Hidden Daggers

Julie Meyers, University Advancement

Honorable Mention

 

“Hey, what are you doing over winter break?” I casually asked during my college freshman finals week. Regret washed over me as the words left my mouth, knowing it would inevitably loop back to my own plans. Did I truly want this conversation?

“Oh, we’re going skiing!” joyously chirped one friend. Another said, “Oh, nothing much—my parents rented a bungalow.” And yet another complained about heading to their grandmother’s in Boca, again.

Each response felt like a dagger—skiing trips, cozy bungalows, complaints about Boca. Why did I even ask? Why torture myself when I knew I was going to be asked the same question in return? What was the right answer? The truth? A fanciful lie? Wishful thinking? Something else?

Hmm . . . What am I doing? How do I explain, in a polite and breezy way, that I was only on campus because my professors issued an ultimatum: “Take finals or face failure!” How do I convey to my 17- and 18-year-old friends that I couldn’t truly even have this conversation because my bedridden mom might take her last breath at any moment? She might fall into a coma, be unconscious on Christmas, and then be gone by New Year’s. (Spoiler alert—that’s exactly how it played out.)

Do I whimsically share that bathing and caring for my dying mother was my responsibility? Do I commiserate about Boca, or do I share that I’d lost the rest of my extended family in the years prior and that I have had to go through this every few years? And that I had never been to Boca and never ever would have a grandmother insist I come. Because after my mom’s eventual and soon-to-come death . . . there would be almost no one left. Do I share that at future college breaks, I will have absolutely nowhere to go, or do I leave that part out?

As I shared my winter break plans, the tears flowed and flowed. My friends’ calming “There, there” did not help. Because I had no “there there.” Not there. Not anywhere. I just had “here” and grief and death. So, I decided right then that a “there” was needed, and we needed it right here.

Through the years, I’ve realized more and more that I’m not the only one who needs a “there there” right where they are standing. Here! Here!

Innocently asking a student, “Do you have any siblings?” requires the askee to walk a mental tightrope on whether now is the time to discuss their beloved but long lost brother. When classmates cheerfully talk about their fathers’ jobs, is that the cue to share that yours is in prison—or is that for a later time? And what time is that, exactly? No questions are completely innocuous when you or your family has faced trauma. These traumas might not be fully unspeakable, but sometimes you are just unable to speak.

My heart-wrenching moments occurred decades ago, but they’re as raw as if they happened yesterday. Students and friends who trusted me have shared some of their hidden pains too. I know many others still carry their daggers far from sight but not far from their hearts.

Our collective hidden pains fueled this essay and spurred my belief in the need for a sanctuary at Princeton. Many of us require a respite, not just when it’s convenient but right here and right now. A refuge for those whose house might suddenly become anything but a home.

Throughout my years working with students, I’ve encountered numerous stories of lives undergoing swift and profound transformations. I’ve listened to accounts of homes vanishing overnight due to war, of kids entering their dorms for the first time, kissing their parents goodbye, and learning they had seen their childhood home for the last time, as a divorce was nearly finalized. Too many times I have held students who recounted, blow-by-blow, their live-in partner’s attacks. Each narrative, though distinct, is not uncommon. There is one thread that ties them all.

Poof.

Your safety is now gone.

Your trusted place is now a haunting and perilous battleground.

So, let’s make “there, there” mean something.

“Peace and Comfort?”

“Compassion and care?”

They’re there at the new, desperately needed space on campus.

The “Well, Come!” Center wouldn’t just be a place to hide; it’d be an always-open sanctuary radiating warmth. It would welcome those affected by war—international, familial, or internal.

While we can’t walk into a hug, the Center’s warmth would envelop each guest. Upon entry, everyone would receive a crocheted blanket and a hot cup of tea, a gesture guests can pay forward whenever or if they’re ever ready to do so.

The heart of the Center wouldn’t just be brick and mortar; it would be the compassionate volunteers offering companionship, an understanding ear, or a shoulder to cry on. Coping workshops, support groups, and moments of joy would be part of the mosaic, serving every single person who enters. Hypoallergenic therapy dogs, tails a-wagging, would be at the ready. Pups would be there for those who don’t know but, in fact, are in dire need of some puppy snuggles.

The Center would be more than a space; it’d be a transformation of loneliness to meaningful solitude. A place for friendships and a community without judgment. The “Well, Come!” Center would be a beacon of hope for those seeking solace.

Mental health and comfort are needed beyond class hours. Full stop. Mental health crises don’t take place on a set schedule and don’t end after four counseling sessions are complete. (Yeah, that’s the number of sessions I was given when my mom was dying and after she died. Total.) The Center would be a refuge for anyone who has, or will ever have, a need.

The “Well, Come!” Center is the community I needed, the community I’ve longed to share with others.

The “Well, Come!” Center is there to welcome whoever is in need . . . whenever the need is there.

Hear! Hear!