While my students and I were going on Retreat, studying for/writing Finals, and just generally counting down the days until 'freedom,' the Africa Mercy has been experiencing her own change of seasons. Our last surgeries have been performed, and our last few patients have walked down the gangway. The tents that were such a comforting and dependable feature of our dock space have been taken down and packed away, and pretty soon our trusty fleet of Land Rovers will be hoisted up to deck 8 and tied down. The Goodbye Season is upon us.
This is what it's like. It's like someone has opened up your chest, exposing your beating heart, and, slowly, over the course of about a month, fibers of that precious muscle are being ripped out one by one. Every time, you bleed. Every time, it hurts. Your eyes leak. There's snot all over your sleeves because even though this is the billionth time you've come down to the dock to watch yet another friend and partner in Christ drive away for the last time, you still can't manage to remember to bring kleenex to these morose little shindigs.
Saying goodbye is hard. This morning, I said goodbye to my Birthday Buddy. His name's Matthew, and he's just finished 2nd grade. One of my first clear memories of coming to the ship was racing Matthew and his two brothers down the incredibly long dock in Tenerife. That was almost two years ago. It took me a good 6 months to make it onto Matthew's "teachers I hug" list, but my status as friend was cemented when we discovered that we share the same birthday. (I tried to convince him that we were actually born on the same day, and that I look older because I was born in space whereas he was born in Texas. It didn't fly. He knows too much about space travel.) Matthew and his family were a part of the fabric of my life on this ship. And now their threads have been ripped out. I don't know when (or if) I'll ever see them again. And they're not the only ones. Every friend we wave out of the port leaves another wound in our hearts.
This year, I am also saying goodbye to several of my students. This hurts even more. My students are the closest thing I have to children, and I love them. A few weeks ago, I wrote this for a friend who wanted to put together a sort of book of memories before she herself went home:
Sarah Dunn (Academy Teacher)
2nd May, 2014
It’s the last night of Junior High/High School Retreat, and we are all waiting for the dinner bell to ring. We’ve been staying at a Catholic retreat center somewhere on the road between Pointe Noire and Dolisie, about half a mile from some lake. After a hot, sticky, sleepless night in the dorms, and a full day of running around, I don’t know why we haven’t started snapping at each other. Instead, there’s a sweet, restful spirit in the common room, where we’ve met to wait. The sun went down long ago, and the power’s out, so the room’s lit up with tea lights and the long, elegant dinner candles that our hosts brought out. In one corner, Jordan has got Nick Cash’s guitar, and he’s playing all the worship songs he knows, one after the other. A little knot of students has formed around him, and their voices echo across the room as they pick up melody after melody. Other students are quietly writing notes of encouragement that they’ll slip into each other’s “blessing bags” (little paper bags with our names on them, all lined up against the back wall). There’s a Schwebel boy writing in his journal by candle-light. Jack Dunne has convinced Robert to go outside with him to try to catch some fireflies. Suddenly, I come face to face with the thought I’ve successfully avoided for months: things are changing—my kids, a whole lot of them, are leaving the ship. I won’t be seeing them again in the fall, a little taller, a little more grown up, but essentially their crazy, wonderful selves. I don’t know when I’ll see them again. It’s like a punch to the gut. It’s hard to explain to people, but I didn’t fly all the way out to West Africa to minister to West Africans, at least not directly. I came to teach a handful of awkward, intelligent, isolated, creative, beautiful, amazing teenagers. These kids have been mine for so long. I’ve prayed for them, shed tears for them, laughed with them (sometimes at them—I’m not going to lie—they’re hilarious), and worried over them. All my best stories are about them. I don’t want that dinner bell to ever ring! I just want to freeze time and stay in this moment for a while longer. Maybe a year or two. I don’t want to face letting go yet.
But here’s the thing about community: the people we share our lives with never really leave us. These precious teenagers and I shared life together for two years. We’ve picked up each other’s sense of humor and habits of speech. We shared a lot of moments, comfortable and uncomfortable, awesome and mundane, and there is nothing in the world that can change that. I will carry these years with me for the rest of my life, and so will they. And when we meet again in heaven, we’ll have some great stories to share.
And that really sums up how I feel about this whole Goodbye Season. Yes, it stinks to have little pieces of your heart ripped out and spread to every corner of the Earth, but you know what would be a whole lot worse? Feeling nothing. How blessed am I to have loved and been loved by so many people?
Sometimes I wonder if all our efforts to eliminate suffering from our lives is really effort well spent, because the only way to really avoid having to say so many goodbyes would be to never say hello. Much better to embrace the beauty of sharing life, with the heartache that comes with letting go. This is a hard season, but it is not the last word. There will be ever so many more hellos for us all.
So here's to the next hello.