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.

The Day We Didn’t Go Home {A Life Overseas}

by Jonathan

We were supposed to go home on August 6th. We had tickets and plans, we had dreams and ideas. But when we left Cambodia back in March, we did not have an awareness of how COVID-19 would turn the world upside down.

So we’re not flying home on August 6th. As a result of passport issues, visa issues, entry requirements, finances, and a whole host of reasons (everyone has them), we’re staying.

For our family, August 6th is now Stay Day.

Does your story include a Stay Day? Perhaps for you it wasn’t a Stay Day as much as a Leave Day. Do you have a day that marks when life quaked and plans tumbled? Do you memorialize a Stay Day or a Leave Day? Should you?

We hope to remember our eight years in Cambodia on this August 6th, and every August 6th afterwards. It will be a sort of anniversary; a blend of stories and laughter and tears.

Like so many memorials, it will be a funky mix of mirth and merry.

On Stay Day, we’ll remember the day we didn’t go home.

Sure, America is home too. Or at least it was. And it will be again. I’m speaking for myself here, of course, because my children will have their own stories, and they’ll need to tell them. Their relationship with America (and Cambodia) always was and always will be unique. Different than mine.

But some things we shared.

Like the eight years around a thick, Khmer-style round table. Well, more like seven. The first year we had a cheaper wooden rectangular table that got eaten up by termites so big you could hear them feasting: lightning-bug-size table chompers.

We’re shipping the Khmer-style table to America, so every Stay Day we’ll gather around it and remember.

We’ll remember the scent of frangipanis, and we’ll probably try to buy some. We’ll feel the feel of traditional kramas, the checkered scarves Cambodians (and my daughters) use for everything.

We’ll probably order Indian food and remember Mount Everest, the local restaurant in Phnom Penh that taught us to absolutely adore Nepalese and Indian food.

We’ll look at old photos of a younger family riding tuk tuks, playing on the street, trying to figure out cross-cultural living.

We might search YouTube for Khmer dance music, and we will probably laugh about the incessant, LOUD, and DRUNK karaoke that permeated our house during wedding season.

We’ll watch old videos of moto rides through our neighborhood, and we’ll remember the kind old man who laughed at the four white foreigners driving a moto through flooded streets and belly laughing. I wonder if he knew how much it reminded me of riding a jet ski.

Maybe we’ll check Google street view and meander past friends’ houses.

On Stay Day, we will remember. And we will pray.

We’ll pray for Cambodia, for our friends there, and for the Church that’s blossoming into its identity.

And Lord willing, we’ll do this every August 6th: the day we didn’t pack up, weigh all suitcases to 49.9 pounds, quadruple check passports, and jet across the Pacific.

August 7th won’t find us staggering out into the scents and smells of Phnom Penh. We won’t un-mothball our house and turn it back into a home. We won’t schedule reunions with local friends. We won’t visit favorite haunts and coffee shops.

Instead, we’ll mourn what was, and we’ll be grateful for it too.

Mourning is a wetter way of expressing gratitude, after all. 

And we’ll move on, whatever that means.

God remains the God of the past. He will always be the God of the past, and he will always care enough to ask the same question he asked Hagar, “Where have you come from?”

He is the God of Stay Day, August 6th, but he is also the God of August 7th and 8th. And if he’s true, if he’s real, he’s got us, and he holds us in his strong right hand.

And he will hold us on every Stay Day, and every day after that too.

 

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Do you have a day like this? A Stay Day, or something like it?

Do you need one?

Here are some more thoughts about creating shared meaning and the importance of family rituals. As folks who regularly celebrate “shared meaning” through Sacraments, I hope these ideas will resonate and inspire.

May our families be places where we remember our stories, together.