One of the hardest things about being a missionary/expat is the leaving. It never gets easier. Not even after a decade of leavings.
I’m talking about the people. People just like us who feel called to come to a place like Haiti. We all come, and we set up life in whatever way we know it needs to be in order to do the day to day here. We’re all sure that this is where we’re supposed to be. At least for right now.
The truth is, none of us ever know how long it’ll last.
Some of us come with a definite time frame. One month. Six months. A one year commitment. A two year contract. And in that time we build our lives, but I think there’s always that bit that’s held back from being fully here. Holding out for the end when you know time will be up and you’ll step back into your own culture, your family, your friends.
Others come with a vague time frame, and sometimes it’s shorter, and sometimes it’s longer. Often the latter. There’s a pivotal point when you’re a short termer that knows you’re supposed to be a long termer. You take that leap, you dig in, you set up house and you start investing yourself differently. Over time you become a “stayer”.
Stayers are the ones who probably started with a short commitment, but it grew over time. A year becomes three becomes five and soon you realize that a third of your life has passed by and you’ve developed a life for yourself in this new home, your adopted country.
I’m a stayer. I started out as a short termer, then I married a stayer and I fought that whole idea for about a year. God had to really do a lot in my heart, and there were things I had to come to terms with. Last month marked a decade of staying in Haiti. Of it being home and this place that I identify such a huge part of my life with.
The challenge of being the stayer is all the leaving.
In my mind I break each year into “seasons”, and it’s always divided by when we take our vacation and when the people in our lives will all be back and we get back into our “normal”. Typically the beginning of June starts the exodus out of the country so we can all go home for the summer to rest, see friends and family, fundraise, meet with our organizational heads, etc. Part work, part play. Also typically, starting sometime in August, people start coming back. The coming back can take more time with people straggling in over a period of about two months. By the beginning of October all the familiar faces are back, we’re back to doing our regular missionary gatherings, hanging out with friends, and just doing life together. The same cycle happens in December with those people that choose to go home for Christmas. They leave in the middle of December, and by the middle of January they’re back.
I can do the exodus. I can do it because there are times where I know people will be back.
With every single person that we meet here, one of the first questions after we exchange names and where we’re living/working is “How long are you planning on being here?” When they’re doing the asking it’s “How long have you been here?” Being completely gut level honest, when the response is “X number of months” there is a fleeting thought that runs through my brain where I decide right then and there how emotionally invested I’ll be. The shorter the time, the less investment.
That might sound harsh, but when you see people come and go annually, it’s hard to open up to the same level with each one. That opening up costs something. It takes energy. It requires work to make the time to share and be together. Life is already hard on a daily basis. Sometimes there just isn’t enough energy to go around.
When people answer the question with, “I don’t know” my ears perk up. I don’t know might be a year. It might be 10. At the very least it gives us somewhere to start. And, I’ve been here long enough to know that sometimes the very deciding factor is whether or not there’s any kind of community here to be a part of, to see yourself in for the long term. That very opening up might be the thing that creates a stayer.
We’ve been very blessed in the past few years to have had a lot of long term, open ended type people move into our area. I think back to our social network five years ago and Chris and I were the youngest members of the group. We were the only ones with small kids, or kids here period. We didn’t have “normal” things like Bible studies and guys/girls get togethers. We all stuck together because we were all we had. Some of us even joked about the fact that if we were all back in our home countries we would never be friends because we were all so different.
Now there are other young families. There are singles. There are marrieds with no children. There are older go before us types. Our community here is very varied and it’s beautiful and I’m so thankful for it.
That’s what makes the leavings harder.
And, no one ever leaves in a way that is easy. If someone knows that their time here is coming to an end, and they have the option to wrap things up, to transition out, to say good-bye it doesn’t make it any easier. Sometimes having the time to process it makes it hard. Because it is hard. Sometimes you wish it was like ripping off a bandaid, and that it could just be over, but you know that would hurt too.
Some people don’t plan on leaving. They go on vacation, and can’t come back in the way that they had planned. We have dear friends who left in August to go home for a two month break. A month after they got home they found out they were expecting their second child, which we’re all SO excited about. But, in the joy and excitement, we’re also sad because our friend has rough pregnancies. Last time she was here and was sick the ENTIRE time. This time around has been the same. Because she hasn’t felt well enough to travel they made the hard decision to stay, and give it time. Maybe her body will ease out of it this time, and they can come back for a few months before taking a break to deliver back home. But, maybe we won’t see them until after their little one arrives. The not knowing and the missing them and the excitement and joy all smash together and the longer it is the harder it is. It’s just. so. hard.
