Why Furlough is Sort of Like Dying

When you're only three feet tall, the whole airplane is first class.  Only cheaper.

When you’re only three feet tall, the whole airplane is first class. But cheaper.

by Jonathan

After living in Cambodia for nearly two years, we’re preparing for our first Furlough/Home Assignment/Flee the Field, or whatever it is your people call it. We’ll only be in the States for two and half months, but still, I’ve noticed a sort of odd feeling. A premonition that something’s about to die. Oh yeah, it’s my first term.

Anyways, the feelings, the goodbyes, the preparation (of house, business, and kids), seems eerily like dying. Now, truth be told, I haven’t died before, but still. I can imagine.


In the wonderful world of hospice (I mean it, those people are awesome), everyone knows that as folks close in on their final days, they often begin to reminisce. They ask big questions; Was it worth it? What did I do right, or what should I have done differently? Often, they realize that their relationships are their prime treasures. In end of life care, they have a special phrase for it: Life Review. I confirmed this with a friend who’s the volunteer coordinator at a large hospice organization. She said people in this stage often ask, “Did my life have purpose?  Did my life have value?  Did I have an impact?” Those questions sound familiar, as every missionary preparing for their “return” must ponder, “Did I accomplish what I set out to accomplish? What was gained? What was lost? Do I have any good pictures to show bored church people?” I have to prepare messages (eulogies, really) looking back on and rehashing this term. Of course, we also ask questions like “Where do we go from here?” and “What’s next?” At funerals, the answer’s almost always the Golden Corral (or its equivalent, the Church Fellowship Hall).


We’re pretty much as far from America as you can get without coming back. Translation — we’re about 13 and a half airplane movies from America. And although we’re really looking forward to visiting friends and family, we’re not expecting the journey to be a cake walk. Incheon (in Seoul) and O’Hare are amazing airports and all, but traveling with four kiddos is just rough. Now, if Korean Air would take my advice and start putting valium in the complimentary travel bags they give kids, that’d be a good start.

I once saw a peaceful but bedraggled family with three small boys standing in line at Denver International. Turns out, they were missionaries coming “home” from a term in Africa; they had been traveling for three days and looked like it. I “blessed” their family with a large bag of Twizzlers. Hopefully the sugar comas helped with their final flight.

You see, furlough is just like heaven: I’m really excited to go, but the whole journey to get there, yeah, perhaps I could just get a pass (or a couple complimentary valium from the kids bag).


When we leave Phnom Penh, we’re saying goodbye to a lot of new friends. Good friends. And that’ll be hard. I had no idea our first term would produce such good friendships with nationals and expats alike, and I’m grateful for it. But when I’m in America, they’re not. And although saying, “Hey, don’t worry, you’ll see them again” sounds nice, it’s about as helpful as telling me post-dentist, “Hey, don’t worry, you’ll feel your face again.” That really does nothing to soothe the pain or stop my beverage from leaking out my face. It’s Just.Not.Helpful.  (For more on this, see Don’t Be Afraid of Me, Please.)

I’m uber excited about spending time with folks I haven’t seen in a while. Folks I love very very much. I can’t wait to throw a football with my brothers, laugh with my sisters, and eat ice cream with everyone. But while I’m doing all of that, I’ll miss my new friends in Cambodia. Sort of like heaven; before I can say hello to the people I miss very much (my late mom and dad, for example), I’ll have to say goodbye to a whole host of other people I dearly love.


We know a bit about heaven, but still, there’s a lot we just don’t know. Sort of like America. I have memories of America, but I’m also aware that things will have changed. People have moved. Businesses closed. I mean, come on, our old church doesn’t even have pews anymore. It’ll be familiar, but it will be different. In fact, in the missions world, I’ve heard over and over, “Don’t expect it to be exactly the same as when you left it. You’ve changed. They’ve changed. Accept it.” Heaven will be way better than I expect, for sure, but it will be different.

Every analogy breaks down sooner or later. You see, there is one main difference between furlough and dying.  You only have to die once. 

17 thoughts on “Why Furlough is Sort of Like Dying

  1. This was one of your funniest blogs, Jonathan, but I can read between the lines here. Been praying for all that that’s left behind and the hassle of getting the house ready and all you have to do and think about while you’re gone for the wonderful (in my perspective) 2 1/2 months that you’ll be on furlough here in America.Been thinking of the Norman’s and how long your furlough will seems to them and then I think next summer they have one and it’s hard to sort through kind of. We’ll be praying for the traveling (actually, you guessed it, I have been already!) and looking forward to making your furlough as stressfree and awesome as possible. Love you

  2. Yep Mary, we’re gonna miss them much! It’s hard to let them go, but we know that you need to see them too. So we send them with tears but with true joy, knowing that you’ll fatten them up and send them back to us for the sl….slice of Heaven that is Cambodia 🙂

    • We are going to miss you so much too Judy! And then next fall is your turn to leave, and when I think about it all, it just seems like too much time apart to handle! ~Elizabeth

  3. Two and a half months will be over so quickly…. your friends in Cambodia will blink and you’ll be back greeting them at the One-N-One. Unfortunately, the same is true for all of your dear friends and family in the U.S. One minute they’ll be thrilled over seeing you. The next, they’ll be dreading the reality that they won’t see you again for a few more years. This is the GREAT ADVENTURE!

    • That makes me think of that old Steven Curtis Chapman song! Thanks! I haven’t thought of that song in a decade or so. : ) Thanks for your great words;I know they’re coming from long experience.
      — Jonathan

  4. Even though ours wasn’t considered a furlough because we aren’t missionaries, we do understand that death in leaving and saying goodbye. It’s like leaving one world and re-acclimating to another. It’s similar to Velcro ripping apart to be reconnected to another piece. After you’ve been in the US for a few weeks you will look forward to going “home” which isn’t the “home” you are heading for now. Your perspective changes. Embrace the change. It’s refreshing! We are praying! Love you all!

    • You had the same cross-cultural experience though, Kristi! It’s sort of strange how we can be always with people we love, yet always away from people we love. I don’t like the being away from people part, but I’m thankful I can always be with someone. ~Elizabeth

  5. Made a trip in 1982 from Illinois to a yet-divided Germany with 2 boys, ages 5 & 6, and a 4.5 week-old baby girl, whose Daddy had been “remote” since the day that little strip of paper turned pink. Valium should be dispensed according to the same protocol as those little emergency oxygen masks: parent first, then any available Twizzlers should be given to the flight attendants and the children. Seriously, managing a “journey within a sojourn”–with children–is not for cowards, or those without an industrial strength sense of humor. Trotters, you’ve got what it takes! See you soon.

  6. It’s a bit of a nightmare, and if you live around other expats, by the time you get back, a lot of friends have MOVED. Good part of the states is the people are usually still there.

  7. I always wished we had a “beam me up, Scotty” way to travel back and forth as the initial excitement of getting on a plane gives way to emotional and physical exhaustion. I am still suffering jet lag as my family sleeps at my parents’ house, and I can’t seem to get away from the “fast internet”. We are only here for a five week medical leave, but still finding the reverse culture shock unsettling, andI’ve been doing this for 25 years, now. Thank Goodness we only die once (and we won’t have to worry about visas or lost luggage!)!

    • Ha! Yeah, that would be awesome! We just watched Finding Dory and there’s a line in it when the dad is expressing his disapproval of Dory’s idea. She wants to cross the Pacific and the dad says, “No one should ever cross the Pacific more than once!” I pretty much laughed out loud. : )

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