We knew this, of course. Intellectually. It’s much harder to be the people left behind than to be the people who leave. When we left Dallas it was hard. We were breaking away from the friends and places and routines of the last 12 1/2 years of our lives. It was the only home the kids ever knew – practically their entire universe, contained within a few square miles. And yet we were heading into a new adventure that required total engagement and it was impossible not to be at least distracted from our grief, if not dissuaded from it.
Less than four months later it was goodbye again. We were among the first in Andrés’ training group to leave the Washington, DC area for post. Knowing that timetables are usually tight, foreign service people don’t mess around when making friends. We had very quickly forged close friendships and it was not easy to once again leave everything behind. But this time we had an even more absorbing project ahead of us: settling in to our first post, where we would live for two years. Living not just in a new city but in a new nation with a new (albeit familiar) culture and language. And the consulate community in Juárez was incredibly welcoming, so we quickly had new friends to add to our ever-growing collection.
And so it continued for a year. We’ve stayed in touch with our Dallas friends and paid a few visits, keeping those ties as strong as we can. Our proximity to the U.S. means we’ve been able to see family at least as often as we did when we were in Dallas. And Marisela, in particular, has been a letter-writing and craft-making champ, sending notes and drawings and rubber band bracelets around the globe. Despite the fact that our foreign service friends have now made their way to locales as widespread as Mauritius and Italy and Nepal and Indonesia and Belgium we have done, I’d say, a reasonable job of keeping connections alive.
But a week ago today, for the first time we were the left rather than the leavers. We met Abhisneha, briefly, during our first full day in Ciudad Juárez. We were touring the school that would eventually become Marisela’s, and Abhisneha was already attending. When, later in the summer, Marisela and Abhisneha had the chance to spend more time together, they became very fast friends. Over the next year they learned together, painted together, sang together, giggled together, gardened together, and just constantly grew in affection for one another.
We said goodbye to Abhisneha, her five siblings, and her parents last week and now we’re learning how tough it is for life to just keep going as if nothing is different when it feels like everything is different. It’s a bit easier for the older members of the family to remain philosophical about this. Isaiah really liked Abhisneha and her family but they were not daily fixtures of his life. But for Marisela this is a huge loss. Her world has once again, for the third time in about a year, entirely shifted under her feet and this time there’s no distraction to dull the pain. Thankfully, she still has a very close friend in the consulate community who is also in her class at school, and she has local friends at school as well. But I imagine she can’t help but be thinking ahead to the end of this year when that other consulate friend, too, will be on her way to her family’s next post.
And that brings me to a thought that has recurred for me many times over the challenging year and a half we’ve spent so far in the foreign service. For as long as I can remember I have known the passage from Thessalonians about giving thanks in all circumstances. Somehow it has taken me decades of life and this period of intense emotional trials to actually feel like – sometimes, at least – I not only understand but truly appreciate what it means to do that.
Marisela struggles intensely with anxiety. We have had some exhausting, incredibly painful times over the last several months as she has battled with it, and this latest blow has definitely reawakened the amygdala-dwelling beast she has named “Stinky” – the voice of her most primal and hard-to-control fears. And yet somehow I can, with complete honesty, say that I am thankful for all that we have experienced in this year and a half. Somehow I can say I am thankful, even, for the mornings like the one I had today – a morning when Stinky was in full control and it was tough to get Marisela out the door and off to school (where, thanks to my dear friend Mimi who is chaperoning a field trip, I know that she is thriving and having a great day).
I don’t believe it is my own goodness or strength that allows me to experience this thankfulness (the goodness and strength I possess are pretty wobbly in and of themselves). I know that many of my friends do not share my particular faith or subscribe to any particular faith at all, but I personally can only make sense of this as a gift of grace from the Holy Spirit. It is a perspective that I do not believe I am capable of having on my own: the perspective that shows even these times of intense pain as life-affirming, spirit-building, and ultimately part of what makes life a beautiful experience.
A little over 26 years ago I graduated from an international boarding school. It’s a two-year school, so although I was together with the friends in my graduating class for two years, I was only together with those in the classes above or below me for one school year. One or two school years, approaching 30 years ago, and I still feel a close bond to many of my UWC classmates. So when I wonder and worry about whether my kids will really experience close friendships when their lives are so very riddled with leaving and being left, I think about my UWC years. The friendships were so intense, the parting so hard, but the connections lifelong. So very much to give thanks for.