunt through marriage and though we may not have been blood she was always a constant in my life. There is not one milestone that I can think of that she was not there for. She was there when I was born; she was there when I took my first steps; and cheered the loudest when I graduated high school, much to my teenaged chagrin. She made the 10-hour drive to Davis when I wanted to tour my future school and had booked her ticket the second she found out I was going to Australia. Aside from my parents she was the greatest source of support for me. She loved me like a daughter and I loved her like a mom. When she passed away I was so overwhelmed with grief that I threw myself into school and work, sleeping at most two hours a night, surviving on a new found tolerance for diet soda and black coffee.
I’ve always been on the go. From the second my parents brought me home, I was ready to run; I’d inch my way across our house on all fours and by the time I was able to walk my parents had to invest in a leash. The years went by and I never took a break, running from honors classes to soccer tournaments, Girl Scout meetings, summer jobs, college and internships. I don’t think I’ve ever taken a moment to take a breath and relax.
So when Mia passed away, I did what came naturally to me; I gave myself a week to grieve and fly home for the funeral, then forced myself to forget. I thought that by forgetting the memories, I’d numb myself to the pain and move on. Summer came and again, I forced myself to repress all my feelings. I strategically avoided any spots that would remind me of her. I’d take the long way around town to avoid driving by her house. I kept telling myself I was okay, that I was strong, that her death made me strong.
And yet there I sat on my bed, in an apartment nestled in Sydney’s CBD and I could faintly hear the bustling roads below, the people on the street rushing to get to their next destination. But for me the world had stopped and like a dam breaking, months of repressed grief took my breath away, hot tears streamed down my face and this time I didn’t stop them. It was like losing her all over again: my heart pounding, my breath shallow, my entire body shaking and a distinct ringing in my ears. The last eight months hit me like a ton of bricks: grief, anger, depression, and anxiety swept through me. My perfect world once again shattered. I didn’t know if it was minutes or hours but when the tears finally stopped I felt a wave of relief wash over me. I’d finally let myself grieve and for the first time in months I could finally breathe.
The next weeks go by and I feel myself truly engaging with the people around me. It no longer feels like an elaborate scheme to fool myself into having fun. I’m laughing harder, smiling more, living more. It’s like Sydney has found a way to heal me.
My internship with Cancer Council NSW reminds me how blessed I am to have my health and how important it is to help one another. My yogi-guru-hippie boss challenges me to find balance in my life and teaches me the importance of taking a moment every day to just breathe. My roommate Karla, whose confidence knows no bounds, reminds me to love and take care of myself, always. Bryce an unexpected but beloved new friend, reminds me to have fun and not take life so seriously. Sydney teaches me to take it easy; the city’s culture forces me to slow down and take it “8 by 8 by 8,” a clever Australian philosophy, referring to the practice of 8 hours work, 8 hours play, and 8 hours sleep. And slowly but surely I begin to see and feel a change within me.
I find myself taking my hour break out in the city, enjoying all of the sights or simply just sitting at a café and reading, rather than working through lunch. For someone who has never taken a break in her life, it’s a difficult change to make. A change catalyzed by my supervisor on my first day. I’d taken lunch at my desk, a common occurrence in the United States, and when she realized what I was doing she shooed me out of the building. To me it was such a foreign concept, but before I know it, afternoon tea with my co-workers becomes a daily occurrence and sunrise yoga with my boss every day replaces those three cups of coffee. And what’s more, I don’t feel guilty for relaxing.
My workload is the same as it has ever been, even more so on some days, but I don’t feel stressed, I don’t feel like I’m rushing towards the next thing; for once, I’m simply being. The lack of reliable Internet throughout the continent forces me to spend time outside and engage with the people around me. Without realizing it, Sydney has changed me as a person; this city has taught me how to live, really live. Because now I realize I’m living not only for me but for Mia. I’m taking risks and stepping out of my comfort zone because I know it's something that she would do.
Music festivals, cliff jumping, dancing, staying out until the break of dawn.
I’m doing all these thing with vigor and I’m constantly reminding myself how lucky I am to be alive and surrounded by friends in this incredible city. It’s impossible to be sad when you’re surrounded by positivity, support, and sunshine. Now and again I’m reminded how much I miss Mia, but I do not let the grief overtake me — I know she wouldn’t want me to be sad: so I give myself a moment to remember, a good cry if I need it, but then I get up and get out. Let’s face it: my amazing friends are probably going to drag me out to a once-in-a-lifetime event and I’ll make memories I won’t soon forget.
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As I write, it's been three months since I was last in Sydney. I miss my amazing coworkers. I miss waking up with a view of the city. I even miss the street performers in Central Station. I’m grateful for my experience, for the friendships I made, and the professional connections I developed. But most of all I’m grateful to the strangely wonderful land that I called home for three months: for teaching me balance, for letting me heal, and for teaching me what it really means to live.
PS - Check our our interview with Lilibeth for more!