Pannapa “Parn” Sriwanna walked into 4th period drawing class late on the first day of 10th grade. She was short, wearing a pair of jeans and a pink shirt, and was very obviously new. Her accent was heavy, her drawing skills amazing, and her smile contagious.
Parn became one of my very best friends. She was an exchange student from Thailand, hated the color green (which we always laughed about because our high school colors were white and green), and lived around the block from me. Both of us liked Pokemon, and we even did a performance together in Drama Club of the theme song. It was so goofy, but that was our friendship.
We would walk to and from school together everyday, and on the weekends we would watch anime, go shopping, or lie around reading. We passed notes in school every single day, and our drawing teacher had to separate us to keep us from talking in class. She helped me with my advanced algebra homework, and I’d help edit her essays.
When Parn returned to Thailand in 2008, we cried and promised to keep in touch. And we did; we wrote letters, talked on the phone, and had Skype calls. Parn wanted to be an ambassador, and she got into one of the best universities in Thailand to become one. She would tell me all about her university life, and when I graduated from high school she joked I should study in Thailand.
Parn became sick in 2010. I remember how it felt when she told me lung cancer was the cause of all her recent breathing problems. It was like all the air was sucked out of the room as I read her message through the Facebook chat box. A single thought kept repeating in my mind: No.
Parn passed away September 3rd, 2012. No one told me. I found out two days later through Tumblr, when a friend of mine made a memorial post about her.
Parn’s family and friends honored her life all the way in Thailand, whereas I was stuck, broke, and in the start of a new year at college. I took my grief and held it close, wishing I could talk to her one more time, to tell her I love her and she made everyone she met happy. There were letters I never sent her, gifts for a package I was meaning to mail, and missed phone calls I would have given anything to return.
I dream of Parn often. When she was alive, we would often talk about me visiting her in Thailand, and many of these dreams reflected this. I would try to learn Thai, go to her school, and we would play in the ocean, the colorful surf tickling our feet as we laughed and talked about how great it was to be reunited at last.
Ten years after I met Parn and five since she passed away, I finally made it to her homeland of Thailand, to honor her life and memory and walk in her footsteps.
I thought I would make a series about all of the things we talked about doing together, but when I arrived in Thailand, I was so overcome by loneliness and grief, that method of making images seemed impossible.
Instead, I walked. I went everywhere I could with my camera, mapping out with my feet the places Parn talked about in our letters. I also went places maybe Parn hadn't been, but now I will never know for sure. My camera was a constant companion for my loneliness, trying to take as many pictures as possible to fill the hole Parn had left.
I wrote letters to Parn, my grief leading me to long for our once-familiar form of contact. I met Parn's family, who were extremely generous in letting me stay in the home Parn grew up in and taking me around her home province, to see and experience the things she had loved when she was alive. I took pictures.
Grief is a tremendous thing. I set off to Thailand expecting to create a project that honored my dear friend, but instead created a meditation in grief and ultimately crafted paths to healing.
I don't believe this project is complete yet, as grief does not go away, but transforms as we grow.