My youngest has been fascinated with finding places on Google Earth. He recently brought me the iPad and said, “Mommy, help me find HOPAC.”
My son is in third grade, and Haven of Peace Academy is where he went to school for kindergarten through second grade. But even before that, HOPAC was always a part of his life. It’s where my husband and I ministered for sixteen years. The last three years, it was where I was the elementary school principal.
I showed him how to type in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. “Here’s downtown, right?” I pointed out. I traced the main road that led to the north of the city. “This is Shoppers Plaza; that’s where we would buy chicken on Saturday nights; this is the White Sands roundabout. Then you turn right here, and see? There’s HOPAC!”
Together we then traced the road down a little further until we could pick out the house where we had lived for ten years. We zoomed in on it, and a hundred memories rushed out. My eyes grew misty. My finger stopped, hovering there, suspended above our home. Ten thousand miles away, yet so close I could almost touch it.
“I like my new school,” Johnny tells me. “But I like Tanzania better.” Me too, Buddy.
I knew there would be grief in leaving. We had planned our departure a year in advance; we knew it was coming. We knew it would be hard. Tanzania had been our home for sixteen years.
But what I can’t figure out is what part of my grief is because we left, and what part of my grief is because we left the way we did.
In July, we found ourselves needing to furnish our new apartment in California. We had very few possessions to our name, which meant we were looking to buy just about everything. Thrift stores, OfferUp, and garage sales became our new pastime. But our favorite were estate sales. There was something particularly thrilling about walking through an entire house, picking out the things we needed.
Yet I couldn’t help but think about the strangeness of estate sales, this sifting through what felt like the entirety of someone’s life. “It must be so hard for the person that lived here,” I said to my husband, “knowing that strangers are haggling over everything they owned. It’s good that they can hire a company to sell all of this for them, and don’t have to watch it happen.”
And then it struck me: We had that exact scenario happen to us. But we did watch it happen.
On March 20th, I had come home from my last time at HOPAC to find strangers in my house, opening my cabinets and looking for things to buy. We had been told to buy plane tickets at 1 am the night before, scheduled to leave because of COVID just four days later. Word traveled quickly, and eager buyers wanted to get a head start on the things we were selling. My husband had allowed them in, assuming I had sent them. I freaked out. “Get these people out of my house now!” I hissed.
The next three days were a frantic whirlwind of sorting, packing, and selling. I sold the dishes out from under the children and the kitchen containers still filled with flour and sugar. We never did get rid of everything, leaving the house with a friend to finish sorting the chaos we had left behind.
At the last minute, I gave away all of my kids’ baby things that I had been carefully saving, taking pictures of them instead. I didn’t have time to overthink whether or not that was the right decision. Recently it occurred to me that I never took my curtains down. I don’t know why that bothers me; it’s not like they were amazing curtains. But I had looked at them every day for over a decade, so it’s strange not knowing what happened to them.
The night before we left, I was in a tizzy at midnight, trying to find my only pair of closed-toed shoes, which I intended to wear while traveling. I tore the place apart, frantically looking for them. I finally found them outside in a garbage bag; someone had inadvertently thrown them out. I was relieved to find them, but nagged by the worry of what else had been accidentally thrown away.
When my husband’s birthday came around in August, I realized that our traditional birthday banner must have been sold accidentally. I mourned over that birthday banner, and then felt stupid for caring about something so silly. But even now, I get stress-filled nightmares where I’m trying to pack. And there’s never enough time.
So I guess you could say we experienced our own estate sale. And yeah, it was strange. Traumatic, even.
I keep thinking that I’m over the worst of the grief. We have so, so many good days right now. But then there’s a trigger.
Friends from Tanzania came to visit us last week. It did our soul good to see them. They brought us some things we had left behind: Yearbooks, certificates from teachers, the name sign from my office door. Special things.
The flood of memories, again.
I found myself awake at 2 am, tears rolling down my cheeks. Again. I pounded my fist on God’s chest crying, “This is not the story I wanted!” I did not want to leave that way. That wasn’t how it was supposed to go. How desperately I wish I could go back and re-write that story.
I can see God’s hand in it, of course. I can see how leaving early was the impetus for my husband getting the job he has now. That might not have happened if we had left in July like we planned. But sometimes, it doesn’t matter; I’m still just sad. It’s good, I guess, that the human heart is capable of holding both sadness and gratitude at the same time.
HOPAC started their first day of school at the end of August. I greedily stared at the pictures posted in the parent WhatsApp groups, craving glimpses of my students. A few days later, I reluctantly left the groups, knowing I needed to let go.
I know how this works. I was the Stayer for many years, so I’ve watched many people leave. I know that it’s hard to be a Stayer and say good-bye, but that life goes on pretty quickly without the Leavers. It has to. So many leave in an expat community, every year, that you can’t sit and stew about it for very long. So now that I am the Leaver, I want to move forward, and to let the Stayers move on.
Except, I didn’t get to hug those kids goodbye. “Moving on” feels like running in soggy sand when you didn’t get to finish well. There are loose ends dangling all over the place.
Whether I like it or not, the earth turns, the sun still rises and sets, the seasons shift. Each day pulls me farther away from that life, pulls me deeper into this new one. I can grieve it and yearn for it and wish that it didn’t end that way, but life continues to go on.
Time is a healer, and that is a gift. Almost imperceptibly, the scars become a part of who I am. One day, some time from now, I will look back and not want to change the story. I’ve lived enough years to know that truth.