In the first couple days after January 18, 2018, I thought “I am like a 6-year-old again. My dad is not here, and I am looking for him everywhere I go.” Just before I turned 7 my brother and I started attending a boarding school in the middle of the Bolivian semi-desert. Several days after we arrived, my parents and younger sister returned to the Amazon jungle in the northern part of Bolivia. I don’t remember processing anything objectively, but how does a 7-year-old process objectively? Everything that was happening, was happening to me and around me. I wasn’t a part of a larger picture. My only viewpoint was my own. The back of my throat was always achy in those first weeks, and tears were close to the surface. They spilled every night, but they changed nothing. I was not the child who demands answers or fights back. I was the child who obeyed, who wanted to be good, who felt lost, and in need of protection. What I needed was my parents, but they were days and hours away by road and air. As I went from the dorm to the dining hall to the classroom to the dorm, and back around again, I looked for my parents. I expected them even though I knew they were not anywhere near the school campus.
“Maybe they are in that group of boring grown ups who are talking about nothing of any importance while drinking coffee from thick, brown mugs.” Those people would have been the age I am now, as well as a few years younger and a few years older. Many had solid friendships in the coffee circle, others were breaking into the group, others were drinking coffee alone in their houses. My parents were not there.
Maybe they are around this corner at the end of the long patio sidewalk. I was alone on the sidewalk looking toward the Beinvenido sign. “Welcome” it read, and I had seen kids and adults who seemed happy to be at the boarding school. Finding a state of happiness, looking for a way to enjoy myself in this new world–these ideas didn’t occur to me. I was looking, subconsciously, for my parents. I knew they weren’t there, but they seemed to be close by. Someone would come and tell me at any moment that they were waiting for me at the dorm, or in the classroom, or in the dining hall, or even out on the soccer field. They would fly in soon, of course. I didn’t know the months of the year at that time, except highlights like September, December, and summer break.
My parents did show up finally. It was October, and they came for a three day visit during Field Day. It was like having my wounds washed and ointment applied and a bandage carefully wound around to keep out the dirt. But I knew it wouldn’t last, and this stifled my joy. Being less than demonstrative, I quietly saturated myself in their presence as much as I could and absorbed as much of their strength as I was able. When they left again, my cheekbones and my skinny chest must have receded a bit. If only I could hide forever, away from all the grown ups who were so, so tall and away from all the children who were so happy.
Then in those early days after he was permanently gone and I was the tall grown-up, I felt like a child again because that same exact ludicrous and unpremeditated searching for him happened again. Having never experienced this kind of loss before, I didn’t realize how precisely the emotions I’d had three and a half decades ago could repeat themselves. The continual expectation of seeing him again, just around the corner or in the other room. Someone will tell us he is coming back. He’ll call maybe. “Hi, Gina,” he would say in that quiet voice. “Whatcha doin? How are the crumb crunchers?” It bothered me that I would experience that same hopeless sensation of being alone in a strange place. I can’t go back to that place, I thought with a touch of panic.
In the confusion of emotions it took me two full days to realize, no, I won’t go back to that place. I don’t have to, and this is absolutely not the same sensation. It’s strikingly similar. There is that strong longing for what can’t be. There are tears. There is that repetitious looking for, looking for, looking for…what is not there. But when I was a child, I knew nothing except what was happening to me and around me as it affected me. Now I am grown, and I have years of experience in loss and joy and looking at the picture from above instead of just outwardly from my own face and torso and kneecaps. Whatever winds are blowing gently or fiercely, they have been elsewhere and are moving on instead of just touching my skin and drying my hair. They are touching others’ faces and clothes, and every person is feeling it differently. More importantly in this context, I have decades of knowing what my dad taught me and what he might be saying now. I have years to look back on knowing he wasn’t perfect, but he was there for me. When I went to boarding school the transition from having parents to not having parents was quick and mostly complete. I couldn’t see them unless they came to visit which was rare because of the cost and mission regulations, perhaps unspoken but still enforced. And I could talk with them on a ham radio only, a daunting experience for a shy child.
