“It’s not as hard this time,” my mom gestured at the air.
After a six week visit in the States, we were just an hour before departure, in the final countdown and on our way to the airport. I looked at her, she kept straight ahead, hands at 10 & 2.
Her eyes softened and she glanced over at me, “Because this time, you’re just going home.”
I smiled. Everyone we visited over the course of our trip asked, “So, are you staying forever? Have you settled down there for good now?”
Our answer seemed to appease even the most eager, albeit slightly disappointing to those who desperately want to hear something definitive: “We’ve only ever been able to plan out a year. So, we’ll be there for this next year.”
The last time we made this journey, we were jumping into so many unknowns. I was terrified and joyous all at once. My fear was to have made immense efforts only to discover that it wouldn’t be the place we could settle. I so desperately needed to settle somewhere and raise my family. I ached to set up a home and develop deep relationships with my neighbors, entwine my life with a community from the very beginning.
We arrived last summer to Santiago and were told that it was no longer a “goal community” for the Baha’is—the primary purpose in our international move. This didn’t mean that we would be useless (we were joyously welcomed and made to feel at home right away), but it did mean that they were no longer in need of new pioneers like ourselves. My test had arrived before I had. Through bad-internet-connection induced choppy, international communication with housemates yet to arrive and our own consultations, we decided to honor decisions we had already made (based on two years of planning) and stay in Santiago. I knew I had just moved to a city that I would most certainly be moving out of again in just a year. Baha’u’llah has a way of delivering tests designed especially for you. I’m always given the same test, in different forms (I should probably take the hint, eh?): Oh, you’re attached to something? Here, let Me show you what it’s like without it.
Reflecting on this last year, I experienced a great many tests. Raise your hand if you didn’t. Yeah, I kinda thought so. It’s the stuff of life. And I’m grateful for it, though still can’t seem to find the gratitude when I’m in the thick of it. Gratitude is more of a post-op feeling for me. Maybe I’ll work on that next. Maybe it was a collection of experiences specific to this year, maybe it was me adopting pieces of relaxed Dominican culture, but I’m no longer as eager to put down thick roots. Don’t get me wrong, it does sound nice. It’s just not nearly as important to me as it has been this last decade. Maybe my priorities have been shuffled. Maybe I just finally realized that my strongest connections will never be to a specific place (and don’t have to be)—not even to the house I grew up in and called home for most of my life. My strongest connections will always be to people. Conversations with my loved ones only further confirm this.
Two years ago, I had a conversation with a man I love dearly. I called him Papa Bear. He was a second father to me—and I’m not the kind to “adopt” additional parents. I was blessed with two amazing and irreplaceable ones. But Papa Bear was beloved of my beloved. And I came to know him like that too. He was dying, his body succumbing to its pain; immense suffering. When I said goodbye, I knew it would be the last time I saw him, his thinning frame a shadow of the giant he once had been. He radiated with a genuine kindness and reverence for love that was gargantuan. His body, made weak and fragile by vicious cancer hadn’t changed that—it had made the parts of him I loved stronger, easier to recognize. When you say goodbye for the last time, you speak with your eyes the most, the words don’t matter as much. Perhaps words seem too cliché or insufficient for those moments. Or maybe you do that because your eyes are the most honest part of you—“the windows to your soul.” We said I love you and I will see you soon, though not like this. Papa Bear shows up in my dreams fairly often now, just long enough to crack a joke usually and I wake up smiling. Whatever you believe about where we go when we die, if we have souls or not, what dreams mean—if anything, I don’t miss the most important parts of Papa Bear because they weren’t tangible things. My relationship is nourished by memory, conversations about him and the legacy of virtue he left in his daughters.
I had a similar conversation with my sweet, gentle grandfather a few days ago. We didn’t say much. I held his hand and we looked at each other. I had wanted to spend so much more time with him. A week after a jolting cancer report, he fell and broke his leg. The last half of our trip he spent in various medical facilities and to this day isn’t home. He is slowly coming back, getting stronger, but doubts sometimes linger. And so our goodbye looked like that, but with uncertainty—some hope. I couldn’t get my fill of looking. Memorizing his features, my grandmother’s love etched around his eyes, graceful hands that changed, in some wonderful way, thousands of lives for the better, a bottom lip that quivered any time he heard mention of June. I’m most attached to the things that will stay with me though: his generous spirit, his fervent desire to serve humanity, his excitement for new things, his love for his family and intense dedication to my grandmother. And more recently, his burning love for Baha’u’llah.
One day in his hospital room he turned to me, eyes shining, “Your dad gave me this new book. It’s wonderful! Have you heard of…” He trailed off as he shuffled through a pile of books by his bedside. He pulled out a small, soft cover and continued, “Yes. It’s called…” and he looked carefully at the cover, “The Hidden Words.”
I laughed, enjoying the newness of his love and responded, “Yes, grandpa. I’ve heard of it.”
“Don’t you think it’s wonderful!?” he smiled wide.
“Yes, grandpa. Yes, I do.”
Living between worlds offers me frequent opportunities to say goodbye—more often than I’m comfortable with. It can be heart wrenching, and my heart is tender. See you soon is easier. I’ll always be leaving someone and saying hello to another it seems. But in all this rambling, what I hope to tell you is: I never feel far from any of you—no matter what spot on the map I am. I think of you often. I think you’re wonderful. And I’m grateful for you, whether you have tested me immensely, taught me to see new facets, loved me more fiercely than I deserve, sacrificed for me, fought with me, laughed until our bladders gave out, tried new things with me, failed miserably beside me, shared secrets with me… or are even just passing by this particular part of me in cyberspace. This is where I thank you—tell you I’m grateful. And say, I’ll see you soon.