The old missionaries say that in their day, the 3 week boat trip was part of the grieving and transition process– the first half of the trip was spent saying goodbye to one country, and the second half was looking forward to the new. We’ve had lots of goodbyes this past week, and we’re looking forward for some time to process it all on Camino. In light of that, here’s something I wrote in the throws of all the goodbyes last week- not very edited or anything, since I’m sitting in Brussels right now about to get on a train to the start of Camino, but I thought it would be better if I shared it now rather than in a month.
We had our last day at Christ Church today.
We led worship with James. We practiced the night before, practiced the songs we’ve sung and played together for the last year. Songs that feel familiar, like putting on an old comfy jersey, but always new, because when I enter inside of them and really sing them, I’m always surprised at how I see the face of God staring back at me, like I’m a baby playing peek-a-boo. Of course I would see God, that’s the whole purpose, but it always takes me by surprise–like rounding the corner on the hill heading down into Sweetwaters, and the sun is shining bright green on the mountain and your breath catches in your throat and you’re hit with it like the first time you saw it.
Last night we finished practicing and none of us really wanted it to be over. Everything this past week has been the last: the last trip to the DVD shop (what a novelty, in the US, we’ll just stream everything online- much more convenient, but this guy actually knows our name), last time buying fresh bread from the Spar and slicing it while hot, the last time getting petrol put into our car at the full-service petrol stations.
And now the last worship practice. How many times had we dragged ourselves into practice after a long day of David chasing belligerent basketball boys and me getting headaches from computer screens, and walked into the strange dim light of the church, where James would be hunched over the piano, with just one light perched over the music, and sheets of discarded song selections scattered around the floor, hammering out songs till the air and the piano strings vibrated with glory.
And we’d start standing around the piano, tired and bleary, wondering why practice had to drag on so, and really the timing was just fine—but by the end we’d go home singing in the car, knowing it had been good.
And so after we’d picked out and practiced the songs, we sat around and none of us really wanted it to all be over, so we talked about the ethics of data mining, and all of our non-existent plans for the future, and in every awkward pause when someone needed to say, “Well, time for us to head out,” none of us did, because instead we managed to think of some new mundane thing to say that hadn’t been said yet.
And so this morning we sang in church, and heaven didn’t come down, but it was good. And then Pastor John called us up to be prayed for, and as we stood there and I saw the faces of the people who have supported and prayed for us over these past two years—people who have sometimes frustrated me, but people who have loved me and trusted me to sing, and to teach their kids, and have prayed for me and for kids in Sweetwaters. And it was humbling.
I think leaving is like getting cancer or some terminal illness. It’s a good thing to go through every once in a while. It reminds you why life is worth living and all those mundane people and irritating habits melt away when you step back a few miles and see what an impact they’ve made on you. It’s like the montage at the end of the new ‘The Giver” or “It’s About Time,” those mash-ups of ordinary, everyday moments that when paired with soaring music suddenly seem very wonderful and beautiful.
Like our going-away braai. It was raining (of course it was raining, this is Hilton, you can’t have a braai without rain), and so we all crowded into our almost empty cottage in folding chairs and ate off of paper plates and drank out of borrowed cups and there were kids running in-between people’s knees, and Zulu and English and Irish and American accents and utter chaos and lots of laughing.
Or the next morning when Kate and I sat drinking Milo while the boys played some stupid game and we all ate scrambled eggs, and then paid our whole bill in one Rand coins. Nothing special happened, there were no moving speeches or profound words, but the whole thing was profound because it was so ordinary.
And after we’d been prayed for, and after the kids had surprised me with cake and balloons and hugs up in Sunday school, and we’d sung the last song as everyone led out of the sanctuary, and David had strummed the last chord, we all looked at each other and that’s when it hit me.
So this is it.
It’s really over now.
And it hurts like graduation day.
The day I graduated from college it was so hot I felt smothered in my long black robe, and it didn’t help I was running on about four hours of sleep because the day before had been filled on either end with seeing my family that had travelled all the way out to see me, and David’s family who had travelled all the way out to see him and me, and professors, and cleaning out the apartment, and the closing events for work, and honors, and departments… and all I wanted to do was sit around one more time with all my Taylor buddies at the Hayes house eating crappy pasta dishes made from the vegetable bits we could steal from the Grill and drinking budget Cola and talk about life and sports and predestination and what we were going to do with our lives.
But instead we were forced through these hot hours of pomp and ceremony, and when it was done, I hugged some of my friends outside the gym, then waved as they walked away and all of a sudden it hit me that this was it.
It was really over now.
This wasn’t just, “Oh, bye until next semester.” This wasn’t even, “Let’s see if we can meet up at Thanksgiving.”
This was it.
I was getting married and we were moving to South Africa.
This was the end of living three minutes away from all your best friends, the days when you could take naps in the middle of the day and then go hang out until 2am talking about American evangelicalism and whether Nacho Libre counted as a profound work of art.
And so I was walking through the hallway and I saw Felicia, one of my professors and friends, and I guess everything was written on my face because she opened her arms, her gown billowing wide and said, “Are you okay?” And I started to say, “Yeah,” but couldn’t even get that far because I was sobbing so hard. She sat me down and gave me a bottle of water and listened to my garbled mess of, “This is it and we’re leaving and I’m not going to see these people again and it’s all over.”
And she hugged me and said, “You’ll be okay. You’ll see them all at the wedding.”
It was true. And it was a comfort. In a month I’d see most of my friends at our wedding.
And I did see them and it was wonderful.
It was just for a day, but it was sweet. On that day I cried again, not because everyone was going, but because everyone was there—friends and family from South Africa and from America all in one place. It was wonderful, but too short. In a few hours everyone was gone.
Oh, but there’s going to be another wedding.
That’s the wedding where we can argue about philosophy for hours, and our South African friends can play touch rugby and then football with our American friends, and we can have a corner dedicated just to laughing so hard our stomachs feel like they’ve run a marathon, and Jesus himself will be there (like he always is when we do these things, but more real and lots more fun). And then when we’re tired we can all just eat and sit around and quoting Nacho Libre and Jesus and poetry to each other.
So that’s what I cling to now, again, when the world is shifting once more under my feet, and the tide is sucking me away from friends that have cooked in my house and then washed my dishes, sat on the trampoline talking about the ethics of acting in Les Miserable, let me hold their new-born babies, tolerated my rants and my chameleon accents, lent us furniture and helped us move, prayed David into a work visa and prayed me out of mono.
I don’t want to leave. I want it to be a normal Thursday night again where we’re dashing back up the hill to music practice ignoring the fact we’re 45 minutes late and moaning about how disorganized James is.
I hate saying goodbye.
So I guess I’ll say see you at the wedding.