Return to Life

by Elizabeth

The 2000 film Return to Me is a family favorite. The movie features Bob and Elizabeth, who have been together since high school and who are still very much in love. One tragic night Elizabeth, who was an organ donor, is killed in a car accident. We watch as doctors transfer her heart to Grace, a woman who’s needed a new heart for a long time.

Grace goes nervously into surgery, hopeful for a new life. Bob, blood still on his clothes, goes home to an empty house. It’s an agonizing scene.

Months later, Grace has recovered from surgery. Bob, meanwhile, is having trouble living without Elizabeth and has buried himself in his work. Friends continually try to set him up with other girls, but Bob wants nothing to do with anyone new. He can’t get over the loss of Elizabeth. Then one night during one of these blind dates, Bob meets Grace at the family restaurant where she works. Sparks immediately start flying.

In the following weeks and months, Bob’s heart opens up to new love. But Grace is guarding a secret. Although she doesn’t know that Bob’s wife’s heart beats inside her chest, for some reason she can’t bring herself to tell Bob she’s had a heart transplant. Eventually the two of them figure this fact out, and the revelation is traumatic for both of them. Bob disappears; Grace flies to Italy to paint.

While Grace is gone, Bob realizes he loves her and can’t live without her. He looks for her at the restaurant only to find that she’s gone. He acknowledges, “I miss Elizabeth. I’ll always miss her.” Still, he’s ready to embrace a new life with Grace. He goes in search of her, and their reunion is sweet. The audience can see them building a future together.

One year after having traumatically evacuated Cambodia, I think I understand a little of what Bob meant in his restaurant confession. We left Cambodia in March, just as the pandemic began closing borders. We were relieved to have made it to U.S. soil, and for several weeks we assumed we’d be able to easily re-enter Cambodia in the fall as planned. But by May our visa and passport plans began unraveling, and by June, life as we knew it in Cambodia was over.

I didn’t even get to say goodbye.

2020 became one long grieving session. This might sound strange if you knew me in the early 2000’s when Jonathan felt called to missions and I didn’t. You might remember how I fought the call for so long. But now I felt like Mr. Holland from the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus, in which aspiring composer Mr. Holland longed for fame and renown, but instead ended up teaching music to high school students. At the end of his career, when budget cuts forced him to retire early, he observed, “It’s almost funny. I got dragged into this gig kicking and screaming, and now it’s the only thing I want to do.”

Like Mr. Holland, I didn’t initially want to move to Cambodia, but once I got there, I found a life I loved. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye — but covid said differently. For weeks, I woke up crying. Opening my eyes each morning was a painful reminder of where in the world I wasn’t. In Cambodia I had a strong support system. I lived every day with a sense of meaning and purpose. I had a place in the community and rituals and routines that brought structure to our chaotic cross-cultural life. We had raised our children there, and Cambodia was all they knew.

It was a difficult life, sure, but it was also an exceedingly good one. And I wasn’t sure I would ever stop crying over this loss. I lived in the “if onlys.” If only we didn’t have passport problems. If only we didn’t have visa problems. If only covid hadn’t happened. If only, if only, if only. I thought if I could just get back to Cambodia, I could recapture all my former happiness. In reality, even if I could have returned, I couldn’t have recaptured my old life. Covid made that impossible for seven billion of us.

Then one day my near-constant crying stopped. I thought I had accepted my new circumstances. And I do believe I had accepted that I couldn’t get my old life back. But reflecting now, I realize that I struggled deeply throughout the fall and winter. I had said goodbye to my old life — though not in person and not on purpose. But I still didn’t know exactly what my new life would look like, so it was hard to root myself here. Everything seemed bleak. I didn’t think I could ever be happy again.

We were looking for a home at the time. We knew we had to be out of our temporary housing by the end of December. After several housing disappointments (a story I’ll tell another time), I began to fear becoming homeless (emotions may exaggerate facts, but the intensity of the feelings are real). We didn’t have a church home yet because of covid, so I didn’t have local community to help me through this transition. I knew I couldn’t get my old life back, but I still desperately missed it.

Finally, finally, we found a home that fit our family that was also in our price range. We signed the papers mid-December, which was a bit closer to the deadline than we would have preferred. Still, we were thrilled to have a place of our own. I had no idea it would be such an important milestone in our repatriation process.

We’ve been in our new home for three months now. It fits us so perfectly (I promise I’ll explain in an upcoming post). I live in the daily disbelief that we could have found such a fantastic place for our family to live. We are making it our own, slowly writing our name in the land. Jonathan is working on the yard. We have pictures on the walls. We have rituals and routines, and I’m slowly re-building a support system. Living in our home has helped get me “unstuck” from the grief and helped me to move forward. It has given me a glimpse of what the next season of life might look like.

