Of House and Home

by Elizabeth

It takes nine months to birth a baby. Nine months, a lot of frustration and discomfort, too many emotional ups and downs, far more waiting than we’d prefer, and a lastly, a good birth attendant. This is not unlike our nine-month-long search for Home last year.

The two photos above were taken on Closing Day, the day we signed on the (many) dotted lines and became homeowners for the first time. We love this house. Love it. After four months, I still wake up most mornings and think to myself, “How did I end up with the coolest house?!” Many evenings I think some iteration of the same.

We knew this house was a good fit for our family when we moved in; we just didn’t know how good of a fit it would be. There’s something special for all six of us at this house. The kids have an in-ground trampoline and a basketball court. There’s a campfire pit, a bunch of trees, and plenty of outdoor space to read and relax. And it’s all enclosed in a privacy fence so that I never worry about the kids while they’re playing outside.

There’s enough room for all four kids to study quietly and privately. I have my own office – something I never thought I’d have. Jonathan set up his office in a detached building that has heating and cooling, which means he’ll be able to meet with people in person while also preserving their privacy. We have a space for exercise. And I can’t believe it’s ours. Often as I’m making dinner, I think to myself, “This is my kitchen! I don’t have to leave here and start cooking somewhere else.”

I didn’t expect to feel so settled after moving into a house of our own. After living as a global nomad for so long, I wrongly assumed that permanent dwelling places were superficial, unnecessary things. I didn’t know a long-term home could make such a difference in how I feel. I know I promised earlier that I’d tell the story of how we got this incredible house, so here’s the long version. . . .

Nine months passed from the time we landed in the U.S. to the time we moved into this house. And it was somewhat like a surprise pregnancy: when we first arrived, we didn’t know we would be staying. We lived a few ignorant weeks between conception and that positive pregnancy test. Then the realization hit, and as I’ve explained before, I woke up miserable every morning. Perhaps it was repatriation’s version of morning sickness.

But then we had to get to work figuring out what to do and where to go. We made many plans; most of them fell through. We thought we would live in one city but instead landed in another. We were grateful to be given temporary housing on a college campus. Shortly after moving in, we contacted a local realtor.

Jonathan told her how he dreamed of land. After living in a concrete jungle for eight years, he wanted his kids to experience some of what he had experienced growing up in rural Missouri. (His Kansas City suburb truly had a rural feel at that time.) I didn’t care about land, but I did care about his happiness, so we started out by looking for land.

There weren’t a lot of houses with land in our price range, but we found something we thought might work. The house was super cute and had some really great land. It was older and needed a few repairs, and honestly it was too small for us, but we were confident we could restore the house’s former beauty and somehow adjust to its small size. Looking back, I see that it really was too small for our large family, but we were somewhat in denial because of our desire for open spaces.

Then we received the septic system inspection, which basically indicated a system in need of total replacement — an upgrade we could not afford. I’m thankful now that the first house didn’t work out, but at the time it was pretty disappointing.

Next, we looked for smaller lots. There still wasn’t much to be found, but we saw four or five houses on Zillow that might work. By the time our realtor called to arrange tours, all but one already had contracts on them. That’s how fast the housing market was moving last fall, even in the small town of Joplin.

We walked into the one available house and fell in love. It had enough room for all of us to work and study, it was a split level just like I’d always dreamed of, and it had both a covered porch and an expansive deck for entertaining. It had a spacious yard with older trees. The color of paint on the walls even fit our family’s style.

We made an offer based on our realtor’s estimation of its value. The owners would not lower the price, but they were still willing to sell it to us for the original listing price. Seeing as how there weren’t many houses on the market — and none at all that fit our large family — we decided to accept their terms. We’d read that throughout the country, home prices had soared during the pandemic, so we figured we had no choice. We needed a house by the end of December, we adored this one, and though it was priced higher than we preferred, it was still in our price range.

The inspection went well, and we were excited. Then the appraisal came in, and it wasn’t good news. This house didn’t appraise anywhere near its listing price. (Apparently our realtor knew what she was talking about – the house independently appraised right at her prediction.) This new information suddenly made the financing untenable. With the requirement of a greater down payment and/or PMI, this fantastic house wasn’t in our price range anymore.

We tried to re-negotiate, but negotiations fell through. I was heartbroken. I had been in love with this house. (I had not been in love with the first house.) What were we going to tell our children?? They had been through so much loss already last year. And more importantly, how were we going to find a house in time? We only had a couple weeks to secure a contract if we were going to have a place to live when we had to move out of our temporary housing (which was a hard deadline).

Time was running out, and I was nervous. There were a few houses on the market that could fit our family; our realtor hastily set up a couple tours. Jonathan was out of town, so I had to go alone. It felt strange because we always do big things together — but time dictated otherwise. The first house didn’t look like it would work for us, but the second house did. It had enough inside space to homeschool, the yard was big, and there was a separate building where Jonathan could work.

And two other potential buyers had looked at it that day.

I sent Jonathan photos and a description, and he replied, “Let’s go for it.” He hadn’t even seen it in person, but we knew we had to move fast. Our realtor advocated for us, and these owners worked with us on both pricing and repairs. They were all a true delight to work with. We were excited but still nervous – would anything interrupt the buying process on our third attempt?

But nothing did. It proceeded smoothly, and in December we moved into a house we knew we would love. We’ve grown to love it even more now than we did then. And I now understand why my husband wanted land — having a large yard has been such a joy for all six of us.

I remember when I was giving birth to my babies, I had certain feelings for my birth attendants. I felt like they had truly made the birth experience special. I felt like they had tried to honor my birth plan to the best of their ability. It’s not that birth isn’t painful – it is. But a good birth attendant will make it as comfortable and safe as he or she possibly can. And when the birth is over, you feel a sense of indebtedness to them.

I don’t know if birth attendants feel a special connection to you – they deliver so many babies after all. But I know a birthing parent feels a special connection to their attendant. And it’s the same way with a realtor. Helping people buy and sell houses is their day job – they do it all the time. But a family doesn’t buy a house just every day. It’s a momentous occasion. You remember the person who helped you through it. Both giving birth and buying a house are things you do only a finite number of times in life. If your helpers were good, you remember them with fondness.

So nine months after accidentally leaving Cambodia forever, we settled into a house that seems like it was built just for us and our family’s needs — and hopes and dreams. For we dream of this home becoming a launching pad for ministry. That’s already true in the sense that Jonathan does his ministry from this place, but in the coming years we also hope to host lots of people in our home and in our yard.

Maybe even you.

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.