The coffeehouse meetup between friends. A chance to exchange intimate details about life’s recent events. A chance to have heart-to-heart conversations that sometimes prompt tears but more often prompt laughter. And a chance to implicitly convey to the person or people sitting across the table that they are significant characters in your story.
Over the past few weeks, I have had quite a few of these meetups, but one moment, in particular, has been floating around in my thoughts since last week. I met up with a friend so we could touch base before I left, and after a good deal of heart-to-heart conversation, plenty of laughter, and a few stifled tears, she told me something that no one had yet said to me about my upcoming adventures and life changes. “It sounds like this is going to be wonderful for you, and I can tell how happy you are,” she said. “Just be OK with it not being perfect, not fitting that image you might have in your mind.”
For a moment, this rattled me, and I froze. Of course, I have been mentally preparing for what life in foreign service as a trailing spouse will be like. Andrew and I have spoken frequently and openly about it, and he has always been extremely frank about the difficulties and challenges that come along with the lifestyle. In my mind, I have already decided to take each experience as it comes and to not arrive in Liberia with any expectations. Hearing someone else, though — someone who knows how much of a planner I am — tell me to be OK if these experiences don’t fit any preconceived notions I might have was somehow freeing. I felt a weight that I did not even know I had been carrying lifted from my body, and I thanked her sincerely for such real advice.
Like the premonition of a wise seer in ancient myths, my friend’s words have echoed in my thoughts since she spoke them.
Let me be clear, though. I am — whatever people may assume about my “Disney Princess” existence — very well acquainted with the fact that life is often far from perfect.
This week, in particular, is a harsh reminder of that.
The last week of June has historically been like a fairy tale curse for me. A spiteful fairy waved her magic wand and spoke the portent: “Each year, during the last week of the month named for the goddess Juno, you will be affronted by a challenge that will both test your mettle and shape your character. Be forewarned that you will not come through this trial the same as you were.”
For some reason, I never really think of its impending presence as the weeks progress on the calendar. When it arrives, though, a gloom hangs nearby, shadowing over everything with difficult memories of people, emotions, and words of the past.
This all started seventeen years ago: my then 16-year-old brother died along with three of his friends in a car accident on June 29, 2000. Unfortunately, last week, I was in traffic because of another accident on that same road and had a little shock of deja vu. So this particular anniversary of that day is stinging a little deeper than it has for the past few years.
Not surprisingly, my brother’s death changed me forever and shaped my character. In losing him, I learned that all-too-important lesson of treating people as if it is the last time I would ever see them, I say “I love you” as often and frequently as I can, I tend to prefer to give individuals the benefit of the doubt, and I try to appreciate small moments for the important memories they could be one day.
You see, my favorite memories of my brother Steven do not involve milestones, big celebrations, or special events. They include moments like standing in the middle of the shell concrete street in front of our childhood home during a warm, summer evening, tossing a tennis ball into the air at dusk, and watching little black bats swarm around the neon yellow ball as their echolocation picked up the vibrations of the object. How high could we toss the ball? How many bats could we attract? Did they swarm around smaller objects like rocks? Bigger objects like one of our sandals? We were always exploring and experimenting like that. He inspired adventure in me, and I think that is one reason adventure is so important to me now.
Between now and then, other challenges have occurred during this ominous week, but none as devastating as that first incident. However, more recently, there was an instance that could have come close: losing another someone.
Before my fiance and I were together, we were good friends for a long time. As sometimes happens with opposite-sex friendships, deeper feelings developed between us at what seemed like the wrong time (does love ever find the “perfect” time?!). Therefore, we agreed to get some distance. My own words in this agreement spoke from reason and maturity. These same words muffled the impassioned cries of my heart, however, which clamored and clawed like one trying to reach for anything solid while drowning in the middle of the sea.
And while the details and memories of how Andrew and I found our way back to each other are for us alone, I will say: the feeling of loss was mutual, and thank goodness for happy endings, my friends!
To be sure, this painful period of doubt, reflection, and soul-searching undoubtedly shook and transformed me. I learned to trust my heart once and for all; to face the fear of admitting my love for someone who may choose to to leave me behind; the importance of being with someone who nurtures the best in me; and that genuine partnership means feeling relief, comfort, and joy in trusting the other person. There are some people who are just too good to lose and are worth fighting for if at all possible.
In addition to wrestling with the memories of those events, this week in 2017 also brought me another unfortunate incident: my worst cycling accident to date. After my wheels slipped out from under me on a slick boardwalk and my head and hip taking the force of impact, I’ve had to “take it easy” (see the end of last week’s post) because of significant bruising, soreness, and stiffness.
Some comic relief: I also had some difficulty with thinking clearly for a few days and was laughing with Andrew that I had probably been watching too much Grey’s Anatomy during my “bed rest” because I compared my memory lapses to feeling a little like an Alzheimer’s patient. During our conversation, I jokingly did what TV patients do in situations like this and wrote a few Post-It notes to remind myself of the important things. 🙂
Back on topic, limited physical activity is difficult for me, and I have been edgy. Another friend’s comment has helped me temper that frustration, though. He suggested that I consider these surprise challenges as training for life in foreign service.
Since college, I have fantasized about being an expat. My literary idols — Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Eliot, and Stein — are members of The Lost Generation, and the adventures and experiences they had as expats have always intrigued me. Getting beyond the romanticism of it all, though, I have accepted what I know about the realities of my upcoming life in Liberia (and future posts): there will be many unforeseen challenges.
There is no way for me to know what it will actually be like until I get there. Upon reflection, however, my preparation for this transition — the hassle of the vaccinations; the extensive and sometimes seemingly unnecessary paperwork for background checks and security clearance; the follow-up tests, x-rays, and phone calls about my medical clearance; the visa application process that was supposed to take 30 minutes and became two hours long; the looming busyness of pack-out as I decide what is immediately necessary and what I can do without for some weeks; the emotional strain of saying goodbye to everyone here in Atlanta — has probably given me a taste of what is to come.
Think it will take 30 minutes? It will more likely get done in a few days. Think there are only two steps to complete? Surprise, there are actually 10. No A/C in the car on a 90-degree day with 84% humidity? Training for West Africa.
“Be OK with it not being perfect.”
I have a feeling that hearing this advice will end up being one of those small moments that becomes a very important memory.