In joining the Peace Corps, I think this concept of enthusiastic forgetting applies. We, my fellow PCVs and I, are so, so, excited to join. We are excited to apply, to be nominated, to get our invites, and to get on that dang plane and fly away to our countries of service. I think, though, we sometimes forget about the leaving. About what it means to walk away from everything and everyone you hold dear. This week, that part of the process – the leaving – began for me. I write this post knowing that I’m not alone in this and that other volunteers will say similar goodbyes, and that is a sad, yet comforting thought.
“Oh, I’m so glad you’re here,” she beams at me. Oh, good. She knows me; this will be easy.
“What do you want?” she asks. She can’t hear a darn thing I’m saying.
“Do you have a safety pin, Gail?”
“A what, dear?”
“A SAFETY PIN! FOR THE SUIT! IT’S TOO BIG FOR ME!” I shout. I imagine her neighbors dialing down their hearing aids as the volume escalates.
“Oh, you look fine, honey,” she says, trying to hustle me out the door. Fine? There is a wardrobe malfunction in my near future if I don’t find something to keep this thing on me.
She looks at me with a puzzled expression and says, “You know, you remind me so very much of my nephew B (my dad).” I look at her, unsure as to whether she’s kidding or whether she really isn’t certain as to the identity of the person trying on her swimwear.
I say, “Yes, Gail. I’m Hannah. I’m B’s daughter. I’m your great niece.”
She says, “Oh! Well good! Let’s swim!”
I say, “Well, you had two brothers, Gail. Right? One of them was George(long deceased). I’m George’s granddaughter.” She looks at me and says, “And George was my brother…”
“And his son was B.”
I pause, mid-bite into the world’s driest chicken sandwich. Uh oh, have I been eating lunch with someone who is now troubled to learn of her wearabouts and unknown company? I say, “Gail, do you mean why am I here eating lunch with you, or why I am here on the East Coast?”
Gail says, “Well, you live in Alaska.”
“So, why are you here, in Baltimore?”
Oh, okay. Thank god.
“Yes. I came to see you. I’m going to live in Africa for a few years, and wanted to come to visit with you before I left.”
She puts down her spoon.
“Oh. You’re going to Africa?”
“I remember the trees in Africa,” she says. “I went around the world three times, you know.”
“You’re leaving deary?”
“Yes, Gail. I’m going to head back to J’s with everyone else.” I’m struggling to keep my voice from breaking.
“Okay! Thank you for visiting!” She continues to smile at me.
“Okay, Gail….” my face does that weird ‘I’m-about-to-cry’ tremble and I choke up the next words. “I’ll see you in a few years.” I hope. “I love you.” I love you. I love you. I love you. Goodbye.
“Goodbye, Auntie Gail.” I hurry to the door and make for the car in my last attempts at maintaining some sort of composure.
“Goodbye, dear!” She happily waves as we pull away. I think my uncle can feel the gravity of the moment and there is a bit of extra silence in the car with us as we drive back to his house. The rest of my family is waiting there, and soon the sad goodbye is washed away in a tide of merriment and greetings and alternating cheering for the Baltimore Ravens and questions about my Peace Corps service. It was a lovely last night in Baltimore, and the trip was everything I could have wanted.
It was at that moment that I learned what it is to find your own people amongst all the folks in the world. Craig comforted me with a hug and let me finish my story, silently acknowledging my hurt and sadness. He then did something I had not expected – he told me his own story of losing his grandmother, and the future sorrow he expected as he says goodbye to his grandfather before leaving for Zambia. I’m not in this alone. Experiencing that mutual sorrow together and knowing that he and the other volunteers in my group (or Zam Family, as we now call it) are going through the same things that I am – there is no greater gratitude for that shared experience than that which I have in my heart, now.Peace Corps – the hardest job you’ll ever love. Damn right. I know that many goodbyes await me over the next few months; many will be nearly impossibly hard to say, and I am now finding nearly impossible to describe. So, I think I will end this post with this last quote, a favorite of mine: