My daughter hates goodbyes. She cries when we leave birthday parties. She cried a few days ago when we left her grandparents’ house. As much as we assured her that Nanny and Pa only live an hour and a half away and we can see them any time, her tears would not cease.
I have never told her about my life of goodbyes. The first big one I remember was when I was her age, at the end of first grade. I’d gotten chicken pox during the last week of school, and the week my parents were packing for our move from Texas to Missouri. I got to stop by school for about an hour and hug all my friends goodbye. A couple of days later, we were on the road.
Four years after that came the biggest goodbye I could imagine. We were moving to Bangkok, Thailand. The hardest was leaving my best friend, Allison. We had shared almost every day of the past 4 years together. Then there was my family. Though my grandparents and most of our family lived in Tennessee and we were used to only seeing them three or four times a year, knowing we were leaving for four whole years without coming back was pretty tough.
We flew out of Nashville, my parents, brother, and I, with 8 heavy suitcases and carry-ons crammed with stuff that would keep us busy for the 24 hour journey. Onlookers were puzzled as to why everyone was crying and snapping pictures. The first flight was just to Chicago. They didn’t know we were going halfway across the world.
Once we got through culture shock and Thailand became home, I made lots of good friends and found that I loved the country. I started picking up the language. I enjoyed my school. We started a church. I became great friends with Beth, another MK who was two years older than me who attended my school and lived in my neighborhood.
As our four years drew to a close, I dreaded the upcoming year of furlough in the States. The year I was going to be gone was Beth’s senior year. When I got back to Thailand, Beth would be gone. Our paths, maybe even our planes, would cross. I didn’t know if I’d ever see her again. (Hey, I was 15. Everything was uber-dramatic then.) I told my friends at church and school that I’d be back in a year. I wondered in my heart if things would be different when I got back, if I’d be accepted again.
We set off for our year of furlough, settling in Nashville, Tennessee. It was a great year of spending time with family, but part of me didn’t want to make friends so I didn’t have to say goodbye again. I’m a social person, though, and I did make some great friends that year. I will never forget meeting my friend Karla and all of our good memories we made. She remains a close friend today.
And soon, the twelve months were up, and we were back at the airport, saying goodbye again. I had two years left in Thailand before returning to college. Though my heart was full of sorrow from leaving behind my extended family, I was looking forward to returning to Bangkok, the place and people I loved.
My school friends received me well. Some things were different, but I was happy. I found deep relationships in my Thai church youth group during those two years. I was loved and accepted, even with my accented language and American ways. My friend Siripawn and I were especially close. Though she was older than me, we shared the same birthday. She was a big sister to me.
My youth group gave me a goodbye party at a park shortly before the end of my senior year. I will never forget that day. The goodbyes had begun. I went on my senior trip to the beach. I made last memories with my dear school comrades. I laughed. I cried. Finally, I graduated from high school and that night I said my goodbyes. I was returning to the States in two days. I went home, late to my own graduation party because of Bangkok traffic. Our missionary friends and my church youth group friends were waiting. It was the last time I saw most of them.
Two days later, I was at the airport early in the morning with my family. All of us were going to the States; me, for college; my family, for the summer. There was a tight, hard knot in my stomach. I literally felt sick. I did not know how I could leave the people that I loved so much, that had made such an impact on my life. Several church members arrived to see us off. As I hugged everyone and cried, I knew this was the hardest goodbye of them all. I was leaving a life behind. The time finally came for us to go through the security gates. As we walked away, my Thai family started singing “We Are One in the Bond of Love” in Thai. Even when they were out of sight, we could still hear them singing. It is a moment forever seared in my memory.
There have been other kinds of goodbyes, of course, both figurative and literal. But those I’ve shared were the memorable leavings of my youth. One day my daughter will learn all this, will experience the bittersweetness. It is my job to teach her how to handle such things with appropriate grief, then grace and strength. As I say goodbye to another year, I grab hold of the lessons the past brought to me, and I reach for another day of loving the people around me, teaching my little ones what they need for this life, and finding my way in the world.