This time the separation was quick and again, mostly complete. I can’t see him until I die. And I can’t talk with him at all; I can only talk to him and piece his responses together from old conversations. As a child I could not comprehend the length of months, and I could just barely understand the meaning of one week of seven days. To say, “You will see your parents again in October,” was only a phrase prompting the continual unspoken question, “How much longer?” Now as a grown person experiencing the permanency of d—-, though I have no wish to hasten it for the sake of the living and God’s meaning for my life, I can only ask, “How much longer? How much longer?” And my throat closes up, my face crumples, my heart beats a little slower and heavier. Sometimes it takes several sobs to reign it back in, but then I think, “First of all, I’m not even sure I believe this yet. And secondly, if it is true, and it is, he would comfort me saying ‘Remember to go back to the truth.’ ” I can hear his voice. He will be listening to me, looking down at his hands, and he will look up and say with his head just turned slightly to one side and his eyes on my eyes, “Remember, to go back to the Truth.”
Oh I talked to my dad for maybe the cumulative affect of a few solid years maybe, hour upon hour. Who knows if you added all the hours together how many weeks or months or years it would be, but I still can’t formulate entire speeches. I just know he constantly came back to the simple truths of God being closely acquainted with the frailty of humanity, His grace, His acceptance. Sin is sin, and there’s no doubt. He was never shy of telling me if something I was doing or brooding over wasn’t on the up and up. But self-pity, self-condemnation, striving in depression, these were areas he was adept at helping me clamber up and out of. Acknowledge it, and back up to see the bigger picture.
When I was 17 or 18 we were sitting in the common laundry room of the mission guest house in Cochabamba, Bolivia. I was in the depths. My world was dark and I myself was the darkest object in my world; there probably wasn’t any particular reason. Darkness is my oldest tormentor. “Remember Gina, our emotions come in cycles,” and he sat there beside me on a chair that was probably nailed together by hand in 1940. He raised his arm with his palm down and fingers together, thumb lying close to the index finger and he was making slow, large circles. “You struggle against a thought for awhile and then it evens out and your feelings are more calm, then you feel sad again and you’re there for a while. You feel happy for a while, and it just keeps circling around, like this.” I sat in silence longing for the evening out period where the darkness lifts and everything is clean and peaceful like flying above the cottony clouds, for miles nothing but soft, bright cleanness. “Imagine yourself looking down at yourself from the top of the room. This helps me sometimes. You’re just a person, like the other people in the room. You’re just living, like they are. No need to be overly conscious of yourself.” It was an oversimplified view of life for a reason. We tend to examine and re-examine, mull, ponder, and rethink. He was always coming back to the basic truths.
Unfortunately, I’m still learning these two lessons. Just today a friend came up to me for the first time since all this happened with my dad. No doubt she followed my posts. I was happy to see her, but her face was full of love and concern. She asked how I was doing, and I didn’t know what to say because my happiness at seeing her had brought a big smile to my face, and yet her face was looking for the sad quality of my life lately. Saying, “It all hurts so much,” wouldn’t have made sense with the smile. It was awkward, at least it was to me. Maybe the breeze didn’t affect her quite that way, I don’t know. I was just glad she didn’t move away. She stayed in the seat beside me, and silence ensued as we watched our children perform their Easter program. Another friend had come up to me earlier, and we spoke of our similar loss. I immediately wanted to reverse her loss for her and undo the heartache she went through and lives with. And yet I didn’t because it shapes us, and it is our life to have loss and heartache. It was a fairly easy conversation, despite the heaviness of the subject.
Emotions come in cycles, we are all just people living out our lives. Step back, see the bigger picture. Let the emotions come, and go but always go back to the Truth. I hear him. When I was six and seven, it was a silent movie. I was the silent child looking in silence for the parents who were not there, and crying at night silently so no one would be disturbed. Now, I’m still looking, but there is sound. I hear him talking to me, I hear my friends, I hear my children, I hear what my dad was trying to teach me as if he has come along side and said, “Walk with me.”