And then there are the unplanned, unexpected, speed of lightening leavings.
On Monday one of my best friends here had some family stuff come up. She’s been having a harder time this year being pulled between two places – her love for being here and doing all this, and her love for her family and friends and life in the US. Monday she made the hard decision to go home to be with her family for a while. She just needs to do it. And I’m 100% supportive of her going. I was hoping she would make that decision because I knew she needed to.
But, the leaving.
Last night she came over to do a last load of laundry and we talked and we cried a bit because there are so many unknowns. Is this a short time where we’ll see her back in January after a break and the holidays with her family? Or is it a time where God is going to be transitioning her into the next thing. Will her next trip in be to pack up her life here and say her good-byes while we all promise to stay in touch a visit when we can?
None of us know.
And it hurts. It hurts so bad.
Her heart is aching. Mine is aching. Everyone is aching.
In my mind I kept telling myself it’ll just be a couple of months. But the truth is I don’t know. None of us do. There is no answer right now.
And after a decade it doesn’t get easier. Never easier.
One time she asked me how we do it. The opening up. The staying open. The constant process of getting to know new people and saying good-bye to others. The best I could tell her was that I honestly don’t know. Sometimes we don’t. We pull back and don’t invest. Other times, when there’s a glimmer of something that might mean friendship we choose to take the dive, but always know that it might not work. That it might mean more of ourselves spent and poured out just to be back at square one because we’re the stayers.
Today has been hard. This morning as we texted back and forth while she waited for her flight in Port the tears kept trickling down my face, and she may have had a few people concerned in the boarding lounge because of her sobbing. The really hard thing is that she wasn’t just my friend, she was our friend. Mine, Chris’ and our kids. Aside from family, she’s probably our kids favorite person of all time. I grieve not just for myself, but for them too. I’m thankful right now that they don’t fully understand what’s going on, and I’m hoping and praying that this is just a short term thing. But, only God knows.
I know that a lot of people look at those that are serving in missions, or living abroad as expats, and there’s a tendency to only see the adventurous side of things. If you take any one thing away from this today, let it be this – this life comes with great loss and grief.
At some point, for those of us that become stayers, there is a decision to be made about which world we will live in – the one we left, or the one we’re currently in. We cannot live in both. After a certain amount of time we have to make a decision about where we will invest most of our energies. The longer we’re gone from our home countries, the more blatantly aware we are of the fact that everyone from back home is moving on, and we have to face the reality that we too have moved on. In the same way that we struggle to identify with the regular, daily life stuff that our friends and family are experiencing back home, they also struggle to identify with our daily life stuff in our new home.
There comes a point where we have to choose to be fully in. To take steps that move us beyond a period of time to an indefinite time. To stop thinking about things in blocks of time between vacations or furloughs, and start putting pieces in place that will allow us to live life to the fullest in our adopted homes.
But none of it comes without sacrifice. The sacrifices look like not being able to be there for every birthday or holiday. Not being there for births and funerals. Not being able to do the “normal” things we once did, like going for coffee with friends, or being part of our communities like we once were. Everything about life abroad is often harder and much more work. Doing daily things like grocery shopping or insuring your car can be momentous accomplishments. Every social interaction takes planning and juggling and consideration of safe times to travel, what time to be home, and having limited options for what there actually is to do.
There is no way to live in both places, so often most of us have two versions of our selves. We have our previous life version where we can slip back into life while on vacation and resemble most of who we were before with some changes. And then we have our abroad selves where we combine all the things we’ve had to learn in order to just do life in our new home. Things that our friends and family back home would find so not us if they were privy to every little bit of it. It is survival.
And surviving means letting things go, feeling all the feels, and figuring out how to move on.
It means knowing that there will be more leavings. That they can’t be avoided. That they will hurt, no matter how many there are and how often they happen. There will be tears. Anger. Understanding. Denial. Acceptance. Grief. Hope that maybe it’s just temporary. Joy for the next steps of the ones we love. And amazement as we watch God carry us all through, as we watch him heal the broken places and bits and put us back together and keep us still soft for the next people to come along.
No, I don’t know how we keep doing it. We just do.
To all my fellow stayers, and to my loved leavers – thank you for being part of our lives here. Thank you for making them so much richer, even if it’s for a season. Thank you for crying with us and walking beside us as we grieve together, and thank you for celebrating with us and being love as we all navigate life together away from our home country selves.
Water keeps running out of my face and it’s getting harder to see the screen, so I think this is where I sign off. I would love your prayers for our Haiti family today. So much love, so much sadness, so many hard things. Thank you :)