Cambodia is still a natural part of our conversations, and we frequently talk about our old life. The six of us have so many shared memories, both pleasant and unpleasant. Occasionally I even long for life in Southeast Asia. But I no longer think I can’t live without Cambodia, that life simply cannot go on without Cambodia. I’m beginning to understand what life can look like here on the other side of the ocean. I feel like Bob, who knew that he would always miss his old life, but who now knew that he could also live a new life with Grace.

My old life and my new life, side by side.

12 thoughts on “Return to Life

  1. Written from Australia as an 80 yr old, in espouse to your post on being “ torn” from Cambodia, I found your story helpful we were torn from E. Africa after 8 years. The reasons were different but the grief was deep. Two parishes at home and God took us to Bangkok for a further 8 years and then another year in Kenya. As you have discovered, Our Gid us faithful and in each stage He hell’s us to root again and grow for Him. Thank you for this last post. It brought many memories but also praise to my lips. 1 Chron. 29:19-13.

    • Thank you for sharing your story, Marion. When I write these things and people farther ahead of me on the journey resonate, it brings me comfort, because then I know that I’m not alone.

      I’m so glad you found God to be faithful along the way, and thank you for sharing His faithfulness. ~Elizabeth

  2. Hey, there. Our family relocated to the States after living 16+ years in Asia right as COVID began. We also had to leave earlier than anticipated and weren’t able to say proper goodbyes. We have settled in my husband’s hometown in PA, far from the sunny California that I grew up in. Both states feel foreign though after so long living in Asia. We just marked our one year anniversary here, but it has felt difficult to put down roots and find a sense of belonging. I can identify with much of what you shared – thank you for sharing your journey with transparency.

    I love the language and idea of “writing our name in the land”. I want to think about ways to put this into practice. I’m glad to hear that you are feeling like you are able to move forward some now that you have a home. That sounds hopeful. Grace to you and your family as you continue to build a new life in this season.

    • Unexpected relocations are so painful! So is not getting to say goodbye. I’m so sorry this happened to you. I can relate to what you said about missing “sunny California.” 8 years in perpetual sun in the tropics made winter here almost unbearable. I didn’t realize it was going to be so severe.

      I’m so glad you resonate with the need to “write your name in the land.” It has been such a helpful metaphor for me. I didn’t know I would need it during repatriation, too. May you find ways to write your name in the land God has given you in this season. ~Elizabeth

  3. I certainly understand perfectly what you are talking about and dealing with. I understand the loss and frustration. I was born and raised in West Africa. Both my parents were MKs in Africa, we went to Africa as missionaries and raised our children there. Our kids went as missionaries to Africa and raised their three children there. Africa is my first home. When a 10 year tribal war happened we all had to leave, never to return! I totally hear your heart.

    • Sounds like you had a lot of roots in Africa, Edie. So many family stories and memories, for several generations. How special that you could share those things with your grandparents and that you can now share them with your grandchildren. These are big losses, and it’s good to acknowledge them. Thanks for sharing here. ~Elizabeth

    • Thank you Kayle! I miss you all in Phnom Penh too! And all those wonderful Holy Week services. I know you are missing out on them this year as well. I hope you are holding up in the heat! ~Elizabeth

  4. Thank you. I also left Cambodia in March without proper goodbyes, believing I’d be back with my boyfriend within 6 months. Will still no end in sight I can definately relate to the days of near-constant crying. This kind of struggle is… Something else. Thank you for putting it into words.

    • Covid has certainly made for some painful separations over the last year. I’m so sorry about yours. I’m glad you found a place here where you feel understood. Again, I’m so sorry for your loss. ~Elizabeth

  5. Good morning Trotter fam,

    How did you presentation at the Missionary Care Summit go? Were you happy with it? I just emailed Andy Johnson to ask if if the recording will be sent to attendees. I participated in the first bit and really enjoyed it, but then I was called by the hospital to say goodbye to my ailing father-in-law.

    Is a subject very dear to my heart and I am glad that this topic of discussion has continued through the pandemic. Blessings to your family and I hope you are staying safe and well.

    Stephanie (Ontario, Canada)

    On Fri., Apr. 2, 2021, 4:00 p.m. The Trotter Family, wrote:

    > trotters41 posted: ” by Elizabeth The 2000 film Return to Me is a family > favorite. The movie features Bob and Elizabeth, who have been together > since high school and who are still very much in love. One tragic night > Elizabeth, who was an organ donor, is killed in a ca” >

    • Hey there, Stephanie! I’m so sorry to hear about your father-in-law. I’m glad you were able to visit. From what I’ve heard from MRN, the videos and notes should be made available sometime this week. It was a warm audience, for sure; it’s always good to share with people who care about caring for others! Take care, and have a good week… — Jonathan T.

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