I naively went to my pre-field orientation thinking the big pieces of saying goodbye was over. After months of goodbyes and preparing to GO, relief flooded me as the hellos and getting settled could start.
Imagine my surprise when less than a month later I was sobbing harder than I did when I left my own family. Why was saying goodbye to people I hadn’t even known a month ago gutting me?
Now that I am years away from those steps of the Friendship Hotel in Beijing and can look back with a cool, rational mind, of course I was going to become close with these people who shared an intense emotional experience (and hours and hours of listening to this aspect and that aspect of living and serving overseas). Our adventures started in Los Angeles as we figured out how to take a city bus to Rodeo Drive. They continued in Beijing as we melted on the Great Wall of China. The GREAT WALL OF CHINA! We were finally . . . on the field!
This was before the days of all the easy ways to connect; so when we said goodbye, we were under no delusions that we would have much contact until our organization conference. I knew I’d miss my family so the pain didn’t surprise me. It felt right. It felt honoring of the call.
However, this pain of missing new friends bowled me over precisely because they had been strangers. Who aches for people they might be fuzzy over their last name?
But you get it.
I have recently stumbled into another cost I hadn’t counted when I went to the field. I knew part of the cost involved missing milestones and events. Birthdays and weddings. Births and deaths. Holding hands during chemo and watching football with friends. The mundane and the markers. And while I wished I could be a part of everything—my life in Asia and my life in America—I got that I couldn’t.
You get it too.
The longer I stayed on the field, the more my people were tied less to Colorado and Kansas. The more I had ties all over the world, but especially in parts of the US where, were it not for life on the field, I had never heard of or would have only been a vacation destination.
For many years on the field I was anchored in a community, so I loved these ties all over the world. But then the cloud that God had over our community moved and dissipated with most of us moving to new locations.
This spring as I drove to a graduation my companion asked me what I missed about life overseas; I said it was the way life was integrated. My teammates were my friends, my co-workers, my small group. Many of us had our own apartments but all lived in the same building. We studied the word together. We celebrated birthdays together. We worked together. As I waxed poetic, she responded, “It sounds awful.”
Well, it wasn’t rosy 24/7, but it was rich and good.
In April the text read, “Aim, I’m at the doctor. I just found out I have cancer.”
In a flash I was back on the stairs of the Friendship Hotel mourning a loss it had never occurred to me would come. Sucker punched because now I’m with my people and a part of the mundane activities and the markers. Wasn’t the ache of not being a part of things with my people finally over?
The shadow side of this grief is two-fold. In part, internally I rally against the reality that while we are in the same country, we are worlds apart. How can this be? How can I not be there for this part of the journey? How is it I now find out through text messages he’s in the hospital again? These are my people, my teammates. I should be a part of this because they will always be a part of me.
The second part to this grief is again the distance I feel with people who have not lived on the field. They understand that a friend, a teammate, is ill. Very ill. Most likely preparing to leave his wife and children. What I have been unable to express is how it feels like a sibling has cancer.
In trying to quantify our relationship so that it makes sense to others, I say, “We lived in the same building for ten years. I lived on the 3rd floor and the Packs lived on the 4th floor. On occasion I baked the cakes for the kids’ birthdays. Anne stocked my refrigerator so when I’d get home from my trips visiting teachers on the field I would have food. We shared a communal laundry room. We did life together. As an adult I have spent more time with them than with my own blood family.”
I did not know when I went to the field I would now miss out on weddings, births, new jobs, and illness to the degree that I do.
I feel the need to say Jesus is worth it so you don’t think me too navel gazing. And he is. Of course he is! But he also knows this cost of being away from loved ones and he sits with me as another loss and another comes.
When do you wish you could have been with a teammate?