You Can’t Cross the Ocean on an iPad

by Beth Barthelemy

“My mom lives near where your Grandma lives,” my friend told my youngest, who looked up at her with her head tilted to one side. “No,” my two-year-old daughter said, “my grandma lives in the iPad.”

My friend looked at me, tears filling her eyes, because she lives motherless on this continent too. Because she had a two-year-old daughter too, who likely also does not understand her grandma as a real, full of hugs and love kind of person.

Without fail, one of the most common consolations I am offered when I share this hardest part of living an ocean away is the well-meaning, “Well at least you have technology these days.” Which is always said in love, with compassion. And which I always receive with inward tears, knowing its insufficiency.

Technology reminds us constantly of what we are missing, of what we are lacking. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, let me explain.

If my family had boarded a ship sixty years ago, we would have said our goodbyes knowing full well we may never see our families again, or at least not every person in them. The grief would have been intense. We would have arrived in a new country and built a new life, acutely aware of all that we had left behind. It was a different time, and I am not wishing for it. I don’t know if I could do this life sixty years ago.

In the 21st century, leaving looks like never fully leaving; we have a foot in each continent. We have double the relationships, double the lives. We build a new life while maintaining the old one, and we live in a perpetual state of grief, never fully saying goodbye. I don’t know that it is a better way to do life overseas; it is simply a different way.

When my daughters do crafts with Grandma over FaceTime, I am so grateful for her presence. I’m also aware that her hands are not here to guide theirs. I can acknowledge the joy that my children have a relationship with her even as I mourn that this relationship is one-dimensional on a screen. When I see my mom on the screen in front my daughters, or my dad strumming a song for them, there is joy and grief, every single time.

After the past couple of years, perhaps it is easier for others to relate than it would have been before. We have all found ourselves fatigued with online church, with yet another Zoom meeting, yet another voice memo instead of a chat over coffee. Not a single non-family member crossed the threshold of our door for many months. We have all been immensely relieved that life has begun to return to normal, to in-person church and meetings and coffee dates, and to friends physically entering our home and lives again.

Are we ungrateful to mourn the losses in this century of advancement when we live far from family and friends? What is there to do when we feel the insufficiency of technological relationships?

Technology is a gift; it also reminds us that we are not made for one-dimensional relationships. We are meant to look deeply into each other’s eyes, to exchange prolonged hugs, to hold hands, to interpret body language and hear all the intonations in each other’s voice. We are meant to live with those we love, those with whom we are in community, just as God dwells with us, not in some abstract, intangible way, but in spirit and in truth, and in flesh through Jesus.

As we do in so much of life, we can mourn and rejoice at the same time. I miss my mom and am grateful I can hear her voice over the phone, and I’m also grieving because I could use her warm hugs. My children know and love their cousins — and also there is no good way for nine children under ten to play well over Facetime. We are created for personal, tangible, physical relationships; one-dimensional technology-based relationships are a poor representation of the lives we are meant to live with those we love.

And yet. It really is not ungrateful to feel sorrow during a video chat. We know that our times together, fully together, are that much sweeter for all the time lost. And we can gratefully look forward to a time when we will live forever with those we love, in the presence of Christ.

My youngest has since felt the touch of her grandma’s hug, seen the smile in her eyes, and knows that she does not, in fact, live in the iPad after all, but in a real house. She has also had the gut-wrenching experience of saying goodbye for a long stretch of time, of delayed hugs and holding of hands and cuddling on her lap. We will enjoy talking to her over Facetime tomorrow, and we are counting the days until we are really truly together again.

(38, for those interested. Only 38 more sleeps!)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Beth Barthelemy is a wife, mother to four young children, and cross cultural worker. She and her husband, Ben, have lived and worked in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, for the past five years. She has an MA in Christian Studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. You can find her online at bethbarthelemy.com and on Instagram as bethbarthelemy.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.