-Anna Brodmerkel, 2014 GGYF Fellow

“At forty-eight she has come to experience the solitude that her husband and son and daughter already know, and which they claim not to mind. ‘It’s not a big deal,’ her children tell her. ‘Everyone should live on their own at some point.’ But Ashima feels too old to learn such a skill… Now she does the laundry once a month. She no longer dusts, or notices dust, for that matter. She eats on the sofa, in front of the television, simple meals of buttered toast and dal… She works at the library to pass the time-she has been going regularly for years… and one day Mrs. Buxton, the head librarian, asked if she would be interested in a part-time position… Every three weekends her husband comes home… During his visits, Ashoke keeps his clothes in his suitcase, his shaving things in a bag by the sink. He does the things she still doesn’t know how to do… His visits are too short to make a difference, and, within hours it seems, Sunday comes and she is on her own again.”

“‘I’m in the hospital,’ [Ashoke] tells her.

‘What’s happened?’ …

‘My stomach’s been bothering me since morning… Don’t worry. I’m feeling better already. I’ll call you when I get home.’”

“‘I’m very sorry ma’am,’ the young woman repeats. ‘We’ve been trying to reach you.’ And then the young woman tells her that the patient, Ashoke Ganguli, her husband, has expired… She listens to something about a heart attack, that it had been massive, that all attempts to revive him had failed.”

“At the homes of their friends, [Ashima] tells the story of calling the hospital… Friends suggest she go to India, see her brother and cousins for a while … She refuses to be so far from the place where her husband made his life, the country in which he died. ‘Now I know why he went to Cleveland,’ she tells people, refusing, even in death, to utter her husband’s name. ‘He was teaching me how to live alone.’”

                                                                                                                                      –The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri

The summer after my sister’s death and before my sophomore year in high school (2010), I was required to read two books, one being The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. At that point in my life, I resented any summer reading project, especially this one. To encourage me to read (and not wait until the week before to start my project like I always did), my mom offered to read The Namesake, while I started the other book. Once I finished The Namesake as well, my mom and I were discussing the book and she brought up an interesting point dealing with the bolded quote above.

She compared our situation with that of Ashima and Ashoke, in that God had prepared our family in a similar way, as my sister spent her last two years at the North Carolina School of Science and Math in Durham, NC, two hours away. We saw her for one long weekend a month and holidays. I’ve spent much time thinking about the quote and our conversation since then, wondering if God truly does have a plan, or if it’s all a matter of coincidence. Then, I didn’t want to believe in a God, I was so angry and hurt.

It’s only now I can look back on this conversation and see that God’s plan was in action. I will never be able to understand her death, but I can see how He never truly left our family, even when I felt deserted. Why would this book come into our lives? Why not another book? Why did my mom read it? Had she not, would I have made the connection? Doubtful. I honestly do not believe it was a coincidence.

I can see His plan for me more clearly than ever now, and how it even began in a time when I didn’t believe in Him. This year I realized how when my family adopted my dog after my sister died, I named her Zoey, and in Greece I found out her name appropriately means “life” in Greek. I realized how because Governors School rejected me my sophomore year, I was able to compete in the Dixie Softball World Series, which would allow me to go to Governors School the following summer and learn about a gap year. How at Governors School I found I enjoyed social science and decided I wanted to go to a liberal arts university, which brought UNC Chapel Hill into the picture. (I’d always wanted to attend NC State University or Clemson University.) How applying early to UNC meant I was eligible for the Global Gap Year Fellowship, which I received and made my gap year possible. How all the pieces and parts in my life finally clicked. How they began to make sense.

Now that I’m back home, people constantly ask if I was ever afraid while traveling alone in foreign countries. The most terrifying moments for me were not when I was walking back home at night or in a vehicle that felt like it could fall apart at any moment, they were usually the first nights in a new place. Those were the moments I seriously questioned my sanity.

Luckily, I had my dad with me for my first few nights in Greece, although, in truth, I had to fight the urge to leave with him. In New Zealand (after finally arriving), I felt the same gut-wrenching urge to leave as soon as possible the next morning while turning and tossing all night in a hostel. The next morning, while fixing a piece of toast, another girl walked into the kitchen with a shirt displaying the acronym “S.A.B.,” which stood for something about a study abroad program. I was shocked. I had only known those letters to be the initials of my sister, Sarah Amelia Brodmerkel. Suddenly, I knew I would be okay, that I was supposed to be there, that I had my angel looking out for me.

Never did I think I would see another instance where I would feel my sister’s presence watching over me in such a way, but Ghana proved me wrong. In January, when I left for Ghana and got stuck in Paris and didn’t know what to do, who was there to rescue me? My new friend Sarah, that I met in the Philadelphia airport and happened to be a fellow UNC student. And again, I saw traces of my sister when I left on my trip to explore central and northern Ghana.

On my first tro-tro out of Accra, John Mark (friend and other YAP Ghana volunteer) and I passed a strip of buildings, with one store named “SAB Pharmacy.” Just when I doubted traveling by myself, I was reminded that I had no reason to fear or worry. After two days, John Mark had to return back to Accra, and I was left in Kumasi, unsure of where I would sleep in my next city, Tamale. In the hostel I slept in, I met a Ghanaian woman named Saratu, who lived in Tamale. She helped me find a hostel in Tamale and even showed me around Tamale once she had returned two days after me. Crazy enough, her sister was named Hannah. Saratu and Hannah. Sound familiar? Because of these events, these reoccurrences, these reminders, I stopped fearing the unknown like I did in the earlier parts of my year. I started trusting that my sister would be in Heaven protecting me, no matter where I was.

On the last leg of my journey to Nicaragua, as usual, I flew standby. My dad and I looked at flights, but it seemed if I wanted a better chance, I would have to leave a day later than I had hoped. At first I was a bit annoyed, because my plan wasn’t working out. That same week, I learned that another volunteer of Familias Especiales, named Sarah, was supposed to arrive the same say I was. That’s when I understood why it worked out better to leave a day later, and how His plans work much better than mine.

Maybe I have a tendency to notice the name Sarah more than others, but there has been a trend this year I cannot deny, and it’s revived my faith. Each of these instances is a tangible and undeniable sign that a God exists, or a greater power, even if that isn’t His/Her name.

After detailing my encounters with an angel and God, you might expect me to say I’m a Christian, but that’s not the case. I don’t think I would even call myself a Christian, because that takes true devotion, but I do have a strong faith and Christianity is the religion I identify with the most. I don’t feel the Spirit in church; actually, church makes me feel a little uncomfortable in ways. I feel the Spirit in the most simplistic moments when I’m out truly living, trying to understand the world a little more. I normally would not speak about a topic so close to heart, unless a person were to ask me directly, but it has proved to be such a significant part of my gap year, and of who I am in general, that I felt I must write about it. I don’t have all the answers to questions of faith, but I know what I’ve seen and felt, and that’s all the truth I need.


Childhood Christmas

My lovely Ghanaian friend, Saratu