Once you have orders in hand, you start to think about your next assignment. If you’re heading off to another country, that’s really exciting. You research the place – housing, schools, entertainment and leisure options, potential weekend destinations – all things you need to know and things that are 100% new. Everything is new. EVERYTHING. Language, culture, neighborhood, school, weather. Even if it’s “not”, it really is.
But when you return to the US, “nothing” is new. But it is.
There’s a strange kind of rhythm to home.
You know it if you’ve ever “gone home”, whether it was for a high school reunion, back to your hometown for a job closer to your parents, or even on a much smaller scale and temporarily, that first trip home at Christmas Break during college when all your friends have scattered (or not) and suddenly you don’t have last Friday’s football game to talk about. Your frame of reference has shifted.
I forgot about it.
I forgot about it at Mass our first Sunday back with our church. I was full of joy, back with my community, coming off of an inspiring sermon and eager to catch up with friends and parishioners.
Me: (Hugging fellow mom who had a kid DB1’s age) Hi! “So great to see you! I was actually thinking of you on the way over. I thought, “I wonder if we’ll see Familie XXXX.””
Her: “Well, there’s not any Familie XXXX anymore. Not since three years when we divorced.”
I could see that this event wasn’t something she’d wanted. That whatever plans she’d had for her family had dissolved. We caught up. I listened to the demise of her marriage, the challenges of single parenting. I heard the sadness in her voice.
After some time, we parted. I then met up with our organist, a tall and handsome man in his seventies, and greeted him as I scanned the room briefly for his wife.
Me: “Hi! How are you? I loved the music today. Our church in India didn’t have an organ or a piano and it’s so nice to hear it again.”
Him: “Thank you. You know, I lost [Wife] in June this year, so I’m playing a lot. I am involved in three choral groups and another church that I play for. ”
Me: “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
He proceeded to tell me about how fast his wife’s illness struck. That they’d just downsized and expected to have all sorts of time together and it was stolen from them. I listened, heard the sadness in his voice.
Eventually, we moved on.
I was batting 1000 at this point, so I stayed in a corner and drank in coffee and sadness.
Then we got back into our rhythm. Kids were settled into school. DB1 discovered what the MLA Handbook is and why it’s important, DiploDad got his car fitted with new tires and a vanity plate and make the daily trek into DC, and DB2 rekindled some friendships with kids he knew from his Kindergarten class. I settled into a routine of job search, housework, unpacking, and driving everyone all over creation. We caught up with neighbors. We figured out who was new and who belonged in our neighborhood. Which was the best route to walk the dog during construction of a new water main.
So a month or so after the last box had been unpacked and the final pictures hung on the walls, my guard was down when I saw a little neighbor girl coming out of one of the neighboring houses holding the hand of an older man while I was walking the DiploDog with DB2.
Me: “Hi! You’re Z, right?”
Little girl slowly nods.
Me: “Your mom is D, right? Do you remember DB2? You used to play together. I wondered if you still lived here. We just got back from 4 years in India”
Older Man: “Yes, she does. She’s in X grade now.”
Me: “And you would be the grandpa?”
Older Man: “I would be the guardian. D passed about a year ago.”
Me: “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. ”
I was absolutely wracked with guilt while walking the dog. I probably ruined a fun holiday outing for Z by bringing up her mother.
It weighed heavily on me. Later on, I consulted the Almighty Google, but didn’t come up with much. All signs point to the mother still living – house ownership, professional licenses intact – and no, I didn’t do a super-nosy search, I just did a cursory obituary search. I didn’t turn one up. But what I did find out is that she was about 40 when she died. She had been a young widow when she came to the US from overseas, hence the guardian. Heartbreaking.
You figure that when you move away, life goes on. Kids grow up. Yours, neighbor kids, kids from school, kids your kids do activities with, your friends’ and families’ kids. They get bigger. Start to shave and wear makeup. They go away to college. They get jobs and cars and have kids of their own. We all get a little greyer and gravity is a little unkinder.
But other things happen that might not be as happy. Divorce and death are part of life too. I’m old enough now that along with the happy transitions, the sad are going to surface as well. If you’re an expat reading this, brace yourself, because eventually coming home will not be new beginnings, but new endings. They will be even more stark for you because the tendency is to not keep you in the loop. You’re so far away, people don’t want to guilt you, or stress you out, or demand too much. But for me at least, that’s been even more devastating. Coming home to find Grandma in a wheelchair and a shaved head in front of you and you are still waiting for her to “come out” into the nursing home parlor because you don’t recognize her is horrible when you had no idea she was anywhere close to this state.
You’ll feel awkward. You’ll be reminded that not only did life go on while you were gone, but life didn’t go on for some.
Say a prayer, take a deep breath, and drink in the awkwardness. You’re back, and life will go on, in a myriad of ways, with all the attendant joy, growth, and sometimes, sadness.
There is a season for everything, a time for every occupation under Heaven;
a time for giving birth, a time for dying, a time for planting, a time for uprooting what has been planted.
A time for killing, a time for healing; a time for knocking down, a time for building.
A time for tears, a time for laughter; a time for mourning, a time for dancing.
A time for throwing stones away, a time for gathering them; a time for embracing, a time to refrain from embracing.
A time for searching, a time for losing; a time for keeping, a time for discarding.
A time for tearing, a time for sewing; a time for keeping silent, a time for speaking.
A time for loving, a time for hating; a time for war, a time for peace.